The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard: Last Acts and First Lines
Sadly, a giant of literature, J.G. Ballard, passed away in April of this year. As I wrote then as part of a commemorative post here on Omnivoracious, "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."
Now, Norton has published The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard, showcasing Ballard's visionary, incendiary, thought-provoking short fiction. It's a weighty volume, coming in at 1196 pages, and is fascinating in how it shows the progression of his themes, obsessions, and writing style. Very little of it feels dated, in part because Ballard had a knack, through use of surreal imagery, for making his science fiction feel timeless. One of the first stories of Ballard's I ever read, "The Drowned Giant," still has that resonance you expect of great fiction. From "The Terminal Beach" to "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race," "The Cage of Sand" to "War Fever", readers will find a relentless and fierce intelligence at work here. No one ever wrote quite like Ballard.
But as much as we remember Ballard's short fiction for pushing the envelope, and for being somewhat experimental, the man could also write some really effective opening hooks for his stories--evocative, poetic, direct, or playful. So, just to give you a taste of the collection, here are some of the more memorable first lines (you'll notice a few recurring images and gambits)...
"Every evening during the summer at Vermilion Sands the insane poems of my beautiful neighbor drifted across the desert to me from Studio 5, The Stars, the broken skein of coloured tape unravelling in the sand like the threads of a dismembered web." - Studio 5, The Stars
"Ten miles outside Alexandria he picked up the coast road that ran along the top of the continent through Tunis and Algiers to the transatlantic tunnel at Casablanca, gunned the Jaguar up to 120 and burned across through the cool night air, letting the brine-filled slipstream cut into his six-day tan." - The Insane Ones
"It was half past love on New Day in Zenith and the clocks were striking heaven." - Passport to Eternity
"All day Forbis had been trying to reach the 100th floor. Crouched at the foot of the short stairway behind the elevator shaft, he stared up impotently at the swinging metal door on the roof, searching for some means of dragging himself up to it." - The Man on the 99th Floor
"Usually in the evenings, while Traxel and Bridges drove off into the sand-sea, Shepley and the Old Man would wander among the gutted time-tombs, listening to them splutter faintly in the dying light as they recreated their fading personas, the deep crystal vaults flaring briefly like giant goblets." - The Time-Tombs
"After his trial they gave Constantin a villa, an allowance and an executioner." - End-Game
"At night, as he lay asleep on the floor of the ruined bunker, Traven heard the waves breaking along the shore of the lagoon, like the sounds of giant aircraft warming up at the ends of their runways." - The Terminal Beach
"On the morning after the storm the body of a drowned giant was washed ashore on the beach five miles to the north-west of the city." - The Drowned Giant
"Readers hoping to solve the mystery of the Beach Murders--involving a Romanoff Princess, a CIA agent, two of his Russian counterparts and an American limbo dancer--may care to approach it in the form of the card game with which Quimby, the absconding State Department cipher chief, amused himself in his hideaway on the Costa Blanca." - The Beach Murders
"In the evenings the time-winds would blow across the Sea of Dreams, and the silver wreck of the excursion module would loom across the jewelled sand to where Glanville lay in the pavilion by the edge of the reef." - Tomorrow is a Million Years
"All summer the cloud-sculptors would come from Vermilion Sands and sail their painted gliders above the coral towers that rose like white pagodas beside the highway to Lagoon West." - The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D
"'The man's playing some kind of deranged game with himself.'" - Low-Flying Aircraft
"Now that a nightmare logic has run its course, it is hard to believe that my friends and I thought it the most innocent caprice when I first brought Serena Cockayne to live with me in my Chelsea House." - The Smile
"Within a few minutes the next attack will begin." - The Intensive Care Unit
"In the evenings, as Franklin rested on the roof of the abandoned clinic, he would often remember Trippett, and the last drive he had taken into the desert with the dying astronaut and his daughter." - News from the Sun
"Now that World War 3 has safely ended, I feel free to comment on two remarkable aspects of the whole terrifying affair." - The Secret History of World War 3
"Ryan's dream of a ceasefire first came to him during the battle for the Beirut Hilton." - War Fever
Of course, there are endings, too, like this one from "The Terminal Beach": "Patiently Traven waited for them to speak to him, thinking of the great blocks whose entrance was guarded by the seated figure of the dead archangel, as the waves broke on the distant shore and the burning bombers fell through his dreams."