Selected Non-Fiction: 1962-2007 
by J.G. Ballard, edited by Mark Blacklock.
MIT, 386 pp., £30, October 2023, 978 0 262 04832 3
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By the time​ H.G. Wells died, in August 1946, the genre he’d done more than anyone to establish was headquartered on the other side of the Atlantic. John Wyndham and Arthur C. Clarke, the most important British science fiction writers to emerge after the war, published in the pages of American magazines. Attempts to revive the domestic scene failed to gather momentum until 1954, when New Worlds – a former fanzine which the editor, John Carnell, had managed to keep sporadically in print – was purchased by the trade publishing firm Maclaren’s and began coming out monthly. Its sister publication, Science Fantasy (also edited by Carnell), established a bimonthly schedule the following year. At last there was a platform in Britain for quality science fiction; what it now needed was a distinctively British approach.

James Graham Ballard hadn’t read much science fiction during his boyhood in Shanghai’s International Settlement (he had just turned eleven when the Japanese invaded in December 1941), or his topsy-turvy adolescence (split between a Japanese internment camp and an English boarding school), or either of his unfinished degree courses (medicine at Cambridge, English literature at Queen Mary College). His first real exposure to the genre came when, as a 23-year-old RAF pilot stationed in Saskatchewan, he discovered a rack of American magazines in the local bus depot. They struck him, he recalled in his autobiography, Miracles of Life (2008), as having ‘huge vitality’. But he also felt that science fiction was ‘ripe for change, if not outright takeover’. Already a devotee of Freud and the Surrealists, he had been looking for a way ‘to translate the visually surreal into prose’. It was clear to him that he’d stumbled across it. Returning to London in 1955, he married Mary Matthews, a secretary at the Daily Express (the first of their three children was born the following year), and began sending his work to Carnell, who not only accepted it for publication but obligingly found him a day job as an assistant editor at British Baker, another Maclaren’s magazine.

Ballard’s first published stories, ‘Prima Belladonna’ (set in a futuristic holiday resort and narrated by the owner of a shop selling musical plants) and ‘Escapement’ (about a man forced to relive, over and over, the same gradually tightening loop of time), both appeared in December 1956, in Science Fantasy and New Worlds respectively. ‘Escapement’ was accompanied by a contributor note emphasising the influence of the Surrealists, ‘whose dreamscapes, manic fantasies and feedback from the Id are as near to the future, and the present, as any intrepid spaceman rocketing around the galactic centrifuge’.

Ballard developed this argument in his celebrated manifesto ‘Which Way to Inner Space?’, which appeared in the May 1962 issue of New Worlds, and over the next few years in various other essays and reviews, the best of which are brought together in Mark Blacklock’s new edition of the journalism. Ballard’s view was that science fiction should get over its ‘juvenile’ fixation on outer space and concentrate instead on ‘inner space’ – an imaginative zone where ‘the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality meet and fuse,’ analogous to ‘the Surrealists’ “landscape of the soul”’. Such work could renounce the ‘explicit social and moral preoccupations’ of traditional science fiction and devote itself to ‘ontological objectives – the understanding of time, landscape and identity’. Moreover, since the whole object was to ‘return to one’s innermost being’, the writer who explored inner space would discover a ‘redemptive and therapeutic power’. Whether the reader could expect to receive comparable benefits Ballard didn’t say.

Writing in The Woman Journalist in 1963, he took as a case study his second novel, The Drowned World (1962), in which a team of research scientists in a globally warmed future see their minds and personalities start to disintegrate as they travel deeper into the tropical lagoon that has risen over London. ‘The image of an immense half-submerged city overgrown by tropical vegetation,’ Ballard explained, ‘is in some way a fusion of my childhood memories of Shanghai and those of my last ten years in London.’ This synthesis of past and present experiences – ‘of such disparate elements as the modern office buildings of Central London and an alligator in a Chinese zoo’ – resembled ‘the mechanisms by which dreams are constructed’. The novel’s imagery could only be interpreted, therefore, as ‘the private vocabulary of symbols drawn by the narrative from the writer’s mind’. The Drowned World became one of the foundational texts of ‘new wave’ science fiction, a quasi-modernist movement centred on New Worlds and figures such as Michael Moorcock, who took over from Carnell as the magazine’s editor in 1964, and M. John Harrison, who became its literary editor in 1968.

Ballard’s own fiction was by then moving into its second major phase. This followed a second life-defining trauma. In the summer of 1964, during a family holiday to Spain, Mary contracted an infection, which turned into pneumonia. She died three days later. After burying her in the Protestant cemetery in Alicante, Ballard returned to England with the children and tried to adapt to life as a single parent. ‘I was terribly wounded by my wife’s death,’ he later said. ‘I felt that a crime had been committed by nature … and I was searching desperately for an explanation, something that would justify this awful event.’ The work he produced over the next decade – notably the linked stories of The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and the novel Crash (1973), both of which propose an equation between celebrity, technology, violence and sex – was more combative in subject matter and more experimental in method than anything he’d previously attempted. He still referred to it as science fiction (by the end of the following decade he had come to regret that), but the statements he made on its behalf had little in common with his earlier pronouncements about inner space. In an essay in 1971 for Books and Bookmen, he argued that the genre’s true subject matter was ‘everyday life’:

The gleam on refrigerator cabinets, the contours of a wife’s or husband’s thighs passing the newsreel images on a colour TV set, the conjunction of musculature and chromium artefact within an automobile interior, the unique postures of passengers on an airport escalator – all in all, close to the world of the Pop painters and sculptors.

Closer to them than to the Surrealists? ‘I don’t see myself working in a Surrealist tradition at all,’ Ballard told Eduardo Paolozzi later that year. ‘I certainly don’t use the basic techniques of Surrealism.’ Artists like Dalí and Ernst ‘accepted the distinction between the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality’ – but in a landscape saturated with the heightened imagery of advertising and celebrity culture, that distinction no longer made sense. ‘It’s the external world which is now the realm, the paramount realm of fantasy … You can’t overlay your own fiction on top of that.’ The job of the artist had become that of ‘analysing external fictions’, not clarifying internal ones.

It’s hard to know how useful any of this is as a guide to what Ballard was writing in the early 1970s. Here he is in Crash, taking to heart the idea that fast cars are sexy:

I felt the warm vinyl of the seat beside me, and then stroked the damp aisle of Helen’s perineum. Her hand pressed against my right testicle. The plastic laminates around me, the colour of washed anthracite, were the same tones as her pubic hairs parted at the vestibule of her vulva. The passenger compartment enclosed us like a machine generating from our sexual act an homunculus of blood, semen and engine coolant.

There’s no denying the transgressive power and chilly stylishness of all this (nor how close it often sails to self-parody). But it seems at least as much a ‘private vocabulary of symbols drawn … from the writer’s mind’ as it is a case of ‘analysing external fictions’. What isn’t immediately clear is whether those two ways of thinking about the novel can be reconciled with one another.

Introducing Crash to French readers in 1973, Ballard seemed pretty sure that they could. On the one hand, he embraced an artistic credo derived straight from Breton’s first Manifesto of Surrealism: the writer, he declared, ‘knows nothing any longer. He has no moral stance. He offers the reader the contents of his own head.’ On the other hand, he described the novel as essentially didactic: ‘a warning against that brutal, erotic realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of technological landscapes’. A warning from someone who knows nothing and has no moral stance: exactly how much weight was that supposed to carry? Ballard ended up changing his mind about the didactic element. ‘Crash is not a cautionary tale,’ he said in 1995. ‘Crash is what it appears to be. It is a psychopathic hymn.’ The following year, however, at the height of the moral panic surrounding David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the novel (‘BAN THIS CAR CRASH SEX FILM,’ the Daily Mail suggested), he changed his mind again. ‘It has to be a cautionary tale,’ he said during a discussion with Cronenberg at the BFI. ‘If not, it’s a psychopathic statement.’ He continued: ‘Looking back … it seems to me that the book is a cautionary tale where the writer or the filmmaker plays devil’s advocate and adopts what seems to be an insane or perverse logic in order to make a larger point. Swift did it in A Modest Proposal.’ So much for the writer having no moral stance.

As his shifting explanations of Crash attest, the course of Ballard’s intellectual development isn’t a straightforward journey from one perspective (or one set of influences) to another. Still, he was consistent in saying that his imagery came from deep within himself – until it crossed a certain threshold of weirdness, at which point he began to argue (at least some of the time) that it reflected something outside himself instead.

By the time he wrote Empire of the Sun (1984), which draws on his childhood experiences in Shanghai and at Lunghua camp, Ballard was leaning into a more obviously outward-looking approach. The novel has often been described as the best work of English fiction about the Second World War, but it’s also a send-up of the idea that the English stiff upper lip played any sort of role in the conflict’s outcome. Deprived of their cushy expat lifestyles, their inane rounds of fancy dress parties and amateur dramatics, the British internees at Lunghua spend all day lying in their bunks, ‘examining their hands for hours or staring at the walls’. They whimsically name the ‘sewage-stained paths between the rotting huts’ after major London thoroughfares – Piccadilly, Knightsbridge, Petticoat Lane – and are determined to maintain rigid class distinctions. At one point, a character who comes across ‘like a school prefect and head of rugby’ decides to boost morale by organising an actual rugby match. It’s an unmitigated fiasco. The starving players stagger around the makeshift pitch, ‘too exhausted to pass the ball and jeered at by a crowd of fellow prisoners excluded from the game because they had never learned the rules’. All this cuts much deeper for being delivered in Ballard’s clipped, laconic, unmistakably English prose.

Malcolm Bradbury claimed that with Empire of the Sun ‘Ballard became an important mainstream novelist,’ and went on to compare him to Ian McEwan and Iain Banks – intending that as praise. Ballard hadn’t really switched to writing conventional fiction resembling either of Bradbury’s examples, but it’s true that in 1984 the mainstream suddenly discovered him. Empire of the Sun was shortlisted for the Booker Prize – making Martin Amis feel ‘as if the street drug-pusher had been made chairman of DuPont pharmaceuticals’ – and sold more than all Ballard’s previous books put together, even before it was turned into an Oscar-nominated film by Tom Stoppard and Steven Spielberg. His later career was punctuated by international book tours and lavish TV profiles, and towards the end of his life he had the pleasure of turning down a CBE (‘I might have been tempted had I been entitled to call myself Commander Ballard – it has a certain ring’).

The distance​ he’d covered can be measured in terms of his bylines as a journalist. After Empire of the Sun, he was less likely to be found issuing manifestos in the pages of underground magazines than selecting his Summer Reading in the Guardian and his Christmas Books in the Sunday Times, reviewing biographies of Walt Disney or Woody Allen for the Daily Telegraph, or knocking off a piece about the French Riviera for the Mail on Sunday. He didn’t exactly sell out in these performances – one of the most striking qualities of his Selected Non-Fiction is the consistency of his journalistic style and enthusiasms over almost half a century – but he did save up his more esoteric questions (‘does the body still exist at all, in any but the most mundane sense?’) and his saltier aphorisms (‘on the autopsy table science and pornography meet and fuse’) for his rare appearances in more specialised outlets, such as a volume commissioned by Zone Books – Incorporations (1992) – exploring ‘the ongoing convergence of what were once the distinct worlds of the machine and the organism’.

Ballard’s main journalistic activity – throughout his career, but especially post-Empire – was book reviewing. He was a lively and muscular critic, though the range of his insights was somewhat hampered by the narrowness of his tastes. Reflecting in 1999 on which novels ‘written in my own lifetime’ would survive the next hundred years, he didn’t mention anything published after Catch-22 (1961), or anything composed in a language other than English, or by anyone who wasn’t a white man. He had as little time for science fiction that didn’t follow his own strict prescriptions as he did for ‘so-called mainstream fiction’ – a category that he seems to have defined in contrast to science fiction, on the one hand, and the work of William Burroughs, on the other. There are several (scornful) references in this volume to the likes of Kingsley Amis and C.P. Snow, but only a single passing mention of Beckett (who had his own concept of inner space), and nothing at all about contemporaries such as Harold Pinter, Christine Brooke-Rose or B.S. Johnson. (Johnson does make a brief appearance in Miracles of Life, where he’s described as ‘a thoroughly unpleasant figure who treated his sweet wife abominably [and] was forever telephoning me and buttonholing me at literary parties.’) It’s hard not to conclude that Britain’s most significant avant-garde writer of the postwar period was largely indifferent to the postwar avant-garde.

The visual arts were a different matter. Ballard wrote enthusiastically about a range of artists of his own generation – from Paolozzi and Ed Ruscha to Robert Smithson and Ikko Narahara – as well as about younger figures including Tacita Dean and the Chapman brothers. His perspective was wildly idiosyncratic (he regretted that ‘no one ever … has an erection’ in the presence of a Damien Hirst) and his judgments were sometimes bizarre (‘I firmly believe that since the death of Francis Bacon in 1992, Helmut Newton has been our greatest visual artist’), but he could also be refreshingly tough-minded. On Hockney’s photomontage period: ‘The human eye is not faceted, and the only people who see like this are suffering from brain damage.’ His writing on cinema is also well represented in Blacklock’s selection, which includes appreciations of David Lynch (Blue Velvet was ‘the best film of the 1980s – surreal, voyeuristic, subversive and even a little corrupt in its manipulation of the audience’) and Cronenberg (whose films ‘are concerned with two questions: who are we, and what is the real nature of consciousness?’). Ballard described the film adaptation of Crash as ‘a love story that … enlists technology in an attempt to escape even death itself’. Nobody – least of all its author – ever described the novel in those terms.

In 1991, the year Jean Baudrillard’s early essay on Crash was translated into English, a final ingredient was added to Ballard’s sensibility. Although he claimed that he never ‘wanted to understand’ the Crash essay (an ambiguous formulation if ever there was one), he took to describing Baudrillard’s America (1986) as ‘probably the most sharply clever piece of writing since Swift’. His enthusiasm for ‘the impish philosopher’ quickly made itself felt in his journalism. ‘Was there a Gulf War?’ he asked in the Guardian on 14 March 1991, a fortnight after the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm, and less than two months after Baudrillard had posed a similar question in the same paper. By 2001, Ballard was training a Baudrillardian gaze on the hostilities between Tony Blair and William Hague: ‘Is the election actually taking place?’ This might be impish behaviour, but it’s impishness of a decidedly egg-headed sort, and it’s no surprise that in the latter stages of his career Ballard emerged as a pin-up of the conference circuit. He didn’t return the affection. One of the more amusing things Blacklock has unearthed is Ballard’s intemperate response to the editors of Science Fiction Studies, a journal published by DePauw University in Indiana, when asked for his thoughts on Baudrillard’s essay:

SF was ALWAYS modern, but now it is ‘postmodern’ – bourgeoisification in the form of an over-professionalised academia with nowhere to take its girlfriend for a bottle of wine and a dance is now rolling its jaws over innocent and naive fiction that desperately needs to be left alone. You [are] killing us! Stay your hand! Leave us be! Turn your ‘intelligence’ to the iconography of filling stations, cash machines, or whatever nonsense your entertainment culture deems to be the flavour of the day. We have enough intellectuals in Europe as it is.

It’s strange that Ballard – who rarely passed up an opportunity to comment on his own fiction – didn’t write an introduction to A User’s Guide to the Millennium (1996), a collection of ninety of his articles and reviews. The book’s appearance marked a subtle change in his attitude towards journalism. In the final decade of his career, he used it less as a vehicle for exploring the attitudes and obsessions behind his fiction, and more as a space in which to do his thinking in the first place. His last four novels are bulky, thrillerish expressions of ideas he’d introduced in capsule form in the pages of the Guardian and the New Statesman. Here he is in a 2001 diary piece for the Statesman, giving voice to a diverting corner-of-the-eye perspective: ‘The middle class is the new proletariat, forced out of inner London and clinging to antiquated notions such as the belief that education matters.’ That same thought takes him more than three hundred pages to animate in Millennium People (2003), a novel about the middle-class residents of a gated community who engage in violent revolution. Some reviewers found the premise thin and the feature-length elaboration a drag, and it’s hard not to wonder whether Ballard’s heart was really in it. ‘If I had my time again,’ he remarked soon after the novel was published, ‘I’d be a journalist.’

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