J.G. Ballard has died

by Henry on April 20, 2009

Via Paul McAuley. I haven’t seen any obituaries yet. I preferred his early novels, and (even more) his short stories to his later work. I read “The Voices of Time” (probably in one of the old Spectrum SF collections) when I was seven or eight, and didn’t understand it at all, but somehow, it caught me and haunted me. Much of his later work read like different versions of the same novel. But they were often very funny – his over the top plotlines with their garden-suburbia-turned-into-chaos and insane reformer-cum-dictator-wannabes were intended to be satirical. I have a particular fondness for Super-Cannes, if only because of how it jumps up and down in glee on the corpse of the notion of social capital. His work had its problems – most obviously in its depiction of women which was at best chilly, at worst rather worse than that. But he was genuinely a great writer, in the sense that Borges described Kafka as being a great writer – he created his own precursors (but these summoned ancestors were to be found less in literature as such than in what he perceptively called ‘invisible literature’ – all the bureaucratic forms and minutiae that define our lives). We all live in the decaying aftermath of the Space Age that he, better perhaps than anyone else. described. If he was a novelist who was better at describing landscapes and extreme social situations than people, he captured, as a result, something important about an era in which individuality simply doesn’t mean as much as it once seemed to. There are bits of the world (and not-unimportant ones) that are Ballardian – if you’ve read him, you experience the shock of recognition when you see them.

{ 29 comments }

1

M 04.20.09 at 5:02 am

2

bob mcmanus 04.20.09 at 6:32 am

Very good summation. I also liked, and really only know, the early novels and short stories through Vermillion Sands. Thoughts today, at least as I understood him and gained today on the web:

1) The apocalypse novels set a theme, that individualism and character are subsumed and destroyed by environment and social context. The direct heir of Conrad. Just a little warmer and more optimistic, and he might have gotten a Nobel.

2) His stated main influences were the Surrealist painters Delvaux, Tanguy(?), some Ernst…but not Dali, and not abstraction.

3) I can’t shake the feeling that he was the father, the founder of the 60s Revolution in SF, the “New Wave”. Ambit magazine. Am I overstating his importance for British SF? One impression I got was that the Brit SF saw themselves as just a part of the European New Wave, but that was part of what happened in the 60s, wasn’t it? Ballard was the Man, he set the bar, he didn’t transcend SF, he made SF transcend itself.

4) He had so much Courage. I wanted to troll today with comments about torture-outrage as a liberal entertainment form. Ballard might call it masturbatory. “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” and the rest of the Atrocity Exhibition could make or break you in 1969.

5) Disch stole, as the great ones do, so much from Ballard.

3

otto 04.20.09 at 6:57 am

I second “Super-Cannes” as a great read. Some of the later books seemed a bit similar to each other, perhaps.

4

Shawn Crowley 04.20.09 at 7:03 am

A great writer and a fascinating person. His early short stories were psychologically disturbing but in such subtle ways as to be beyond easy description. I only hope that he was not a prophetic writer; on bad days I think that I might live long enough to be a small character in a Ballard disaster novel.

5

mijnheer 04.20.09 at 8:07 am

bob mcmanus: Yes, more than anyone else, Ballard was the impetus for the New Wave in sf. He was as brilliant and eccentric as that other great original, Philip K. Dick. Both were centrally concerned with the intersection of technology, environment, and the human psyche, though very different in style and intent.

6

Tony Dougan 04.20.09 at 9:55 am

J G Ballard was a great and visionary writer but I absolutely agree a writer of ideas rather than people. His characters exist to propose and confound these ideas and consequently the puppet master’s strings are sometimes visible. But what a life is depicted in ‘Empire of the Sun’ and his first success ‘The Drowned World’-how strangely prophetic!

7

Benedict Eastaugh 04.20.09 at 11:05 am

The Guardian had their obituary up last night. I still re-read his short story collection, The Terminal Beach, every couple of years; some of it feels a little dated these days, but many of the stories retain a huge amount of power, and indeed feel ever more prescient.

8

Alex 04.20.09 at 11:30 am

Meanwhile, it’s Ballardworld and we’re just living in it.

LONDON (Reuters) – Multi-million-dollar superyachts sailing from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean for the European summer could be the next high-profile target of Somali pirates, security experts say…

9

Donald A. Coffin 04.20.09 at 4:11 pm

I still remember the sense of shock I got from reading The Crystal World…

10

Anderson 04.20.09 at 9:58 pm

Guardian: he wrote his first sci-fi story, Passport to Eternity, in emulation of US writer Jack Vance

I did not know that. I’ve never read any Ballard, but as a Vance admirer, perhaps that should be where I start.

11

David 04.21.09 at 3:34 am

Well, I’ll have to agree with the assessment that his short stories were his major — and great — contribution. His US editions were also graced with great Richard Powers covers. I think it is a total stretch to attribute the sf “New Wave” to any one writer. Early and important, certainly. If we’re looking for a founder (the Great Man school of sf history?) I would propose Alfred Bester as predating Ballard.

A great loss, in a year that has already seen a few others.

12

bob mcmanus 04.21.09 at 4:40 am

I would propose Alfred Bester as predating Ballard.

Ballard mentioned Jack Vance as a model for his first stories. I’m betting Dying Earth

Look, there’s a history and matter of timing here. Bester, Harness, Pohl/Kornbluth and all the bright lights of the early 50s Galaxy/F & SF boom did not have so many immediate successors.
The collapse of the distribution system lead to hard times in the SF magazine industry by the late 50s, in which editors were more reticent to publish or pay for experimental work, and Silverberg under psuedonyms was filling entire magazines with extremely commercial work. Ellison was writing about street gangs.

And that infamous dry spell roughly 1956-1962 were precisely the years in which Ballard broke out upon the scene, short stories in the magazines (I checked the dates at the ISFD) later collected in the books. And kids like Delaney and Disch and Spinrad and Sladek were eager for influences.

That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of good SF being written, and I have been going thru my Judith Merrill looking at the tables of contents for examples. And the Milford group had a mission because they felt there was a problem.

I was there, and the Drowned World & Terminal Beach were on the racks between Asimov & Clarke, and they were a revelation. I think Ballard was important, maybe as much for when as for what.

13

bob mcmanus 04.21.09 at 5:27 am

I also just opened my Roberts history, and when Moorcook took over New Worlds in 1964, he mentioned Tubb, Brunner, Aldiss, and Ballard. Part of my question was whether Ballard was any kind of charismatic leader like Manet in early 60s Emglish SF. Certanly his biography and circumstances were impressive.

14

Alex 04.21.09 at 8:28 am

I would say he was; Moorcock describes him as being his companion in launching the New Wave, and his role at New Worlds was quite simply that he wrote most of it. He was also important, through his friend Christopher Evans, in opening that generation of SF to what was about to happen with computers.

Kind of amusing that he was inspired by the author of Servants of the Wankh.

15

ejh 04.21.09 at 8:52 am

his role at New Worlds was quite simply that he wrote most of it.

Something of an exaggeration.

16

belle le triste 04.21.09 at 9:10 am

i think aldiss’s role is a bit undervalued these days — what the people who weren’t ballard (esp.moorcock and aldiss imo) did was shape a context, in the new magazines and paperback collections for short stories* — in which ballard’s breakthrough importance could function most effectively

*this is important also: the novels weren’t the meat of the matter, the short stories were — the novel isn’t really a form ballard mastered (or was even interested in, except as a kind of “found object” frame for the type of writing he was pioneering): very very short is his most powerful work-shape

17

Martin Wisse 04.21.09 at 12:58 pm

According to Coling Greenland’s early eighties critical appreciation of the British New Wave (review), it was Ballard, Aldiss and Moorcock who kickstarted it. Aldiss as the elder statesman, Moorcock the young upstart radical and Ballard as its most accomplished and most radical writer.

18

Anderson 04.21.09 at 1:46 pm

A great loss, in a year that has already seen a few others.

This made me check Wikipedia to be sure that Vance is still alive, which I do every couple of months.

19

David 04.21.09 at 4:15 pm

@ Anderson: I was thinking primarily of P J Farmer, who is probably doomed to be under appreciated. The good news on Vance is that he may still continue to publish new works. Keep your fingers crossed. A throw away Vance is still more entertaining and well crafted than many a mega-hit.

20

Anderson 04.21.09 at 4:49 pm

A throw away Vance is still more entertaining and well crafted than many a mega-hit.

True indeed. Farmer, I would like to pick up again; I don’t think I got past book two of the Riverworld series, and I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen a copy of the World of Tiers books.

(Someone really needs to go into business reprinting The Good Old Science Fiction From When I Was a Kid. I literally have dreams about the 2dhand bookstores of my childhood years.)

I see from the above that Ballard’s short stories are highly praised. Besides The Atrocity Exhibition, where should I look?

21

Russell Arben Fox 04.21.09 at 4:49 pm

I’ve never read a word of Ballard, which unfortunately for me just puts him down on my long list of authors that someday I need to find the time to become familiar with. My one contribution is that, as I have recently been reminded, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ballard’s Empire of the Sun is very likely his single finest film, due in no small part Christian Bale’s remarkable performance.

22

belle le triste 04.21.09 at 5:03 pm

here can be found a podcast of my friend elisha sessions reading a very early ballard story on london’s resonance radio

23

Righteous Bubba 04.21.09 at 5:13 pm

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ballard’s Empire of the Sun is very likely his single finest film, due in no small part Christian Bale’s remarkable performance.

Also due, more than you might think, to Ballard’s eye. Many of the things that seem like a canny director’s hand are lifted straight from a writer who is terrific at visual imagery. Empire of the Sun is a great book.

24

Russell Arben Fox 04.21.09 at 7:13 pm

Also due, more than you might think, to Ballard’s eye. Many of the things that seem like a canny director’s hand are lifted straight from a writer who is terrific at visual imagery.

I’ll take your word for it. Ballard was heavily involved in the screen adaptation of his book, and occasionally was on the set commenting on Spielberg’s directorial choices. He even appeared in one of the early party scenes.

25

Donald A. Coffin 04.21.09 at 9:30 pm

A couple of commenters mentioned Philip Jose Farmer. As you all may or may not know, he recently died (February 25), at age 91.

26

socialrepublican 04.22.09 at 1:08 pm

A great lost

Had just been in hoilday in Africa the last week or two and finished in a few days ‘the Day of Creation’, a conradian descent of some power and not a little filth. Great fun.

I loved ‘Empire of the Sun’ as a wee lad and was even more impressed when I read the book and found the even more brutal last act of the story.

My favourate Ballard, though immensely trashy, is ‘Running Wild’.

27

tweedyprof 04.23.09 at 1:20 am

http://www.city-journal.org/2008/18_1_otbie-ballard.html

is an excellent and moving obituary by Theodore Dalrymple, real name Anthony Daniels.

But since it’s in a non-leftist publication, obviously you narrow-minded types missed it.

I, too, was surprised and pleased to learn that Vance was an early inspiration for Ballard.

28

Walt 04.23.09 at 3:01 am

Are you joke, tweedyprof?

29

TimT 04.24.09 at 4:24 am

Ballard, Moorcock and Aldiss all made breakthroughs… it wasn’t a question so much of Moorcock and Aldiss providing the backdrop and Ballard writing the important works. Greenland is pretty much spot on in his analysis of the three writers as different but equally important.

They’re all temperamentally quite different writers, though they shared enough in common to make them friends and allies. Moorcock was a provocative editor and stylist, Aldiss an accomplished writer who was able to do a lot of behind-the-scenes work as editor, critic, historian of SF, in addition to his published fiction.

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