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Grave New World: Introduction, Part 1

Author: • Nov 5th, 2007 •

Category: academia, David Cronenberg, death of affect, dystopia, features, Iain Sinclair, Jean Baudrillard, Michael Moorcock, New Worlds, psychiatry, Salvador Dali, science fiction, surrealism, technology, urban ruins, William Burroughs, WWII

Ballardian: Grave New World

    A-bomb explosion, Bikini Atoll, 25 July, 1946.

I’m a scholar, I teach Brit.Lit. professionally at the University of Warsaw. My PhD (1999) was on Angela Carter and it got me a job there as assistant professor. But in my country, to be a scholar you need one more degree — you need to write something like a post-doctoral thesis — and you have about ten years to write it. To cut a long story short, one day in 2000 I said to myself: ‘J.G. Ballard’.

When I finished this thesis, entitled Grave New World: The Decline of the West in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard, my university had a very limited number of copies printed as a book, but they weren’t for sale. Some were sent to the English departments of big Polish universities, some to Polish professors specializing in contemporary Brit.Lit. And that’s all. I stored some in my bedroom and thought, ‘What a waste, so much work and no one is gonna read this!’ So I posted copies to people whose criticism on Ballard I used to read. Some of these people, like Roger Luckhurst, mentioned it in conferences, others got to know about it, some reviewed it etc. I started to get mail asking where the book could be bought.

But it can’t be bought at the moment, as no publisher in Poland wants to risk it. I’m still looking for a publisher eager to print the book.

Which brings us to the introduction from Grave New World, presented here as a sampler of my work.

Dominika Oramus, 2007.


For more information on the book, please contact Dominika at dominika dot oramus at neostrada dot pl.

NOTE: Part Two is now available.


Ballardian: Grave New World Are we living in the happy times of a social utopia where everybody can participate equally in the blessings of advanced technology, modern science and sophisticated communications systems? Are we witness to the true ‘Brave New World’ the human race has dreamt of for generations? Or is our contemporary reality yet another ‘Grave New World’ [1] — a dystopian land of social manipulation and hegemonic mass media? Is ours a world that denies free will, breeds psychopathologies and supplants first-hand experience with simulacra? In 1932 Aldous Huxley published his Brave New World as a warning against what the future might bring. And indeed, throughout the last century numerous philosophers, historians, sociologists, and fiction writers repeated similar concerns and fears. In that same year, 1932, the first one-volume English translation of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West was published, thereby introducing to English literary culture the idea of an inevitable end to every civilization, ours included. His study prompted Arnold Toynbee to begin work on his monumental opus A Study of History, wherein he discusses a host of past human civilizations and points to the causes of their fall, indirectly suggesting that our own Western culture is well advanced on its own way to disintegration. Arnold Toynbee writes:

The self-inflicted wounds from which civilizations die are not these of a material order. In the past, at any rate, it has been the spiritual wounds that have proved incurable (Toynbee 1949: 135).

It seems appropriate to me to start the present study of J.G. Ballard by quoting the above passage from Toynbee’s lecture ‘The International Outlook’; coming in the wake of World War II, it reveals the sad truth about civilizations in general: they are universally threatened with decline and demise. Whatever may precipitate the West’s fall will involve external factors (waves of immigration, dangerous weapons in irresponsible foreign hands, terrorism, alien cultures and religions filling in the spiritual vacuum, etc.), but these matters will be allowed in only because of the internal spiritual damage that is already underway. In both his fiction and non-fiction J.G. Ballard describes the dire spiritual changes that have been taking place since the war and have transformed the West. Though Western civilization has apparently succeeded in perpetuating itself to the new millennium in having overcome communism and avoided the threat of a Third World War, nuclear catastrophe and internal collapse, for Ballard Huxley’s [2] vision remains uncanny in the way it is coming true. At least in some of its key aspects.

In this book I read Ballard’s fiction (and some of his non-fiction) as a record of the gradual internal degeneration of Western civilization in the second half of the twentieth century. In sundry ways and styles Ballard’s ostensibly very heterogeneous oeuvre depicts the same intangible catastrophe that has happened to the world. Contemporary reality is thus presented in his late prose as ‘post-apocalyptic’: though we are not literally living amidst the ruins, the golden age is far behind us and we are witnessing the twilight of the West. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment in the past when things went wrong [3], but that fateful turn has undeniably taken place and wrought grave spiritual change. Thus do we hear the death knells of our civilization, one growing increasingly hostile to individuals and erecting a cult of violence.

I hope to achieve two aims in this study. Firstly, I hope to show ‘Grave New World’, the imaginary territory Ballard describes in his books, which is a combination of the turn-of-the-millennium world, intertextual allusions to both fiction and non-fiction, and Ballard’s projections for the near future with its sociological idiosyncrasies. I would like to prove that irrespectively of the literary conventions Ballard applies in a given text (science fiction, speculative fiction, detective story, thriller, war novel or any other), he charts the very same territory and remains throughout primarily interested in the reaction of the human mind to the post-World War II reality which is the common denominator of his diverse obsessions. Secondly, I would like to shed some light on the spiritual condition and social problems of contemporary Western civilization as seen by its ever so inquisitive member. [4]

Ballardian: Grave New World

    ‘Continuously creating his own image’: J.G. Ballard self-portrait, double exposure, 1950 (photo via RE/Search Publications).

My technique in approaching Ballard is mostly that of textual analysis and close readings of passages of his texts that best show his exuberant stylistics; sometimes I also point out his references to literary and cultural theories. As far as said theories are concerned, I shall follow Ballard’s own readings. He very often alludes to critical schools and makes his characters discuss fashionable notions and ideas. Therefore, I will refer to the same sources: mostly psychoanalysts (many Ballardian characters are psychiatrists), but also historians and recent cultural theorists.

There are two problems with discussing Ballard’s fiction, and they need be dealt with at the very beginning. The first concerns the generic classification of his books — the second is posed by Ballard’s continuous attempts at auto-creation. As far as classification goes, the critics in different decades have described Ballard as a science fiction writer, a mainstream writer, a surrealist, a representative of the avant-garde, and an author who defies any classifications. To portray these controversies, in the next part of this Introduction (‘The Critical Response to J.G. Ballard’) I will briefly present the most important critical approaches to Ballard, at the same time showing how his oeuvre alludes to many different literary conventions. As for myself, I am not going to deal with this problem and give my opinion about, for example, the precise moment when Ballard left science fiction behind and started writing ‘serious’ books. Rather, I will discuss all his works on the same plane: moreover, I will not follow the chronology of Ballard’s long and generically diverse literary career, opting instead to treat all of his oeuvre synchronically, as descriptions of different vistas of his ‘Grave New World’. To provide the reader with relevant dates and the order of Ballard’s works I have included a calendar of his life and career at the end of this thesis (Appendix II).

In the last part of this Introduction (‘J.G. Ballard’s Auto-creation) I will deal with the second problem the Ballardian critic has to face. Over the fifty years of his career Ballard was continuously creating his own image. His quasi-autobiographies, numerous articles and memories present a persona or rather a number of personas that he constructed in different moments of his life. Such a self-fashioning should not be mistaken with any kind of ‘historical truth’ and in a study concerned with the intellectual history of the twentieth century it is important not to take the fictitious ‘James Ballard’ for a person who really witnessed the war in Asia and the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Therefore, I will briefly discuss the images Ballard constructed in different decades of the last century and later, in the main body of my thesis, I will, to quote D.H. Lawrence, ‘trust the tale not the teller’ and try to avoid the auto-creation fallacies.

In my first chapter, before the focused discussion of Ballard’s own oeuvre, I will succinctly present those thinkers who are most important to the understanding of his works. Such a spiritual map of the (mainly) twentieth century as sketched by following Ballard’s favourite philosophers and scientists will help to place his fiction in the proper intellectual perspective, as his works are deeply informed by theories that, from differing points of view, discuss the alarming state of our civilization. This chapter does not aim to present on its but few pages a grand critique of the century and the path our world is taking (as that, of course, lies far beyond the scope of the present study). Rather, I will confine myself to pointing out those books and essays that Ballard directly refers to. This chapter will therefore give a theoretical frame to the subsequent discussion and will allow me to avoid repetitive summaries of cultural theories in the rest of the study. Thus, in the following chapters I will refer back to this theoretical frame numerous times, owing to the fact that Ballard often alludes to the very same set of critical essays and enters into intertextual discussions with their authors from changing vantage points.

Ballardian: Grave New World

    J.G. Ballard: photo via RE/Search publications.

As far as my own approach to his fiction is concerned, I will start by discussing, in Chapter II, the war narratives: Empire of the Sun, The Kindness of Women and some short stories devoted to both World War II and imaginary military conflicts of the future. These texts describe events which for Ballard are the very beginning of cultural decline, as it is after the war that Western civilization turned into ‘Grave New World’. Though these books play with the reader by giving the origins of events from Ballard’s other fictional works and might be treated as a conscious mythologizing of his life and career, they nevertheless do reveal the crux of Ballard’s historiosophy.

In the following chapters I try to map ‘Grave New World’ and chart its diverse territories. In Chapter III I show cityscapes in Ballard’s books and discuss contemporary urban civilization — the cause of psychological traumas. Chapter IV is devoted to mediascapes and the influence of modern communication technology on the way people live, think and dream. Life in a world full of highly developed technologies makes people indulge in escapist fantasies and thus Chapter V describes the mindscapes of contemporary Man: the end of the world fantasies, death-drive utopias, and wish-fulfilment catastrophic scenarios. Chapter VI, the final one, deals with the plexus of the contemporary world and the near future, picturing the decadent decline of Western wastelands: life in gated communities, secluded enclaves and luxurious resorts home to psychopathologies, deviations and terminal boredom enlivened only by acts of pointless violence.

In the autumn 2006, long after the first draft of this thesis had been completed, the newest of Ballard’s books, Kingdom Come, was published. Though it was too late to incorporate analysis of that novel into the main body of my work, I do discuss the novel in Appendix I and examine how it adds to the description of ‘Grave New World’. Therefore, September 2006 marks the close of my research and no books published later are discussed.




J.G. Ballard’s literary career started in the nineteen-fifties. His early stories were published in the popular magazines promoting a new, unique type of science fiction, one that differed from the pulp space fiction from America, which after the war flooded the British market. In the early sixties the need to reform the genre of science fiction and start a new thoroughly British artistic movement was all-pervasive. A small group of young writers, who later were dubbed the ‘New Wave’, looked for a periodical that would publish intellectual SF, or ‘speculative fiction’, as they insisted on calling it. Speculative fiction was to be a medium to discuss current social and cultural issues in an experimental, and often dramatic way.

Ballardian: New Worlds

    Cover: New Worlds #179, Feb. 1968.

The periodical they finally found was New Worlds, a magazine published since 1946, but which in its long history had many times changed publishing houses and its artistic profile. In 1967 the post of editor-in-chief was given to Michael Moorcock, an ambitious young writer and a friend of Ballard — together they prepared a number of artistic manifestos defining speculative fiction and setting the goals for British avant-garde science fiction. The term ‘speculative fiction’ was soon abandoned, as the critics and columnists preferred to call the New Worlds group the ‘New Wave’, which is a literal translation of the French nouvelle vague. [5] Christopher Priest, a writer and a journalist, and Judith Merril, an influential US-born anthologist and columnist, popularized the phrase ‘New Wave’ among readers in Britain and the US.

Although the avant-garde tendencies in British science fiction are in fact older than the late-1960s term, and stories written by Ballard, Moorcock and Brian Aldiss a few years earlier are now subsumed under the ‘New Wave’ label. Peter Nicholls writes in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993):

By 1965, then, science fiction was ripe for change. In fact many of the so-called experiments of the period were not experiments at all, but merely an adoption of narrative strategies, and sometimes ironies that had long been familiar in the mainstream novel. In the event, some of the science fiction writers who felt they now had the freedom to experiment, especially Ballard, were to add something new to the protocols of prose fiction generally (Clute and Nicholls 1993: 866).

Therefore, from the very beginning of his literary career Ballard is considered an in-between writer oscillating between ‘low-brow’ and ‘high-brow’ literature. Sometimes he is called a postmodernist, sometimes an avant-garde author. [6] The critic who as early as the nineteen-sixties writes about him passionately and is partly responsible for his being dubbed an experimental ‘New Wave’ writer is Judith Merril. Merril is an author of a number of well-known disaster stories describing nuclear catastrophes, but only in the nineteen-fifties when she began editing anthologies did she become one of the most influential figures in American science fiction. Always experimental and eager to revise the clichéd standards of American pulp magazines, she swiftly became an advocate of the ‘New Wave’, and especially of Ballard. As a columnist in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction she presented speculative fiction to American readers and discussed the books of the New Worlds writers.

New Worlds today is an altogether unique publication: and the astonishment of some of the stuffier intellectual circles in London when the Art Council announced an annual grant of 1800 pounds for a science fiction magazine… was probably no greater than the shock experienced by American fans attending the 1967 World Science Fiction Convention in New York when they had their first look at the transformed magazine of Speculative Fiction… The new magazine is quarto size, non-glossy… with cover art, interior illustrations and (increasingly) page design to match the most experimental of the fiction, and to suit the sophistication of Chris Finch’s articles on avant-garde art and graphics (Merril 1968: 344-345).

In 1968 Merril edited an anthology of the ‘New Wave’ writers: England Swings SF. Stories of Speculative Fiction. Apart from stories and poems Merril presents in this book her opinion on every writer in original fashion. England Swings SF tries to match the ‘New Wave’ fiction in graphic experiments and narrative strategies. The very beginning of the anthology resembles an avant-garde poem:

You have never read a book like this before, and the next time you read one anything like it, it won’t be much like it at all.

It’s an action-photo, a record of process-in-change,
a look through the perspex porthole at the
momentarily stilled bodies in a scout ship boosting
fast, and heading out of sight into the multiplex mystery of inner/outer space.

I can’t tell you where they are going, but
maybe that’s why I keep wanting to read what they write. The next time someone assembles the work of the writers in this … well, ‘school’ is too formal
and ‘movement’ sounds pretentious… (ibid.: 9-10).

Ballardian: England Swings SF

The anthology contains works of over twenty young and ambitious writers — Ballard is the only one who has three of his stories reprinted: the other authors boast but one. Given the prominent position of ‘guru of British avant-garde’, he is presented to American readers (the anthology was meant to introduce the new literary fashion in America) as an often misunderstood, intellectually challenging writer. Merril chooses the newest stories, ones which are written is the present tense and use the collage technique: images, bits and pieces of commercials, psychiatric studies and TV newsreels are juxtaposed to show the prevailing violence of the contemporary mediascape.

Merril also decides to characterize Ballard (and other writers) in collages. Her introductions to stories are combinations of different texts cut into pieces and glued together. According to Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974), collage technique challenges the readers expectation of a synthetic, singular meaning. Diverse passages, graphically rearranged quotes of interviews, reviews and Merril’s own opinions do not give a unified picture but rather show, at least in the case of Ballard, discussions and quarrels concerning his person and his place in the British literary world.

One can only hope that for Ballard too the worst misunderstanding is over, so that he will be free to create in a more intelligent atmosphere.

And so it was … in England, where the earlier work had finally been digested.

Freud pointed out that one has to distinguish between the manifest content of the inner world of the psyche and its latent content; and I think in exactly the same way, today, when the fictional elements have overwhelmed reality, one has to distinguish between the manifest content of reality and its latent contents.

And his sponsorship of the Ambit contest for the best prose or poetry written under the influence of drugs (ibid: 104-105).

Though Merril’s style is far from critical exactness [7] (she does not give the sources of the texts used in her collages, not all sentences are complete), it very well reflects the atmosphere of the 1960s discussions of the ‘New Wave’ and Ballard’s place in it. Juxtaposed with other experimental writers he is discussed within the science fiction movement, with the strong suggestion that his literary goal was to uplift, renew and meliorate science fiction. Ballard at that time was praised not only by science fiction critics [8] — and the general tone of his reviewers is similar to Merril’s: this writer is the best and the most interesting of the speculative fiction writers.

Gradually, speculative fiction writers were either absorbed by the literary mainstream or stopped writing experimental prose and turned to pulp fiction. Harlan Ellison, the editor of an influential American anthology of speculative fiction, Dangerous Visions, complains in his Introduction that: ‘despite the new interest in speculative fiction by the mainstream, despite the enlarged and variant styles of the new writers, despite the enormity and expansion of topics open to these writers, despite what is outwardly a booming, healthy market, there is a constricting narrowness of mind on the part of many editors in the field!’ (Ellison 1983: XXIII). In his attempt to revive this ambitious kind of popular fiction, Ellison decided to create an anthology ‘intended as a canvas for new writing styles, bold departures, unpopular thoughts’ (ibid., XXVIII). And although he did not manage to ‘save’ speculative fiction, his Dangerous Visions remain an important book in the history of science fiction.

Ellison is a very intrusive anthologist: to every one of the thirty-two stories in the book he writes a separate introduction and epilogue, wherein he gives his opinions, suggestions and remarks concerning both the meaning of the story and its author. It is interesting to see how he describes J.G. Ballard, whom he presents to his American readers as a leader of the young English writers. Indeed, it is Ballard’s Englishness, his upper-middle-class origins and colonial past that appeal to Ellison the most, while he in fact cannot define Ballard’s literary style:

Yet in totality [Ballard’s books] present a kind of enriched literacy, a darker yet somehow clearer — perhaps the word is ‘poignant’ — approach to the materials of speculative writing. There is a flavour of surrealism to Ballard’s writing. No, it’s not that, either. It is, in some ways, serene, as oriental philosophy is serene. Resigned yet vital. There appears to be a superimposed reality that covers the underlying pure fantasy of Ballardian conception (ibid., 459).

Ballardian: England Swings SF

I am quoting Ellison to show how Ballard was received in the United States, for the American market is the most important (if not hegemonic) as far as science fiction goes. Ellison completed his anthology in the late 1960s, in the last days of the British ‘New Wave’ in science fiction. James Gunn, the editor of probably the most important single anthology/history of science fiction ever written, the multi-volumed The Road to Science Fiction, produced his book in the following decade. At that time in the US nobody well remembered what the ‘New Wave’ was about. So, while presenting Ballard and his story ‘The Terminal Beach’ to his readers, Gunn had to lecture on this movement. He discusses it from the perspective of America in the late 1970s, treating it as a very remote phenomenon. He calls Ballard the leader and guru of the New Worlds group, compares his enigmatic symbolic style to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. and explains the nihilism of his writing by claiming that Ballard wrote against Americans in Vietnam, about drugs, the Beatles, pop-art, pop-music, political assassinations and terrorism. And this is probably how Ballard is read by fans of science fiction to this day.

Although Ballard’s career stretched well beyond the ‘New Wave’ movement, which ended by the early nineteen-seventies, his early fiction is often discussed in the context of its poetics. The ambitious artistic programme of the movement and the fact that many of its representatives became well-known and important writers [9] attracted the attention of literary critics. One of the first scholars to study the output of the group was Colin Greenland, who in the late 1970s was a postgraduate student at Oxford. A great fan of New Worlds and science fiction in general, he dreamt of writing serious criticism about this literary genre, which at the time was considered too ‘low-brow’ to study. [10] Tom Shippey [11], then Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, an author of criticism about J.R.R. Tolkien and a contributor to Patric Parrinder’s critical anthology Science Fiction. A Critical Guide agreed to supervise Greenland’s work.

Finally, in 1980 a thesis entitled The Entropy Exhibition. Michael Moorcock and the British ‘New Wave’ in Science Fiction was accepted for a doctorate in English Literature at the University of Oxford. Greenland, thanks to a grant from the Arts Council of Great Britain, reworked his thesis and in 1983 a book of the same title was publish. The Entropy Exhibition is a superb criticism of science fiction, as Greenland shows the literary output of the ‘New Wave’ in the context of cultural and artistic life in the nineteen-sixties. And although only one chapter is devoted exclusively to Ballard, it remains to this day an important item in Ballardian criticism.

Greenland describes the social situation in the sixties, the emergence of youth culture, the influence of the Space Race [12] on popular imagination, the Vietnam War and the stormy history of New Worlds — a magazine that tried to reflect current cultural phenomena. Additionally, he inserts in his book three monographic essay-chapters presenting the works of Ballard, Aldiss and Moorcock.

As far as Ballard’s output is concerned, Greenland discusses his early disaster novels and some of the stories he wrote in the fifties and sixties. The books High-Rise and Concrete Island (written in the seventies) are but mentioned, and Ballard’s later works are of course absent from the study. His general approach to both Ballard and the ‘New Wave’ is to read their output as a new kind of fiction growing out of traditional science fiction and characterized by its fascination with entropy: the universal and irreversible decline of energy into disorder. This fiction is in intimate connection with other cultural experiments of the epoch. Ballard, according to Greenland, is first of all a masterful stylist whose metaphors and allusions recreate the pessimistic attitude of the times and show a Universe doomed to death, one already frozen in its final stage. Ballard’s early prose is described as pictorial and portrayed in the context of visual arts — Pablo Picasso, Paul Delvaux, Salvador Dali, René Magritte — Greenland points to colours, shades and figures borrowed by Ballard from concrete paintings.

Greenland also proves to what extent Ballard is indebted to Surrealism as far as his language is concerned, the poetic character of his early prose being an effect of a highly associative style:

The Surrealist techniques that Ballard has used involve deliberate dissociations and mystifications. The object is taken from its usual context and dismantled, or put in a new context, or confused with other objects. But the result of the process is not mere nonsense, but a revaluation. The elements acquire new significance from the reorganisation, so that we sense more about the object than we knew or felt before. Surrealism can thus be said to have both a synthetic and an analytic aspect; it consists not only of inspiration, but also of inquiry. This duality Ballard has inherited (Greenland 1983: 104).

Ballardian: Grave New World

    LEFT: J.G. Ballard: Illustration by Carol Gregory, from J.G. Ballard: The First Twenty Years (eds. James Goddard & David Pringle).

Such a characterization of Ballard’s early style strikes as being very apt, as it accounts for Ballard’s fascinations with Lautréamont, Alfred Jarry and André Breton, numerous visual intertextual allusions in his stories, as well as for Ballard’s obsessive returns to the same or similar figures of speech. What Ballard and the Surrealists surely have in common is the belief that an apocalypse had already taken place, both in the intellectual sphere and in daily life. Ballard’s prose shows the contemporary world abundant in fictions whose only connotations are the fantasies of their authors. Our environment is fragmented and coded, the popular imagery of posters and commercials needs deciphering — hence, Ballard’s indebtedness to semiology and Roland Barthes. In other words, we live in the nightmarish world of the Surrealists.

Greenland describes Ballard’s style and his specific figures of speech in an attempt to show why Ballardian prose is immediately recognizable and ‘unmistakable’. He analyzes Ballard’s habit of introducing a story with a stylized tableau and his conscious use of what he calls ‘pseudo-simile, one in which there is no discoverable parity between the terms. Ballard’s version of it employs a literary sleight commonly used by ironists: he keeps the relation but blurs the distinction, so that the two halves of the simile, the actual and the virtual, can be swapped over’ (ibid.: 103).

Greenland’s book is still, after over twenty years, the best critical analysis of the ‘New Wave’ movement, for among other reasons because it allows us to look at Ballard’s early works from the perspective of the literary life in England at that time. It shows Ballard’s involvement in the editing of New Worlds, his views on art and civilization in the 1960s, and his ambiguous position on the literary scene. Greenland (just like Merril) is very much interested in categories such as science fiction, mainstream literature, modernist writing, and the avant-garde. He shows the difficulties in pigeonholing Ballard and presents diverse opinions about how to classify his works. His major achievement as far as critical appraisal of Ballard’s fiction goes is the discussion of his style in the context of the Surrealists: painters and poets alike.

In the nineteen-seventies many writers and critics discovered Ballard and came to highly prize his unique style and remarkable literary achievements. Among them were Kingsley Amis (a great advocate of ‘New Wave’ prose), Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, Susan Sontag and William S. Burroughs. They wrote reviews and introductions, but no monograph was published till the end of the decade [13]. Ultimately, David Pringle decided to work on a serious study of Ballard and in 1979 he published Earth is the Alien Planet. J.G. Ballard’s Four-Dimensional Nightmare, a brief (sixty-one page) but important monograph. His ambition in the book is to present Ballard’s literary output to both science fiction fans and the general reading public. Moreover, Pringle offers them a key to Ballard: he defines the place Ballard has on the market, divides his career into periods and classifies Ballardian characters and motifs.

Pringle starts by comparing Ballard to Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, who also started their careers as science fiction writers, but subsequently transcended that category. Pringle describes Ballard as being less acclaimed, but equally worthy of being published ‘without the SF label’ (Pringle 1979: 3). He pins Ballard’s lack of popularity on the fact that, unlike Bradbury and Vonnegut, he does not write for big and glossy magazines such as Playboy, but for the ambitious low-circulation press. This ‘courting of the avant-garde’ (ibid.: 3) wins him a new but limited audience. Nevertheless, Pringle is sure that in the future Ballard will be fully appreciated and the book ends in a prophesy:

Nevertheless, Ballard’s reputation will grow in the decades to come, and he is likely to become recognized as by far and away the most important literary figure associated with the field of science fiction. More than that: he will be seen as one of the major imaginative writers of the second half of the 20th century — an author for our times, and for the future (ibid.: 61).

Ballardian: Grave New World

    J.G. Ballard: photo by Eamonn McCabe.

The division of Ballard’s career into periods is also based on the genre of criticism. Here Pringle distinguished an early ‘romantic’ stage, when Ballard published in the science fiction press stories concerned with the inner landscapes of characters’ minds, and the post-science fiction period. It was then that Ballard shifted his interests to outer landscapes, abandoned science fiction conventions and embraced the avant-garde and literary periodicals. This is a ‘dark’ period of formal experiments and of bitter criticism of the violence intrinsic to contemporary life. Pringle also suggests that Ballard is at the beginning of yet another period, one of writing present-oriented fiction describing technological environments: ‘he has also made larger concession to social realism — he is trying to become more of a novelist‘ (ibid.: 50).

Pringle explains that last statement by saying that Ballard is trying to construct rounded characters, while in his early prose his characters are symbolic ‘figures in an inner landscape’ (ibid.: 51). He classifies these symbolic figures according to Jungian archetypes as the lamia, the jester and the king — and most Ballardian characters are demonstrated to belong to one of the categories. A similar symbolic key is used to deal with Ballardian themes (the categories are: Imprisonment [14], Flight, Time Must Have A Stop And Superannuation) and to classify his obsessively recurrent images [15]. Ballardian mythology is four-fold: Pringle distinguishes four groups of symbols representing mythical meanings of water, sand, concrete and crystal. Water stands for the past and the return to previous stages of evolution, sand and dryness are in the future of the human race when only the exhausted shell of the planet will remain. Further, concrete is the world of the present day — the urban culture, while crystal, like a Jungian mandala represents oneness with the Universe.

Generally speaking, Pringle’s book represents Jungian criticism (though once he very rightly remarks, albeit in passing, that Ballard’s references to Jung and Freud are mixed), and as such is it usually quoted. Pringle is also the first critic to mention Ballard’s biography in the context of his fiction and to announce Ballard’s affiliation to the avant-garde. In the following years Pringle remained Ballard’s major critic, but more and more scholars interested in both science fiction and mainstream literature began to approach Ballard’s books, often trying to ascribe his writing to some larger cultural frame. In The Hidden Script (1985), for example, David Punter discusses Ballard’s fiction in the section ‘Narratives and the Unconscious’, showing (in reference to psychoanalytic theories) the interrelation of the internal and the external spheres in his fiction.

The short chapter ‘J.G. Ballard: alone among the murder machines’ is an excellent analysis of the metaphoric space Ballardian characters inhabit (e.g., in Atrocity Exhibition, High-Rise, Concrete Island, Hello America and The Unlimited Dream Company). This territory is nightmarish and ruled by man-made machines, ‘the lurking engines of destruction which keep us pinned down’ (Punter 1985: 11), and people strive to regain a spiritual hold on objects, but they are in fact helpless victims of their own psychopathologies. Surrounded by technology and advanced communication systems, Man loses the ability of expression: ‘the areas of language already colonised by the public media too developed to allow for more than the slightest insertion of a discourse of individual desire’ (ibid.: 10). Punter goes on to define Ballard’s oeuvre in relation to contemporary culture and, although his analysis was written a quarter of a century ago, it is still very illuminating:

Where character is concerned, Ballard is one of the few writers who can be sensibly termed post-structuralist: the long tradition of enclosed and unitary subjectivity comes to mean less and less to him as he explores the ways in which a person is increasingly controlled by landscape and machine; increasingly becomes a point of intersection for overloaded scripts and processes which have effectively concealed their distant origins in human agency (ibid.: 9).

In Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers (1981), edited by Curtis C. Smith, a lexicon of those authors whose work goes beyond realism (even if they usually are not referred to as science fiction writers), the entry ‘J.G. Ballard’ presents him as an original and distinctive writer whose style is described as idiosyncratic ‘as a signature’ and shaped by the painter’s eye of the author. [16] The stress falls on Ballard’s intellectual fascinations: ‘masterpieces of literature (from Homer and the Bible through Shakespeare to Coleridge and Melville) and the arts (from Bosch to Dali and Leonor Fini)’ (Smith 1981: 31). His early fiction is called romantic and exuberant science fiction rich in intertextual allusions, where bizarre landscapes ‘reflect and amplify the inner and mutual conflicts of glamorous lamias and their suicidal wooers, in a baroque symphony of art, love, and death’ (ibid.: 31). 1966 is given as the turning point after which Ballard abandons science fiction and starts to describe the contemporary world and to criticize its technology, violence and perverted entertainment. Such a present is just a fossil of the future, and his interest in science fiction gives Ballard an ability to look at social life in a detached, scientific way. Beyond that, Ballard’s style changes abruptly: all exuberance is gone and instead we read about people like us, with popular names, living in real cities and made to cope with an inhuman urban existence.

It is interesting to juxtapose this entry with a later one hailing from the prestigious The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993, revised 1999), edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls. ‘J.G. Ballard’ by David Pringle is a long entry and, for the first time, the author is presented not primarily as a science fiction writer (despite the very character of this Encyclopedia). Indeed, stress falls on those aspects of Ballard’s output which transgress the standards of the genre. Even the earliest stories are shown as eschewing traditional science fiction themes and instead concentrating on ‘near-future decadence and disaster’. We learn that Ballard was severely criticized by fans as a pessimist and a life-hater, that the science fiction world wrote him off, and that he never won a single science fiction award. Pringle also describes the hostility with which editors treated his later prose (the entire Doubleday edition of Atrocity Exhibition was printed only to be pulped just before publication) because he used people such as Ronald Reagan, the Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe as characters. Pringle ends by presenting Ballard’s psychological war novels and by briefly characterizing his biography — these are the beginnings of the legend of J.G. Ballard, his war and the impact it had on his imagination. Pringle concludes:

Ballardian: Grave New World

    J.G. Ballard: photo by David Levenson.

Although most of his longer work of the past decade has been outside the field, the originality and appropriateness of his vision continue to ensure JGB’s standing as one of the most important writers ever to have emerged from sf (Clute and Nicholls 1993: 85).

When in 1994 Simulacra and Simulations (1981) by Jean Baudrillard was translated into English, the prose of J.G. Ballard found a new and influential advocate. In a chapter devoted to Ballard’s Crash (which had previously been translated and reprinted in Science Fiction Studies) Baudrillard calls Ballard’s book one of the masterpieces of contemporary literature, one which shows the world of today as it really is, the simulated, unreal projection of mass culture and sophisticated hi-tech. Science fictionalizes reality, the world of cyber-technology is by nature fictitious and Ballard’s prose is a rare example of the conscious exposure of the simulacra-ridden mediascape.

Generally, in the late nineteen-eighties [17] the status of ambitious science fiction changed. On the one hand some of the very good science fiction writers elevated the genre to the status of intellectually provoking, erudite reading, yet on the other hand many postmodernist writers began to apply science fiction conventions. Used as sophisticated literary trope, science fiction was no longer associated solely with an adolescent male audience and acquired the ambiguous status of ‘a game with the reader’ or ‘a play with a convention’. ‘The Angle Between Two Walls’ The Fiction of J.G. Ballard (1997) by Roger Luckhurst, the best critical book on Ballard to date, is devoted to the role Ballard’s output plays in the contemporary discussions about literary genres. Luckhurst’s major thesis is that Ballard evades any and all classifications and that, moreover, his writing produces an effect of unease just because it exposes the binary, opposition-based categories we apply when reading. Ballard’s books (especially Crash and Atrocity Exhibition; other works are either but mentioned or discussed in brief subchapters) are for Luckhurst a pretext to expose contemporary reading protocols defining what is post-modern, what is modern, what is science fiction and what is avant-garde.

Luckhurst begins by showing Ballard as a fringe writer living literally in the suburbs of London and figuratively outside literary London and outside the Academia of English studies (a little like Ian Sinclair and, once, Angela Carter). His key to Ballard is the notion of la brisure (according to deconstruction, this is the point in any structural system that makes the working of the system at once possible and impossible), and in his analyses he most often refers to Derrida [18]. The choice of deconstruction as his approach is dictated by Ballard’s paradoxical proliferation in recent criticism:

The mainstream post-war novelist of increasing import; the aberrant foreign body within science fiction; the belated voice of a science fiction modernism; the anticipatory or timely voice of a paradigmatic postmodernism; the avant-garde writer of extreme experimental fictions; the prophet of the perversity of the contemporary world (Luckhurst 1997: xii).

Deconstruction exposes binary oppositions we constantly use while thinking and thus allows Luckhurst to subvert generic codes and frames of recognition that allow readability, and to ‘speak from a structurally similar space of the between‘ (ibid.: xiii). Such a critical standpoint sometimes makes his text a little enigmatic and focused not on Ballard’s output but on the reader’s (and critic’s) response to it. Nevertheless, Luckhurst’s study is very erudite, well grounded and full of insights into Ballard, the most valuable of which is the observation that Ballard’s text anticipates its interpretations. ‘His work at once constantly activates theoretical models, but it is also awkward, didactic, and overtheorized, tending to evade or supersede the theories meant to ‘explain’ it’ (ibid.: xvii).

Luckhurst proves his thesis on Ballard’s fiction as exposing reading conventions by discussing in subsequent chapters the disaster story convention, surrealist writing, postcolonial writing, and theories of avant-garde and of contemporary reality as simulation. In each case Ballard’s books are shown as both transgressing genres and subverting the oppositions they are based on. The conclusion is, expectedly, that Ballard’s ‘oeuvre will not give up its irreducible core’ (ibid.: xix), which very well sums up over forty years of critical discussion of Ballard’s place on the twentieth-century literary map.

Nowadays Ballard is recognized as a major contemporary English novelist by the critical establishment and he is usually referred to as an author writing across high and low, literary and popular paradigms. His website page in the Internet, www.jgballard.com, is frequently visited by numerous fans from all over the world and apart from publicity material — book covers, offers, etc., one can find links there to numerous texts originally written for various newspapers and magazines, forming a complex body of inter-related discourses to do with Ballard and his career. A closer look at the website shows that the more ambitious texts might be categorized into four groups: reviews of novels, longer articles summarizing Ballard’s oeuvre, interviews, and Ballard’s own press articles dealing with issues such as war in Iraq, terrorism, urban architecture and consumerism. [19]

Ballardian: Grave New World Photographer unknown. Details welcome.

Some of the reviews offer interesting insights into Ballard’s prose. For example, Chris Hall in ‘Future Shock’ discusses Crash in a text written just after David Cronenberg made his film based on it and points out that the novel defamiliarizes the violence omnipresent in the Hollywood convention of family films [20]. ‘White Line Fever’, by David B. Huingstone, shows that Cocaine Nights is an exposition of our cultural unconscious, while Marcos Moure in ‘Desert Island Disaster’ compares Rushing to Paradise to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It is also worth mentioning two reviews by L. J. Hurst: ‘The Dark Side of the Equinox’, which interprets The Crystal World as a metaphysical thriller, and ‘Through the Crash Barrier’, which is a Shakespearean reading of Concrete Island.

To give samples of longer presentations of Ballard’s literary output, Richard Behrens’s ‘J.G. Ballard’ concentrates on surrealism in his writing and Gary Evans in ‘J.G. Ballard: a Crash Course in the Future’ analyzes the future psychology of Ballardian characters. The most comprehensive in this category of texts is Roger Bazzeto’s ‘J.G. Ballard L’écrivain, auter de Science-Fiction ‘, an academic account of Ballard’s prose comparing Ballard to Andy Warhol. Bazzeto claims that the world in Ballard’s novels is three-fold: mythologies of media legends, everyday life in post-modern society, and urban nightmares.

The most interesting articles are perhaps interviews with Ballard, who often speaks about contemporary phenomena as reflected in his novels. In ‘Flight and Imagination’ he shares with Chris Hall his opinions on the relation of late capitalism, psychopathology and violence, and in ‘Not a Literary Man’ (by Marcos Moure) he discusses the decline of science fiction. To David Gale’s ‘Grave New World. Interview with J.G. Ballard’ I am indebted for the title of my thesis; in this very revealing interview Ballard explains what his radical vision of the future is.

Even a short look at these texts about and by Ballard shows that his name is no longer associated with ‘fringe’ or ‘marginal’ literary life, but is a part of the legitimate centre — he has found his way into the histories of contemporary literature. Currently a number of theses devoted to Ballard are being written at English universities by doctorate students, some of whom, like Sam Francis from the University of Leeds, publish their papers in international reviews of science fiction. A good example of critical evaluation of Ballard is a monograph published in the prestigious British Council-sponsored series Writers and Their Work, which is meant to briefly present the most important British authors to the reading public. J.G. Ballard (1998) by Michel Delville is a very good, concise account of all his most important works. Arranged in chronological order, it retraces subsequent stages in Ballard’s career and attempts to show this diverse oeuvre as an example of artistic evolution. Delville is aware that critical assessment of Ballard is very heterogeneous:

At least three J.G. Ballards have so far been championed in critical studies and literary histories: the science fiction writer, famous for his disaster novels and stories of entropic dissolution; and admirer of William S. Burroughs and author of scandalous tales remarkable for their sexual frankness and eccentric violence; and the Booker Prize nominee, whose account of a boy’s life in Japanese-occupied wartime Shanghai in Empire of the Sun was published to great acclaim in 1984 (Delville 1998: 1).

Delville is aware of the temptation to draw a clear-cut line between Ballard’s ambitious popular fiction and his mainstream novels. He is also careful not to reduce Ballard to a case of the prolonged artistic maturation of a science fiction writer who finally manages to disentangle himself from the immature genre. Instead he treats Ballard’s obsessive and imaginary writing as a means to reflect the violent paradoxes of life in the twentieth century that escape less anxious discourses.

In 2005 another monograph under the same title, J.G. Ballard, was published in the new series ‘Contemporary British Novelists’ by the Manchester University Press. Written by Andrzej Gasiorek, this book (second in the series, after Aaron Kelly’s Irvine Welsh) is a presentation of Ballard’s oeuvre and a critical response to it. Like the whole series, it aims at disclosing controversies in contemporary literary life and theory. Just like Luckhurst, he reads Ballard in the context of surrealism, Pop Art and science fiction. Gasiorek’s book is very recent and marks the growing critical interest in Ballard’s writing. He shows Ballard’s output as ‘a symbolic rejection of the familiar heritage’ (Gasiorek 2005: 2), writing against the tradition, against ‘Englishness’, against ‘a socially rooted fiction based on psychological realism’ (ibid.: 3), and against legitimate traditional literary genres.

The way the above critics approach Ballard seems to me very fair and it is quite similar to my own critical standpoint (I side especially with David Punter and Michel Delville). But as there have been so many exhaustive studies devoted to assimilating Ballard to generic categories (or abolishing the notion of genre fiction), I would rather refrain from repeating their arguments, and discuss what to my knowledge has not yet been discussed — the picture of The Decline of the West seen from the perspective of both his fiction as a whole and that of theorists of civilization. Before embarking on that intellectual voyage, we need first look at the way Ballard constructs his own persona.


..:: Part Two is now online.


Previously on Ballardian:
+ Review: Grave New World, by Rick McGrath



[1] This phrase comes from an interview Ballard gave to David Gale: ‘Grave New World. Interview with J.G. Ballard’, BBC Radio 3, 10 November 1998 ( www.jgballard.com, on: 20 August 2006).

[2] As late as in 2004 in an appendix to his novel Millennium People J.G. Ballard gives Huxley’s Brave New World at the very top of the list of books he advises to read for those who have liked his novel (Ballard 2004: Appendix 16).

[3] For Ballard the plausible candidate is the invention and use of the nuclear bomb. For the first time in history the human race acquired the means to realize its latent propensity for self-destruction. Men have always been violent creatures unconsciously dreaming of death and war, something which culture has tried to cover up for thousands of years. Once the true human nature was revealed, there is no turning back and human destiny — destruction for internal reasons — is going to happen sooner or later.

[4] In one of Freud’s essays that Ballard often quotes, Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud calls human civilization a mistake. Ballard’s fiction is devoted to the descriptions of this mistake.

[5] An experimental artistic movement in the French cinema associated with the films of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.

[6] It may be interesting to note that in 1993 Ballard wrote a review of this Encyclopedia. Published in the Daily Telegraph, that article was re-printed in Ballard’s collection of journalism, A User’s Guide to the Millennium. Ballard speaks in favour of the Encyclopedia and science fiction in general, noticing that in the second part of the 20th century more and more mainstream writers (such as Angela Carter, Anthony Burgess, Doris Lessing and Kingsley Amis) turn to science fiction, which is the true folk literature of the century, with ‘folk literature’s hotline to the unconscious’ (Ballard 1997b: 193). Science fiction has the power to design the future, and to tell us what life might be like in some years’ time. He also writes that in the mid-century, after the Moon Landing and during the space race, everybody was interested in the future and the conquest of space and in trying to imagine what the year 2000 would bring, while at the real end of the Millennium People forget all about that. Certain crazy millenarian cults are treated in the same way, such as fitness fanatics, or animal-rights activists and New Agers — and they in fact deserve no better, which is a telling sign of our spiritual deterioration.

[7] As one can see in the quote above, Merril’s technique is to cut into pieces different texts and mix the cuttings irrespectively of syntax., the only differentiation between them is in the shape of print (I preserve Merril’s bolds and margins to show how difficult it is to read her).

[8] In 1973 Brian Aldiss published Billion Year Spree, a history of science fiction. In the last chapter, devoted to the newest phenomena in the field, Ballard is described in the following way: ‘His ferocious intelligence, his wit, his cantankerousness, and, in particular, his extraordinary rendering of the perverse pleasures of today’s paranoia, make him one of the grand magicians of modern fiction. His is an uncertain spell, but it spreads; far beyond the stockades of ordinary science fiction’ (Aldiss 1973: 343).

[9] Ballard is the most prominent among them, but there are many others, for example: Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, D.M. Thomas.

[10] Greenland is now a prominent science fiction scholar and an author of highly regarded fantastic books.

[11] Many years later Shippey remembers how science fiction critics were treated in the 1960s and 1970s by Academia: ‘A further way of putting this is to say that during my science fiction ‘lifetime’ (1958 to now) being a science fiction reader was rather like being gay. In both cases, one could say, drawing out the similarities: *there was a definite pressure, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, not to admit the fact; *there were social penalties if you did; *you got used to hiding the fact’ (Slusser and Westfall 2002: 8). Note: Volumes of criticism containing the essays, papers, and interviews which are quoted in the text of the present study are identified in the footnotes and then listed in the biography in alphabetic order under the name of the editor. The same is true for the prefaces and introductions which precede books written by some other author: in the footnotes the edition is identified and listed in the biography under the name of the author.

[12] Disappointed by the space programme and disinterested in conquering the Universe, the ‘New Wave’ writers produced anti-space fiction and were much more interested in the inner space of the human psyche.

[13] In 1973 David Pringle, a scholar specializing in writers associated with the field of science fiction, together with James Goddard edited J.G. Ballard — the First Twenty Years, a book which is not a monograph but a collection of texts consisting almost entirely of previously-published material by notable figures.

[14] Pringle is the first to explain Ballard’s obsession with imprisonment by his personal experience of the three years spent in the Japanese prison camp. Such explanations in the nineteen-eighties became critical cliché.

[15] Pringle enumerates typically ‘Ballardian’ images: ‘concrete weapon-ranges, dead fish, abandoned airfields, radio telescopes, crashed space-capsules, sand-dunes, empty cities, sand reefs, half-submerged buildings, helicopters, crocodiles, open-air cinema screens, jewelled insects, advertising hoardings, white hotels, beaches, fossils, broken juke-boxes, crystals, lizards, multi-storey car-parks, dry lake-beds, medical laboratories, drained swamps, motorway flyovers, stranded ships, broken Coke bottles, vegetation, high-rise buildings, predatory birds and low-flying aircraft’ (Pringle 1979: 16). This list is highly insightful; indeed, Pringle succeeds in pinpointing what the critics all vaguely describe as Ballard’s unmistakable style.

[16] The entry is written by George W. Barlow and in its bibliography all critical essays are by David Pringle. Currently (summer 2006) Pringle is preparing a new edition of J.G. Ballard: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography, which is going to be very important to every Ballard scholar.

[17] In 1983 Ballard was contacted by V. Vale and the rest of RE/Search group, avant-garde publishers from San Francisco who became advocates of Ballard in the USA. In 1984 a special Ballard issue of their magazine RE/Search was published. In the following years they also re-published other of Ballard’s works in America. For instance, RE/Search published an annotated version of The Atrocity Exhibition. Ballard wrote commentaries to each chapter of this difficult but very important book. In recent years they published two important Ballardiana: J. G. Ballard Quotes and J.G. Ballard Conversations. The first is a collection of one-line aphorisms taken from Ballard’s books, the latter is a compilation of interviews given by him to different journalists (mostly from the RE/Search group).

[18] Jacques Derrida has the largest number of references (of course after Ballard) in the index and the bibliography.

[19] A good example of such an article is ‘Going Somewhere?’ (www.jgballard.com, on: 20 August 2006). Ballard writes about the role airports have in contemporary life and city architecture. Himself an inhabitant of Shepperton, a distant London suburb near the London airport, he describes the unreal landscape of post-modern concourses and by-ways in his neighbourhood and then generalizes and writes about tourism, the cosmopolitanism of the affluent West and aircraft. This short text is therefore informed by subjects recurrent in his prose: futuristic enclaves, a nation of people in the air, and global culture.

[20] For all Internet sources in the following text www.jgballard.com, on: 20 August 2006.

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4 Responses »

  1. I sympathise with your difficulties in publishing.

    Have you considered putting it up in PDF format for paid downloading? I’d be willing to pay to read it. I’m especially interested in examining the Freudian aspects of Ballard that you seem to have foregrounded in light of a fascinating book I’ve come across, “Why Freud Was Wrong” (author’s name escapes me for the moment).

  2. Good work – but it sounds like it’s in danger of becoming more of the ‘invisible literature’ Ballard references. For who can forget classics like “Craniofacial Dyskinesias in the Zygomatic Arch”, “A Functional Outline of Inhibitory Pathophysiologic Mechanisms” and “Spinal Occupant Kinematics: Neuromodulation Loading Statistics 1960-1989”?

    – Ever considered releasing it online, for free (as-in-freedom), under a specific Creative Commons license? My sources tell me it’s all the rage nowadays with the wired cyber-generation. This can even help your sales when you actually find a publisher. See Cory Doctorow for details.

    Keep it coming


  3. On second thoughts, just forget what I said about Creative Commons and just release the thing directy into the Public Domain.

  4. […] Detonation einer Atombombe auf dem Bikini-Atoll am 25. Juli 1946 (Foto: ballardian.com) […]

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