Authors: J. G. Ballard

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist and short-story writer

November 15, 1930

Shanghai, China

April 19, 2009

London, England

Biography

James Graham Ballard is regarded by many as one of the most important postmodern writers in English. Generally categorized as science fiction, most of Ballard’s work moves beyond that label to address the impact of technology and American culture on the imagination. The son of James Ballard, a businessman, and his wife, Edna, J. G. Ballard spent the first sixteen years of his life in Shanghai. {$I[AN]9810001326} {$I[A]Ballard, J. G.} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Ballard, J. G.} {$I[tim]1930;Ballard, J. G.}

In his highly autobiographical novel The Empire of the Sun, which Steven Spielberg made into a film in 1987, Ballard’s protagonist, Jim, who is separated from his parents at the outbreak of World War II, spends three years in a Japanese prison camp. There, the boy’s contacts to his old world (already a bizarre amalgam of Chinese environment overlaid with more typically European lifestyles) occur through magazines and the warplanes the United States sends to the Far East. In a touching scene, Jim clips out the photograph of a couple from an advertisement in Life magazine because of its likeness to his parents. It is not difficult to see how Ballard’s fiction came to be obsessed with the icons of America and why it centered on war, disaster, and imprisonment.

After being educated at Leys School and studying medicine at King’s College for two years, Ballard served in the Royal Air Force, where he underwent pilot training in Canada. Back in England, he worked as a science editor and in 1955 he married Helen Mary Matthews; she died in 1964, leaving him with a son and two daughters.

In 1956, Ballard sold “Prima Belladonna” to Science Fantasy magazine and soon after became a distinguished literary voice. His short stories are unique in their pictorial evocation of setting and psychological mood. Accordingly, they fascinate less through an intricate plot or a variety of different characters than through the intensity with which they explore places. In “The Garden of Time,” for example, Ballard describes a strange garden whose flowers arrest time.

Ballard’s longer fiction commenced with his 1962 The Wind from Nowhere, the first of a quartet of “natural disaster novels” that share a surrealistic setting and an emphasis on tableaux, or still scenes. The pool where in The Drought the man-beast Quilter collects his harem of suburban housewives is, for example, a setting that serves as a motif for the state of Western culture.

Ballard’s poetic vision became increasingly darker as he focused on the perturbing aspects of American culture. In his 1970 masterpiece The Atrocity Exhibition, stylistic radicalism matches images of assassination weapons, atrocity newsreels, and mutilated faces; as with Crash, the first of three “urban disaster” novels (Concrete Island and High Rise followed), critics failed to see past the author’s overt message that war atrocities and violent car crashes further the “psychosexual health” of the populace. In reality, the message was a mask for the voice of deep moral outrage at the technological and media-inundated world. The novels express that outrage by carrying their effects to blackly logical excess.

In 1979, Ballard initiated a new cycle with The Unlimited Dream Company, a pastoral fantasy in which a stranded pilot transforms a London suburb into a tropical aviary and teaches its inhabitants how to fly. In Hello America, Ballard once again revels in fantastic tableaux when he conjures up dead freeways and the empty, sand-swept ruins of Las Vegas in a time after the reserves of natural oil have been depleted. The Empire of the Sun marked Ballard’s entry into mainstream literature, and his 1987 novel The Day of Creation is further proof that his imagination convinced regardless of genre.

Ballard’s next four works demonstrate the enormous range of his fiction and his ongoing use of different literary forms and genres. His 1988 Running Wild chillingly describes the children of a gated community who ingeniously murder their parents. The Kindness of Women continues, in thinly disguised form, the account of the author’s life. The short stories collected in War Fever add a bizarre twist to such contemporary situations as the uncanny solution to a civil war enacted by the boy hero of the title story. In Ballard’s 1994 novel Rushing to Paradise, he again evokes the fantastic before a realistic backdrop; here, he writes of a protest action against French nuclear tests in the Pacific that leads to unexpected consequences. The setting for Cocaine Nights is the Costa del Sol and the resort of Estrella de Mar. Charles Prentice visits his brother Frank, manager of the resort’s Club Nautico. Frank is in jail, having confessed to setting a deadly fire. Charles launches his own investigation and allows himself to be drawn into Estrella de Mar’s dark underworld. Set in the future, Super-Cannes is a slightly surreal fantasia about Eden-Olympia, a luxurious multinational business park in which a homicidal spree has taken place.

The literary validity of J. G. Ballard’s highly imaginative fiction was not fully recognized for some time. Some critics were unwilling to consider his science fiction seriously; others attacked his inelegant style and failed to see the appropriateness of his language, which consciously employs technical jargon and stark contrasts of metaphors to alienate the reader. Some also expressed concern about the “pessimistic” ending of books such as The Drowned World and Rushing to Paradise. Yet others recognized the subtle transformation in these works of an apparently realistic text into a metaphorical and poetic one.

In 2003, Ballard's political satire Millennium People was published in the United Kingdom. Commenting on the struggles of the middle class, the story follows psychologist David Markham as he investigates and ultimately becomes swept up in a class uprising; the book was not published in the United States until 2011. Following the publication of his last novel, Kingdom Come (2006), which explores the delicate intersection of consumerism and patriotism, he published his first and only autobiography, Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton (2008). Ballard died at his home in London on April 19, 2009, after a battle with cancer. He was seventy-eight.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Wind from Nowhere, 1962 The Drowned World, 1962 The Drought, 1964 (later published as The Burning World) The Crystal World, 1966 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 (novella) The Kindness of Women, 1991 Rushing to Paradise, 1994 Cocaine Nights, 1996 Super-Cannes, 2000 Millennium People, 2003 Kingdom Come, 2006 Short Fiction: The Voices of Time, 1962 Billenium, 1962 The Four-Dimensional Nightmare, 1963 Passport to Eternity, 1963 The Terminal Beach, 1964 The Impossible Man, 1966 The Disaster Area, 1967 The Overloaded Man, 1967 The Atrocity Exhibition, 1969 (also known as Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A.) Vermilion Sands, 1971 Chronopolis, and Other Stories, 1971 The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard, 1978 Myths of the Near Future, 1982 Memories of the Space Age, 1988 War Fever, 1990 The Complete Short Stories, 2001 The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard, 2009 Nonfiction: A User’s Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews, 1996 Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton; An Autobiography, 2008 Bibliography Baxter, Jeanette. Contemporary Critical Perspectives: J. G. Ballard. London: Continuum Books, 2008. Provides a general overview of Ballard’s work, paying more attention than most such books to the author’s journalism and short fiction, and grounding discussion of the novels in the concerns revealed by those works. Brigg, Peter. J. G. Ballard. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1985. One of the most exhaustive book-length discussions available of the author and his work. Considers Ballard primarily as a science-fiction writer, analyzing his work within that framework. Brigg, Peter. “J. G. Ballard: Time Out of Mind.” Extrapolation 35 (Spring, 1994): 43–59. Discusses Ballard’s characters as figures who act according to the internal absolutes of their own reasonably processed observations. Asserts the key to his characters’ perceptions of their needs and actions is how they respond to time as they know and define it. Delville, Michel. J. G. Ballard. Tavistock, England: Northcote House, 1998. Offers an introductory overview of Ballard’s work. Gasiorek, Andrzej. J. G. Ballard. New York: Manchester University Press, 2005. Discusses Ballard’s fiction from his earliest work onward. Argues that Ballard’s sojourn in the science-fiction field is excusable because his works deny and undermine all the genre’s precepts. Jones, Mark. “J. G. Ballard: Neurographer.” In Impossibility Fiction, edited by Derek Littlewood. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996. Asserts that Ballard’s fiction is characterized by the recurring theme of the author’s description of the human mind as a kind of geographic landscape. Praises Ballard for his radical, surrealist descriptions of a new relationship between mind and reality. Lathan, Rob. “The Modern World Is an Enormous Fiction: J. G. Ballard and the Millennium.” The New York Review of Science Fiction 9 (March, 1997): 1, 8–12. Discusses Ballard’s nonfiction in A User’s Guide to the Millennium as a useful supplement to his fiction. Notes Ballard’s common theme in fiction and nonfiction: that the modern world is an enormous fiction created by media. Luckhurst, Roger.“The Angle Between Two Walls”: The Fiction of J. G. Ballard. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Comprehensive study of Ballard’s work through the late 1990s provides thorough discussion and analysis of his fiction. Well researched and very informative. Luckhurst, Roger. “Petition, Repetition, and ‘Autobiography’: J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women.” Contemporary Literature 35, no. 4 (Winter, 1994): 688–708. Useful study of the historical veracity of Ballard’s two novels. Luckhurst tries to discover methods and thematic and aesthetic strategies that have organized and informed Ballard’s fictional work along with his autobiographical source material. Orasmus, Dominika. Grave New World: The Decline of the West in the Fiction of J. G. Ballard. Warsaw: University of Warsaw Press, 2007. Interesting study presents an Eastern European perspective on Ballard’s catastrophism and images of decadence. Pringle, David. Earth Is the Alien Planet: J. G. Ballard’s Four-Dimensional Nightmare. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1979. First attempt at an overview of Ballard’s science fiction, written by a devoted admirer of the author, remains an excellent introduction to Ballard’s work. Discusses literary context, symbolism, and key returning themes and motifs in his texts. Re/Search 8–9 (1984). A flashy but informative special celebration of the author’s work. Includes valuable interviews, an illustrated autobiography, and a selection of the fiction and critical writing. Full of photographic and literary material on and by Ballard and about his subjects. The useful bibliography includes a complete chronological list of Ballard’s short stories. Stableford, Brian. “J. G. Ballard.” In Science Fiction Writers, edited by Richard Bleiler. 2d ed. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1999. A competent overview of the author’s work. Stephenson, Gregory. Out of the Night and into the Dream: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of J. G. Ballard. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. Focuses on Ballard’s idiosyncratic use of science-fiction motifs. Comprehensive index aids readers in tracking thematic patterns. Vale, V., and Andrea Juno, eds. J. G. Ballard. San Francisco: RE/Search, 1984. Gaudy but highly informative celebration of the author’s work contains valuable interviews, an illustrated autobiography, and a selection of the author’s fiction and critical writing. Full of photographic and literary material on and by Ballard and about his subjects. Includes a chronological list of Ballard’s short stories. Weber, Bruce. "J. G. Ballard, Novelist, Is Dead at 78." The New York Times, 21 Apr. 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/04/21/books/21ballard.html. Accessed 15 Sept. 2017. An obituary providing an overview of Ballard's life and career.

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