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JG Ballard — 1930-2009

Sci-Fi giant leaves this Ballardian world

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JG Ballard, self-confessed visionary of “the psychology of the future” and author of works such as Crash and Empire of the Sun, died on Sunday morning after a long illness. He was 78.

Ballard outgrew the ‘cult author’ tag to cross over into the mainstream. His novels were widely read, beyond the boundaries of the oft-derided science fiction genre. His popularity and the post-modernist themes of his work attracted critical acclaim and bestseller status. He is also rightly recognised as having predicted many of the themes of modern urban life in his dark, dystopian images of the present and near-future.

Ballard was born in Shanghai and spent his early years in the privileged international sector of the Chinese city. In 1941 Shanghai was overrun by the advancing Japanese forces and the family were sent to an internment camp. The experience, its brutality filtered through Ballard’s childish eyes, informed all of his future work. Empire of the Sun, his partly-autobiographical account of life at the camp, was later turned into an Oscar-nominated film by Steven Spielberg.

After returning to Britain in 1946, he went to Cambridge to study medicine, intending to become a psychiatrist, but he abandoned his studies to concentrate full-time on writing. He later described Cambridge as an “academic theme park”, but the examination of the dark recesses of the mind became another constant factor in his later work.

From here he went to the University of London to read English Literature, but was forced to leave before the end of his first year. He then joined the RAF and was stationed to Canada, where he was introduced to science-fiction through American pulp magazines. He left the RAF in 1954, after only two years.

After the publication of numerous science fiction short stories and his first novel, The Wind From Nowhere, over the next few years, in 1962 he wrote The Drowned World. Long before the idea of the Greenhouse Effect became common scientific currency, The Drowned World pictured a tropical London submerged underwater after the melting of the polar ice caps. Although in Ballard’s world this was the result of solar flares rather than global warming, the novel, with its post-apocalyptic themes of isolation and mental disintegration, could be seen as a prototype for his later novels.

Always controversial, and sometimes even considered pornographic, (The Atrocity Exhibition was banned in the USA for obscenity, and the accusation was repeated at various times throughout his career,) Ballard became a cult figure for his sharply rendered visions of a dystopian present and near-future. Crash, High Rise, Concrete Island and the later trilogy of Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes and Millennium People all concentrate on the violence, perversity and desperation bubbling under the surface of modern urban life. Crash was later turned into a successful film, directed by David Cronenberg, which was criticised for the depiction of a couple who were sexually stimulated by car crashes and the injuries resulting from them.

Although often condemned on their release, Ballard’s obsession with celebrity, mental collapse and the suppressed violence of modern life have since been more than borne out by the similar obsessions of the modern media.

Anyone who witnessed the hysteria and fetishistic coverage surrounding the death of Princess Diana in a car crash, the broadcasting of Jade Goody’s funeral or the media frenzy around the recent G20 conference would recognise the themes foreshadowed in Ballard’s writings. The voyeurism of YouTube is also strangely Ballardian, a word which appears in the Collins English Dictionary and meaning “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.”

He will be missed, as the world turns more Ballardian by the day. ®

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