J.G. Ballard, SF Grand Master?
Andrzej Gasiorek. J.G. Ballard. Contemporary British Novelists series. New York: Manchester UP, 2005. viii + 228 pp. $24.95 pbk.
V. Vale, ed. J.G. Ballard: Conversations San Francisco, CA: RE/Search, 2005. 359 pp. $19.99 pbk.
______, and Mike Ryan, eds. J.G. Ballard: Quotes San Francisco, CA: RE/Search, 2004. 415 pp. $19.99 pbk.
As they ponder prospective recipients of their Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement, the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America will face an interesting predicament in the coming years. Having lavished the award on even such minor talents of the 1940s Golden Age as Lester Del Rey, and having all but exhausted the generation of authors who came of age during the 1950s, they must now consider whether the 1960s New Wave, with all its partisan divisiveness and arty pretension, has been fully and comfortably assimilated into the field. Tentative moves in that direction include the recent selections of Brian W. Aldiss, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison as sf Grand Masters, though these were rather fudging picks: Aldiss had penned classics like Non-Stop (a.k.a. Starship, 1958) well before the New Wave wars erupted, Silverberg’s 1960s experiments were merely one facet of a diverse and prolific career, and Harlan Ellison, for all his rabble-rousing back in the day, was always a one-man show whose factional alignments were strategic and provisional at best. Whether the SFWA will eventually tab Thomas M. Disch, or Norman Spinrad, or Michael Moorcock—all more central New Wave controversialists whose best work was designed not only to shock sf orthodoxies but also to transcend the limits of the field—remains to be seen.
I would wager that J.G. Ballard is definitely out of the running, not only because of wounded sensibilities still lingering from his incendiary fictions and aggressive manifestoes, but also due to the potential embarrassment of having him, like Brando with the Oscar or Sartre the Nobel, refuse the award and rebuke the association. Yet a strong case can be made that Ballard (along with Stanislaw Lem, who had his own contentious history with the SFWA) is among the small handful of modern sf writers whose work helped redefine the genre and open it to a broader audience of readers, both “mainstream” and avant garde. Certainly the texts under review here indicate his high reputation among academic critics and mavens of postmodern technoculture. Andrzej Gasiorek’s study is the second entry in a new series on Contemporary British Novelists from Manchester UP (following a volume on Irvine Welsh), while the two new books from San Francisco’s RE/Search Press are sequels to their 1984 compendium on Ballard (see Juno and Vale), in a quirky series that included tomes on industrial culture, modern primitivism, “incredibly strange” music and film, and the author’s erstwhile literary guru, William S. Burroughs (to order, see their website at: <http://www.researchpubs.com/>). Taken all together, these works further cement Ballard’s standing as the sf writer with perhaps the most dynamic and multifarious crossover appeal.
Whether he is still a writer of sf is of course open to question, given how his work in recent decades has diversified, encompassing magical realism (e.g., The Day of Creation ), literary autobiography (e.g., The Kindness of Women ), and crime thrillers (e.g., Super-Cannes ); these shifts offer perhaps a convenient excuse for the SFWA to snub him. Gasiorek, though, stresses the author’s roots in sf, showing convincingly how even his novels “that are not overtly science fiction in orientation … continue to draw on the genre’s techniques and preoccupations” (5)—especially an obsession with the social fallout of technological development and a speculative attunement to the perils and promises of the future. However, “Ballard’s election of science fiction as a valid literary mode … [was] predicated on his refusal of the very features that made it successful and popular … the tightly coded, formulaic products of the pulp era” (6)—hence, his posture in the field as an outsider, a pestering gadfly. Ballard fused sf modes of extrapolation with Surrealist methods for exploring the unconscious, finding in both these genres “forms of a resolutely non-sentimental artistic naïve, which offered a means of departing from accepted norms and received accounts of reality” (9), including the consensus view of sf so prized by genre insiders. Gasiorek’s analysis of the author’s sf career is at once compellingly clear-eyed and fundamentally unexceptionable, adding little to extant scholarship.
But then, defining and defending Ballard’s status within the field is hardly Gasiorek’s main purpose; his is an assessment geared for general readers, especially students of the modern British novel.1 (Gasiorek is a Reader in Twentieth-Century English Literature at the University of Birmingham.) As with most such introductory texts, the coverage is broad and at times fairly basic, yet the book has a striking cohesiveness, is efficiently organized and well written, and makes some impressive contributions to an understanding of the author’s work, especially his later novels, which remain relatively untouched by scholars. There is no main thesis to speak of—not a vitiating weakness given the disappointment of one-note studies such as Stephenson’s Out of the Night and Into the Dream—but Gasiorek’s various readings retain a common focus on the “enormously complex interplay” in Ballard’s fiction “between the notion of an authenticity of self-hood and the recognition that human beings have been transformed into subjects, terminal clusters that exist by virtue of the machines that program them” (23). Drawing on a range of theories, from psychoanalysis to poststructuralism, but by no means beholden to a narrow viewpoint (as befits a series claiming to be “[i]nformed, but not dominated, by literary theory” [vi]), Gasiorek’s five chapters examine Ballard’s “Cryptic Alphabets” (in Vermilion Sands , The Drowned World , The Drought , The Crystal World , and “The Voices of Time” ); his “Deviant Logics” (in “The Terminal Beach” , The Atrocity Exhibition , and Crash ); his “Uneasy Pleasures” (in Concrete Island , High-Rise , The Unlimited Dream Company , and a range of short stories); his “Destructive Element” (in Empire of the Sun , The Kindness of Women, and Running Wild ); and his “Exhausted Futures” (in Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes , and Millenium People ).
As this overview suggests, not only is Gasiorek’s coverage synoptic, but it is organized by key concepts and characteristic preoccupations directly visible in Ballard’s corpus (rather than by a procrustean schema extrinsic to the work itself). His readings are resolutely comparative, and the chapters build on one another effectively; a shrewd practical reader, Gasiorek is alert to immanent patterns and cycles of imagery across the arc of an author’s career. The book’s brief coda contains a penetrating assessment of the persistence of themes of psychic violence in Ballard’s work, offering this bleak (but apposite) summing-up: “alienation gives rise to a derealisation of the world so extreme that it either appears as a realm without values or is reduced to the lineaments of the solipsistic mind. In both cases it is not just the perceiving subject that becomes an other to itself. The world and those who inhabit it become spectral figures whose obliteration is viewed with equanimity” (205-206). For Ballard, violence is both a social threat and a psychic refuge, and this tension, productive in his best work, always threatens to collapse into nihilism, a “revolt against sociality itself” (212). Given this diagnosis, the SFWA would perhaps be wise not to extend Ballard its Grand Master award, since such gestures of amiable sociality may be precisely what his work is designed to expose and explode. (But then, the organization did manage to survive its knife-fight with Lem, not to mention the apotheosis of Harlan Ellison.)
Gasiorek’s closing analysis suggests one reason for the enduring appeal of Ballard’s work to the various mutant countercultures indexed by the RE/Search series: he is a constitutional rebel, a born insurrectionist. Certainly, that is the way these two new volumes pitch the author, as a maverick figure willing to confront “anything taboo involving sex, death, technology, power, and media,” as editor Vale’s introduction to the collection of Quotes puts it (5). This incredibly strange little book is precisely what its title implies (albeit ungrammatically): a compilation of quotations from Ballard’s vast oeuvre—including his reviews, essays, and interviews as well as his fiction—organized into eleven broad categories: the Future, Politics/ Economics/Revolution, Media, the Arts, Technology and Science, Topography, Psychopathology and Death, Sex, William S. Burroughs, Ballard on Ballard, and Reflections. Most of these groupings are split into sub-categories as well. The section on Topography (far and away the most intriguing topic, reminding us how essentially spatial is Ballard’s imagination) includes discrete units on America, Los Angeles, Travel and Tourism, Architecture, Airports and Flying, Cities, Suburbs, Gated Communities, Freeways, High Rises, Swimming Pools, Nature, the Beach, and Other Terrains. One need not agree with Vale’s claim that “quotation is the most useful form of philosophy” (5) to appreciate his irrepressible impulse to cite Ballard, since he has always been an eminently quotable author, his work studded with gnomic epigrams and iconic formulations. “A crashed automobile has a reality, and a poignancy, and a unique identity that no showroom car ever has” (244); “The best astronauts never dream” (171); “We’re all looking for some sort of vertical route out of the particular concrete jungle that we live in” (198); “The film of Kennedy’s assassination is the Sistine Chapel of our era” (119); “Sooner or later all science fiction comes true” (109).
This last remark, from a section on sf included under the Arts, is one of many effusive encomia to the genre’s percipience and potency that Ballard has emitted over the years: sf is “the apocalyptic literature of the twentieth century” (116), “the literature that responds to change” (115), “far more expressive of the key imaginative response to the 20th century than the so-called ‘mainstream’ novel” (109); “No other form of fiction has the vocabulary of ideas and images to deal with the present, let alone the future” (117). On the other hand, the number of sf writers Ballard singles out for praise is relatively small—e.g., the classic English dystopians (Huxley, Orwell), the 1950s Galaxy school of social satirists (Sheckley, Pohl, Matheson), Ray Bradbury. Golden Age giants such as Heinlein and Asimov he scorns as purveyors of a kind of “fantasy fiction about the future” (112); John W. Campbell he calls “a baleful influence” (113). One can almost sense SFWA members squirming as they stumble across malicious observations such as the following: “People within the Science Fiction world never regarded me as one of them in the first place. They saw me as the enemy. I was the one who wanted to subvert everything they believed…. I’m some sort of virus who got aboard and penetrated the virtue of Science Fiction and began to subvert its DNA” (117). These snotty remarks (among others) ought to be enough to earn Ballard a lifetime embargo on sf awards, not that the author would care, as evidenced by the fact that he turned down Prime Minister Tony Blair’s invitation to be named a Commander of the British Empire. “I am opposed to the honors system,” he tartly observed. “The whole thing is a preposterous charade” (349). (This was before the cash-for-honors scandal that consumed the last months of Blair’s premiership—Ballard, prescient as always.)
Seasoned readers of Ballard will be familiar with most of the quotations gathered here, or at least with the sentiments they express—though the editors have done a fine job of gleaning nuggets from off-trail sources. Vale’s companion volume of Conversations is a similar trip down memory lane for Ballard aficionados; though many of the interviews are recent, and all of them newly published, Ballard’s views have stayed remarkably consistent over the years and he is a chronic recycler—after all, why devise a pithy new quip when an old one, slightly refurbished, will do? The book contains eight interviews with Ballard ranging from 1983 to 2004, conducted by editor Vale, composer Graeme Revell, performance artist Mark Pauline, and others; there is also an interview about Ballard with David Pringle, erstwhile editor of Foundation and Interzone and author of the first serious critical study of Ballard’s work, Earth is the Alien Planet. Ballard can be by turns whimsically witty and irksomely pretentious, but he is incapable of being boring, and these assembled exchanges are largely a pleasure to read—though I must admit to a mild irritation at the editor’s decision to bold-face selected passages, as if to highlight the author’s juiciest bon mots, or perhaps to facilitate skimming by lazy readers. (Vale does acknowledge, in one conversation, that the Quotes book was geared for “the interruption and stops and starts that commuters experience” .)
Frankly, one has to wonder how many rabid Ballard fans there are out there yearning for fresh chats with their favorite author or precious cullings of his lifelong wit and wisdom. Apparently, not enough to keep RE/Search Press afloat: according to a recent article in the online magazine Salon, the “tiny punk-rock publisher,” which only “puts out two titles a year,” has had to scale back its operations significantly; “Vale was planning to update and reissue a book on William S. Burroughs for its Spring title, ‘but we didn’t have the money even for the down payment on the printing cost,’ he says” (Jain par. 4). One problem might be that the press clearly remains committed to a technocultural avant garde that has grown pretty long in the tooth: Ballard, Burroughs, hardcore punk, “classic” exploitation movies, zine culture, body modification. Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition remain the central Ballard texts in the RE/Search canon, whereas the author has gone on to produce over a dozen books since that early-1970s heyday. On the other hand, those seminal works marked the moment, for most sf fans, when the author stepped foursquare out of the genre into a distant, scary realm defined at once by kooky imprints such as RE/Search and the grey pages of academia. The value of a book like Gasiorek’s is that it allows us, once more, to see the author whole—an author whose career has been as fragmentary and marked by odd divagations as his most compelling fictions. He will never be an sf Grand Master, but Ballard remains one of the most accomplished and protean talents the genre has ever produced.
1. For an excellent discussion of the issues involved, see Luckhurst, especially Chapter One (1-36).
Jain, Priya. “The Struggle for Independents.” Salon 21 June 2007. <http://www. salon.com/books/feature/2007/06/21/independent_press>. 31 August 2007.
Juno, Andrea, and V. Vale, eds. J.G. Ballard. San Francisco: Re/Search, 1984.
Luckhurst, Roger. “The Angle Between Two Walls”: The Fiction of J.G. Ballard. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997.
Pringle, David. Earth Is the Alien Planet: J.G. Ballard’s Four-Dimensional Nightmare. San Bernadino, CA: Borgo, 1979.
Stephenson, Gregory. Out of the Night and Into the Dream: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of J.G. Ballard. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1991.