Sunday, April 19, 2009

J.G. Ballard (1930-2009)

He's unlikely to get much notice in the States - the obituaries I find are mostly British (such as Telegraph, Guardian and even NME). Ballard (which incidentally is pronounced buh-lard) was a major writer by almost any standard. When I first encountered his work in high school it was a revelation that science fiction, indeed any kind of fiction, could be this, well, different. (Despite "science fiction" being where bookstores shelved his work, Ballard was at best only tangentially a SF writer.) Even then I first read the almost conventional novels like High Rise and Concrete Island. It would be a few more years before I could find the really knotty stuff like The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash and the early short stories. (This September we're finally getting a US edition of his complete stories, seemingly the same as the long OP British one.) Certainly it was the forthright seriousness that appealed to me at the time but also the wild formal invention (Donald Barthelme tended to remind me of Ballard), the SF tropes, the sense of humor so strange it almost wasn't humor, and the feeling that this was art undeceived by convention. Of course today weighty seriousness isn't really that important to me but despite his apocalyptic tendencies and attraction to destructively wayward behavior I've never felt Ballard was that grim. His work felt like somebody who was always just amused without having gone through the used-to-be-disgusted phase. I did read Empire of the Sun and thought it was fantastic but nothing after that (eight novels according to Wikipedia) and now I'm much more familiar with his peers such as Moorcock, Aldiss, Zoline, Sladek, Stableford, Spinrad, etc who were embarking on the same beyond-SF project though with vastly different methods. Ballard was also one of those endlessly quotable people as any flip through the Re/Search collection shows:
"Everything is clean and shiny but oddly threatening."
"Remember, the police are neutral - they hate everybody. Being law-abiding has nothing to do with being a good citizen. It means not bothering the police."
"Art exists because reality is neither real nor significant."
"Sooner or later, everything turns into television."