Prolific and astonishingly inventive, J.G. Ballard has in the last quarter century established himself as perhaps the most “literary” of contemporary writers of science fiction. His highly idiosyncratic stories and novels have won the enthusiastic endorsement of Anthony Burgess, Graham Greene, and Susan Sontag as well as (more predictably) Ray Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin. But the term “science fiction” is itself questionable when applied to Ballard’s work, which has more in common with the imaginary cities of Calvino and the scholarly conundrums of Borges (though it lacks their playfulness and wit) or with the paranoid projections of Pynchon and Burroughs than with the space odysseys usually associated with the label. Recently, with Empire of the Sun and with the book under review, he has moved (almost) altogether from the realm of the fantastic to experiment with a hybrid of fiction and autobiography that seems to me to confuse genres in ways that are troubling.
Regarding Ballard’s fictional writing, I see him as primarily the creator of powerful, feverishly detailed situations—situations that give rise not so much to stories as to the night-marish expansion of images involving, typically, claustrophobia, dismemberment, and apocalypse. At their best these images are arresting, often haunting. One thinks of the lethal, jewel-like crystallization spreading like an ice sheet from the heart of a dark, Conradian jungle in The Crystal World (1966) or the piecemeal dismembering of a beautiful, Praxitelean giant washed up on a beach like a stranded whale in “The Drowned Giant.” In the genuinely shocking novel called Crash (1973), Ballard presents us with a group of characters obsessed with the possibilities of combining Eros and Thanatos in an age of automotive high-tech. Orgasms are induced through contact with instrument panels and steering wheels in cars hurtling toward fatal impact; the hideous wounds and mutilations of crash victims provide new opportunities for sexual penetration.
The setting of Crash is confined to the concrete landscape of motorways, flyovers, transient apartments, and high-rise parking lots surrounding Heathrow airport, details of which—together with accounts of the accompanying traffic jams and accidents—are repeated in a litany of dehumanized horror. The novel, in Ballard’s words, is “an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation, a kit of desperate measures only for use in an extreme crisis.” It is, he writes, “the first pornographic novel based on technology.”
By no means all of Ballard’s work springs from fantasies so disturbing. His Warhol-like fascination with pop culture—and especially the televised image of celebrities—can often lead to glibness or to jeux d’esprit that fall flat—as with the piece called “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy” or, more recently, “The Secret History of World War 3,” in which a senile Ronald Reagan is brought from retirement to serve a third term.
During the past decade, Ballard has ventured further into realism than before—in his pure fiction as well as in his quasi-autobiographies. His most accomplished recent novel is …