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Analysis of J. G. Ballard’s Novels

Ballard (15 November 1930 – 19 April 2009) is one of a handful of writers who, after establishing early reputations as science-fiction writers, subsequently achieved a kind of “transcendence” of their genre origins to be accepted by a wider public. This transcendence was completed by the success of Empire of the Sun, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Guardian Prize before being boosted to best-seller status by a film produced by Steven Spielberg. In 1997, maverick director David Cronenberg turned Ballard’s cult classic Crash into an equally disturbing film noir, which quickly found a dedicated audience. For a time in the early 1960’s, Ballard seemed to constitute a one-man avant-garde in British science fiction, and his influence was considerable enough for him to become established as the leading figure in the movement which came to be associated with the magazine New Worlds under the editorship of Michael Moorcock. His interest in science-fiction themes was always of a special kind; he is essentially a literary surrealist who finds the near future a convenient imaginative space. His primary concern is the effect of environment, both “natural” and synthetic— upon the psyche—and he has therefore found it appropriate to write about gross environmental changes and about the decay and dereliction of the artificial environment; these interests distance him markedly from other modern science-fiction writers and have helped him to become a writer sui generis.

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J. G. Ballard’s first seven novels can be easily sorted into two groups. The first four are novels of worldwide disaster, while the next three are stories of cruelty and alienation set in the concrete wilderness of contemporary urban society. All of his novels are, however, linked by a concern with the disintegration of civilization on a global or local scale.

Ballard’s early disaster stories follow a well-established tradition in British imaginative fiction. British science-fiction writers from H. G. Wells to John Wyndham always seem to have been fascinated by the notion of the fragility and vulnerability of the human empire, and have produced many careful and clinical descriptions of its fall. The earlier works in this tradition are didactic tales, insisting on the vanity of human wishes and reveling in the idea that when the crunch comes, only the tough will survive. Ballard, in contrast, is quite unconcerned with drawing morals—his disaster stories are not at all social Darwinist parables. His main concern is with the psychological readjustments which the characters are forced to make when faced with the disintegration of their world: He sees the problem of catastrophic change largely in terms of adaptation.

In one of his earliest essays on science fiction, a “guest editorial” which he contributed to New Worlds in 1962, Ballard committed the heresy of declaring that H. G. Wells was “a disastrous influence on the subsequent course of science fiction.” He suggested that the vocabulary of ideas to which science-fiction writers and readers had become accustomed should be thrown overboard, and with them its customary narrative forms and conventional plots. It was time, he said, to turn to the exploration of inner space rather than outer space, and to realize that “the only truly alien planet is Earth.” He offered his opinion that Salvador Dalí might be the most pertinent source of inspiration for modern writers of science fiction. The rhetorical flourishes which fill this essay caution readers against taking it all too seriously, but in the main this is the prospectus which Ballard has tried to follow. He has practiced what he preached, shaking off the legacy of H. G. Wells, dedicating himself to the exploration of inner space and the development of new metaphysical (particularly metapsychological) systems, and steering well clear of the old plots and narrative formulas. In so doing, he made himself one of the most original writers of his generation; such novels as Empire of the Sun and The Day of Creation do indeed demonstrate the essential alienness of the planet on which we live.

The Wind from Nowhere

In The Wind from Nowhere, which is considerably inferior to the three other disaster novels, a slowly accelerating wind plucks the human-made world apart. No one can stand firm against this active rebellion of nature—neither the American armed forces nor the immensely rich industrialist Hardoon, who seeks to secrete himself within a gigantic concrete pyramid, which the wind eventually topples into an abyss. The Wind from Nowhere has a whole series of protagonists and shows the catastrophe from several viewpoints. This was one of the well-tried methods of retailing disaster stories, but it was unsuited to Ballard’s particular ambitions, and in the other novels of this early quartet he employed single protagonists as focal points—almost as measuring devices to analyze in depth the significance of parallel physical and psychological changes.

The Drowned World

In The Drowned World, Earth’s surface temperature has risen and is still gradually rising. Water released by the melting of the ice caps has inundated much of the land, and dense tropical jungle has spread rapidly through what were once the temperate zones, rendering them all but uninhabitable. Ballard suggests that the world is undergoing a kind of retrogression to the environment of the Triassic period. The novel’s protagonist is Robert Kerans, a biologist monitoring the changes from a research station in partly submerged London.

The psychological effects of the transfiguration first manifest themselves as dreams in which Kerans sees “himself” (no longer human) wandering a primitive world dominated by a huge, fierce sun. These dreams, he concludes, are a kind of memory retained within the cellular heritage of humankind, now called forth again by the appropriate stimulus. Their promise is that they will free the nervous system from the domination of the recently evolved brain, whose appropriate environment is gone, and restore the harmony of primeval proto-consciousness and archaic environment. Kerans watches other people trying to adapt in their various ways to the circumstances in which they find themselves, but he sees the essential meaninglessness of their strategies. He accepts the pull of destiny and treks south, submitting to the psychic metamorphosis that strips away his humanity until he becomes “a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun.”

The Drowned World was sufficiently original and sophisticated to be incomprehensible to most of the aficionados of genre science fiction, who did not understand what Ballard was about or why. A minority, however, recognized its significance and its import; its reputation is now firmly established as one of the major works of its period.

The Drought

In The Drought (later published as The Burning World), the pattern of physical change is reversed: Earth becomes a vast desert because a pollutant molecular film has formed on the surface of the world’s oceans, inhibiting evaporation. The landscape is gradually transformed, the concrete city-deserts becoming surrounded by seas of hot sand instead of arable land, while the seashore retreats to expose new deserts of crystalline salt. The soil dies and civilization shrivels, fires reducing forests and buildings alike to white ash. Ransom, the protagonist, is one of the last stubborn few who are reluctant to join the exodus to the retreating sea. From his houseboat he watches the river dwindle away, draining the dregs of the social and natural order. He lives surrounded by relics of an extinguished past, bereft of purpose and no longer capable of emotional response.

Eventually, Ransom and his surviving neighbors are driven to seek refuge in the “dune limbo” of the new seashore and take their places in a new social order dominated by the need to extract fresh water from the reluctant sea. Here, he finds, people are simply marking time and fighting a hopeless rear-guard action. In the final section of the story, he goes inland again to see what has become of the city and its last few inhabitants. They, mad and monstrous, have found a new way of life, hideous but somehow appropriate to the universal aridity, which is an aridity of the soul as well as of the land.

The Crystal World

In The Crystal World, certain areas of the earth’s surface are subjected to a strange process of crystallization as some mysterious substance is precipitated out of the ether. This is a more localized and less destructive catastrophe than those in The Drowned World and The Drought, but the implication is that it will continue until the world is consumed. The initially affected area is in Africa, wherethe novel is set. The central character is Dr. Sanders, the assistant director of a leper colony, who is at first horrified when he finds his mistress and some of his patients joyfully accepting the process of cystallization within the flesh of their own bodies. Eventually, of course, he comes to realize that no other destiny is appropriate to the new circumstances. What is happening is that time and space are somehow being reduced, so that they are supersaturated with matter. Enclaves from which time itself has “evaporated” are therefore being formed—fragments of eternity where living things, though they cannot continue to live, also cannot die, but undergo instead a complete existential transubstantiation. Here, metaphors developed in The Drought are literalized with the aid of a wonderfully gaudy invention.

The transformation of the world in The Crystal World is a kind of beautification, and it is much easier for the reader to sympathize with Sanders’s acceptance of its dictates than with Kerans’s capitulation to the demands of his dreams. For this reason, the novel has been more popular within the science-fiction community than either of its predecessors. It is, however, largely a recapitulation of the same theme, which does not really gain from its association with the lush romanticism that occasionally surfaces in Ballard’s work—most noticeably in the short stories set in the imaginary American west-coast artists’ colony Vermilion Sands, a beach resort populated by decadent eccentrics and the flotsam of bygone star cults who surround themselves with florid artificial environments.

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Crash

Seven years elapsed between publication of The Crystal World and the appearance of Crash. Although Ballard published numerous retrospective collections in the interim, his one major project was a collection of what he called “condensed novels”— a series of verbal collages featuring surreal combinations of images encapsulating what Ballard saw as the contemporary zeitgeist. In the world portrayed in these collages, there is a great deal of violence and perverted sexual arousal. Ubiquitous Ballardian images recur regularly: dead birds, junked space hardware, derelict buildings. Mixed in with these are secular icons: the suicide of entertainerMarilynMonroe, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and other personalities whose fates could be seen as symbolic of the era in decline.

The theme of Crash is already well developed in the condensed novels (collected in the United Kingdom under the title The Atrocity Exhibition, 1969, and in the United States under the title Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A.). Cars, within the novel, are seen as symbols of power, speed, and sexuality—a commonplace psychoanalytic observation, to which Ballard adds the surprising further representation of the car crash as a kind of orgasm. The protagonist of the novel, who is called Ballard, finds his first car crash, despite all the pain and attendant anxiety, to be an initiation into a new way of being, whereby he is forced to reformulate his social relationships and his sense of purpose. Ballard apparently decided to write the book while considering the reactions of members of the public to an exhibition of crashed cars which he held at the New Arts Laboratory in London.

Although it is mundane by comparison with his previous novels—it is certainly not science fiction—Crash is by no means a realistic novel. Its subject matter is trauma and the private fantasization of alarming but ordinary events. The hero, at one point, does bear witness to a transformation of the world, but it is a purely subjective one while he is under the influence of a hallucinogen. He sees the landscapes of the city transformed, woven into a new metaphysics by the attribution of a new context of significance derived from his perverted fascination with cars and expressway architecture.

Concrete Island

The two novels which followed Crash retain and extrapolate many of its themes. Concrete Island and High Rise are both robinsonades whose characters become Crusoes in the very heart of modern civilization, cast away within sight and earshot of the metropolitan hordes but no less isolated for their proximity. In Concrete Island, a man is trapped on a traffic island in the middle of a complex freeway intersection, unable to reach the side of the road because the stream of cars is never-ending. Like Crusoe, he sets out to make the best of his situation, using whatever resources—material and social—he finds at hand. He adapts so well, in the end, that he refuses the opportunity to leave when it finally arrives.

High Rise

The high-rise apartment block which gives High Rise its title is intended to be a haven for the well-to-do middle class, a comfortable microcosm to which they can escape from the stressful outside world of work and anxiety. It is, perhaps, too well insulated from the world at large; it becomes a private empire where freedom from stress gives birth to a violent anarchy and a decay into savagery. If Concrete Island is spiritually akin to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), then High Rise is akin to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), though it is all the more shocking in translocating the decline into barbarism of Golding’s novel from a remote island to suburbia, and in attributing the decline to adults who are well aware of what is happening rather than to children whose innocence provides a ready excuse. As always, Ballard’s interest is in the psychological readjustments made by his chief characters, and the way in which the whole process proves to be ultimately cathartic.

A major theme in the condensed novels, which extends into the three novels of the second group, is what Ballard refers to as the “death of affect,” a sterilization of the emotions and attendant moral anesthesia, which he considers to be a significant contemporary trend induced by contemporary lifestyles. The greatest positive achievement of the characters in these novels is a special kind of ataraxia, a calm of mind rather different from the one Plato held up as an ideal, which allows one to live alongside all manner of horrors without being unusually moved to fear or pity.

The Unlimited Dream Company

Another gap, though not such a long one, separates High Rise from The Unlimited Dream Company, a messianic fantasy of the redemption of Shepperton from suburban mundanity. Its protagonist, Blake, crashes a stolen aircraft into the Thames River at Shepperton. Though his dead body remains trapped in the cockpit, he finds himself miraculously preserved on the bank. At first he cannot accept his true state, but several unsuccessful attempts to leave the town and a series of visions combine to convince him that he has a specially privileged role to play: He must teach the people to fly, so that they can transcend their earthly existence to achieve a mystical union with the vegetable and mineral worlds, dissolving themselves into eternity as the chief characters did in The Crystal World. Though the name of the central character is significant, the book also appears to be closely allied with the paintings of another artist: the eccentric Stanley Spencer, who lived in another Thames-side town (Cookham) and delighted in locating within its mundane urban scenery images of biblical and transcendental significance.

The kind of redemption featured in The Unlimited Dream Company is as ambivalent as the kinds of adaptation featured in earlier novels, and its promise does not carry the same wild optimism that similar motifs are made to carry in most science-fiction and fantasy novels. It is perhaps best to view The Unlimited Dream Company as one more novel of adaptation, but one which reverses the pattern of the earlier works. Here, it is not Blake who must adapt to changes in the external world, but Shepperton which must adapt to him—and he, too, must adapt to his own godlike status. Blake is himself the “catastrophe” which visits Shepperton, the absolute at large within it whose immanence cannot be ignored or resisted. If the novel seems to the reader to be upbeat rather than downbeat, that is mainly the consequence of a change of viewpoint—and had the readers who thought The Drowned World downbeat been willing to accept such a change, they might have been able to find that novel equally uplifting.

Hello America

Although The Unlimited Dream Company does not represent such a dramatic change of pattern as first appearances suggest, Hello America is certainly, for Ballard, a break with his own tradition. There is little in the novel that seems new in thematic terms, although it recalls his short stories much more than previous novels, but there is nevertheless a sense in which it represents a radical departure. The plot concerns the “rediscovery” in the twenty-second century of a largely abandoned America by an oddly assorted expedition from Europe. What they find are the shattered relics of a whole series of American mythologies. The central character, Wayne, dreams of resurrecting America and its dream, restoring the mythology of technological optimism and glamorous consumerism to operational status. He cannot do so, of course, but there is a consistent note of ironic nostalgia in his hopeless ambition. What is remarkable about the book is that it is a confection, an offhand entertainment to be enjoyed but not taken seriously. From Ballard the novelist, this is totally unexpected, though his short fiction has frequently shown him to be a witty writer, and a master of the ironic aside.

Empire of the Sun

This change of direction proved, not unexpectedly, to be a purely temporary matter—a kind of brief holiday from more serious concerns. Empire of the Sun recovered all the mesmeric intensity of Ballard’s earlier work, adding an extra turn of the screw by relating it to historically momentous events through which the author had actually lived. Although the book’s young protagonist is named Jim and is the same age as Ballard was when he was interned by the Japanese, Empire of the Sun is—like Crash before it—by no means autobiographical in any strict sense. Jim’s adventures are as exaggerated as the fictional Ballard’s were, but the purpose of the exaggeration is here perfectly clear: What seems from an objective point of view to be a horrible and unmitigated catastrophe is to Jim simply part of the developing pattern of life, to which he must adapt himself, and which he takes aboard more or less innocently. From his point of view, given that the internment camp is the world, and not (as it is from the point of view of the adult internees) an intolerable interruption of the world, it is the behavior of the British prisoners which seems unreasonable and hostile, while the Japanese guards are the champions of order. The world does not begin to end for Jim until the war comes toward its close and the orderliness of camp life breaks down; that which others see as a source of hope and a possibility of redemption from their living hell is for Jim something else entirely, to which he reacts in characteristically idiosyncratic fashion. The frightful irony of all this is, as usual, overlaid and disguised by a straight-faced matter-of-factness which forbids the reader to cling to the conventional verities enshrined in an older, inherited attitude toward the war with Japan.

The Day of Creation

The Day of Creation returns to the Africa of The Crystal World, this time disrupted by the seemingly miraculous appearance of a new river whose “discoverer,” Dr. Mallory of theWorld Health Organization, hopes that it may restore edenic life to territory spoiled for millennia by drought and ceaseless petty wars. Mallory’s odyssey along the river upon which he bestows his own name might be seen as an inversion of Marlow’s journey in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), in which the mysteriously silent girl Noon is the hopeful counterpart of the soul-sick Kurtz; but the redemption promised by the river is a temporary illusion, and Noon herself may only be a figment of Mallory’s imagination.

Running Wild

The novella Running Wild, thinly disguised as a mass-murder mystery in which the entire adult population of a small town is massacred, is another playfully ironic piece, though rather less gaudy than Hello America—appropriately, in view of its setting, which is a cozy suburban landscape of the Home Counties; it is a long short story rather than a short novel, but it carries forward the argument of High Rise as well as brief black comedies such as “The Intensive Care Unit.”

The Kindness of Women

The Kindness of Women revisits Ballard’s semiautobiographical subject matter, which he introduced with Empire of the Sun. The novel opens amid the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1937, an event Ballard himself witnessed as a boy. His protagonist’s carefree adolescence is literally shattered by a bomb blast, when the Japanese air raid surprises a boy, again named Jim Ballard, as he strolls down the middle of Shanghai’s amusement quarters. Moving from 1937 directly to Jim’s arrival in post-World War II Great Britain, The Kindness of Women accompanies its protagonist to way stations modeled after significant events in the author’s life, mixing imagination and autobiographical material. While The Kindness of Women covers terrain familiar to readers of Ballard’s work, it nevertheless manages to shed fresh light on the author’s recurring obsessions, themes, and symbols, such as the ubiquitous instances of downed aircraft, drained swimming pools, and concrete flyovers encircling Heathrow airport.

Rushing to Paradise

Ballard’s next novel, Rushing to Paradise, has been marketed as a satire on the follies of the environmentalist movement, but it is a more complicated text than that. Antihero Dr. Barbara Rafferty is on a quest to establish a South Sea sanctuary for the albatross on an island wrested from the French government. The novel suggests that this is really a private attempt to build a murderous playground to live out psychosexual needs of her own. This boldly unconventional idea is obviously linked to Ballard’s familiar suggestion of the dominance of the psychological over the material. The novel’s invention of new psychological disorders and obsessions, and its iconoclastic depiction of an environmentalist physician who develops into a quasi commandant presiding over a disused airfield and ruined camera towers, clearly gives Rushing to Paradise the surrealist streak common to Ballard’s fiction.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Rushing to Paradise largely failed to connect with a larger audience. Even though the novel’s premise of renewed French nuclear testing in the South Seas uncannily anticipated the real-life development of such tests in the mid-1990’s and thus predicted the future, something rarely accomplished by traditional science-fiction texts, many readers apparently did not forgive Ballard his choice of an environmentalist woman as the novel’s surreal centerpiece. Ballard’s idiosyncratic characters, who had alienated science-fiction fans when The Drowned World was published, managed again to distance his work from readers unwilling to engage the author on his own unique artistic grounds.

Cocaine Nights

Cocaine Nights, however, won great critical acclaim from British reviewers, who hailed the novel as Ballard’s masterpiece for its fusion of surrealism and detective story. Ostensibly, Cocaine Nights tells of Charles Prentice’s quest to exonerate his brother Frank, who is held in a Spanish jail and charged with a murder to which he has confessed. Utterly unconvinced that his brother has killed a wealthy family at a posh resort on the coast of southern Spain and believing his confession absurd, Charles tries to find the real culprit. His investigation quickly draws him into the orbit of Bobby Crawford, a rogue tennis instructor and self-appointed leader of a group of thrill-seeking English who fight terminal boredom by committing highly imaginative crimes and outrageous acts of vandalism.

With its emerging thesis that only the existence of crime can energize the somnolent resort community of terminally exhausted upper-middle-class retirees, Ballard’s novel flies again in the face of the commonsense reader used to realistic fiction. Like his best work before, Cocaine Nights entices by its outrageously absurd proposal of the criminal as benefactor to humanity, and it confirms Ballard’s position as one of England’s most imaginative, original, and creative novelists.

Principal long fiction
The Wind from Nowhere, 1962; The Drowned World, 1962; The Drought, 1964 (later published as The Burning World); The Crystal World, 1966; Crash, 1973; Concrete Island, 1974; High Rise, 1975; The Unlimited Dream Company, 1979; Hello America, 1981; Empire of the Sun, 1984; The Day of Creation, 1987; Running Wild, 1988 (novella); The Kindness of Women, 1991; Rushing to Paradise, 1994; Cocaine Nights, 1996; Super-Cannes, 2000.

Other major works
Short Fiction The Voices of Time, 1962; Billenium, 1962; The Four-Dimensional Nightmare, 1963; Passport to Eternity, 1963; The Terminal Beach, 1964; The Impossible Man, 1966; The Disaster Area, 1967; The Overloaded Man, 1967; The Atrocity Exhibition, 1969 (also known as Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A.); Vermilion Sands, 1971; Chronopolis and Other Stories, 1971; The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard, 1978; Myths of the Near Future, 1982; Memories of the Space Age, 1988; War Fever, 1990.
Nonfiction: A User’s Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews, 1996.

Bibliography
Jones, Mark. “J. G. Ballard: Neurographer.” In Impossibility Fiction, edited by Derek Littlewood. Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, 1996.
Luckhurst, Roger. “The Angle Between Two Walls”: The Fiction of J. G. Ballard. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997
.____________. “Petition, Repetition, and ‘Autobiography’: J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women.” Contemporary Literature 35, no. 4 (Winter, 1994): 688-708.
Pringle, David. Earth Is the Alien Planet: J. G. Ballard’s Four-Dimensional Nightmare. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1979.
Re-Search: J. G. Ballard. San Francisco: Re-Search, 1983.
Stableford, Brian. “J. G. Ballard.” In Science Fiction Writers, edited by E. F. Bleiler.New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982.

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Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Novel Analysis, Popular Culture, Science Fiction

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