James Graham “J. G.” Ballard (15 November 1930 – 19 April 2009) was an English novelist, short story writer, & essayist.
Ballard came to be associated with the New Wave of science fiction early in his career with apocalyptic (or post-apocalyptic) novels such as The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964), and The Crystal World(1966). In the late 1960s & early 1970s Ballard focused on an eclectic variety of short stories (or “condensed novels”) such as The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), which drew closer comparison with the work of postmodernist writers such as William S. Burroughs. In 1973 the highly-controversial novel Crash was published, a story about symphorophilia and car-crash fetishism; the protagonist becomes sexually aroused by staging & participating in real car-crashes. The story was after adapted into a film of the same name by David Cronenberg.
While many of Ballard’s stories are thematically & narratively unusual, he is perhaps best-known for his relatively conventional war novel, Empire of the Sun (1984), a semi-autobiographical account of a young boy’s experiences in Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War as it came to be occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army. Described as “The best British novel approximately the Second World War” by The Guardian, the story was adapted into a 1987 film by Steven Spielberg.
The literary distinctiveness of Ballard’s work has given rise to the adjective “Ballardian”, defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard’s novels & stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes & the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.” The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry describes Ballard’s work as being occupied with “eros, thanatos, mass media and emergent technologies”.
Ballard’s father was a chemist at a Manchester-based textile firm, the Calico Printers’ Association, & became chairman & managing director of its subsidiary in Shanghai, the China Printing & Finishing Company. His mother was Edna, née Johnstone.Ballard was born & raised in the Shanghai International Settlement, an area under foreign control where people “lived an American style of life”. He was sent to the Cathedral School in Shanghai. After the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Ballard’s family were forced to temporarily evacuate their suburban home & rent a house in downtown Shanghai to avoid the shells fired by Chinese & Japanese forces.
After the Japanese attack on Hong Kong, the Japanese occupied the International Settlement in Shanghai. In early 1943, they began interning Allied civilians, & Ballard was sent to the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center with his parents & younger sister. He spent over two years, the remainder of World War II, in the internment camp. His family lived in a small area in G block, a two-story residence for 40 families. He attended school in the camp, the teachers being camp inmates from a number of professions. These experiences formed the basis of Empire of the Sun, although Ballard exercised considerable artistic license in writing the book, notably removing his parents from the bulk of the story.
It is often supposed that Ballard’s exposure to the atrocities of war at an impressionable age explains the apocalyptic & violent nature of much of his fiction. Martin Amis wrote that Empire of the Sun ”gives shape to what shaped him.” However, Ballard’s own account of the experience was more nuanced: “I don’t think you can go through the experience of war without one’s perceptions of the world being forever changed. The reassuring stage set that everyday reality in the suburban west presents to us is torn down; you see the ragged scaffolding, & then you see the truth beyond that, & it can be a frightening experience.” But also: “I have—I won’t say happy—not unpleasant memories of the camp. [...] I remember a lot of the casual brutality & beatings-up that went on—but at the same time we children were playing a hundred & one games all the time!”
In late 1945, after the end of the war, his mother returned to Britain with Ballard & his sister on the SS Arawa. They lived in the outskirts of Plymouth, & he attended The Leys School in Cambridge. After a couple of years his mother & sister returned to China, rejoining Ballard’s father, leaving Ballard to live with his grandparents when not boarding at school. In 1949 he went on to study medicine at King’s College, Cambridge, with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist.
At university, Ballard was writing avant-garde fiction heavily influenced by psychoanalysis and surrealist painters. At this time, he wanted to become a writer as well as pursue a medical career. In May 1951, when Ballard was in his second year at King’s, his short story “The Violent Noon”, a Hemingwayesque pastiche written to please the contest’s jury, won a crime story competition & was published in the student newspaper Varsity.
Encouraged by the publication of his story & realizing that clinical medicine would not leave him time to write, Ballard abandoned his medical studies, & in October 1951 he enrolled at Queen Mary College to read English Literature. However, he was asked to leave at the end of the year. Ballard then worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency & as an encyclopedia salesman. He kept writing short fiction yet found it impossible to obtain published.
In Spring 1954 Ballard joined the Royal Air Force and was sent to the RCAF flight-training base in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. There he discovered science fiction in American magazines. While in the RAF, he moreover wrote his first science fiction story, “Passport to Eternity”, as a pastiche & summary of the American science fiction he had read.
Ballard left the RAF in 1955 after thirteen months & returned to England. In 1955 he married Helen Mary Matthews & settled in Chiswick, the first of their three children being born the following year. He made his science fiction debut in 1956 with two short stories, “Escapement” & “Prima Belladonna”, published in the December 1956 issues of New Worlds and Science Fantasy respectively. The editor of New Worlds, Edward J. Carnell, would remain an significant supporter of Ballard’s writing & would publish nearly all of his early stories.
From 1957, Ballard worked as assistant editor on the scientific journal Chemistry & Industry. His interest in art led to his involvement in the emerging Pop Art movement, & in the late fifties he exhibited a number of collages that represented his ideas for a new kind of novel. Ballard’s avant-garde inclinations did not sit comfortably in the science fiction mainstream of that time, which held attitudes he considered philistine. Briefly attending the 1957 Science Fiction Convention in London, Ballard left disillusioned & demoralized & did not write another story for a year. By the late 1960s, however, he had become an editor of the avant-garde Ambit magazine, which was more in keeping with his aesthetic ideals.
In 1960 Ballard moved with his family to the middle-class London suburb of Shepperton in Surrey. Finding that commuting to work did not leave him time to write, Ballard decided he had to make a break & become a full-time writer. He wrote his first novel, The Wind from Nowhere, over a two-week holiday simply to gain a foothold as a professional writer, not intending it as a “serious novel”; in books published later, it is omitted from the list of his works. When it was successfully published in January 1962, he quit his job at Chemistry & Industry, & from then on supported himself & his family as a writer.
Later that year his second novel, The Drowned World, was published, establishing Ballard as a notable figure in the fledgling New Wave movement. Collections of his stories started getting published, & he began a period of tremendous literary productivity, while pushing to expand the scope of acceptable material for science fiction with such stories as “The Terminal Beach”.
In 1964 Ballard’s wife Mary died suddenly of pneumonia, leaving him to raise their three children – James, Fay and Bea Ballard – by himself. Ballard never remarried; however, a few years after his friend & fellow author Michael Moorcock introduced him to Claire Walsh, who became his partner for the rest of his life (in fact he died at her London residence), and is often referred to in his writings as “Claire Churchill”. After the profound shock of his wife’s death, Ballard began in 1965 to write the stories that became The Atrocity Exhibition, while continuing to produce stories within the science fiction genre.
The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) proved controversial – it was the subject of an obscenity trial, & in the United States, publisher Doubleday destroyed almost the entire print run before it was distributed – yet it gained Ballard recognition as a literary writer. It remains one of his iconic works, & was filmed in 2001.
Another chapter of The Atrocity Exhibition is titled “Crash!”, & in 1970 Ballard organized an exhibition of crashed cars at the New Arts Laboratory, simply called “Crashed Cars”. The crashed vehicles were displayed without commentary, inspiring vitriolic responses & vandalism. In both the story & the art exhibition, Ballard explored the sexual potential of car crashes, a preoccupation which culminated in the novel Crash in 1973.
The main character of Crash is called James Ballard & lives in Shepperton (though other biographical details do not match the writer), & curiosity approximately the relationship between the character & his author gained fuel when Ballard suffered a serious automobile accident shortly after completing the novel. Regardless of real-life basis, Crash, like The Atrocity Exhibition, was moreover controversial upon publication. In 1996, the film adaptation by David Cronenberg was met by a tabloid uproar in the UK, with the Daily Mail campaigning actively for it to be banned.
Although Ballard published several novels & short-story collections throughout the seventies & eighties, his breakthrough into the mainstream came only with Empire of the Sun in 1984, based on his years in Shanghai & the Lunghua internment camp. It became a best-seller, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and awarded the Guardian Fiction Prize and James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. It made Ballard known to a wider audience, although the books that followed failed to achieve the same degree of success. Empire of the Sun was filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987, starring a young Christian Bale as Jim (Ballard). Ballard himself appears briefly in the film, & he has described the experience of seeing his childhood memories reenacted & reinterpreted as bizarre. Ballard continued to write until the end of his life, & moreover contributed occasional journalism & criticism to the British press. Of his after novels, Super-Cannes (2000) was particularly well received, winning the regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Ballard was offered a CBE in 2003, yet refused, calling it “a Ruritanian charade that helps to prop up our top-heavy monarchy”. In June 2006, he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, which metastasized to his spine & ribs. The last of his books published in his lifetime was the autobiography Miracles of Life, written after his diagnosis. His final published short story, “The Dying Fall”, appeared in the 1996 issue 106 of Interzone, a British sci-fi magazine. It was reproduced in The Guardian on 25 April 2009.
In October 2008, before his death, Ballard’s literary agent Margaret Hanbury brought an outline for a book by Ballard with the working title Conversations with My Physician: The Meaning, if Any, of Life to the Frankfurt Book Fair. The physician in question is oncologistProfessor Jonathan Waxman of Imperial College, London, who was treating Ballard for prostate cancer. While it was to be in part a book approximately cancer, & Ballard’s struggle with it, it reportedly was to move on to broader themes. In April 2009 The Guardian reported that HarperCollins announced that Ballard’s “Conversations With My Physician” could not be finished & plans to publish it were abandoned. In 2012, a 17-page untitled typescript listed as “Vermilion Sands short story in draft” in the British Library catalogue was edited into a 8,000-word text by Bernard Sigaud & was to appear in a French reissue of the collection (ISBN 978-2367190068) under the title “Le labyrinthe Hardoon” as the first story of the cycle, tentatively dated “late 1955/early 1956″ by Sigaud & others.
In June 2010 the British Library acquired Ballard’s personal archives under the British government’s acceptance in lieu scheme for death duties. The archive contains eighteen holograph manuscripts for Ballard’s novels, including the 840-page manuscript for Empire of the Sun, plus correspondence, notebooks, & photographs from throughout his life.
With the exception of his autobiographical novels, Ballard most commonly wrote in the post-apocalyptic dystopia genre. His most celebrated novel in this regard is Crash, in which cars symbolize the mechanization of the world & man’s capacity to destroy himself with the technology he creates. The characters (the protagonist, called Ballard, included) become increasingly obsessed with the violent psycho-sexuality of car crashes in general, & celebrity car crashes in particular. Ballard’s disturbing novel was turned into a controversial—and likewise disturbing—cerebral film by David Cronenberg.
Particularly revered among Ballard’s admirers is his short story collection Vermilion Sands, set in an eponymous desert resort town inhabited by forgotten starlets, insane heirs, very eccentric artists, & the merchants & bizarre servants who provide for them. Each story features peculiarly exotic technology such as poetry-composing computers, orchids with operatic voices & egos to match, phototropic self-painting canvases, etc. In keeping with Ballard’s central themes, most notably technologically mediated masochism, these tawdry & weird technologies service the dark & hidden desires & schemes of the human castaways who occupy Vermilion Sands, typically with psychologically grotesque & physically fatal results. In his introduction to Vermilion Sands, Ballard cites this as his favorite collection.
In a similar vein, his collection Memories of the Space Age explores many varieties of individual & collective psychological fallout from—and initial deep archetypal motivations for—the American space exploration boom of the 1960s & 1970s.
In addition to his novels, Ballard made extensive use of the short story form. Many of his earliest published works in the 1950s & 1960s were short stories.
On 13 December 1965, BBC Two screened an adaptation of the short story “Thirteen to Centaurus” directed by Peter Potter. The one-hour drama formed part of the first season of Out of the Unknown and starred Donald Houston as Dr Francis & James Hunter as Abel Granger. In 2003, Ballard’s short story “The Enormous Space” (first published in the Science fiction magazine Interzone in 1989, subsequently printed in the collection of Ballard’s short stories War Fever) was adapted into an hour-long television film for the BBC entitled Home by Richard Curson Smith, who moreover directed it. The plot follows a middle class man who chooses to abandon the outside world & restrict himself to his house, becoming a hermit.
Ballard is cited as an significant forebear of the cyberpunk movement by Bruce Sterling in his introduction to the seminal Mirrorshades anthology. Ballard’s parody of American politics, the pamphlet “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”, which was subsequently included as a chapter in his experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition, was photocopied & distributed by pranksters at the 1980 Republican National Convention. In the early 1970s, Bill Butler, a bookseller in Brighton, was prosecuted under UK obscenity laws for selling the pamphlet.
According to literary theorist Brian McHale, The Atrocity Exhibition is a “postmodernist text based on science fiction topoi.”
In Simulacra & Simulation, Jean Baudrillard hailed Crash as the “first tremendous novel of the universe of simulation.”
Lee Killough directly cites Ballard’s seminal Vermilion Sands short stories as the inspiration for her collection Aventine, moreover a backwater resort for celebrities & eccentrics where bizarre or frivolous novelty technology facilitates the expression of dark intents & drives. Terry Dowling’s milieu of Twilight Beach is moreover influenced by the stories of Vermilion Sands and other Ballard works.
Ballard moreover had an interest in the relationship between various media. In the early 1970s, he was one of the trustees of the Institute for Research in Art & Technology.
Ballard has had a notable influence on popular music, where his work has been used as a basis for lyrical imagery, particularly amongst British post-punk & industrial groups. Examples include albums such as Metamatic by John Foxx, various songs by Joy Division (most famously “Atrocity Exhibition” from Closer), “High Rise” by Hawkwind, “Miss the Girl” by The Creatures (based on Crash), “Down in the Park” by Gary Numan, “Chrome Injury” by The Church, “Drowned World” by Madonna and “Warm Leatherette” byThe Normal. Songwriters Trevor Horn and Bruce Woolley credit Ballard’s story “The Sound-Sweep” with inspiring The Buggles’ hit “Video Killed the Radio Star”, and the Buggles’ second album included a song entitled “Vermillion Sands.” The 1978 post-punk bandComsat Angels took their name from one of Ballard’s short stories. The Manic Street Preachers include a sample from an interview with Ballard in their song “Mausoleum”. Klaxons named their debut album Myths of the Near Future after one of Ballard’s short story collections. The Sound of Animals Fighting took the name of the song ”The Heraldic Beak of the Manufacturer’s Medallion” from Crash. The song “Neural Highways” from Anarchist Republic of Bzzz is a reference to “Atrocity Exhibition”, & so are several songs of the band ITHAK (both projects being led by Seb el Zin).
Awards & honours
- 1984 Guardian Fiction Prize for Empire of the Sun
- 1984 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction for Empire of the Sun
- 1984 Empire of the Sun shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction
- 1997 De Montfort University Honorary doctorate.
- 2001 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Europe & South Asia region) for Super-Cannes
- 2008 Golden PEN Award
- 2009 Royal Holloway University of London Posthumous honorary doctorate.
- The Wind from Nowhere (1961)
- The Drowned World (1962)
- The Burning World (1964; also The Drought, 1965)
- The Crystal World (1966)
- Crash (1973)
- Concrete Island (1974)
- High Rise (1975)
- The Unlimited Dream Company (1979)
- Hello America (1981)
- Empire of the Sun (1984)
- The Day of Creation (1987)
- Running Wild (1988)
- The Kindness of Women (1991)
- Rushing to Paradise (1994)
- Cocaine Nights (1996)
- Super-Cannes (2000)
- Millennium People (2003)
- Kingdom Come (2006)
Short story collections
- The Voices of Time & Other Stories (1962)
- Billennium (1962)
- Passport to Eternity (1963)
- The Four-Dimensional Nightmare (1963)
- The Terminal Beach (1964)
- The Impossible Man (1966)
- The Venus Hunters (1967)
- The Overloaded Man (1967)
- The Disaster Area (1967)
- The Day of Forever (1967)
- The Atrocity Exhibition (1969, also Love & Napalm: Export USA, 1972)
- Vermilion Sands (1971)
- Chronopolis & Other Stories (1971)
- Low-Flying Aircraft & Other Stories (1976)
- The Best of J. G. Ballard (1977)
- The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard (1978)
- Myths of the Near Future (1982)
- The Voices of Time (1985)
- Memories of the Space Age (1988)
- War Fever (1990)
- The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard (2001)
- The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard: Volume 1 (2006)
- The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard: Volume 2 (2006)
- The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (2009)
- A User’s Guide to the Millennium: Essays & Reviews (1996)
- Miracles of Life (Autobiography; 2008)
- Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard (2012)
- When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970) dir. Val Guest
- Empire of the Sun (1987) dir. Steven Spielberg
- Crash (1996) dir. David Cronenberg
- The Atrocity Exhibition (2001) dir. Jonathan Weiss
- Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude (2002), dir. Solveig Nordlund. (Portuguese adaptation of the short story “Low Flying Aircraft”)
- “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1965) from the short story of the same name – dir. Peter Potter (BBC Two)
- Crash! (1971) dir. Harley Cokliss
- “Minus One” (1991) from the story of the same name – short film dir. by Simon Brooks.
- “Home” (2003) primarily based on “The Enormous Space” – dir. Richard Curson Smith (BBC Four)
In June 2013, BBC Radio 4 broadcast adaptions of The Drowned World and Concrete Island as part of a season of dystopian fiction entitled Dangerous Visions.