Steven Spielberg’s 1987 film adaptation of Empire of the Sun brought JG Ballard to my notice. After watching the film I sought out the original source novel and tried to read it, thinking rather naively that it’d be easy young adult read because the protagonist Jim, is ten years old. After vivid nightmarish descriptions of a ruined Shanghai and a street urchin’s memorable refrain of, ‘No momma, no papa, no whisky soda!’ I put the book down because it was beyond my ten year old reading capabilities. It was too complex, but I promised myself that I’d return to Ballard when I was older.
Ten years later one of the tutors on my 20th Century literature module assigned the aptly named Crash as a text for class discussion- which was disastrous. The class coincided with the release of David Cronenberg’s controversial film version and I recall two of the students, a pair of middle-aged ladies fuming at the choice of reading text and the content because both were emergency ward nurses and they were outraged at the fetishistic nature of Crash . My tutor seemed to delight in this provocation while I kept expressing that the film version is more graphic than the novel and that the class had trouble separating film adaptation from novel.
“You actually saw the film?” one of the nurses gawped at me as if I was a twisted pervert.
“Twice.” I replied, deliberately excused myself from class and walked past both nurses with an affected limp. I didn’t go back to class; instead I sat in the campus cafe and marveled at the power of literature to challenge and provoke.
Nowadays, in reading and rereading Ballard I’m astounded at his genius in creating scenes of desolate beauty and exoticism. Although there are shocking elements in works as The Atrocity Exhibition, even in Crash beauty is present in bleak sterility; ‘For half an hour I sat by the window…looking down at the hundreds of cars in the parking lot. Their roofs formed a lake of metal.’ Here’s another gem (no pun intended) from The Crystal World: ‘On a lawn of green glass spurs a child’s tricycle glittered like a Faberge gem, the wheels starred into brilliant jasper crowns.” Finally here is my personal favourite from The Day of Creation: ‘Signal flares were falling from the air, like discarded pieces of the sun.’
Nicolas Shakespeare’s review of Ballard’s memoir Miracles of Life: From Shanghai to Shepperton offers some insight into Ballard’s writing headspace:
“What most excites (Ballard’s) imagination are the shells of his native city: a drained swimming pool, a friend’s gutted house, a bombed-out casino – “more real and more meaningful” as empty and ruined than when thronged with gamblers, and giving Ballard a sense of precariousness he never lost: “that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment”. In Ballard’s fiction, the more ruined and desolate the setting, the more beautiful and haunting the images. Like Borges, the most surreal Ballardian tale is anchored by a core of profund truth.
Finally, I still love space operas and other conventional science-fiction forms but reading Ballard’s essay ‘Which Way to Inner Space?’ provided me with an alternative compass for writing science-fiction. According to Ballard, space fiction can no longer provide the ‘main wellspring of ideas for sci-fi’ because it is becoming increasingly dated and the stuff of science fiction is now becoming science fact . Ballard suggests that sci-fi turn its back on aliens, outer space etc…and become more literary and metaphysical in its ideas and approach. “It is the inner space-suit that is needed and it is up to science fiction to build it!”