A Stab at an Obituary for JG Ballard

JG Ballard died yesterday. If you’re looking for more information about him, the Modern Word has many links, as does Simon Sellars’ Ballardian site. It’s an indication of the scope of Ballard’s achievement that there’s even an online JG Ballard concordance.

Not long ago I read his autobiography, Miracles of Life, which Ballard wrote after being informed he had an incurable form of cancer. He grew up in 1930s Shanghai, described in his autobiography as “a media city before its time,” a place of casinos and terrorist bombings, famine and film premieres, cocktails and warlords. Once the city fell to the Japanese, the show of British authority disintegrated, and the young Ballard was interned with his family — the experience that inspired the most popular of his novels, Empire of the Sun.

These experiences of estrangement and artificiality permanently impacted Ballard’s imagination, permeating his entire oeuvre with the violent clash of cultures and technologies. Looking back across his writing career, he noted, “The trademark images that I had sent out over the previous thirty years — the drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels and nightclubs, deserted runways and flooded rivers — could all be traced back to wartime Shanghai. For a long time I resisted this, but I accept now that it is almost certainly true. The memories of Shanghai that I had tried to repress had been knocking at the floorboards under my feet, and had slipped quietly into my fiction.”

Rebelling against the stuffy self-delusion of post-war England, Ballard became, along with his friend Michael Moorcock, one of the key writers associated with New Wave science fiction. After his first wife died, Ballard raised his children as a single father — a rare phenonemon in Shepperton, Surrey in the 1960s — and ensured that their childhoods were less disturbing than his own. In Miracles of Life he wrote, “I still think that my children brought me up, perhaps as an incidental activity to rearing themselves.”

His characteristic style a kind of surreal fusion of H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad, he created post-colonial, postmodern landscapes of climate change and social alienation. Paul McAuley calls him “one of the few people to fully understand the second half of the twentieth century, and how it continues to shape the future.” Crooked Timber says, “We all live in the decaying aftermath of the Space Age that he, better perhaps than anyone else. described… There are bits of the world (and not-unimportant ones) that are Ballardian – if you’ve read him, you experience the shock of recognition when you see them.” Here’s an obituary in the Guardian by David Pringle, another one of Ballard’s many devoted fans — who while he was editor of Interzone published some of Ballard’s finest later short stories. Like many science fiction writers, Ballard was probably at his best with the short story form.

Here is a not-atypical Ballardian sentence:

“In a few thrilling minutes I vandalized her car, aerosolling bizarre hieroglyphs over the doors and windscreen in what I imagined was an interplanetary language.”

Miracles of Life reported, “I went to the world s-f convention held in London in 1957, but the Americans were hard to take, and most of the British fans were worse. In Paris science fiction was popular among leading writers and film-makers like Robbe-Grillet and Resnais, and I assumed that I would find their counterparts in London, a huge error. Today’s s-f enthusiasts are an entirely different breed, however. Many have university degrees, have read Joyce and Nabokov and seen Alphaville, and can place science fiction within a larger literary context. Yet curiously, science fiction itself is now in steep decline, and there may well be a moral there.”
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