x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The doyen of dystopia

The enigmatic author, JG Ballard, left an impressive volume of work with a nod to life's darker side.

JG Ballard lived in an ordinary town, from which he could best observe the middle classes.
JG Ballard lived in an ordinary town, from which he could best observe the middle classes.

JG Ballard, who has died aged 78, was at once an eccentric author of apocalyptic and surreal fiction that explored the latent psychopathologies of 20th-century man, and an ostensibly conventional character, described as the Seer of Shepperton, the Surrey town where he lived for 40 years and brought up his three children as a single parent after his wife's death from pneumonia in 1964. Ballard chose to remain in this most ordinary of locations all the better to observe the mores of the middle class, whose behaviour he chronicled forensically in a series of deeply unsettling novels infused with deadpan humour.

His preferred theme was the increasing enslavement of morality to aesthetics, and mankind's increasing enthralment with consumerism - what he perceived as the new fascism in his last novel, Kingdom Come (2006) - often resulting in the most bizarre and violent outcomes. His novels were never easy reading. Crash (1973) - later filmed by David Cronenberg to mass outcry - was possibly his darkest work, in which he posited the eroticism implicit in the violent juxtaposition of man and machine. Several reviewers hailed the novel as the work of a madman, a comment that Ballard did not perceive as being necessarily a bad thing.

The eldest child of James and Edna, James Graham Ballard spent his early childhood in Shanghai, enjoying a privileged colonial existence, which was shattered by Japan's invasion of China in 1937. The family were interned in the Lunghua civilian camp for three years, where Ballard grew apart from his parents, running wild with the other children and studying the aircraft of the kamikaze pilots as they droned overhead. His most popular novel based on the experience, Empire of the Sun, was published some 40 years later and became a bestseller. The film version by Steven Spielberg appeared in 1987. A quasi-sequel, The Kindness of Women, was published in 1991. The final instalment, Miracles of Life (2007) revealed that Ballard was terminally ill with cancer.

Life in the camp prepared the young Ballard for boarding school in Cambridge. He went on to attend the university to study medicine and then psychiatry, but left before completing his degree. He also abandoned a degree course in English Literature at the University of London to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. Several short-term jobs followed before a long spell spent in Saskatchewan, Canada learning to fly for the RAF. Awaiting discharge back in Britain in 1955, he wrote his first science fiction story, Passport to Eternity, which was published in 1962.

Over the following years, he sold short stories to various magazines, while making a living writing for the trade journal Chemistry and Industry. After the publication of his first novel, The Wind from Nowhere (1961), having settled with his wife and three young children in Shepperton, he concentrated exclusively on writing fiction. He was a remarkably prescient writer. "Science and technology multiply around us," he wrote. "To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute". The Drowned World (1961) imagined a future in which the old world has been submerged gradually as global warming melts the ice caps. Cocaine Nights (1999) and Super-Cannes (2001) presented similarly dystopian visions of the future. His greatest fear, Ballard once said, was that the future would be utterly boring. As imagined by Ballard, it was anything but.

JG Ballard was born on Nov 15 1930. He died on April 19. He is survived by his longtime companion Claire Walsh and the two daughters and one son of his marriage. His wife Helen died in 1964. * The National