[12 March 2010]
In 1943, the British author James Graham Ballard, then a boy of 12, was detained and imprisoned within a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai. Ballard’s experiences in the camp, where he remained for almost two years, became the basis for his celebrated 1984 novel Empire of the Sun.
While the novel is autobiographical and realist, there is present in it many of the same characteristics that marked Ballard’s remarkable science fiction, much of which is collected in the The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard. As Martin Amis writes in the collection’s introduction,“Ballard’s mind continually circles back to the experiences recounted in Empire of the Sun. On the one hand, the drained swimming pools, the abandoned villas, and the wraith-like wanderers in a landscape from which all recognisable human activity has absented itself; and, on the other, the squalor, the hellish proximities, and the vigilant cruelty that derives from the camp.”
One finds in these stories that same desolation, the anomie, the depredations, the entire arsenal of modern technology brought to bear in making people stupefied and miserable. Is it any wonder, then, that a boy living through such an ordeal up to write dystopic science fiction? Science fiction, after all, is the genre in which the fantastic, the absurb, the horrific, is made normal, accepted, jejeune.
Ballard, who died in 2009 at the age of 78, spoke frequently of the alarming manner in which many internees of the camp resigned themselves to their fate. The characters in Ballard’s stories, too, have been born into or acclimated to their hells, making them appear to the reader all the more frightening, and sad.
In his short stories, most of which were written in the ‘50s and ‘60s and published in a variety of science fiction magazines, Ballard was less interested in plot and character than he was in situations and conceits—a city without clocks; a world turning into crystal; men cut off forever from sleep. Individual personalities mattered little to him; the mass man was his subject.
Accordingly, most of the protagonists of Ballard’s stories are employed as professional observers and analysts—scientists, doctors professors—who bear witness to this variegated horrors with the impersonal eye of a clinician.
Nearly every Ballard story concludes with something being lost or damaged—a life, a sanity, an entire world.
In “The Drowned Giant”, an enormous corpse is washed ashore and, over a period of several days, vandalized and destroyed. Early in the story, the narrator, a researcher of some kind, approaches the behemoth:
My companions and I walked around the seaward side of the giant, whose hips and thorax towered above us like the hull of a stranded ship, His pearl-colored skin, distended by immersion in salt water, masked the contours of the enormous muscles and tendons, which was flexed slightly, threads of seaweed clinging to its side.
Draped loose across the mid-riff and preserving a tenous propriety, was a shawl of open-weaved materal, bleached to a pale yellow by the water. A strong odor of brine came from garment as it steamed in the sun, mingld with the sweet but potent scent of the giant’s skin.
Confronted with the bizarre, Ballard is cool, graceful, precise, even faintly ironic (“preserving a tenuous propriety”). The tone shifts little when the giant is ravaged and picked apart.
This tendency to distance and abstract reaches its logical conclusion in the “The Overloaded Man” (a title that could apply to many of Ballard’s stories) in which a professor, through careful concentration, is able to view the world entirely in geometric shapes. The narrative of this story is thin, even by Ballard’s standards, leading one to read it in an allegorical light, an author describing his craft.
That said, it is not cubism, but surrealism—itself a reaction to mechanized carnage—from which Ballard draws most. One finds in his work the desolate plazas of De Chirico, the blasphemy of Dali, and the sharp-focus absurdity of Magritte.
Although frequently lumped in with the “serious” science fiction produced by Orwell and Huxley, Ballard’s criticisms were seldom overtly political. Ballardian Man is already adept enough at repressing himself without the aid of totalitarian government. Even stories with putatively political subjects—“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennegy Considered As A Downhill Motorrace” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”—were satires of media and celebrity, not politics.
Ballard once stated that he wrote not of the future, but of “the visionary present”. His work is unique among science fiction, and among 20th century literature. This collection of stories is essential.