FAREWELL JIM BALLARD!
J.G. Ballard died this morning. I never met the man, but his influence on my life as a writer was pretty big. When I first read his powerful novel CRASH (no, it has nothing to do with the simpy melodrama that won an Oscar, but there is a film version, directed by the great David Cronenberg), I was moved at how perfect it was. It’s protagonist, Jim Ballard comes upon a group of people who fetishize car crashes, and becomes obsessed with their leader – a brilliant maniac named Vaughn – who wants to die in the ultimate sexual act – crashing his Lincoln Continental into a car transporting the actress Elizabeth Taylor to her death. Cronenberg’s film captured the tone of book very well. Of course, both the book and the movie stirred up lots of controversy for their subject matter.
Ballard exploded onto the scene during the “new wave” of science fiction in the 1960s. As part of the British contingent that was often published in the magazine NEW WORLDS (along with fellow Englishmen Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss and John Brunner, along with Americans like Norman Spinrad, Thomas M. Disch, Barry Malzberg, Joanna Russ and Samuel Delaney, as well as Harlan Ellison, who seems to be at the forefront of every important sf movement since the 60s), Ballard stood out as something other than just someone trying the break the boundaries of science fiction. Ballard sough to break the boundaries of literature as a whole.
His first novels were dystopian books about the end of the world, with titles like THE DROWNED WORLD and THE CRYSTAL WORLD. Brillaint novels that sought to show us how the world could end. Then, in his middle period, he sought out more intimate horrors like the fetishists of CRASH and the trapped maniacs of HIGH-RISE, and the story of a man literally trapped on a CONCRETE ISLAND in the middle of a highway. It is this period of Ballard’s work that I loved best, and that really fucked with my head. Around this time he also delved into the more experimental with works like THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION which featured such shorter works as “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” and “The Assasination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a Downhill Road Race.”
From his most non-mainstream period, Ballard jumped with both feet from the fringes into the mainstream itself with the autobiographical novel EMPIRE OF THE SUN, about his childhood in Shanghai during World War II, when it was under Japanese occuption. And it is here that we learned that many of his frequent images: empty swimming pools, abandoned plane wrecks, were actually things he had seen as a child, images that stayed with him, and thus with us by extension.
After EMPIRE (which was made into a film by Steven Spielberg – one of the few films of his, besides JAWS, that I actually like), Ballard continued to turn out more literary fiction, having left genre fiction behind for the most part. But his body of work was impressive, and consistently powerful. And even if he abandoned the kinds of work that had the most resonance with me, his CRASH-era novels, he continued to be a relevant voice in the world of literature.
Jim Ballard left a big mark on literature as we know it, and his kind will not come this way again. He will be greatly missed.