“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 wanted to kill outer space stone dead. I wanted to kill the far future and focus on inner space and the next five minutes. And sci-fi’ers to this day don’t regard me as one of them. I’m some sort of virus who got aboard and penetrated the virtue of science fiction and began to pervert its DNA.” – Ballard in a 1995 interview with Spike Magazine
British author James Graham Ballard was born in Shanghai, China in 1930, where his father ran a textile company. He was only seven years old when the Japanese invaded China. After Pearl Harbor, the International Settlement was occupied, and the British living there were moved to a prison camp outside Shanghai – a camp that would be depicted in Ballard’s 1984 novel of wartime memories – Empire of the Sun. In 1987, a movie adaptation was done by playwright/screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Steven Spielberg.
After the war, Ballard moved to England, only to experience a major culture shock, having spent the first 15 years of his life in China – a culture shock some sources claim he has never fully recovered from. He started studying to become a psychiatrist, but gave it up after a few years, wanting to pursue writing as a career. His acquired knowledge of anatomy, physiology and pathology would nevertheless be put to good use in his literary production. One period, he would train with the RAF in Canada to learn how to fly, and his knowledge of aviation would also come to show in his literature.
Among his influences Ballard counts such artists as Dali, Magritte, and Ernst, and he considers William Burroughs to be one of the most important authors of the last century. He has claimed to not be “a literary man” and says he reads mostly non-fiction when not working on his own fiction.
The surrealist painters were also the main inspiration for Ballard’s early, unpublished and allegedly highly experimental works, written in the late 40s/early 50s. His early science fiction short stories were published in magazines such as Science Fantasy and New Worlds Science Fiction, and Ballard mixed classic sci-fi elements and imitations of other writers of the genre with elements of the surreal. And this was, unsurprisingly, shortly after the publication of Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch. His science fiction has been described as “a poet’s vision of a haunted world”.
Ballard published four science fiction novels and a number of short stories, before starting to move away from the genre with his 1970 novel The Atrocity Exhibition. In 1973, he published the hightly controversial Crash, a tale of eroticised car accidents, of which one editor famously proclaimed “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish!” David Cronenberg wrote the script for and directed the 1996 movie adaptation.
My personal Ballard favorite so far is the 1989 novella Running Wild, about the “Pangbourne Massacre”. Here, too, some taboos are sacrificed, and these have to do mainly with family and children.
In the 1995 Spike interview, Ballard said that he has felt welcomed into the mainstream since the publication of Empire of the Sun, although he’s not entirely sure that he wants to “be embraced by the mainstream”. All in all though, it would be highly surprising should his work come to be remembered primarily as mainstream, and not as innovative, experimental, controversial and, at times, highly morbid.
The Wind From Nowhere (1962)
The Drowned World (1962)
The Drought (1964)
The Crystal World (1966)
The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)
Concrete Island (1974)
High Rise (1975)
The Unlimited Dream Company (1979)
Hello America (1981)
Empire of the Sun (1984)
Day of Creation (1987)
The Atrocity Exhibition (1990; Reissued with extensive annotations by Ballard)
The Kindness of Women (1991)
Running Wild (1989)
Rushing to Paradise (1994)
Cocaine Nights (1996)
This article first appeared on Everything2.com.