Giant of Literature J.G. Ballard Passes Away at the Age of 78
J.G. Ballard (November 15, 1930 to April 19, 2009) rewired the brains of generations of readers and writers. A member of the largely British New Wave movement of the 1960s, Ballard wrote mind-bending stories that changed reader perceptions of space and time, along with novels that dealt with every conceivable major theme of the twentieth century. His fictionalized memoir of his childhood, Empire of the Sun (1984), was made into a movie that brought him more readers than ever before. Ballard’s devastating satires of American politics, in particular his notorious jab at Ronald Reagan, went right to the edge of fictional possibility. But controversy and pushing boundaries were never problems for Ballard, as books like Crash, with its examination of literal auto-eroticism, proved. Such books also proved the lasting value of both literature and experimentation, being irreproducible in other media.
Another giant of post-World War II literature, Michael Moorcock, told Amazon, “Ballard and I, together with the late Barry Bayley, 'plotted' what became the New Wave revolution in the late 50s and early 60s. A regular and frequent contributor to New Worlds, he was a hugely inspiring and generous friend, if a little reclusive. Raised his three children single-handed after his wife died suddenly in Spain while on holiday and wrote a moving, exceptionally warm memoir, Miracles of Life, which was published in 2007, when he knew he was dying. His influence on a generation of writers in all fields, including Martin Amis and Will Self, was enormous and he remains perhaps the finest imaginative writer of his generation. He refused a CBE from the Queen in protest at the United Kingdom’s involvement in Iraq, and because he thought the title of Commander of the British Empire a ludicrous title for a modern Briton. He leaves a partner, Claire Walsh, who was his companion for over forty years and nursed him through his long illness.”
Born and raised in an American-controlled part of Shanghai, China, Ballard went on to study medicine at King’s College at Cambridge, intending to become a psychiatrist. However, realizing that this career would not allow him time to write he left King’s College in 1952 to study English literature at the University of London. Stints in the Royal Air Force and as the editor of a chemistry magazine were contiguous with writing short stories, and he soon found a home for many of them in the now-iconic New Worlds magazine. New Worlds would eventually become the flagship of the New Wave, which included writers like Michael Moorcock, James Sallis, and M. J. Harrison. In 1962, Ballard published his first novel, The Wind From Nowhere, and quit his day job to become a full-time writer.
Ballard came out of science fiction but, like other iconic figures, transcended the limitations of any particular genre. He dealt with issues like colonialism, worldwide disaster, sex, and, yes, such classic themes as love and death. Because of this, his influence was writ large. In terms of pop culture, Ballard also influenced bands like Radiohead, The Sisters of Mercy, and Joy Division.
Novelist Elizabeth Hand recalls “reading him when I was young in the 1960s, in some New Wave anthology or other...and then when I was older I sought him out wherever I could, and reviewed several of his later books. There was something so exhilarating about his vision of the world's decline, this combination of a very cold-eyed observation of humanity's greed and failings, and then a sort of glee in reporting it. His earlier work, things like The Drowned World (1962) and The Crystal World (1966), was so sensual in its detail; and then you ran head-on into stuff like The Atrocity Exhibition (1969)...fueled by that completely in-your-face rage and more of that inhuman glee, and so furiously intelligent--it was very heady stuff. My four dystopic SF novels and much of my earlier short fiction were inspired by Ballard.”
Ballard was unflinching in examining humankind’s ecological effect upon the world. But in placing most of his fiction, until recently, in projected futures or other speculative settings he ensured that it would largely remain timeless and undated.
Writer and reviewer Paul Di Filippo began reading Ballard in U.S. science fiction magazines around 1967, when he was thirteen years old. "He stretched my adolescent mind to new permanent fractal dimensions, an effect he had on many of my generation, and on plenty of adults as well, both 40 years ago and for the next several decades of unfaltering artistic accomplishment. He was the truest prophet and journalist of everything we saw going down around us during those tumultuous days. His astringent yet joyous take on all our self-inflicted dooms, technological, sexual, and cultural, assured us that the future would be much weirder than any Arthur C. Clarke prediction, even if we never left the surface of the planet, but only delved deeper into his patented realm of 'inner space.' The world is now deprived of a vital voice we still need, possibly more than ever."
On a personal note, I came to Ballard through his short stories while still a teenager, through collections like Terminal Beach (1964) and Vermillion Sands (1971). I first encountered Ballard on the back shelves of used bookstores, and thought he was one of the best treasures I ever discovered there. I always felt, reading his work, that I didn’t process a Ballardian piece of fiction; instead, it processed me. I saw the world differently after reading Ballard. Often, while in the middle of one of his stories, I would literally feel as if the spatial dimensions around me were shifting and that I was adrift. Somehow, as Martin Amis has said, Ballard got to a different part of your brain than other writers. This sense of enveloping the reader in the unknown and alien had a huge influence on my own fiction, and gave me permission to experiment in a way I don’t think I would’ve done otherwise.
“I think it's safe to say there are very few writers of speculative fiction who came of age after the 1960s who were not influenced by him in one way or another,” Hand told Amazon. “He captured the zeitgeist of a world in crisis and wrote about it fearlessly, and while his work was often cruel, it was never cold. He was an iconoclast who seemed to revel in the sound of our world shattering.”
The depth of that influence became apparent as messages on Facebook and Twitter from all types of writers flooded the internet Sunday afternoon. Reviewer and critic Ed Champion wrote “Ballard was one of the greats: an imaginative giant, a profoundly erudite iconoclast, one of those rare talents who came up with a warped concept if it was wild and provided the speculative heft needed to keep a thought experiment going.” Experimental novelist Lance Olsen commented, “We're all poorer for the loss. It doesn't get much better, much more unhinged, than Crash or The Atrocity Exhibition. Ballard taught us worlds.” And, as Czech editor Martin Šust said, “He was one of my favorite authors, especially for his short stories. He was a writer with international influence. His works are still unforgettable, and he is now immortal for all of us.”
Ballard commented in his own autobiography that the imagination transcends death. In the eyes of the readers he challenged and the writers he inspired, this statement is by no means hyperbole. He will be missed. In addition to his devoted partner Claire Walsh, Ballard leaves behind three children: James, Fay, and Beatrice.