Author J.G. Ballard died last Sunday after a long battle with prostate cancer. Although his novels and short stories seldom fit neatly into any one genre, his impact on science fiction was immeasurable.
Ballard was never fully comfortable with being considered a science fiction author, and he actually had a somewhat decent case to make. After all, neither of his two most famous works were science fiction; certainly not Empire of the Sun, which dealt with his childhood in a Japanese-run internment camp in China, and not really Crash, which followed a group of people who derive sexual pleasure from car crashes. (Both of these were later adapted into films, the former by Steven Spielberg and the latter by David Cronenberg.)
Even his more genre-specific novels seemed more interested in reimagining and repurposing hoary old science fiction conventions to new, experimental ends than merely telling a science fiction story. His interest in exploring more avant-garde modes of expression did not fit well with the science fiction landscape he discovered when he began writing in the late 1950s. Ballard's disillusionment with the hard science fiction of the time led him to become a founding figure in science fiction's New Wave movement during the sixties, joining with the likes of Philip José Farmer, Harlan Ellison, and Ursula K. Le Guin to foment a distinctly artistic, experimental take on the genre.
His works tended to focus on dystopian themes of societal decay and dehumanization, making him an obvious forerunner for the cyberpunk movement of the eighties. In his preface to the seminal 1986 cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades, editor Bruce Sterling describes Ballard's place as the spiritual founder of the sub-genre:
Cyberpunk work is marked by its visionary intensity. Its writers prize the bizarre, the surreal, the formerly unthinkable. They are willing - eager, even - to take an idea and unflinchingly push it past the limits. Like J. G. Ballard - an idolized role model to many cyberpunks - they often use an unblinking, almost clinical objectivity. It is a coldly objective analysis, a technique borrowed from science, then put to literary use for classically punk shock value.
All of this certainly applied to Ballard, including the bit about shock value. His works were often deliberately provocative, perhaps none more so than Crash (although special mention really should be given to his 1968 parody of political pamphlets, the wonderfully titled Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan). One publisher considered Crash so disturbing that he declared Ballard "beyond psychiatric help." But there was little in his works that was offensive merely for the sake of being offensive; everything was towards a larger purpose of forcing readers to reevaluate their thoughts and preconceptions.
In his review of Ballard's 1987 novel The Day of Creation, author and critic Martin Amis discusses the book's river setting and antagonist, a newly created river that drives the book's protagonist to the brink of insanity. His description also captures the power of Ballard's writing in general, a force somehow simultaneously off-putting and mesmerizing:
As is the way with the obsessional, everything stops mattering except the obsession. And here Ballard will always win out, because of the remorselessness of his imagination, which itself is strange, vast, unique - and impossible. In all senses the river is an original creation, beautiful and leprous, putrid and austere, and as feral as the mind from which it flows. Like all obsessions, Ballard's novel is occasionally boring and frequently ridiculous. The invariance of its intensity is not something the reviewer can easily suggest. Ballard is quite unlike anyone else; indeed, he seems to address a different - a disused - part of the reader's brain. You finish the book with some bafflement and irritation. But this is only half the experience. You then sit around waiting for the novel to come and haunt you. And it does.
But above all, there are the stories themselves that stand as a lasting testament to his place in science fiction. His body of work spanned over five decades, and time and again pondered how the technology of the very near future would impact the psychology of humanity; the list that follows is only a most meager sampling of his output. "The Voices of Time" wrestles with the coming of absolute entropy in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. High Rise charts the breakdown of civil society in an ultra-modern apartment building, as the tenants' isolation from the world outside forces them to go to war over elevators and swimming pools.
Ballard looks at an Earth stripped of its resources in the name of interplanetary colonization in "Deep End", as a man called Holliday struggles to save a dying dogfish in the remnants of the Atlantic Ocean. "Billennium" considers Ward and Rossiter, tenants in an impossibly overcrowded megacity, and their discovery of a huge, unoccupied room next to their cramped living cubicle. Hello America, perhaps his most accessible work, ruminates on the cultural importance of America as explorers from Europe return to the western continent, abandoned after early 21st century environmental collapse. None of these synopses really do justice to Ballard's iconic voice, which infused his ideas with a literary style few of his science fiction contemporaries could truly match.
Returning to Bruce Sterling's preface to Mirrorworlds, one can find a tribute to Ballard that is powerful in its subtlety. Listing the various New Wave authors who influenced cyberpunk, Sterling points to:
The streetwise edginess of Harlan Ellison. The visionary shimmer of Samuel Delany. The free-wheeling zaniness of Norman Spinrad and the rock aesthetic of Michael Moorcock; the intellectual daring of Brian Aldiss; and, always, J. G. Ballard.
There was no need to single out what in particular was special about Ballard; he simply was. Ultimately, J.G. Ballard was the very best a certain strand of science fiction - equal parts literary, dystopian, edgy, and endlessly experimental - could ever hope to be.
W.W. Norton is publishing a posthumous new edition of Ballard's collected short stories, including two previously unavailable in the United States, "The Dying the Fall" and "The Secret Autobiography" Book cover images from Terminal Collection.