Last reviewed: June 2018
English novelist and short-story writer
November 15, 1930
April 19, 2009
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.
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.