James Graham Ballard (15 November 1930 19 April 2009) was a British novelist, satirist and essayist. A literary titan in the field of science fiction, Ballard's most famous contribution the genre was the landmark post-apocalyptic epic The Drowned World. Considered a pioneer of the New Wave Science Fiction sub-genre, Ballard was known for his experimental narratives, controversial subject matter, and the surreal, nightmarish worlds his characters casually inhabited. The dehumanization of sex and technology were recurring themes in his writing.
The popularity of his work among fans gave rise to the adjective 'Ballardian' , which is defined by the Collins English Dictionary as: "resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard's novels and stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak artificial landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments."
The son of British expats based in China, J. G. Ballard was born in the Shanghai International Settlement in 1930. Following the Japanese attack on Hong Kong and subsequent takeover of the Settlement during World War II, the Ballard family were moved to an internment camp for the duration of the war. Despite a reasonably comfortable living situation, the young Ballard would sometimes witness the casual brutality of the Japanese military toward both the Chinese and Allied civilians. It's likely that this experience had a profound effect on him to the point where it influenced his writings as an adult.
After the end of the war in 1945, Ballard's mother returned to England with him and his sister. In 1949, he studied medicine at King's College in Cambridge with the intent of becoming a psychiatrist. He would spend a decade writing short science fiction stories and submitting them to various magazines, eventually dropping out of his studies to become a full-time writer by 1960. He married his first wife, Helen Mary Matthews, in 1955, and would move his family to Shepperton, Surrey, where he would spend the rest of his life.
Ballard published his first novel, The Wind From Nowhere in 1961, which would become the first in a series of novels about mind-bending apocalypses. He had begun submitting stories to various sci-fi publications such as New Worlds and Science Fantasy as far back in 1956 with the stories "Escapement" and "Prima Belladonna", the latter of which was set in the surreal resort of Vermilion Sands. He'd revisit the world of Vermilion Sands multiple times until 1970 and later compiled the stories into a collection of the same name. By the mid-60s, Ballard had published dozens of short stories, much of which had appeared in New Worlds magazine.
The UK's burgeoning new wave sci-fi movement was of interest to Ballard and he would shift the tone of his writing to much darker territories. Helen's death from pneumonia in 1964 would further motivate him toward a bleaker outlook on life and humanity. He compiled various short stories and novellas to form the iconic and highly controversial novel The Atrocity Exhibition. This novel was so problematic for the time that it led to an obscenity trial in the UK. The US publisher Doubleday would destroy most of the print run before its distribution. Despite these efforts from the establishment, The Atrocity Exhibition's experimental quality made Ballard a literary icon.
A very prolific author, Ballard wrote 19 novels and 98 short stories over a career that lasted five decades. Several of these were turned to movies, such as Crash, High-Rise, and the semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, which was about his childhood at the Japanese internment camp. One of his short stories, "The Drowned Giant", was recently adapted into a CG segment of Netflix's animation anthology series Love, Death & Robots.
J. G. Ballard passed away in 2009. He never remarried, but lived with his life-long partner Claire Walsh. His monumental output and influence on the science fiction genre can still be felt to this day in his native UK and beyond.
Fiction by J. G. Ballard:
Flash Fiction, Novellas, Novelettes, and Short Stories:
- "The Violent Noon"
- "Manhole 69"
- "Track 12"
- "The Waiting Grounds"
- "Now: Zero"
- "The Sound-Sweep"
- "Zone of Terror"
- "The Last World of Mr. Goddard"
- "The Voices of Time"
- "Deep End"
- "The Overloaded Man"
- "Mr F. is Mr F."
- "The Gentle Assassin"
- "The Drowned World"
- "The Insane Ones"
- "The Garden of Time"
- "Thirteen to Centaurus"
- "Passport to Eternity"
- "The Cage of Sand"
- "The Watch-Towers"
- "The Man on the 99th Floor"
- "The Subliminal Man"
- "A Question of Re-Entry"
- "The Reptile Enclosure"
- "The Time-Tombs"
- "Now Wakes the Sea"
- "Minus One"
- "The Venus Hunters"
- "The Sudden Afternoon"
- "Time of Passage"
- "Prisoner of the Coral Deep"
- "The Lost Leonardo"
- "The Terminal Beach"
- "The Illuminated Man"
- "The Delta at Sunset"
- "The Drowned Giant"
- "The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon"
- "The Volcano Dances"
- "Dune Limbo"
- "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy"
- "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As a Downhill Motor Race"
- "The Beach Murders"
- "You and Me and the Continuum"
- "Storm-Bird, Storm-Dreamer"
- "The Assassination Weapon"
- "The Day of Forever"
- "The Impossible Man"
- "You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe"
- "The Atrocity Exhibition"
- "Choice Ballard"
- "Tomorrow Is a Million Years"
- "Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown"
- "The Recognition"
- "Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A."
- "The Great American Nude"
- "The University of Death"
- "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan"
- "The Dead Astronaut"
- "The Generations of America"
- "The Comsat Angels"
- "The Summer Cannibals"
- "How Dr Christopher Evans Landed on the Moon"
- "The Killing Ground"
- "A Place and a Time to Die"
- "Tolerances of the Human Face"
- "Mae West's Reduction Mammoplasty"
- "Coitus 80"
- "Journey Across a Crater"
- "Princess Margaret's Facelift"
- "The Greatest Television Show on Earth"
- "Crash (excerpt)"
- "Crash (excerpt)"note
- "My Dream of Flying to Wake Island"
- "Low-Flying Aircraft"
- "The Air Disaster
- "A Happy Arrangement"
- "Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown"note
- "Queen Elizabeth's Rhinoplasty"
- "The 60 Minute Zoom"
- "The Life and Death of God"
- "The Smile"
- "The Ultimate City"
- "The Dead Time"
- "The Index"
- "The Intensive Care Unit"
- "Theatre of War"
- "Having a Wonderful Time"
- "Motel Architecture"
- "One Afternoon at Utah Beach"
- "Zodiac 2000"
- "A Host of Furious Fancies"
- "News from the Sun"
- "The Secret Autobiography of J. G. B***"
- "Report on an Unidentified Space Station"
- "Memories of the Space Age"
- "Myths of the Near Future"
- "The Object of the Attack"
- "Answers to a Questionnaire"
- "The Man Who Walked on the Moon"
- "Uzvieni čovjek"note
- "The Secret History of World War 3"
- "Running Wild"
- "Jane Fonda's Augmentation Mammoplasty"
- "Love in a Colder Climate"
- "The Enormous Space"
- "The Largest Theme Park in the World"
- "War Fever"
- "Dream Cargoes"
- "Neil Armstrong Remembers His Journey to the Moon"
- "A Guide to Virtual Death"
- "Report from an Obscure Planet"
- "The Message from Mars"
- "Orașul închis"
- "Le massacre de Pangbourne"
- "The Dying Fall"
- The Wind from Nowhere (1962)
- The Drowned World (1962)
- The Drought (1964)note
- The Crystal World (1966}
- The Atrocity Exhibition (1970, first published as Love and Napalm: Export USA, 1972)
- 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)
- The Kindness of Women (1991)
- Rushing to Paradise (1994)
- Cocaine Nights (1996)
- Super-Cannes (2000)
- Millennium People (2003)
- Kingdom Come (2006)
His works provide examples of:
- After the End: Many of his novels take place after a catastrophic event (typically related to climate change or man-made pollution) destroys much of the environment.
- Anachronic Order: "The Beach Murders" is a Cold War spy thriller that's deliberately told this way. Ballard wrote the story conventionally and rearranged the sequences, challenging the reader to figure out who killed who and what truly happened at the end.
- Auto Erotica: Crash follows a fictional version of Ballard and his wife as they join an eccentric group of alienated people that love staging car crashes in order to have sex in the wreckage. David Cronenberg would adapt it into a controversial film in 1996.
- Child Prodigy: "The Comsat Angels" is about a conspiracy concerning twelve child genuises who look identical and their infiltration of different sectors of society. Turns out that they're preparing the world for the arrival of a thirteenth genius, who'll be born near Bethlehem. You see where this is going?
- Crapsack World: The Ballardian dystopia is his trademark. This typically involves a mundane dystopian setting where a disaster has already happened and the characters, often artists, celebrities or wealthy businessmen, find themselves making the most of it before it all comes crashing down around them. Technology often plays a large role in this breakdown of civilization. For example, High-Rise is set in an futuristic apartment complex housing the privileged elite on the outskirts of London. Despite their efforts to coexist, they quickly devolve into tribalism and barbarism, engaging in brutal warfare up and down the hallways.
- Crystal Landscape: In the 1966 novel The Crystal World, a physician makes his way to a leprosy clinic in Cameroon but soon comes across an apocalyptic phenomena that that crystallizes everything it touches. The same event is reported in the Florida Everglades and the Pripyat Marches in the Soviet Union. Ballard had already explored a similar scenario in the 1964 short story "The Illuminated Man".
- Deserted Island: In the 1974 novel Concrete Island, an architect drives his car off a bridge and lands on the terrain sandwiched between the massive freeways. Trapped, he tries to signal for help from the cars above but they ignore him, suspecting that he's a crazy homeless man because of the state he's in. Eventually, he discovers other people living in the remains of the town that was destroyed to build the freeway. But, this being Ballard, the situation gradually turns to shit for the protagonist and others.
- Desert Punk: The Burning World (alternatively titled The Drought) is about a worldwide ecological disaster that's caused by dumping industrial waste into the ocean. This breaks down the hydrologic cycle, which causes rivers to dry up and water to become scarce. As desertification spreads to all corners of the globe, Dr Charles Ransom and his eccentric neighbors must decide on whether to wait it out or brave the unknown in search of freshwater.
- Disaster Scavengers: "The Dead Astronaut" is about a husband and wife who travel to an abandoned, irradiated Cape Kennedy in anticipation of a falling capsule that contains the remains of an astronaut (the wife's former husband and her current husband's co-worker from their time at NASA). They compete against relic hunters who routinely scavenge for NASA artefacts.
- Dysfunction Junction: From The Burning World to Crash it's clear that most of his characters are sociopaths, oddballs or lunatics.
- Endless Daytime: In "The Day of Forever", the Earth has ceased to rotate and the day and night cycle is frozen in perpetual twilight. The protagonist travels across this world, hoping to dream of a woman similar to the one in Delvauxs surrealist painting, The Echo.
- Fallen States of America: Hello America is set in 2114 and is about a European steamboat expedition to an America that collapsed following an ecological crisis.
- Flooded Future World: Most of the Earth in The Drowned World.
- Generation Ship: The premise of the short story "Thirteen to Centaurus".
- Gilded Cage: The premise of "Having A Wonderful Time" in which a couple are sent on holiday to a hotel resort in the Canaries only to discover that the islands are a dumping ground for the UK's unemployed and middle class. Ballard intended it to be a parody of the middle class's constant need for escape in the form of corporate getaways.
- Global Warming: The cause of the apocalypse in The Drowned World. Solar radiation causes the ice caps to melt and flood much of the world. What follows is a Heart of Darkness style journey by a group of scientists into the heart of a submerged London. The novel was considered the first in the climate fiction genre.
- "Groundhog Day" Loop: An early example of the genre is his short story "Escapement" in which a man is trapped reliving the same 15 minutes sat in front of the TV with his wife on quiet evening. He seems to be the only person on Earth that's aware of the time loop.
- Intentionally Awkward Title: 1968's "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" is one hell of a way to draw attention to yourself. The short story is written in the style of a scientific paper and details bizarre experiments to measure the psychosexual appeal of the then-Governor of California who, at the time, was a Republican candidate for the 1968 presidential race.
- In 1980, a group of ex-Situationists distributed the story, furnished with the Republican Party seal, to convention delegates at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit.
- Layered Metropolis: "The Concentration City". This huge metropolis is an endless puzzle of streets flowing into streets and level upon level with no end in sight. The protagonist tries to find the city limits by taking a several day journey in its vast rail coach system...he doesn't. After ten days of travel he ends up back where he started on the same day he left.
- New Wave Science Fiction: Very few of his stories take place in outer space as he tended to avoid the space opera genre entirely. He expressed his disdain for TV shows such as Star Trek and stressed that science fiction should focus on inner space and the dystopian future of Earth. From the mid-60s, the majority of his stories stretched the potential of science fiction to its creative limits and contained copious amounts of graphic violence and sex, which was looked down upon at the time.
- Overpopulation Crisis / Absurdly Huge Population: The Earth of "Billennium" is host to 20 billion people. Most of the land is devoid of settlements in order to make room for all the agriculture needed to feed the world population. People are crammed into all the major cities and the pavements are so jammed that it takes days to walk anywhere. Everyone lives in singular cubicles and rent is devised using ceiling space.
- There is also an overpopulation problem in "The Concentration City" and free space is a central issue.
- Sanity Slippage: In "One Afternoon at Utah Beach", a man discovers his wife and their pilot are having an affair while the three of them are staying at Utah Beach in Normandy, France. Bizarrely enough, he comes across an emaciated teenage Wehrmacht soldier, still manning one of the machine guns in a blockhouse. Nursing the young soldier back to health, the man plans to use him to gun down his wife and the pilot as revenge for their affair. It ends with the man and his Nazi accomplice attempting an assault on the adulterous couple, only for the man to be shot dead. It turns out that the Nazi soldier was his hallucination all along and the man had gone crazy, dressed up in a Wehrmacht uniform in the murder attempt.
- "The 60-Minute Zoom" also follows a similar premise to the above story, but follows the POV of a husband who seemingly delights in filming his wife's affairs at whatever resorts they're staying at in their travels.
- The Sleepless: In "Manhole 69" a group of three men have their sleep surgically removed in order for the scientists studying them to determine if mankind can save hours wasted by our natural need to sleep. Despite a solid start, the neurological effects of sleep deprivation aren't taken into account and the end result is terrifying for the trio.
- Urban Fantasy: "The Drowned Giant" is set in a mundane town by the sea. The only interesting event to occur is a dead naked giant washing up on shore, yet for the townsfolk the novelty wears off after a day.
- War Is Hell: Given his childhood experiences in a POW camp in WWII, it's to be expected that Ballard would write a few anti-war stories. Notably among them is "Theatre of War", which follows a documentary crew as it covers a brutal Vietnam-style civil war in the United Kingdom.