Photo: Brian Griffin
Visions Of Dystopia
The Face introduction: J.G. Ballard has created in his novels a unique future landscape: ravaged, homogenous, occasonally psychosexual and always bleak, imbuing a wretched urban existence with the dream logic of surrealism. He chooses to live in the entropic cocoon of suburbia, finding reality in the flickering of a silent TV screen and seeing his wartime childhood in Shanghai reinvented on a Shepperton sound stage.
By Paul Rambali
The Face magazine, No 96 April 1988
There's no music in my work," states J. G. Ballard. He smiles, quoting the Futurist manifesto, "The most beautiful music in the world is the sound of machine guns."
In Shanghai, where he grew up, there were dance orchestras on the radio and, more impressively, the sounds of shells flying overhead, as Japanese forces attacked the Chinese and encircled the International Settlement. A young boy in the stranded expat suburb where his father lived as manager of a British textile subsidiary, Ballard remembers seeing dead soldiers and horses lying in canals outside the city. Then internment began. From a camp beside an airfield, he watched the mounting drama, impressed by the heroic gleam of the aircraft.
Recreated by Steven Spielberg, this forgotten episode of the War is the subject of Empire Of The Sun, Ballard's own boyhood view, recounted in his acclaimed recent novel of that title. The hectic and troubled growing up of young Jim provides an ideal perspective for Spielberg's cinema of wonder, with its cameras swooping over turbulent crowds, or tracking at adolescent height the boy's entanglement with arriving Japanese troops. "I surrender," Jim screams at the soldiers, who ignore him and march on. The wreckage and chaos of war creates in China a domain every bit as fearful and strange as earth was for E.T.
In the queues for the film, there are sure to be many spectators more familiar with the science fiction of Spielberg than that of James Graham Ballard. Not that this bothers the 57-year-old author, long time resident of the literary phantom zone of SF, with its limited respect but thankfully avid public.
Given 600 lines as punishment in the Cathedral school in Ballard got bored with copying and began inventing his own stories. Like the semi-autobiographical Jim, he wanted to write a book about contract bridge, fascinated by the obscure logic of the game his mother played. As a student at Cambridge in the Fifties, reading medicine and interested in psychoanalysis, he was drawn to the works of Surrealist painters, with their disquieting dream logic. He noted the resistance of critics to the Surrealists - though not, later, of the public - and concluded that works of the imagination are unwelcome in Britain.
Stationed with the RAF in Canada a few years later, and now convinced he wanted to be a writer, he discovered the works of American pulp imagination in sci-fi journals like Galaxy and Astounding. Inspired by the Surrealists, and wary of adopting a false American tone for his short stories, he set about inventing an imaginative territory, the now familiar Ballard landscape: a devolution of the future present, the contemporary world eaten away.
In his first novel, The Wind From Nowhere, London is ravaged by a freak storm; in The Drowned World, an urban landscape, cloyingly unfamiliar, is ravaged by drought [sic]. In Concrete Island, characters are stranded between superhighways, victims of a kind of cloverleaf disjunction. In Hello America, they alight on a deserted, decaying continent, while in Vermillion Sands, they a roam a depopulated terminal beach somewhere between Miami, Rio and Torremolinos. Gradually, Ballard honed his ability to produce works of sustained imaginative power, compelling metaphors of psychological states.
He took as raw material not the stock scenarios of far flung space travel but the technical jargon of Chemical Engineering News (because he liked the typeface). He saw, with the first orbits of Russian Sputnik in 1957, that science-fiction had become reality. With the pop artists who exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in the Fifties, he realised that reality had become a kind of science-fiction. He later contributed to Michael Moorcock's New Worlds his own collages of info-fragments and teleflashes. For his book The Atrocity Exhibition, he reprogrammed this material to describe the nervous breakdown of social reality.
The world was changing apace, but Ballard kept up. He described a ratcage tower block in High-Rise, a psychosexual demolition derby in Crash. Post space race, when the moon was discovered to be merely dust, his novels caught the imagination of a young generation that sensed an imminent everyday apocalypse, the future shock of the homogenous new suburbs.
"I fear this is the future," says Ballard, ensconced in a tattered black vinylette chair, an article of Sixties modernism run to seed that could easily furnish one of his stories. He is talking about Shepperton, the London suburb to which he moved in 1960.
"As people get more affluent they want a bit of space, middle management people. All over the world you can see it, from Johannesburg to Helsinki. It's far more dangerous here than in the huge interurban tower blocks. Driving through the suburbs of Germany in the Seventies I could see it. Everything is controlled. Even a drifting leaf looks out of place. In the high rises people live on top of each other, sparks fly. They are driven inwards and they dream. Once you move to the suburbs, time stops. People measure their lives by consumer goods, the dreams that money can buy. I think that's more dangerous. People have no loyalties anymore."
But Ballard continues to live in this suburb where time has stopped, a sort of self-imposed alienation. In this, he is like a character from one of his novels, accepting the entropy that surrounds him. According to David Pringle, editor of Foundation and extensive chronicler of Ballard, his "true heroes follow the logic of the landscape". For this reason, there are no outstanding characters in his fiction. Viewing the mute wreckage, the empty overgrown swimming pools, Ballard's characters offer only fitful cries of protest, and then drive on. The redemption they seek is found in acceptance.
The semi-detached house is now devoid of the commotion that filed it as Ballard, whose wife Mary died in 1964, struggled to bring up his two daughters and one son. It is small and unkempt. On an old desk in a corner by the French windows, his glasses rest on a pile of papers, beside an encyclopedia of world fishing. An enormous canvas, a copy commissioned by Ballard of a lost work by the surrealist Delvaux, dominates his study, opening like a portal onto a dreamscape where the fireplace should be.
As in his work, there is no music in the house, but in the front room is an old black and white TV. Ballard watches it with the sound off, "to have a think". Another gesture to the peculiar anomie of our age?
"You have to make a distinction", he prefaces, "between latent and apparent content. Freud's old distinction. I go to Juan Les Pins with my lady friend for the sun. But it's more real to see it on TV. In 20th century media terms, it's the accumulated picture of Beirut or Tokyo that constitutes the reality of that particular place. The media is now the reality that most people inhabit. It shapes their lives and governs their truths. Truth doesn't come from experience anymore. Culture comes from the local hypermarket.
"That's another danger: the TV landscape that now suffocates the world. Maybe we're going to live in an eventless future." He leans forward. "In a hundred years, the world might be very, very boring."
For Ballard, this is not merely adoption of the American way of consuming. He thinks it's equally European, the result of an emergent world culture of recent years.
"I'm not against internationalism. Cooking is a good analogy. This mixing of cuisines is more common nowadays. Western chefs cook with lemongrass and ginger, elements of Oriental cooking. What I'm against is nothing but McDonald's."
Sitting in his English suburb, looking at the bare pear trees in the garden in which, he once said, he would welcome the siting of a cruise missile, "to give me a feeling of involvement in the world," Ballard rues that even the eventless future might pass Britain by.
"This country is in the grip of terminal nostalgia," he sighs. He doesn't, however, see Mrs Thatcher as the villain of the piece. "In terms of economics she's an old-fashioned laissez-faire liberal. But," he adds excitedly, "she has a very powerful sexual and mythological aura. Like all great leaders, she promises not just a better future, but a more dangerous one!"
Does the gentle reader baulk at the mention of Margaret Thatcher's sexual aura?
"Wait until you get a bit older," laughs Ballard. "I'd rather go to bed with her than with, well, any other world leader."
In 1980, at the Republican Party convention nominating Ronald Reagan for the presidency, some neo-leftists circulated a bizarre tract. Bearing the official party seal, in semi-clinical language, it described a distressing variety of sexual associations engendered by the personality of the new candidate.
'Multiple track cine films were constructed of Reagan in intercourse during (a) campaign speeches, (b) rear-end auto collision with one and three-year-old model changes, (c) with rear exhaust assemblies, (d) with Vietnamese child atrocity victims. . .'
The tract was unsigned and Ballard himself had no knowledge of its origins, other than that the words were his own culled from The Atrocity Exhibition, written 13 years before, an eerie premonition of Reagan's future presidency and its significance. 'Reagan's success,' he wrote, 'indicates society's periodic need to reconceptualise its political leaders.'
The convention delegates were not the first to be scandalised by Ballard's imagination. Critics wondered, is this science fiction? Editors blushed at his engagement of themes of neurological nightmare. Ballard likes to relate how one reader of the manuscript of Crash noted that its author was in need of psychiatric help. Crash dealt with a classic theme of science fiction; man's fascination with technology. The book, which takes place entirely on the M4, is about the auto accident seen, and appreciated, as a new sexual perversion.
Beyond psychiatric help, reckons Ballard contentedly, is freedom. He is proud to be excluded from the intellectual and cultural mainstream in Britain. In America he would be the recipient of honorary doctorates; in France, widely discussed. His sustained delineation of a dream world singles him out as a great visionary artist, subversive of bourgeois certainties and thus relegated to the margins.
"Where did Ballard derive his Dystopian views? From his study of psychology, his interest in Surrealism, from Marinetti and Max Ernst? From the medical encyclopaedia of crash injuries on his bookshelf From the thoroughly ordinary vista of his French windows?
Three years ago, Ballard published his first 'serious' novel. That he has not been taken seriously before has never bothered him. "Young people should seize an imaginative initiative," he counsels. And he has always nourished this audience. When his children were growing up in the Seventies, the house was rocked by punk music and by the diatribes of the old NME. "Punk expressed powerful political resentments. The reviewing of the music was the carrier wave. It was a hundred times more lively than anything in the New Statesman." He describes the punk moment with affection: "The radical will meets driving ambition."
For Empire Of The Sun, Ballard was nominated for the Booker Prize and welcomed for his embrace of a 'proper' literary subject. The book is set, he says, "at the end of one war and the start of a new one on the instalment plan. You see it in Iran and in the East. The West is being rejected." He recalls the stranded ambience of pre-war Shanghai, with its nightclubs and parties. It was an island of crumbling civilisation, an oasis in the midst of turmoil, a mood that has haunted his subsequent work.
"Everyone knew that the war would come to the East," he says. His father intended that the family should go to Australia. They never fully appreciated the threat of the Japanese. "We thought their planes were made of chewing gum and string, that they had bad eyesight." Then the blockade of Shanghai. "That was the first turn of the decline of the West in the East. It was England's Pearl Harbour in a way."
Separated from his parents - unlike Ballard himself - the boy Jim in Empire Of The Sun encounters mercenaries, bandits, war rabble, and a fallen American airman who teaches him, finally, that people will do anything for a potato.
In the prison camp, Jim befriends a young kamikaze pilot at the base alongside, who, when his ritual moment comes, cannot get his plane to start. The torpor of this scene, familiar in the novels of Ballard, is overwhelming, and finally purged by a new sign, the incandescent halo over Hiroshima.
Embalmed in the book is a time out of time, glimpsed in the detritus at the bottom of empty swimming pools, in the landscape, closer than we feared.
He had not seen the recent films of Spielberg, though he liked Duel, a sparse tale of a desert duel between a car and a lorry. He met the filmmaker and his producer Kathleen Kennedy and was "impressed by their seriousness... I was able to see how the film was made, the scale of the shooting." Scenes of the Shanghai suburbs were filmed, ironically, in the suburbs near his home in Shepperton. He describes the enormity of the operation, "like a wartime evacuation".
For the party scenes, Chinese chauffeurs attended the waiting Buicks and Packards. "It was very strange, I felt the ground move. It was as though we were going to get into the cars and go back to Shanghai. 'Hello, Mr Ballard. I'm playing you'. 'Hello. We're your parents'. One of my neighbours had a part in it. Very strange. It was the sleeping mind you know, the mind taking characters from life and inventing situations. Television is awake, film dreams. The 20th century imagination is film, in the way that the novel was in the 19th century. A dream has a visionary role. It's an internal eye that sees something invisible to the optical eye."
With their surreal settings, their struggling, lost ill-shaped characters, Ballard's books are like dreams. What truth do they reveal? A psychoanalysis of the suburbs can be read in them. But truth? His new novel, The Day Of Creation, seems to reverse the usual entropic process. Time begins to run forward again.
"The mystical view is that there is a larger order beyond the one we impose. But 1 don't think there is something out there for the imagination to find. The human imagination is our only way of getting past that. It should be guarded and encouraged," he emphasises, "it is a precious resource."
I ask Ballard where he was last year, on the night of The Wind From Nowhere, when freak gales wreaked havoc across Southern England, leaving scenes of devastation that recalled his first novel.
"I wasn't here. I was in Canada, waiting to go on TV for an interview, and I saw it on television there in the studio."
He smiles. The symmetry of this dream, for once, is reassuring.