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Landscapes From a Dream: How the Art of David Pelham Captured the Essence of J G Ballard’s Early Fiction

Author: • Jun 14th, 2010 •

Category: deep time, Ernst, features, inner space, Lead Story, New Worlds, Salvador Dali, short stories, surrealism, visual art

Slip-case designed by David Pelham for a Penguin boxed set of four 1974 Ballard reprints.

by James Pardey

The idea that the world and everything in it is made from the four ‘elements’ of earth, air, fire and water endured among philosophers from antiquity to the Renaissance. All things, they said, were a combination of these four building blocks, and whether something was one thing or another – a rock, say, or a leaf – depended only on the relative amounts of each element in it. The idea was not so naïve as it seems, for when wood burned it was seen to release fire, air and water, as steam, until only earth remained as ashes, and in one sense the philosophers were not so very wide of the mark, since nowadays these ‘elements’ are known as solid, liquid, gas and energy.

It has often been said that J G Ballard’s quartet of disaster novels published in 1962–66 draws on these four classical elements for the natural catastrophes that destroy civilization in each of the books. In The Wind From Nowhere a global super-hurricane (air) reaches speeds of several hundred miles an hour, toppling trees, reducing cities to rubble, and darkening the skies with debris and topsoil. In The Drowned World rising sea levels (water) have flooded most of the Earth’s populated areas, and London lies submerged beneath steaming lagoons and primeval swamps that are ringed by jungle and overrun with reptiles. The Drought presents a future where rain is a thing of the past and the Sun (fire) has dried up the lakes and river beds, creating a parched landscape of ghost towns and burning cities. And in The Crystal World a bizarre transmutation of matter (earth) is turning everything into a coruscating mineral realm where plants, animals and people are mutating into sculptures of glass and quartz.

This analogy is almost always noted without further comment, although in fact it may be taken further. For just as Plato and Aristotle had posited the existence of a mysterious and immaterial fifth element, or quintessence, that suffuses all things, so something similar pervades much of Ballard’s early fiction, which, in addition to the four novels, includes two collections of short stories, The Four-Dimensional Nightmare in 1963 and The Terminal Beach in 1964. So what in a Ballardian context is this quintessential element?

Ballard himself pre-empted the question in a guest editorial that he wrote for the British science fiction magazine New Worlds in 1962. In it he argued that it was time for sf to turn its back on outer space and its standard paraphernalia of rockets, ray guns and aliens, and strike out in a new direction that, by analogy with outer space, had become known as inner space. This was not a reference to the hollow earth stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs as Brian Aldiss later quipped[1]. The term had previously been used in 1953 by the English novelist J B Priestley whose essay, They Come From Inner Space[2], presented a critique of sf as he saw it at the time. Priestley argued that the move into outer space was a move ‘in the wrong direction’ and maintained that sf should instead be ‘moving inward’ to explore ‘the hidden life of the psyche’. He singled out the American writer Ray Bradbury as a pioneer of inner space[3] and added that although Bradbury used traditional sf motifs such as spaceships and Martians, he did so in order to ‘show us what is really happening in men’s minds’. Priestley held that men are not as rational as they like to think they are, but are also driven by the desires, urges and irrational instincts of the subconscious mind. For Priestley, the idea that people’s actions are dictated solely by their conscious selves was akin to the equally fallacious assumption that ‘what can be seen of an iceberg is all there is of it’.

Ballardian: David Pelham

April 1974 Penguin reprint with a cover design by David Pelham.

Priestley saw the flying saucer legend and sf’s other trademark tropes as a product of society’s collective unconscious. Rocket ships, he wrote, ‘no longer represent man’s triumphant progress’ but instead have come to symbolize his attempts ‘to escape from himself’. Likewise for aliens, which as metaphors for humanity’s ‘deep feelings of anxiety, fear, and guilt’ can be traced back to the scientific romances of the nineteenth century[4]. So inner space is not a physical space at all but a psychological one. It is the dimensionless world of the subconscious mind or, as Priestley called it, the Unconscious.

Ballard’s editorial, Which Way to Inner Space? [5], did not mention Priestley’s essay but may nonetheless be regarded as a sequel to it, for he took up where Priestley left off, describing Bradbury as ‘a poet’ and reiterating that ‘it is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored’. But Ballard did more than merely echo Priestley. He also argued that for sf to avoid falling by the wayside it must discover new routes to inner space that draw on more abstract, speculative and experimental techniques like those used in other media such as modern art. As such, he was not just offering a commentary on the state of sf, he was issuing a manifesto that would need to be adopted if the genre was to secure its place as ‘the literature of tomorrow’.

Ballard ended his editorial with an anecdote about Salvador Dalí delivering a lecture in a diving suit. When asked how deep he proposed to descend, the artist had announced, ‘To the Unconscious!’ and Ballard’s editorial was a unilateral declaration of his intent to follow Dalí there[6]. That he was true to his word may be seen in the novels and many of the short stories that followed, though by the time his editorial appeared he had already made a few forays into inner space with stories such as ‘The Waiting Grounds’, ‘The Voices of Time’ and ‘The Overloaded Man’. A notable exception is his first novel, The Wind From Nowhere, which was also written before his New Worlds editorial but was structured as a conventional action adventure. Ballard later disowned it and referred instead to The Drowned World as his first novel, and it is here that inner space comes to the fore as a quintessential force in his fiction.

The Drowned World is a lushly atmospheric novel that takes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the lagoons and jungles of post-diluvian London, where half-submerged hotels and office blocks rise out of the water, and cars sit rusting in the streets sixty feet below the water’s surface. Reptiles now dominate the submerged city and the jungle teems with an even greater profusion of wildlife. Alligators patrol the lagoons and iguanas bask three deep in the upper windows of department stores. With humans gone, the flora and fauna are reverting to that of the Triassic period some 250 million years earlier.

Ballardian: David Pelham

Cover painting: The Palace of Windowed Rocks by Yves Tanguy. Penguin Books, 1965 paperback edition.

Amidst this febrile environment, Dr Robert Kerans and several other members of a survey team begin to experience strange dreams, like distant echoes of their surroundings, prompting one of them to ask, ‘Is it only the external landscape which is altering? How often recently most of us have had the feeling of déjà vu, of having seen all this before, in fact of remembering these swamps and lagoons’. From this the realisation follows that the dreams are being triggered by primitive organic memories within their collective unconscious. These ‘neuronic’ memories were encoded in the nervous systems of man’s earliest ancestors during the original Triassic period and have endured at a cellular level through the ensuing epochs of human evolution. But now, in response to the emergence of a new Triassic age, these dormant memories are finally resurfacing, leading the earlier questioner to conclude that ‘we really remember these swamps and lagoons’.

As these dreams and memories take hold so those affected become increasingly introverted, and when the survey team departs these few individuals remain behind. Left alone, they avoid each other and withdraw into their own internal worlds, accepting that ‘their only true meeting-ground would be in their dreams’. Thus they regress through ‘archaeopsychic time’ and ‘a succession of ever stranger landscapes’ towards the prehistoric past of their cellular evolution, until ‘the terrestrial and psychic landscapes were now indistinguishable’.

This exploration of inner space continues in The Drought, a novel that is thematically similar to The Drowned World and may even be seen as a reworking of it with a new catastrophe, a change of location and other nominal differences. For example, Dr Robert Kerans is now Dr Charles Ransom, and the deluge has become a drought that has scorched the earth and turned the landscape into a cracked desert of dead trees, long- gone lakes and empty rivers. Dust chokes the air, as do clouds of ash and smoke from the burning towns and cities whose populations have departed in a mass exodus to the coast. Here they eke out a hand-to-mouth existence in makeshift settlements around the water desalination plants that the government has set up.

But beneath this superficial similarity there is a deeper divergence, for while The Drowned World describes the internal landscapes of Kerans and his colleagues, The Drought takes a more oblique approach as Ballard turns his attention outwards to focus instead on the external landscape and the wreckage that is strewn across it. This change of perspective is echoed by the reader, who switches from an observer of The Drowned World to a participant in The Drought. As an observer, the reader is psychologically detached from Kerans and reads his dispatches from inner space like those of a Reuters correspondent. Ransom, however, has less to say about his state of mind in The Drought and is more like a tour guide, taking the reader with him during his journey to the coast, his ten years of ‘dune limbo’ and his eventual return inland to the ruins of the town in which he once lived. It is a desolate journey, fraught with danger, through an alien environment ravaged by destruction and decay. Abandoned vehicles clutter the highways, boats sit high and dry on the sun-baked river beds, and everything that was once familiar is now being destroyed. This in itself is bad enough but in fact it merely sets the scene, for the novel’s core concern is existential and its theme is the uncertainty of physical and psychological survival. Death lurks everywhere, and prowls the landscape in the form of wild animals that were once caged in zoos, while psychosis threatens in the unpredictability of others – men whose minds are disintegrating like the world around them. As such, The Drought does not present a single, Ballardian version of inner space like the neuronic memories and archaeopsychic time of The Drowned World. Instead it sends its readers there, for it is their responses to this nightmarish world that the novel elicits, their feelings of alienation and vulnerability that it evokes, and their inner spaces that it explores. Like The Drowned World, The Drought is a psychic odyssey, but one that must now be undertaken by the reader.

Having examined inner space in terms of both its internal and external landscapes, Ballard adopted an altogether different approach in his next novel. The Crystal World is an extended version of ‘The Illuminated Man’ which had appeared in his second collection of short stories, The Terminal Beach. In the story a man named James B— travels to the Florida Everglades to investigate reports of a bizarre phenomenon that is turning the region and everything in it to crystal. Similar outbreaks have been reported in the Pripet Marshes of Byelorussia and the Matarre region of Madagascar, and it is the Matarre to which Dr Edward Sanders travels in The Crystal World, although by then Ballard had relocated the Matarre into Cameroon in a move that recalls the story’s famous precedessor, as Sanders journeys upriver through the steaming jungles of West Africa towards a new Heart of Darkness.

Ballardian: David Pelham

Cover painting: The Eye of Silence by Max Ernst. Panther Books paperback edition, 1968.

The crystallization process is similar to a cancer and seemingly unstoppable. As the ground underfoot and the slow-moving waters of the river begin to vitrify, so too do the flora and fauna. Like a game of animal, vegetable or mineral with only one outcome, everything succumbs and nothing is immune. This strange metamorphosis is in some way connected to reports by astronomers that distant galaxies are ‘doubling’ – a phenomenon that is dubbed the Hubble Effect and attributed to the mutual annihilation of matter and anti-matter. These subatomic events are cancelling out the equivalent temporal components of time and anti-time, thereby ‘subtracting from the universe another quantum from its total store of time’ and depleting ‘the time-store available to the materials of our own solar system’. So time is quite literally running out, and as it does the plants, animals and people in each affected area change into scintillating new forms that freeze them in ‘a landscape without time’.

This emphasis on time is a recurring theme in Ballard’s fiction. He had given notice of it in his New Worlds editorial, where he cited time as ‘one of the perspectives of the personality’ and it is this subjective sense of time that shapes The Drowned World, as archaeopsychic time, neuronic time and a ‘descent into deep time’. It is present in The Drought to a lesser extent, but in The Crystal World it again takes centre stage, transforming the external landscape as vividly as it does the dreamscapes of Kerans & Co. in post-apocalyptic London.

The Crystal World is also an intensely visual novel and the inspiration for it is easy to establish. For in 1966, the year that the novel was first published, Ballard wrote an article for New Worlds titled The Coming of the Unconscious[7] in which he equated ‘the images of surrealism’ with ‘the iconography of inner space’. It was a view he reiterated in his 2008 autobiography, Miracles of Life, describing inner space as, among other things, ‘the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting’[8]. But this belief that surrealism offers a window onto inner space was not confined to two statements made more than forty years apart. His writing repeatedly references artists such as Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Paul Delvaux, Giorgio de Chirico and Yves Tanguy[9], and their paintings feature frequently in his fiction. Notable examples include a cameo for The Persistence of Memory, Dali’s famous painting of melting clocks, in ‘Studio 5, The Stars’ and an appearance by The Echo, Delvaux’s time-lapse painting of a ‘triplicated nymph walking naked among the classical pavilions of a midnight city’ in ‘The Day Of Forever’[10]. Likewise ‘The Overloaded Man’, which extends the images of inner space to the neo-plastic compositions of Piet Mondrian. These provide a powerful metaphor for the mental breakdown suffered by the story’s protagonist as ‘object by object, he began to switch off the world around him. The houses opposite went first. The white masses of the roofs and balconies he resolved quickly into flat rectangles, the lines of windows into small squares of colour like the grids in a Mondrian abstract’[11].

As in his short stories, so in his novels. The Drowned World features a Delvaux painting ‘in which ashen-faced women danced naked to the waist with dandified skeletons in tuxedos against a spectral bone-like landscape’ while on another wall ‘one of Max Ernst’s self-devouring phantasmagoric jungles screamed silently to itself, like the sump of some insane unconscious’. Later in the novel Kerans reflects on how the jungle around him increasingly resembles the one in Ernst’s painting, while the dreams that he and his colleagues are experiencing are ‘the common zone of twilight where they moved at night like the phantoms in the Delvaux painting’. With Ernst and Delvaux[12] featuring prominently in The Drowned World, the use of a Tanguy painting, The Palace of Windowed Rocks, on the cover of the paperback edition published by Penguin Books in 1965 might have seemed off-key were it not for The Drought which also appeared that year. Two of the novel’s chapters, Multiplication of the Arcs and Jours de Lenteur, take their titles from paintings by Tanguy, and like The Drowned World there is a feeling that the external and painted landscapes are converging, as Ransom sees in his surroundings the ‘drained beaches, eroded of all associations, of all sense of time’ in Jours de Lenteur.

Given these and other references to art and artists, their absence from The Crystal World may at first seem surprising. Readers who have come to expect such references may see in the novel’s two main themes a tacit connection between ‘the petrified forest’ and Ernst’s painting of the same name, or an allusion to Magritte’s Time Transfixed in the depiction of a world without time, but the novel makes no mention of these or any other paintings and the reason for this soon becomes apparent. Ballard excluded the art of others because its presence would have obscured the bigger picture that he was creating, for if a picture paints a thousand words then in The Crystal World it is the other way round and greatly magnified. The novel reads like a journey through a surrealist canvas, and its resemblance to one in particular seems more than coincidental. In The Coming of the Unconscious Ballard had singled out Max Ernst’s painting, The Eye of Silence, as one of ‘the key documents of surrealism’ with ‘a direct bearing on the speculative fiction of the immediate future’. For Ballard, the painting’s ‘frenzied rocks towering into the air above the silent swamp’ have ‘the luminosity of organs freshly exposed to the light. The real landscapes of our world are seen for what they are – the palaces of flesh and bone that are the living façades enclosing our own subliminal consciousness’. With this in mind it is hard to ignore the resemblance of Ernst’s jewelled ceramic structures and bright green biomorphic forms to Ballard’s crystalline forest ‘loaded with deliquescing jewels’ and living statues ‘carved from jade and quartz’. The painting is suffused with a timeless, dream-like quality that is shared by Ballard’s novel as the forest and everything in it slowly solidifies. This convergence of painted and written landscapes recalls those in The Drowned World and The Drought, though unlike these two novels it is not made explicit. As time is removed from The Crystal World it becomes increasingly surreal, until finally all movement ceases and like Ernst’s painting there is silence. If, as Ballard believed, the painting is a window onto inner space then Sanders in the novel climbs through it, pulling aside a curtain of tinkling lianas and shimmering glass foliage to penetrate deep into the heart of the petrified forest. He eventually re-emerges, but at the end of the novel he is seen heading back upriver, and it is tempting to imagine what he might discover on his return. For somewhere, glimpsed perhaps through a gap in the trees, there is surely a remote clearing surrounded by organic rocks and vitrified vegetation. It is the source of the outbreak, and it looks just like The Eye of Silence.

Given this similarity between Ernst’s painting and The Crystal World it was no surprise that when the novel was first published it was The Eye of Silence that filled the dust jacket, as it did the front, back and spine of the paperback edition published by Panther Books two years later in 1968. It was an improvement over the lurid sf imagery used on other covers[13] though it was not without precedent. The idea had first been introduced in 1963 when Penguin Books launched a new sf series. Penguin’s then art director, Germano Facetti, had noticed a similar connection between The Eye of Silence and A Case of Conscience by the American writer James Blish and used a detail from the painting on the book’s front cover. This use of twentieth-century art became a defining feature of the Penguin sf series and, in addition to the pairing of Ballard and Tanguy mentioned earlier, Facetti studiously matched Ray Bradbury’s The Day it Rained Forever with Ernst’s Garden Aeroplane Trap, Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity with Tanguy’s The Doubter, Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle’s Fifth Planet with Magritte’s The Flavour of Tears and so on, extending the idea to other artists such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró and Picasso[14].

Ballardian: David Pelham

April 1974 Penguin reprint with a cover design by David Pelham.

For Ballard the images of surrealism served a more specific purpose as one of many possible routes to inner space. Such images informed one aspect of his fiction but they were not its raison d’etre. That was inner space in its wider, quintessentially Ballardian form and to capture this required something other than reproductions of surrealist paintings on the covers of his books. This was the challenge facing David Pelham, the art director at Penguin Books from 1968 to 1979, when, in 1974, four of the five Ballard titles in Penguin’s back catalogue came up for reprint. Pelham was responsible for numerous covers at any one time and would often commission other designers and illustrators to produce the artwork, but the Ballard covers he designed himself. The books were sold individually or as a boxed set in a slip-case that Pelham also designed, and it is these iconic images that have become most strongly associated with Ballard’s fiction.

So why is this? The answer is three parts English to one part French. First, Pelham was already familiar with Ballard’s work and a great admirer of it, being drawn to what he later described as its ‘apocalyptic imagery’ and ‘depiction of technological and human breakdown and decay’[15]. Second, it no doubt helped that Ballard and Pelham were friends, having been introduced some years earlier by the artist Eduardo Paolozzi. The three men met regularly at Ballard’s home in Shepperton, a suburban town south-west of London near to Heathrow Airport and the M25 motorway so, third, Pelham was able to discuss his ideas for these new covers with the author himself. Add to this Pelham’s fourth ingredient – a generous amount of je ne sais quoi – and the results were more than merely eye-catching.

Pelham’s covers featured a crepuscular sky above a barren expanse of water, sand or sunbaked earth as the backdrop for an artefact of twentieth-century industrial or military technology. According to the September 1974 issue of Science Fiction Monthly[16], these machines depict ‘the debris of our society’. Pelham, the article explained, ‘finds romance in seeing the future as if it were already the past – in visualizing ruins created from the artifacts we are manufacturing now’. But the paradox of Pelham’s artifacts is that they are not in ruins. His are pristine machines at odds with their apocalyptic settings. Half buried or submerged, they stand as tombstones to ostentation and brutality. They are icons, but only of man’s arrogance.

An American WWII bomber lies abandoned and half-buried by the shifting sands on Pelham’s slip-case[17] while its payload – a sister to the atom bomb that destroyed Nagasaki and the mother of all UXBs – rests nose down in the sand flats of The Terminal Beach. The bomb’s tail-box tilts skywards like the flower of a strange fruit whose hard shell hides an exotic interior. In the belly of the bomb are the seeds of mass destruction, two stones of a ripening plutonium core waiting for the conditions that will trigger them to germinate. But unapproachable and unknowable the bomb is quantum uncertainty writ large; it is Schrödinger’s cat inside Pandora’s box. This atom bomb sitting in the sand is as surreal as Dalí’s melting clocks or Einstein’s theory of relativity, for all are part of the same chain reaction. As mankind cowers with his fingers in his ears and his eyes squeezed shut, so both bomb and slip-cased bomber have their heads buried in the sand, as if in denial of this nightmarish world and the roles they have played in its creation.

Ballardian: David Pelham

April 1974 Penguin reprint with a cover design by David Pelham.

In contrast to this The Drowned World presents a peaceful scene. The surface of the water is flat as a millpond, a sea of tranquillity broken only by the art deco spire of the Chrysler Building which, like the crown of a colossal King Canute, bears silent witness to the deluge that has turned Manhattan into a man-made reef and New York into a new Atlantis. Elsewhere The Wind From Nowhere makes a mockery of a spotless Centurion tank, while The Drought has turned a Cadillac Coupe de Ville into a memorial of chrome and streamlined angularity, its rocketship rear styling and flared tail fins an epitaph to the flamboyance of the American automobile.

The use of such icons to signify apocalyptic ruination is nothing new of course. The Statue of Liberty, in particular, has borne the brunt of numerous cataclysms that have left it in various stages of burial, collapse or decapitation. Ballard himself could not resist the temptation in The Wind From Nowhere, while the Statue’s cameo in the final scene of the 1968 movie, Planet of the Apes, is one of the most memorable denouements in cinematic history, a classic twist in the tail that still cools the blood today. Such images may thrill and perhaps even shock, but the explanation is invariably straightforward because the machine, the artifact, the icon is in ruins. Where Pelham’s images differ is that they defy such explanation. The scene is apocalyptic but the machine is immaculate, and the two are not easily reconciled. Aesthetically these images mesmerise, and on closer inspection they tantalise, but as in Ballard’s fictional worlds, answers are avoided and ambiguity abounds. And this is perhaps the key to Pelham’s images, for they occupy a twilight zone between the landscapes of the outer world and those of inner space. Like the contemplation of a surrealist painting it may take several attempts to ‘get’ Ballard, but Pelham got him to perfection, creating a union of text and image that has never been bettered. With these classic covers the art of J G Ballard reached its apotheosis.

Ballardian: David Pelham

April 1974 Penguin reprint with a cover design by David Pelham.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2009 issue of Vector magazine. Reproduced with permission.


[1] Brian Aldiss. Billion Year Spree. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973, p.162.
[2] ‘They Come From Inner Space.’ In: J B Priestley. Thoughts in the Wilderness. London: William Heinemann, 1957, pp.20-6.
[3] Ray Bradbury may have been the first sf writer to visit inner space but an earlier pioneer outside the genre was Joseph Conrad in his 1902 novel, Heart of Darkness.
[4] Perhaps the best example is the invasion of Earth by murderous Martians in H G Wells’ 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds, which reputedly caused widespread panic in the USA when a radio adaption narrated by Orson Welles was broadcast in 1938.
[5] ‘Which Way to Inner Space?’ New Worlds, May 1962. Reprinted in: J G Ballard. A User’s Guide to the Millennium. HarperCollins, 1996, pp.195-8.
[6] Ballard playfully alludes to Dalí’s lecture in his novel, The Drowned World. As the central character is putting on a diving suit he is told that he looks ‘like the man from inner space’ and is warned not to ‘try to reach the Unconscious’ as the suit ‘isn’t equipped to go down that far!’.
[7] ‘The Coming of the Unconscious.’ New Worlds, July 1966. Reprinted in: J G Ballard. A User’s Guide to the Millennium. HarperCollins, 1996, pp.84-8.
[8] J G Ballard. Miracles of Life. HarperCollins, 2008, p.215.
[9] Mike Bonsall’s concordance of Ballard’s oeuvre lists 110 references to Dalí , 40 to Ernst, 22 to Magritte, 14 to Delvaux, 11 to Chirico and 9 to Tanguy (http://bonsall.homeserver.com/concordance).
[10] J G Ballard. The Complete Short Stories, Volume 2. HarperCollins, 2006, p.151.
[11] J G Ballard. The Complete Short Stories, Volume 1. HarperCollins, 2006, p.336.
[12] Paul Delvaux was a particular favourite of Ballard’s and in 1986-87 he commissioned the artist Brigid Marlin to reproduce two Delvaux paintings, The Rape and The Mirror. Both were painted in 1936 but were thought to have been destroyed during the Blitz in 1941. In fact The Mirror had survived the war and was auctioned by Christies of London in 1999 for a hammer price of almost £3.2 million. Marlin’s portrait of Ballard, also painted in 1987, is at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
[13] Many of Ballard’s book covers are displayed in Rick McGrath’s Terminal Timeline at www.jgballard.ca/terminal_collection/terminal_timeline.html.
[14] The relationship between text and cover art in Penguin’s sf series is explored in a series of three articles in The Penguin Collector; see ‘Not Quite Nowhere Backwards’ at www.penguinsciencefiction.org.
[15] David Pelham, speaking at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in June 2005. A transcript of this talk appears in Penguin by Designers. London: The Penguin Collectors Society, 2007, pp.127-53.
[16] Science Fiction Monthly, September 1974, pp.6-7.
[17] In 1974, the year that Penguin published this boxed set, a short story by Ballard appeared in Ambit magazine. ‘My Dream of Flying to Wake Island’ tells of the first astronaut to suffer a mental breakdown in space and his convalescence at an abandoned resort where he becomes obsessed with excavating an American B-17 Flying Fortress that lies buried beneath the sand dunes.

+ More by James Pardey on David Pelham’s cover designs for Penguin’s Ballard reprints.

..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ Collapsing Bulkheads: the Covers of Crash
+ ‘Woefully Underconceptualised’: Rick McGrath on J.G. Ballard’s Cover Art

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15 Responses »

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Coulthart, Simon Sellars, Mark Simpkins, erwinromulo, Hari Kunzru and others. Hari Kunzru said: RT @ballardian: Pristine machines, apocalyptic setting – David Pelham's Ballard covers: http://bit.ly/aouWdj <always loved these […]

  2. […] Landscapes from a Dream — James Pardey (The Art of Penguin Science Fiction) on JG Ballard’s early novels and the Penguin cover art of David Pelham at The Ballardian: Pelham’s covers featured a crepuscular sky above a barren expanse of water, sand or sunbaked earth as the backdrop for an artefact of twentieth-century industrial or military technology. According to the September 1974 issue of Science Fiction Monthly, these machines depict ‘the debris of our society’. Pelham, the article explained, ‘finds romance in seeing the future as if it were already the past – in visualizing ruins created from the artifacts we are manufacturing now’. But the paradox of Pelham’s artifacts is that they are not in ruins. His are pristine machines at odds with their apocalyptic settings. Half buried or submerged, they stand as tombstones to ostentation and brutality. They are icons, but only of man’s arrogance. […]

  3. In actuality, all of JG’s book covers are available on my site… I recognize these pix, too, as my Penguin boxed set cover is faded a tad on the left and spine…

    The one important point you may have missed here is technological: Pelham’s great cover images (and you and I agree they’re the best) owe much of their power to his use of airbrushing — the first and perhaps the only time this technique is used on Ballard. The flatness and visually impeccable nature of the images are due to this wind-assisted illustrative technique, which also uses a lot of masks to generate those hard edges. All quite Ballardian to me.

  4. Thanks Rick, though not quite all the covers are on your website, as the following two Penguin editions are missing:


    I can send you scans if you want them.


  5. Good eye, James… I have both those editions but for some reason have neglected to post them — thanks for the alert! By the way, the covers, etc on my site represent just my collection… if I don’t have it, I don’t post it.

  6. David Pelham’s covers had also been used in this Spanish collection of sci-fi literature:

  7. I came across these Spanish covers on another website in August 2009 and mentioned them to David Pelham at the time. He was not aware of them, and we don’t know if Penguin was either. I have not found any mention of them in the Penguin editorial files at the Penguin Archive in Bristol, UK. As a series the covers are all quite cool, and there is some good sf in there too – Alfred Bester, James Blish, Philip K Dick, Robert Heinlein, etc.

  8. “He was not aware of them, and we don’t know if Penguin was either. ”
    Spanish publishing houses were not very conscious of what copyright meant during (and even after) Franco’s regime.

    “As a series the covers are all quite cool, and there is some good sf in there too ”
    Yes. Domingo Santos, its publisher, is the best SF publisher that Spain ever had since the late 1960s.

    (Sorry for the lateness!)

  9. Terrific article James! It’s about time somebody seriously addressed Pelham’s work generally, your piece is a great start…

  10. Thank you. I agree there is a lot more to David Pelham’s work – his other Penguin sf covers of 1972-74, for example, and his famous ‘cog-eyed image’ (as he called it) for A Clockwork Orange – but I think there was something a bit special about his Ballard covers. Ballard’s books have received countless cover treatments over the years but nothing comes close to Pelham’s iconic images. They are truly works of art.

  11. […] to specially-commissioned David Pelham artwork in the 1970s. (You can mull over some of the covers here.) Each of Pelham’s covers subvert an iconic twentieth-century relic – in the case of […]

  12. I enjoyed this article a great deal, thank you.

    At one point you state that there are no specific references to paintings in The Crystal World, but in the first chapter Bocklin’s Island of the Dead is mentioned on the approach to Port Matarre.

  13. […] —– (2010) ”Landscapes From a Dream: How the Art of David Pelham Captured the Essence of JG Ballard&#8217…  at Ballardian.com […]

  14. […] Landscapes From a Dream: How the Art of David Pelham Captured the Essence of J G Ballard’s Early F… […]

  15. […] A 2010 article by James Pardey about Pelham’s ability to embody the essence of Ballard’s early […]

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