Books Fatema Ahmed reads the short stories of JG Ballard, for whom the appeal of science fiction lay not in its speculative 'what if?' quality, but in its ability to explore a more pressing question: What now?
Memories of the modern age
Fatema Ahmed reads the short stories of JG Ballard, for whom the appeal of science fiction lay not in its speculative 'what if?' quality, but in its ability to explore a more pressing question: What now? The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard JG Ballard WW Norton & Co Dh156 The adjective "Ballardian" entered the Collins English Dictionary in 2005: "(adj) (1) - of James Graham Ballard (born 1930), the British novelist, or his works (2) resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard's novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments". After Ballard died in April this year at the age of 78, few of the obituaries in British newspapers, either by admirers or non-fans, avoided referring to him a "dystopian" writer; all noted that Ballard is best-known as the author of Empire of the Sun, a novel based on his experiences in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War which was later turned into a film by Steven Spielberg; several commented, often admiringly, on the apparent oddity of Ballard having lived for nearly 50 years in the same semi-detached house where he had brought up his three children as a fond single father.
Now Ballard's American publisher has produced a more comprehensive memorial in the form of The Complete Stories of JG Ballard. At over 1,200 pages, it may seem like a daunting book for the non-enthusiast, but it provides the best angle for approaching Ballard for the first time - and displays his development into Britain's most original postwar writer. The collection's 98 stories span from Prima Belladonna -Ballard's first published story, which appeared in Science Fantasy in 1956 - to The Autobiography of JG Ballard, which appeared posthumously in The New Yorker this May. The contrast of venue between the two stories mirrors Ballard's move into the mainstream over the course of his career. It was Empire of the Sun, released in 1984, that brought Ballard fame and sales, encouraging new fans to pick up his early work. In Miracles of Life, a memoir released last year by Ballard's British publisher, the author writes that these new readers "were quick to spot echoes of Empire of the Sun. The trademark images that I had set out over the previous 30 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."
A large part of Ballard's originality stemmed from his detachment and scepticism about Britain, specifically England. James Graham Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930. His father ran the China Printing and Finishing Company, a subsidiary of a Manchester-based cotton company. The Ballards lived just outside the city's International Settlement in a large house with 10 Chinese servants and a Belarusian nanny. The social lives of the adults consisted of fancy-dress parties, bridge and vast supplies of alcohol (which were unremarkable at the time).
Most of the British expatriates in Shanghai, the Ballards included, enjoyed a standard of living far beyond what they would have expected at home. Shanghai was also pitched further into the 20th century than the places they had left behind. It wasn't just that the Ballards and their friends drove American cars and had American refrigerators, or lived in the city with the world's largest cinema; their affluence coexisted with darker technological developments. Japan had invaded and captured the east coast of China in 1937, and the fighting had reached the edges of Shanghai. In aerial bombing's biggest strike to date, a bomb accidentally dropped from a Chinese plane killed 1,000 people in the heart of the city.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the humiliating surrender of the British garrison of Singapore in February 1942, a tense version of normal life continued in Shanghai. But by 1943, Ballard and his parents and younger sister were interned with all the other Europeans and Americans left in the city (in Empire of the Sun, there is no sister; Jim is separated from his parents and reunited with them only after the war).
Ballard was 16 when he saw England for the first time, in 1946, and he was shocked by what he found: "Even allowing for a long and exhausting war, England seemed derelict, dark and half-ruined." He soon realised that the England in which he had been brought up to believe - mainly on the basis of its children's literature - was "a complete fantasy"; he was puzzled by ignorance of the war in the East and the "delusions that people in all walks of life clung to about Britain's place in the world". This wariness of contemporary Britain extended to Ballard's literature. The realist novel was no help in his attempt to avoid being trapped by the hidden codes of English behaviour. He had always written stories but eventually it was science fiction that excited his imagination: "I could see that here was a literary form that placed a premium on originality, and gave a great deal of latitude to its writers?"
The conventions of science-fiction magazines in the 1950s demanded that stories be set in the future; Ballard's contributions stood out for being set in the near-present and never involving aliens. For Ballard, sci-fi's appeal lay not in its speculative "what if?" quality, but in its potential to describe the true nature of present-day reality - mass communication, consumer advertising, nuclear weapons - and explore the question that really bothered him: What now?
In his early work, Ballard's response came in the form of two kinds of story. The first contain many of the themes and images which the adjective "Ballardian" normally evokes. Most of these stories, written in the early 1960s, subject their characters to tests, depriving them of basic conditions such as sleep, space and time itself, then working out the consequences. Overcrowding is a favourite trope. In Chronopolis, for example, space is so scarce and property values are so high that a man rides the subway as far as he can to find cheaper land. In stories like Manhole and The Voices of Time, the tests are literal: psychiatrists try to abolish the sleep function in their patients, with effects that range from catatonia to murder. Billennium imagines a world which is 95 per cent urban and where the maximum size of a room is four and a half metres squared. The two main characters stumble across a staggeringly big hidden room that is 15 metres squared - after their initial delight, they begin to recreate the cramped conditions they have become used to.
In these stories of psychological and environmental stress, a recurring figure is that of the post-apocalyptic loner. 1964's The Terminal Beach, in which the main character, Traven, lives on Eniwetok (the Pacific island where the first hydrogen bomb was tested in 1952), provides an early insight into Ballard's worldview. "If primitive man felt the need to assimilate events in the external world to his own psyche, 20th-century man had reversed this process; by this Cartesian yardstick, the island at least existed; in a sense true of few other places." Traven's wife and son have died in a car accident; on his first few weeks on the island "All sense of time soon vanished, and his life became completely existential?"
Ballard wrote quickly and wrote too much, appearing in magazines such as Science Fantasy and New Worlds almost every month in the early 1960s. This overproduction may have shaped his work for the better in the sense that he concentrated first on what he had to say rather than on exactly how to say it. (It's ironic that this edition of the Collected Stories comes with an introduction by Martin Amis, a writer whose work might be described as a prose style in search of a significant subject.) But Ballard remains a fascinating example of an important writer who is frequently a very bad one by the conventions of narrative realism; he combines a lack of interest in characterisation with a lack of interest in the sentence. The Venus Hunters for example, opens with a crude explosion of information: "When Dr Andrew Ward joined the Hubble Memorial Institute at Mount Vernon Observatory he never imagined that the closest of his new acquaintances would be an amateur stargazer and prophet called Charles Kandinski."
However, in his best work from the late 1960s and 70s Ballard exploits this expository tendency for deadpan effect, notably so in the fragments that make up The Atrocity Exhibition but also in his novels, like 1975's High-Rise which begins: "Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Lang reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months."
The second and largely overlooked strand in Ballard's work is represented by a set of stories written between 1956 and 1970 and set in a futuristic desert resort called Vermilion Sands. Ballard contributed to their neglect by leaving all but one them out of a 1978 collection called The Best Short Stories of JG Ballard. In Vermilion Sands, a colony of painters, poets, sound-artists and cloud sculptors carry out commissions for femme-fatales named Lorraine, Emerelda, Aurora or Lunora, hat-wearing enigmas whose eyes resemble "insects", "black orchids", diamonds or other jewels. In contrast with the rest of Ballard's work, the physical environment of Vermilion Sands responds to human activity (rather than the other way round): orchids sing, statues emit sound, machines generate lines of poetry, clouds can be sculpted into shapes, and psychotropic houses absorb the personalities of their owners.
The Vermilion Sands stories contain some of Ballard's most relaxed, playful thoughts about technology (although Ballard isn't a systematic thinker ? he often turns ideas into images and leaves them that way). At the resort, individual effort and originality are of little value; art is always hi-tech and aims at creating pleasure in the perceiver. In Studio 5, the Stars, the narrator, the editor of an avant-garde poetry review, is shocked at the thought that anyone would try to write poetry themselves now that there are machines to do it; in The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D, an artist called Van Eyck produces "a pastiche Mona Lisa, a picture-postcard Gioconda as authentic as a plaster virgin". Vermilion Sands is Ballard's utopia, a place fitted out with pink Cadillacs, black marble and indoor fountains, far removed from the high-rises and motorways that fill the rest of his work.
In recent years, when interviewers were queuing up to ask him questions, Ballard criticised the literary mainstream whenever he got the chance. In a 1997 interview in Salon, he declared: "I've met a great number of writers, novelists rather, English ones in particular, whose stock of references - their sort of instant associations when they come to create and all that - all tend to come from the world of literature. Mine do not." He overdid his insistence - for one thing he reworks Robinson Crusoe and Conrad's Heart of Darkness again and again - but was still showing signs of bitterness towards the English literary world in Miracles of Life (surprisingly so given the generous tone of the rest of the book). His irritation was understandable but misplaced: it was his apprenticeship as a science-fiction writer and career outside the literary world that allowed him to turn the circumstances of his early life into art rather than autobiography. The Complete Stories of JG Ballard demonstrate the range and evolution of that work, and suggest that we might come up with many more uses of "Ballardian" than we have so far.
Fatema Ahmed is a writer based in Paris.