There's an excellent appreciation of the British writer J. G. Ballard by Thomas Jones in the current London Review of Books, and there's good news and bad news. The good news is that Ballard has written an autobiography, Miracles of Life, and it's a good one. The bad news is that he has prostate cancer that has spread to his bones, and he's not likely to survive.
Back in my late teens and early twenties, when I was a pretentious young wannabee writer (as opposed to a weary, cynical, and still pretentious middle-aged midlist novelist), three of my literary heroes were Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges (who I met once), and J. G. Ballard. Maybe I should have listed them the other way round, because Ballard was my gateway drug to the other two great surrealists. I stumbled onto Ballard's SF after having exhausted the oeuvres of Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke, and discovered a kind of writing unlike anything I'd ever read before: elegant, emotionally restrained, and both philosophically and psychologically bizarre, provoking an response that was much darker and more complex than the more-or-less gee-whiz feeling I got from A, B, and C, but still every bit as mind-blowing.
Ballard was probably the leading practitioner in the 60s and 70s of what used to be known as New Wave SF, which was primarily a British phenomenon, and heavily influenced by modernist writers like Kafka and Borges. I think I may have first read a Ballard story in an anthology (possibly one of Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthologies, though I may be misremembering that), but the first complete book of Ballard's I read was Chronopolis and Other Stories, an omnibus collection that includes some of his best and most famous stories. Some are straight, if cerebral, science fiction—"The Voices of Time," which almost might have been an Arthur C. Clarke story, or "Zone of Terror," which is a time travel paradox story (sort of)—but most of them struck me as extremely odd and thrilling, unlike anything I'd ever read before—such as "The Watchtowers," which is one of the smartest stories about mass psychology I've ever read, or "The Garden of Time," a sort of perverse fable, or the brilliant story "The Drowned Giant." The masterpiece of the book, though, is sort of half SF and half Kafka, as if Kafka had lived to see World War II and the nuclear bomb. It's a story called "The Terminal Beach," about a semi-deranged scientist named Traven who is stranded alone on Eniwetok, the Pacific island where atom bombs were tested in the 1950s. It's not so much a narrative as it is a sort of post-Hiroshima tone poem, in which Traven wanders amid the ruins of bunkers and carries on a conversation about death and the universe with the corpse of a Japanese man.
In short order I went on to read all four of the apocalyptic novels Ballard wrote in the 60s, which destroyed the world in mutually exclusive ways—by water (The Drowned World, which was the best of them), by lack of water (The Drought, also known as The Burning World), by wind (The Wind from Nowhere), and by encrustation-by-crystal (The Crystal World). Again, they weren't like the usual SF apocalyptic narratives I'd read (such as Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz), in that Ballard never really bothered to explain how these disasters occurred, and didn't really care if his characters survived, or humanity endured. In fact, I doubt if there's a single really memorable character in any one of these early stories or novels, but I mean that as no criticism of Ballard. Oddly enough, these stories are highly psychological, even though their emotionless protagonists—men with blunt English names like Traven and Travis and Powers—seem to have no psychological depth at all; rather the entire architecture of each story, down to the last detail, represents a map of Ballard's, and perhaps the reader's consciousness, as all three of us—character, author, and reader—grapple with technological excess, information overload, biological death, and the inevitable entropic decay of everything. The stories and the novels from this period of Ballard's work are full of empty cities, abandoned buildings, dried-up lake beds and oceans, and vast stretches of abandoned technology. Each opening line sets a distinctive tone that never changes:
"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."—"The Voices of Time"
"At night, as he lay asleep on the floor of the ruined bunker, Traven heard the waves breaking along the shore of the lagoon..."—"The Terminal Beach"
"On the morning after the storm the body of a drowned giant was washed ashore on the beach five miles to the northeast of the city"—"The Drowned Giant"
This style was so distinctive, in fact, that my college friend Rod and I used to wander the empty streets of Ann Arbor in the middle of the night and improvise Ballardian passages—"The acute angle of the burnt-out street lamp reminded Hynes of the imminent heat death of the universe."
What I came away with from these stories was not the traditional SF feeling of a sense of a wonder (as I did with the best of Arthur C. Clarke, in his novels Childhood's End and The City and the Stars), but a powerful and strangely appealing sense of ineffable mystery and dread. The feeling had something in common with the one evoked in me by the stories of H. P. Lovecraft, another creator of bleak, lonely, self-contained worlds, but Ballard's mindscapes were chillier than Lovecraft's, less full of revulsion at the ickiness of biology, and entirely lacking in Lovecraft's hysteria. Ballard's worlds were austere and even bleak, but they were beautiful, evoking the infinite and the unknown as endlessly fascinating and mysterious, but also utterly meaningless and without mercy, all of which strongly appealed to an adolescent reader (namely me) who was also reading popular accounts of cosmology by George Gamow and Fred Hoyle, and books about philosophy and atheism by Bertrand Russell.
As it happened, by time I discovered Ballard during my high school years in the early 70s, he had already moved away from SF. His 1970 book of short stories, The Atrocity Exhibition, was pure modernism, with a heavy dose of William S. Burroughs, containing stories with titles like "You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe," "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," and "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" (the first line of which is "Oswald was the starter"). Even more thrilling to a budding young nihilist were his trilogy of contemporary, modernist novels of quotidian disaster, the first of which I was astounded to discover in the Big Rapids Public Library—to wit, Crash, Ballard's novel in which automobile crashes are eroticized and sex acts are depicted as collisions. I read the book during the summer between high school and college, when I was working my first job (oddly enough, as the part-time janitor of the Big Rapids library). I remember reading Crash on a lawn chair one balmy summer afternoon in my parents' backyard and—on top of my purely adolescent prurience—feeling absolutely thrilled that this wonderfully subversive book had washed up in the public library of my backwater hometown. I only mentioned it to a couple of high school friends, afraid that if I spread the news of the book too widely, the librarian (my boss) would take it off the shelves. Last time I checked the library in Big Rapids, it was still there, and it still had my teenage signature on the check-out card.
Later, when I was in college and had met my friend Rod, who was also a Ballard reader and who not incidentally introduced me to the work of Philip K. Dick, I read the other two books in Ballard's informal trilogy, Concrete Island—a sort of urban Robinson Crusoe in which an injured man is stranded by a car crash amid a Darwinian society of misfits living on a bleak island of land within a London freeway interchange—and High Rise, which is basically Lord of the Flies set in a residential tower block; at the end of High Rise the building's feral mothers paint their children's playground equipment with human blood. As with Crash, these appealed to the youthful, bloodthirsty nihilist in me, though I wonder how I'd feel about them now.
It was also during college, mainly as a result of reading Ballard, that I started to read Kafka and Borges seriously. Around the same time I also learned something of Ballard's history, especially about his experiences during World War II. It's a commonplace now that Ballard's childhood in a Japanese prisoner of war camp outside Shanghai has been the greatest influence on his work, but when I discovered this story, standing in the stacks of the University of Michigan graduate library and reading the biographical introduction to a book of criticism about him, it was one of the truly epiphanic moments in my life as a reader. Suddenly all those empty cities and abandoned machines and dusty swimming pools, not to mention all that bad behavior by people under stress, made perfect sense.
After college my tastes in reading started to change, and I more or less stopped reading Ballard. He's a prolific author, and he's probably published more books since I stopped reading him than he did during the time I was devouring his books. The only other book of his I tried to read in later years was the one most non-SF readers know him for, his semi-autobiographical novel about his wartime childhood in Shanghai, Empire of the Sun. This was in the mid-80s, as I recall, when I was working as an editor for the Center for Chinese Studies at Michigan. My friend Tom, a postdoc in Chinese history, raved to me about the book, not having ever heard of Ballard before, and not knowing that I'd already read most of Ballard's books up to that point. For old time's sake, I bought the book in hardcover, but I gave up on it after fifty pages, because it seemed like deja vu all over again: empty cities, check. Abandoned houses, check. Dodgy characters behaving badly, check. Tom and I actually argued about it after I told him this was all warmed-over material, that Ballard had already done it better in The Drowned World and High Rise. In retrospect, I was kind of a dick about it, like those guys I knew in college who told you about bands you'd never heard of before, and then trashed them as soon as everybody else liked them. But I've still never been able to finish Empire of the Sun (saw the movie, though).
I'm not sure how much of an influence Ballard has been on my published work, but when I was younger writer, he was second only to Ray Bradbury and the Hardy Boys. As an undergraduate at Michigan I won a Hopwood Award (Michigan's creative writing award) for three stories I submitted under the very pretentious title Kleinen Welten (after a series of Kandinsky etchings I saw the one time I was ever in the Detroit Institute of Arts), and two of them were flat-out Ballard imitations. One was called "Spears," about a nameless guy living in an abandoned house on a featureless plain of grass who can't leave because these giant spears come out of the sky to skewer anybody who goes outside. The other Ballardian one was called "Aztecs," and it was about an attack by an army of Aztec warriors on my hometown of Big Rapids, Michigan, culminating with a scene of human sacrifice on top of the science building of Ferris State College. (The third story, by the way, was my first attempt at historical fiction, a novella called "Captain Dreyfus," about some prisoners in French Guiana who start a sort of cult around the famous prisoner on Devil's Island, who never actually appears in the story. My sole research for this novella was watching the Steve McQueen movie Papillon.)
So strong was Ballard's influence, in fact, that in my twenties, I planned on calling myself J. G. Hynes if I ever got published. My middle name is Glendon (which was my father's first name), and the idea was reinforced by the fact that another favorite writer of mine at the time was the British historical novelist J. G. Farrell (author of The Siege of Krishnapur and Troubles, books which I still love, in fact), and it was further reinforced by the fact that all three of us are Jims. I gave up the idea, though, when I actually started to get published, partly because I liked the sound of "James Hynes" better, and partly because Farrell died in his early 40s in an accident (he was washed out to sea while fishing on the coast of Ireland), and calling myself "J. G." seemed both pretentious and unlucky.
At any rate, I plan to pick up Ballard's autobiography, and not just out of nostalgia. Even though I haven't tried to read any of his novels since Empire of the Sun, I still read some of my favorite short stories every few years, and I still love those old surrealist/apocalyptic novels. Part of the charm of Jones' LRB piece is how it evokes the contradictions of Ballard—the boundary-breaking surrealist who wrote astonishing fiction about some of most harrowing events of the 20th century, but who is also a "whiskey-and-soda man" who has lived a perfectly normal middle-class life in suburban London for the last 50 years. I'm sorry to hear of his illness, but he seems to be facing his own entropic decay with the equanimity, and the unsentimental recording eye, of one of his own, unflappable characters.
PS: Check out these two J. G. Ballard websites, here and here.
PPS: The title of this post is taken from another favorite of my youth, a novel of the same name by George Alec Effinger.