I first read J.G. Ballard's stories as a sixteen-year-old living in the post-industrial molder of Daytona Beach, Florida—the same year I saw, while standing outside the gates of my high school, the space shuttle Challenger explode in a white pillar of smoke.
Ballard taught me how to see that wound in the sky. In a recent interview with RE/Search Publications, Ballard calls NASA a dinosaur "trapped in a Buck Rogers dream"—a bureaucracy evolving into a state religion, each space disaster a kind of ritual scarification. "I always prophesized that the Space Age was over," said Ballard in 1991. "They should build spaceships of rice-paper and bamboo, decorated with poems."
Ballard has been both celebrated and attacked as a sex-obsessed, amoral nihilist—"the author is beyond psychiatric help," wrote one early reader of Ballard's 1973 novel Crash—but devotees and detractors alike often miss the meaning behind Ballard's metaphors. To his characters, technological artifacts always conceal savage, shadowy selves: our spaceships and cars are little more than embodiments of our most intimate and carnal desires. Ballard's Enlightenment project is to discover and describe the human in the machine, and by doing so, find a better way to live in technological society. "I'm not advocating an insane free-for-all," says one character in Ballard's 2000 novel Super-Cannes. "A voluntary and sensible psychopathology is the only way we can impose a shared moral order."
Over four decades Ballard has exerted a deep influence over writers such as Jean Baudrillard, Angela Carter, William Gibson, Michel Houellebecq, and Don DeLillo—not to mention film director David Cronenberg, the machine operas of Survival Research Laboratories, and music that ranges from punk to industrial to techno. With the releases in the United Kingdom of his door-stopping Complete Short Stories and the novel Millennium People, together with a new volume of interviews from RE/Search Publications, we can finally see Ballard whole and as the moralist that he is, standing at the intersection of Jonathan Swift and Salvador Dali.
II. The Only Truly Alien Planet
A British national born in Shanghai in 1930 and interned by the Japanese during World War II, a former medical student and RAF pilot, Ballard published his first short story, "Prima Belladonna," in 1956 in Science Fantasy magazine. There are flashes of imminent brilliance in the eight conventional science fiction stories that appeared through the late '50s—"The Concentration City" and "Manhole 69," for two examples, successfully express a Kafkaesque sensibility through pulp science fiction idioms—but in comparison with Ballard's later stories, they appear unconvincing and stylistically unformed. One senses that in writing these stories Ballard didn't yet believe enough in his own talent.
That changed in 1960 with the appearance of "The Voices of Time" in the legendary New Worlds magazine, edited by Michael Moorcock. From the first cryptic sentence of "The Voices of Time," Ballard's private iconography comes into focus like the moon's craters through a telescope: "Later Powers often thought of Whitby, and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of the empty swimming pool." That swimming pool would become a totem for Ballard readers, as would tattered billboards, sand-reefs, and dead astronauts. In "The Voices of Time" the whole world is falling asleep, victim to an apocalyptic narcolepsy. As the desert hospitals fill with "the vanguard of a vast somnambulist army massing for its last march," his neurosurgeon protagonist gives up trying to save his patients or himself, embracing this unhurried, eerie apocalypse as a pathway to a higher stage of human evolution.
Ballard found his imagery in "The Voices of Time," but had yet to perfect his craft. There are too many ideas—I've only just touched on them—and too many characters crammed into the story. In 1962, he published his first short masterpiece, "The Cage of Sand," which codified his distinctive prose style: a disciplined, hypnotic rhythm; the accumulation of surgically described detail; the sweeping, free associative similes; and humor so dark that most readers are never able see it. That same year, in New Worlds, he coined the term "Inner Space" to describe his preoccupations and technique: "The biggest developments of the immediate future will take place, not on the Moon or Mars, but on Earth, and it is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored. The only truly alien planet is Earth."
In 1964, Ballard's wife Mary died in a freak accident. The stories that appeared that year and through the rest of the 1960s and early 1970s are among the best in twentieth-century avant-garde literature—easily matching the achievement of works such as Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs (another existential moralist, savage and repellent, who puts science fiction motifs at the service of his obsessions). Many readers were bewildered by the static storyline and seeming amorality of stories such as "The Terminal Beach"—in which a former bomber pilot wanders the abandoned beach of an atomic test site, haunted by the ghosts of his wife and son—yet they embody their own rigorous narrative and moral logic. Though we glean that he killed millions dropping the bombs of World War III—or perhaps only imagines that he did—the pilot Traven is unrepentant. "For me the H-Bomb is a symbol of absolute freedom," he tells an island visitor. "I feel it's given me the right—the obligation, even—to do anything I choose."
For all the wintry alienation of its tone, in the end "The Terminal Beach" is a heartbreaking story. Traven is striving, however strangely, to overcome his alienation and reconcile himself to personal loss. Here lies the paradox of Ballard's morality, which finds our humanity in our most inhuman acts and creations—an artistic strategy that recalls Kafka. "A lot of people misread Kafka," said Ballard in 1985, "in that they assume that in describing his particularly nightmarish world he saw it in an exclusively unfavorable light. I think it had invaded him [and] enfolded him, and the whole power of his fiction rises from this ambivalent response. I'd like to think that I've done the same for technology in [my stories]—I hope I've managed to communicate the same ambivalence. . . .We must immerse ourselves in the threatening possibilities in which we're suspended to have a hope of swimming through to the other end."
In other words: if we see something sick in the environments we create, then it must correspond to something that is sick in ourselves. While we may see technology as inhuman, this is self-deception; only by recognizing technology's all-too-human psychosocial possibilities can we take responsibility for it. In the short stories of the Atrocity Exhibition period—and in the trilogy of novels that followed (Crash, Concrete Island, and High Rise)—Ballard tries to reveal the desires embodied in our technological environment, especially the automobile. In the hallucinatory classic "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" (which famously predicted in 1967 that the then-Governor of California would become President), Ballard places Reagan "in a series of simulated auto crashes e.g. multiple pile-ups, head-on collisions, motorcade attacks." The story reads like the notes of a demented medical experiment to construct "a rectal modulus of Reagan and the auto disaster of maximized audience arousals. In assembly kit tests Reagan's face was uniformly perceived as a penile erection. Patients were encouraged to devise the optimum sex-death of Ronald Reagan."
"Presumably all obsessions are extreme metaphors waiting to be born," said Ballard in 1984, "That whole private mythology, in which I believe totally, is a collaboration between one's conscious mind and those obsessions that, one by one, present themselves as stepping stones." I doubt very much that Ballard (or his typical reader) is literally turned on by the orgasmic car crashes that are so lovingly depicted in these stories. The semen-stained dashboards of The Atrocity Exhibition period are profoundly metaphorical: by speaking of one thing as though it is another, Ballard reveals meanings that desire-denying morality tries to conceal.
III. A Moral Thermostat
Ballard's controversial career climaxed in 1984 with the publication of his fictionalized memoir Empire of the Sun, which told the tale of his childhood internment during World War II. The imagery in Empire of the Sun was shocking, at the time, to Ballard's small circle of enthusiasts, for it revealed the origin of Ballard's obsessive iconography even while promoting the images to a wider, mainstream audience. The book was nominated for Britain's Booker Prize, and filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987.
Today, inevitably, Ballard is an institution, praised by critics as diverse as Susan Sontag ("One of the most important, intelligent voices in contemporary fiction") and Martin Amis ("All we know for certain is that the novels he will write could not be written, could not even be guessed at, by anyone else"). Though his short stories lost some of the intensity of the '60s and '70s, Ballard continued to publish vivid, brilliant stories straight through to the mid-'90s, such as "Memories of the Space Age," "Myths of the Near Future," and the Swiftian "War Fever," in which the world is punished for the crime of confining "the virus of war" to the laboratory of Beirut.
The most interesting thing about the interviews and quotes collected in J.G. Ballard: Provocations (due out from RE/Search Publications in September 2004) is that they expose Ballard as horrified by the direction of the contemporary world—as, perhaps, he has always been. "People have [stopped believing] in a sane world that they can influence through the political realm," he says in a long interview with the film composer Graeme Revell. "That's a very dangerous state of affairs. It turns Western Europe and the States into a sort of unstable Weimar-like era where if reason sleeps, monsters are born. One prays there isn't another 9/11."
Never has Ballard sounded so concerned, fatherly, or political. (In an earlier, 1984 RE/Search interview, Ballard impishly exclaims, "I want more nuclear weapons!") The interviews in Provocations make it abundantly clear that while Ballard has always proclaimed the death of reason and the visceral origins of technology, he now sees these developments as almost wholly negative. "What bothers me," says the author of that notorious pornographic novel Crash, "is that something is happening that you could almost call the 'Normalizing of the Psychopathic'—the greater and greater areas of what used to be regarded as the psychopathic by, say, my parents." It does not seem to occur to Ballard that anyone might have read his violently sexual stories literally.
To both Ballard and Revell, our salvation lies in science and technology. "I think machines are going to save us," says Revell at one point. "The Age of Reason is probably petering out slowly," replies Ballard. "Only our machines will be reasonable, because they make sense. We can rely on our computers to be moral beings. A machine, in a sense, is a moral structure—like a thermostat. If the room is too hot it will bring the temperature down. . . . I think we are subcontracting our moral universe to that of the machines."
Such comments reveal the contradictory, unstable fissures in Ballard's Enlightenment morality, where, for example, machines are simultaneously invested with animal desires that will destroy us, and the scientific techniques that could save us. The machine is, in other words, an arena into which we throw our ethical conflicts. While the brilliant and indispensable Complete Short Stories glories in the moral contradictions of technological society, in Millennium People Ballard seems to finally tire of the ambivalence that has defined his fiction. Though his stock characters—the man of science, his maniacal alter ego, and the damaged woman who bridges them both—all seek freedom through irrational acts of terrorist violence, in the end moral equilibrium is restored. Like the villain in a Hollywood movie—if I give away the ending, it's because no one reads Ballard for his endings—the antagonist Gould pays his debt to society with a bullet in the head.
"He believed that the most pointless acts could challenge the universe at its own game," sums up the novel's narrator. "Gould lost that game, and had to take his place with other misfits, the random killers of school playgrounds and library towers, who carried out atrocious crimes in their attempts to resanctify the world." With Millennium People, Ballard no longer seems satisfied with expressing his morality in purely negative terms.
The results are didactic, and artistically disappointing. I've been bored by Ballard before—but often because he cut against my expectations in ways I found unpleasant. In Millennium People, my boredom is born of having my expectations too closely met. Those grand, surrealistic similes are no longer as surprising as they once were; the rhythm, formerly hypnotic, is now merely drowsy.
No matter. Even in the twilight of his career, Ballard is as heroic as any of his characters—a representative man whose stories stripped the 20th Century of its cultural illusions. Most science fiction writers conceal their mysticism beneath what H.G. Wells called "an ingenious use of scientific patter." Ballard does the opposite, smuggling the Enlightenment in under the cover of dreams. It does not matter how far or fast humanity travels, say his stories: even in space, the most alien creatures we'll confront are ourselves.
5. "In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom, and the more civilised we are, the more ruled by reason, the greater the unconscious need for some sort of irrational outbreak grows within us," said Ballard in a 2003 interview with the Australian newspaper The Age. "But the fathers of the Enlightenment never accepted that. The Enlightenment view of mankind is a complete myth. It leads us into thinking we're sane and rational creatures most of the time, and we're not." In this respect, Ballard is a reformer, not a revolutionary. Ballard is not rejecting the Enlightenment project, but is instead trying to modify it to accept the Freudian unconscious.