L’Arénas, between Côte d’Azur airport and a dual carriageway patrolled by prostitutes, is a banal stretch of concrete, steel and glass offices, malls and hotels that seems always to be deserted. A few weeks ago, I watched an 18-month-old Korean boy playing on an iPad by a hotel pool there. ‘Ballardian’ was le mot juste.
As with Kafka, Borges, Pinter, Orwell and others who have earned an adjective, the mental landscape conjured up by J.G. Ballard’s work is instantly recognisable — though to have been fully Ballardian, the pool should have been drained and overtaken by vegetation, zebras, wrecked Pontiacs and rusting B-29s.
In a review of Hello America in 1981 (in Foundation 23), Michael Moorcock provided a list of these characteristic images, describing a
classically surrealist vision of the American dream in which the gigantic figures of John Wayne and Charles Manson bestraddle a jungle-bound Las Vegas where robot gunships shoot to ribbons giraffes and alligators populating the city streets and 46 presidents of the United States attempt an assault on a War Room which has at its centre a roulette wheel on which are marked the names of cities to be destroyed by Cruise missiles buried in the mysterious jungles of Nevada and Arizona.
Even as metaphors go, these are extreme enough. Yet Ballard’s most notorious imaginative connections, such as the association of motor accidents and sexual desire or the final chapter of The Atrocity Exhibition, ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’ (a title that nods to Alfred Jarry), strike his admirers as both prescient and peculiarly suitable for the world we now inhabit.
From the late 1960s enthusiasts, beginning with the poet George MacBeth and figures from science fiction fandom, made their way to the Sage of Shepperton. Later visitors brought more mainstream attention: Lynn Barber of Penthouse (on the ‘deviant sexual future’); the political philosopher John Gray; the art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist; writers upon whom his influence is evident, such as Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Toby Litt; and, towards the end, Radio 4’s James Naughtie.
This is, strictly, a book of interviews, conducted entirely in question-and-answer format, although several were published in different forms. Some, particularly Thomas Frick’s interview for the Paris Review, and Self’s, collected in Junk Mail, will probably be familiar to anyone already interested in Ballard. And of course there is no shortage of material on the internet (one of the book’s editors, Simon Sellars, runs a comprehensive website at ballardian.com).
A hazard of this — and Jim Ballard seems to have been happy to talk to anyone at length — is that the same points are covered in many of them. The introduction to this volume estimates that at least 200 interviews were published during Ballard’s life, so 500-odd pages are just a start. It does not contain, for example, the short Q&As which appeared in the endpapers of the Flamingo paperback reprints of the early 1990s.
Even so, several pieces are previously unpublished, or translated for the first time, and devotees will find plenty to enjoy. But few surprises emerge; nor is there much revision of the themes as the years go by. Defences of science fiction gradually give way to denials that he writes SF, then the rationalisation that the world itself has become science fiction. Much attention is paid to visual artists — a painter manqué, Ballard was influenced by Ernst and Dalí, while Warhol and Richard Hamilton echoed his interest in consumerism, celebrity and mass production.
The childhood in a prison camp in Shanghai, recounted in Empire of the Sun, brought the realisation that civilisation is a veneer, and medical training (and later, the early death of his wife) reinforced a clinical view that the trappings of ordinary life could be suddenly kicked away at any moment.
Shopping malls, gated communities (‘Kafka with unlimited Chicken Kiev’), the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, identity theft, internet pornography… everything vindicates Ballard’s pronouncement, just before the publication of Crash, that ‘sex times technology equals the future’. On the other hand, he tells Naughtie: ‘I open Crash and I think, “My God, this is horrific. This man is clearly mad.” ’
The significance of Ballard may rest in refusing to choose between the two views. As he told a German SF magazine in 1976: ‘We live as though in an immense novel and therefore can only approach things in this way.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 13 October 2012