“Ballardian” 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.
Collins English Dictionary
I came late to his work. It was 1984 maybe. I was in my favorite SF fantasy bookstore in Harvard square. It was on the second floor, in between the Wursthaus and Discount Records. It was owned and operated by the guy who started The Million Year Picnic, my number one source for comics. Only one of these places, The Picnic, still exists. The rest have been replaced by the lowest form of corporate wank palaces. As usual, I was drawn in by the combination of the cover art and the titles: Low flying Aircraft, Myths of the near future, The Atrocity Exhibition (Best title ever). These were collections of short stories about the decay of the world as seen through the lens of the decay of the human psyche. Technology and our own animal nature take their revenge on society. The boundary between technology and the psyche break down. Bathers march into the sea in response to light reflecting off of a satellite. A burned out writer convinces a friend that he isn’t insane and really has contacted aliens. A second generation captive test subject in a spaceship simulator knows, and has always known, that he isn’t really in space. If that sounds like standard issue Science fiction crap of the day (1960’s) I can assure you it isn’t. This stuff is subversively weird and it’s because it deals with psychological breakdown and transformation that it is.
Time was always falling apart in Ballard’s work. The four dimensional nightmare, The garden of time, the Illuminated man. In each, time is slowed, or advanced, or both slowed and advanced so that you experience all of it at once, and of course, there’s nothing you can do about it. The protagonist is always losing his mind. Or is his mind changing to accommodate a new reality? Often, evolution is sped up by radiation or some other technological mishap. Children are born with eyes that see into the ultra violet. People develop the ability to communicate telepathically, and can fuck telepathically, or have to fuck physically in order to maintain their grip on their minds. Insane and fantastic! For a mild mannered, portly and genial guy (I met him once at a book signing), Ballard was the most twisted bastard ever to set hand to keyboard. The Atrocity Exhibition?, Crash?, Why I want to Fuck Ronald Reagan?! Sick and wondrous!!
It’s interesting that in the eighties, when I started reading Ballard, there was a pop music and culture trend into the strangeness of the human-technological interface. I remember some cool stuff and some true shit that I really wish I couldn’t remember. Gary Numan, Ultravox, the Buggles, Joy Division, all were influenced by his work and wrote songs inspired by it. Video Killed the radio star,? Warm leatherette? I want to be a machine? Nevermind.
Ironically, he is most widely known for his most ordinary novel, Empire of the Sun, an account of his life in a Japanese prison camp during WWII. This book, and the movie are both good but reveal only a superficial aspect to this absolutely weird and widely influential writer. The film versions of Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition were less successful but caused at least as much trouble as the original literary works.
At that book signing in 1987, Ballard, surprisingly pragmatic and fatherly, instructed me to finish my degree before trying to become a writer. That was a long time ago, I never finished the degree but I’m working on it now. If I am a writer at all it is because I sometimes write, not because it is a vocation or profession. If it is ever good it is because of the work of J. G. Ballard and those he influenced, none of whom were quite like him. No one was ever quite like him.
James Graham Ballard 11/15/1930 - 4/19/2009
This site: Scriptorum is a thorough account of ballard's career