Thursday, November 1, 2007

Literature: James Graham Ballard (1930 - 2009)

Date Of Birth: November 15, 1930, Shanghai, China
Date Of Death: April 19, 2009, London

Ballard's father was a chemist at a Manchester-headquartered textile firm, the Calico Printers Association, and became chairman and managing director of its subsidiary in Shanghai, the China Printing and Finishing Company.
Ballard spent his early childhood in and around the Shanghai International Settlement, an area under foreign control and dominated by American cultural influences. 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 and rent a house in downtown Shanghai to avoid the shells fired by Chinese and Japanese forces.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese occupied the International Settlement. In early spring 1943 they began interning Allied civilians, and Ballard was sent to the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center with his parents and younger sister. He spent over two years, the remainder of World War II, in the internment camp.
These experiences formed the basis of Empire of the Sun, although Ballard exercised considerable artistic licence 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 and 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 is 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, and then you see the truth beyond that, and 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 and beatings-up that went on—but at the same we children were playing a hundred and one games all the time!"

In 1946, after the end of the war, Ballard went to England with his mother and sister. They lived in the West Country outside Plymouth, and he attended The Leys School in Cambridge. After a couple of years his mother and sister returned to China, rejoining Ballard's father, and 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 jury) won a crime story competition and was published in the student newspaper Varsity.
Encouraged by the publication of his story, and realising that clinical medicine would not leave him time to write, Ballard abandoned his medical studies in 1952 and went to the University of London 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 and as an encyclopaedia salesman. He kept writing short fiction, but found it impossible to get published.

In 1953 Ballard joined the RAF, 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 also wrote his first science fiction story, "Passport to Eternity", as a pastiche and summary of the American SF he had read.
Ballard left the RAF in 1954 after two years, and returned to England.
In 1955 he married Helen Mary Matthews and settled in Chiswick. Their first child (of three) was born in 1956, and his first published science fiction story, "Prima Belladonna", was printed in the December issue of New Worlds that year. The editor of New Worlds, Edward J. Carnell, would remain an important supporter of Ballard's writing, and would publish nearly all of his early stories.

From 1957 Ballard worked as assistant editor on the scientific journal Chemistry and Industry. His interest in art led to his involvement in the emerging Pop Art movement, and 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 and demoralised, and did not write another story for a year. By the late 60s, 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 Shepperton, outside London. Finding that commuting to work did not leave him time to write, Ballard decided he had to make a break and 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 of 1962, he quit his job at Chemistry and Industry, and from then on supported himself and his family as a writer.
Later that year his second—breakthrough—novel, The Drowned World, was published. It established his stature as an exciting science fiction writer in the fledgling New Wave movement. Collections of his stories started getting published, and Ballard delivered more, with frantic 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 of pneumonia, leaving him to raise their three children by himself. (The autobiographical novel The Kindness of Women gives a different, apparently fictional account of her death.) After this profound shock, Ballard began in 1965 to write the stories that would become The Atrocity Exhibition, while continuing to produce stories within the science fiction genre.
The Atrocity Exhibition proved controversial (it was the subject of an obscenity trial, and in the United States, publisher Doubleday destroyed almost the entire print run before it was distributed), but it also marked Ballard's breakthrough as a literary writer. It remains one of his seminal works, and was filmed in 2001.
One chapter of The Atrocity Exhibition is titled "Crash!", and in 1970 Ballard organised an exhibition of crashed cars at the New Arts Laboratory, appropriately called "Crashed Cars". The crashed vehicles were displayed without commentary, inspiring vitriolic responses and vandalism.
In both the story and 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 and lives in Shepperton (though other biographical details do not match the writer), and curiosity about the relationship between the character and his author gained fuel when Ballard suffered a serious automobile accident shortly after completing the novel.

Regardless of real-life basis, Crash proved just as controversial as The Atrocity Exhibition, especially when it was later filmed by David Cronenberg. Although Ballard continued to write interesting stories through the seventies and eighties, his breakthrough into the mainstream came only with Empire of the Sun, based on his years in Shanghai and the Lunghua internment camp.
It established Ballard's name in the literary mainstream and was awarded the 1984 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, 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, and he has described the experience of seeing his childhood memories reenacted and reinterpreted as bizarre.

Ballard continued to write towards the end of his life (of his recent novels, Cocaine Nights was particularly well received), and also contributed occasional journalism and criticism to the British press. His last book was his autobiography Miracles Of Life, written after he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer (which metastasised to his spine and ribs) in June 2006.
He died of the disease on 19 April 2009.

Those who know Ballard from his autobiographical novels will not be prepared for the subject matter that Ballard most commonly pursues, as his most common genre is dystopia.
His most celebrated early novel is Crash, in which cars symbolise the mechanisation of the world and man's capacity to destroy himself with the technology he creates; and the characters (the protagonist, called Ballard, included) become involved in a violent obsession with the psychosexuality of car crashes. Ballard's disturbing novel was turned into a controversial - and also disturbing - 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, and the merchants and bizarre servants who provide for them.
Each story features some especially exotic technology, such as poetry-composing computers, orchids with operatic voices and egos, phototropic self-painting canvasses, and so on. In key with Ballard's central themes, these tawdry and weird technologies serve to bring out dark and hidden desires and schemes in the human castaways that occupy Vermilion Sands, often with psychologically grotesque and 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 and collective psychological fallout from — and initial deep motivation for — the American space exploration boom of the 1960s and 1970s.
In addition to his novels, Ballard has made extensive use of the short story form. Many of his earliest published works in the 1950s and 1960s were short stories.

On December 13th 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 Uknown, and starred Donald Houston as Dr Francis and 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 also directed it.
The plot follows a middle class man who chooses to abandon the outside world and restrict himself to his house, becoming a hermit.

Ballard's fiction is sophisticated, often bizarre, and a constant challenge to the cognitive and aesthetic preconceptions of his readers.
As Martin Amis has written: "Ballard is quite unlike anyone else; indeed, he seems to address a different - a disused - part of the reader's brain." Because of this tendency to upset readers in order to enlighten them, Ballard does not enjoy a mass-market following, but he is recognised by critics as one of the UK's most prominent writers.

He has been influential beyond his mass market success; he is cited as perhaps the most important forebear of the cyberpunk movement by Bruce Sterling in his introduction to the seminal Mirrorshades anthology.
Also, his parody (or psychoanalysis) of American politics, the pamphlet "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" (subsequently included as a chapter in his experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition), was photocopied and distributed by pranksters at the 1980 Republican National Convention.
A bookseller in Brighton had been prosecuted for selling this pamphlet in the early 1970s, under UK obscenity legislation.
According to Brian McHale, The Atrocity Exhibition is an essentially post-modern text operating with sci-fi topoi.
In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard hailed Crash as the first great novel of the universe of simulation.
Lee Killough directly cites his seminal Vermilion Sands short stories as the inspiration for her collection "Aventine", also a backwater resort for celebrities and eccentrics where bizarre or frivolous novelty technology facilitates the expression of dark intents and drives.




  • The Wind From Nowhere (1961)
  • The Drowned World (1962)
  • The Burning World (1964) (also The Drought) (1965)
  • The Crystal World (1966)
  • The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) (also Love And Napalm: Export USA) (1972)
  • 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 And 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)
  • Vermilion Sands (1971)
  • Chronopolis And Other Stories (1971)
  • Low-Flying Aircraft And 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)
  • Miracles Of Life: Shanghai To Shepperton (2008)


(Film Adaptations Of J.G. Ballard's Work)

  • 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) (A Portuguese adaptation of the short story "Low Flying Aircraft")
(For BBC Television)
  • Thirteen To Centaurus (1965) (dir. Peter Potter)
  • Home (2003) (dir. Richard Curson Smith)

moreover, about J.G. Ballard see:

Ballardian: The World Of JG Ballard
Rick McGrath: JG Ballard
A Collector's Guide
The Terminal Collection

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