© Steve Double www.double-whammy.com
The Career of J.G. Ballard Considered as a Downhill Motor Race
By Mark W. Hornburg


Our universe is governed by fictions of all kinds: mass consumption, publicity, politics considered and managed like a branch of publicity, instantaneous translation of science and techniques into a popular imagery, confusion and telescopage of identities in the realm of consumer goods, right of pre-emption exercised by the television screen over every personal reaction to reality. We live at the interior of an enormous novel. It becomes less and less necessary for the writer to give fictional content to his works. The fiction is already there. The work of the novelist is to invent reality.
J.G. Ballard, from the introduction of the French edition of Crash

It was the 1960s when automobile culture first hit England, and British science fiction writer J.G. Ballard took notice. Mass ownership of the automobile was new to Europe. Car culture and everything that goes with it—dating, sex in cars and the automobile accident—suddenly became a part of the global way of life. Ballard began to notice that the deaths of famous people who died in car crashes—James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, JFK (Ballard sees the Kennedy assassination as a special kind of crash)—resonated in a way that deaths in airplane disasters or hotel fires did not. The car crash held a particular drama and mystery, involving the elements of aggression and competitiveness, a certain sort of sexual drive and playing with death. Already, Ballard was anticipating the melding of technology and the human body and the public’s fixation on violence as entertainment.

Ballard theorized that the public somehow found the idea of a car crash sexually exciting, and he set out to prove it. In 1969, at the New Arts Laboratory in London, Ballard put on an exhibition of crashed cars, displaying under gallery lights three cars he had towed to the gallery from the demolition yards. He then sent out invitations to art critics and members of the London demimonde, calling the exhibition "New Scotch by J.G. Ballard." After arranging to have a closed circuit television system installed, he hired a young woman—who would be completely nude—to query the guests. Against a background of crashed cars, they would be interviewed by the naked woman on closed circuit TV. The idea was to try to create a kind of "sensory imaginative overload," the art exhibition as psychology test.

Results of this "test" reinforced Ballard’s theory. What was intended to be a typical art show opening—complete with wine and cheese and suitably elevated conversation uttered in hushed tones—degenerated into a drunken brawl. Bottles were broken against the cars, wine was splattered everywhere and the unclothed interviewer was almost raped in the back seat of one of the cars. During the show’s month-long run, the cars were repeatedly attacked by people coming into the gallery. Windows were broken, mirrors were torn off and one car was even overturned. The nervousness and hostility of the viewers were vented on a group of wrecked cars that would have gone unnoticed if they’d been parked on the street.

Ballard considered the exhibition a success. He then sat down to write a novel about a group of people who attempt to transcend their disenchantment with modern life, and their spiritual malaise, by participating in car crashes. Reflecting the scientific method employed in researching his theory, this novel—which addresses, in an oblique and totally unique way, fundamental philosophical questions about the purpose of human existence—was written in the cool, clinical style of a medical research paper. Published in 1973, Crash cemented Ballard’s reputation as one of the most important writers of the second half of the 20th Century.

The bourgeois novel is the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented. It’s a vast, sentimentalizing structure that reassures the reader, and at every point, offers the comfort of secure moral frameworks and recognizable characters.
—J.G. Ballard

The first editor to read Crash recommended against publication with this indictment: "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish!" The editor’s shocked response suggests he’d never seen the manuscript for Ballard’s previous project, The Atrocity Exhibition, which would have given him fair warning. Nelson Doubleday, head of the publishing house scheduled to put out The Atrocity Exhibition in 1970, had the first edition pulped after reading the chapter, "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan." The Atrocity Exhibition was eventually published a couple of years later by Grove Press.

This seminal work, employing surrealism and cut-up experiments with narrative, marked a radical departure from traditional narrative form and eventually put Ballard on a level with William S. Burroughs as one of the most important avant-garde writers. The book takes readers into the fractured psyche of a main character whose name keeps changing (Travis, Travers, Traven, Talbot), as a mirror of the progressive fragmentation of his environment. That environment, increasingly overwhelmed by the images of popular media, makes it more and more difficult for him to distinguish fictional elements from reality. The story that so offended the head of Doubleday includes passages such as:

Incidence of orgasms in fantasies of sexual intercourse with Ronald Reagan. Patients were provided with assembly kit photographs of sexual partners during intercourse. In each case Reagan’s face was superimposed upon the original partner. Vaginal intercourse with "Reagan" proved uniformly disappointing, producing orgasm in 2 percent of subjects. Axillary, buccal, navel, aural and orbital modes produced proximal erections. The preferred mode of entry overwhelmingly proved to be the rectal… In an extreme 12 percent of cases, the simulated anus of post-colostomy surgery generated spontaneous orgasm in 98 percent of penetrations. Multiple-track cine-films were constructed of "Reagan" in intercourse during (a) campaign speeches, (b) rear-end auto collisions with one- and three-year-old model changes, (c) rear exhaust assemblies and (d) Vietnamese child-atrocity victims.

A copy of the complete story, minus its title and subheads and sealed with the official insignia of the Republican Party, was distributed to delegates of the 1980 Republican Convention in San Francisco. According to Ballard, it was "accepted for what it resembled, a psychological position paper on the candidate’s subliminal appeal, commissioned from some maverick think tank."

Always set in the near future, the Ballardian landscapes describe empty swimming pools, concrete freeways, deserted resorts, decaying cities and abandoned Space launching pads, peopled by media stars such as Charles Manson, Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Ronald Reagan. Against a backdrop of television, the Vietnam war, advertising and TV/movie icons, ambiguous characters relentlessly pursue their obsessions, whether it be to assassinate JFK again "in a way that makes sense," or to die in a car crash with Elizabeth Taylor as an act of ultimate sexual fulfillment.—Introduction, The Atrocity Exhibition

A reader’s first encounter with J.G. Ballard’s fiction might be experienced as a kind of assault, beginning with the very titles of some of his novels, short stories, essays and even chapter headings of his longer works: The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, "Cocaine Nights, "Hitman for the Apocalypse," "A Quest for New Vices," "Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown," "The Summer Cannibals," "The Psychopath as Saint," Concrete Island, "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race." As an artist, Ballard’s modus operandi has never been difficult to discern—over the course of his 50-year writing career, he has put it right up front. Here, in direct confrontation with the reader, is a vocabulary of shock, provocation and desolation.

As he has progressed from a science fiction writer in the ‘50s and ‘60s, to an avatar of the avant-garde in the ‘70s, to a writer of popular speculative fiction in the ‘80s and ‘90s, this confrontational aspect of his style has changed little. Unfortunately, this unremitting challenging of readers’ sensibilities, coupled with his strictly unsentimental style, has sometimes obscured Ballard’s stature. In Susan Sontag’s words, he is "one of the most important, intelligent voices in contemporary fiction."

It is often said that Ballard is the only British writer since World War II to create his own language. As his most ardent critic, David Pringle, has written, "If it is true that he has made his own language, then it is hardly surprising that we should experience occasional difficulty in reading it."


Ballard’s writing career began with publication in science fiction magazines such as Michael Moorcock’s landmark New Worlds, a magazine which helped promote a new science fiction sensibility. Ballard became known as the originator of this "New Wave" of writers who challenged American sci-fi in the 1950s. His early work was set apart from conventional science fiction by its exploration of the human "inner landscape" so often ignored in sci-fi writing. Ultimately, he was influenced more by Romanticism, Symbolism, Surrealism and the entire modern movement in the arts than he was by science fiction writing.

In the story "The Index," which consists merely of the index of a novel that is not attached, he also anticipated the innovations of postmodernism, now so frequently mimicked in the work of writers such as David Foster Wallace. Other stories of his ‘70s period, such as "The Intensive Care Unit," which describes a future where people meet only by television, or "Having a Wonderful Time," about a holiday resort which is turned into a concentration camp, are definable as science fiction at the same time that they spin out of bounds and into other genres such as horror.

Early disaster novels—like 1962’s The Drowned World, which envisions life on a future Earth submerged in the oceans after the melting of the polar ice caps—describe, in one critic’s words, "ecological and psychological nightmare scenarios whose inevitability derives from pathological defects in our belief and value systems." Ballard does not sentimentalize nature, as we tend to do today. In these books, nature is fecund and alive, but ultimately alien to man.

With a shift away from science fiction and toward the social hyper-realism of Crash and High Rise behind him, Ballard’s career took another surprising turn in 1984 with the publication of his "autobiographical novel," Empire of the Sun. The book was nominated for Britain’s top literary award, the Booker Prize, and was adapted to film by Steven Spielberg. (It is a haunting and poetic film, which Ballard claims, with some justification, is Spielberg’s best). After this, there was no turning back. Ballard’s "cult status" designation was revoked—he was now, oddly enough, a highly respected, best-selling "popular writer."

I firmly believe that science fiction is the true literature of the twentieth century, and probably the last literary form to exist before the death of the written word and the domination of the visual image. S-f has been one of the few forms of modern fiction explicitly concerned with change—social, technological and environmental—and certainly the only fiction to invent society’s myths, dreams and utopias.—J.G. Ballard (1977)

Now revered in England and France as one of the world’s most important living writers and compared often to George Orwell, William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet, in the United States Ballard is still relatively unknown, or dismissed as a curiosity. His obsessions with sex and violence, disaster and entropy, technology and psychopathology, ultimately hit too close to home for residents of a country Ballard has called, "the only primitive society on earth in the sense that it is the only primitive forerunner of the advanced societies of the future." Every other country is irrelevant, he claims, because only the U.S. represents the early foundation of a stage of the future. In this future society, everything is man-made and therefore pyschoanalyzable. Along with their overt meanings, every billboard, office building, television program and football stadium contain latent meanings as well.

Considering how prophetic many of Ballard’s stories have proven to be, these observations paint a frightening portrait of our shared future. Ballard’s most famous heroes—who are suffering from a numbness he has termed "the death of affect"—find sexual fulfillment in automobile accidents, shut themselves into a high rise condominium complex with their neighbors and revel in chaos and cannibalism or retreat to gated communities and plush seaside resorts, where the only thing that can jolt them out of a surveillance—or leisure-induced lethargy—is a generous dollop of criminal activity.

His stories are parables of the future, but they are hardly homiletic. Ballard’s stance has always been that the future must be accepted and transcended—a process he calls "the normalizing of the pychopathological"—so we can come through to the other side.

In his work, the human race seems to be rushing toward destruction only because it takes an enormous act of imagination to consider what shape the other option—transcendence—would take. He has quoted Joseph Conrad, who said that the writer must immerse himself in the most destructive element of the times and see if he can swim. In a story called "The Life and Death of God," Ballard suggests that if God really existed we would have to un-invent him, because humans cannot bear too much eternity. "I think we’re all perhaps innately perverse, capable of enormous cruelty, yet paradoxically our talent for the perverse, the violent, and the obscene may be a good thing," Ballard has said. "We may have to go through this phase to reach something on the other side. It’s a mistake to hold back and refuse to accept one’s nature." This curiously optimistic statement of an almost religious faith in transcendence is missed by most critics, who dwell on the obsessive and fetishistic qualities of Ballard’s work. Ballard, in fact, denies that he has written any "disaster" books. His books have happy endings, he claims, because they are stories about "psychic fulfillment."

The only true alien planet is earth.—J.G. Ballard.

A photographic self-portrait of the young Ballard as a student at Cambridge University shows how prescient he was even when contemplating his own future. The self-timer-released, double exposure photo shows two images of the budding writer, each contemplating the other across a couch in his small room. The photo’s highly self-conscious and surrealistic composition foreshadows Ballard’s interest in the major artists of Surrealism: writer (and eventual good friend) William S. Burroughs and painters such as Dali, Magritte and Erns. The photo also hints at his recognition of a divided self, which became characteristic of the heroes of his fiction.


His childhood contains all the elemental roots of his later writing. Ballard’s imagination is borne of the apocalyptic landscape of war-torn China. James Graham Ballard was born in 1930 in Shanghai, China, while his father worked as director of a subsidiary of a Manchester textile manufacturer. Shanghai was, according to Ballard, "one of the most extraordinary and bizarre places on earth, a place where anything went, completely without restraints." The city contained a large population of foreign nationals who lived privileged lifestyles, in large homes with air-conditioning and refrigerators. The Ballards themselves had nine Chinese servants and a chauffeur-driven Packard.

The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937 was about to change all that. From 1937 to 1942, the Ballard family existed in a kind of limbo and perpetual state of denial, staying in Shanghai while war raged around and sometimes even over them: Artillery shells would often sail over their house in the International Settlement. It is a period Ballard has described as "a continuum of disorder." The foreign nationals continued with their sheltered lifestyles, however. At home, there were lavish costume parties and men and women dancing in their finery, while out in the battlefields around Shanghai, Ballard saw dead soldiers and rotting horses in the canal.

The stunning juxtapositions of refined elegance and privilege abutting chaos and death gave Ballard his first taste of surrealist aesthetics. The drained swimming pools, deserted suburbs, de-populated office towers and empty highways of Shanghai became the inspiration for the devastated worlds of his fiction. "Prewar and wartime Shanghai was a huge surrealistic landscape," Ballard has said. "Parties of Europeans and Americans drove from Shanghai and parked their limousines on the country roads covered with cartridge cases. The ladies in silk dresses and their husbands in gray suits strolled through the debris of a war arranged for them by a passing demolition squad."

In 1942, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and brought the Allies deeper into the war, the Ballards were interned by the Japanese in a camp at Lunghua. They remained there until the end of the war, as Ballard was turning fifteen. During his three-year imprisonment, the camp was guarded by a handful of Japanese guards. Most activities, such as roll calls and curfews, were organized by the inmates. The guards made infrequent appearances, mainly to help the prisoners strengthen the barbed wire fences that kept out starving Chinese. Ballard has said the guards realized that, left to themselves, "the inmates would devise a more regimented and impregnable prison within a prison than they could hope for." When the war finally ended, the young Ballard, as portrayed in Empire of the Sun, assumed it meant that World War III had begun.

After the war, Ballard was "repatriated" to England, a country he had never visited. He eventually enrolled in Cambridge University, studying medicine with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist. While there, he entered a short story in the university’s crime story competition and won, giving him his first taste of success as a writer.

Losing interest in Cambridge after two years, he left to study English at London University. A year later, he abandoned school for good and in his early twenties joined the service of the Royal Air Force, where he was stationed in Canada. There he was able to indulge his fascination with airplanes, which figure prominently in his fiction. He also stumbled upon a rack of American science fiction magazines, which eventually became home to some of his earliest stories. Between 1956 and 1965, Ballard published fifty short stories and four novels. Most of these works have been characterized as science fiction stories, although even at this early stage in his career he was showing signs of becoming a writer who would transcend the sci-fi genre.

The trouble with Marxism is that it is a social philosophy for the poor—what we need now is a social philosophy for the rich.
—J.G. Ballard (1969)

Ballard has lived and worked in the London suburb of Shepperton for most of his writing career. He’s said that a city like London doesn’t offer him much because it’s too old, whereas the suburbs are comparatively new and, in a way, more dangerous: "You’re not going to get mugged walking down the street, but somebody might steal your soul." He continues to keep his writing sharp not by reading novels, but by assimilating the "invisible literature" of technical manuals, company reports and journals. Among his recommendations for the last five years are the transcripts of black box recordings.

As the world rushes with ever-increasing velocity to fulfill each of his prophecies and to recreate every apocalyptic landscape of his stories and novels, it’s not surprising to find J.G. Ballard, now in his seventies, steadily increasing his output with the advancing years. In the past few years, he has published a collection of essays and reviews called A User’s Guide to the Millennium; the novel Cocaine Nights, which centers around a seaside resort whose wealthy residents have made criminal activity into a kind of recreation as common as tennis or golf; and Running Wild, a schematic, almost screenplay-like work of fiction about a gated community in which the over-monitored children rise up and slaughter all the community’s adults.

And this year, Ballard has published Super-Cannes, a novel about a mass murder in a sculpted, high-tech business park on the French Riviera called Eden-Olympia. The novel’s plot centers around a British journalist who comes to the park’s medical center with his wife, who is taking over for a resident who went berserk and slaughtered several executives before taking his own life. Super-Cannes has been critically acclaimed for neatly converging all of Ballard’s major tropes and themes. The novel asks a typically provocative Ballardian question: "What if violence is a cure for, rather than a symptom of, the stress in modern society?"

Consumer capitalism, Ballard says, has moved into the business of strip-mining "the latent psychopathy of the human mind." Ballard says that Eden-Olympia is a model for the Western world as a whole, a place where the modern Darwinian struggles take place between competing psychopathies. "It’s already happened in a way," he said in a recent interview. "You know, the struggle between capitalism, fascism, and communism was a struggle between competing psychopathies."

Wilder Penrose, the mad psychiatrist orchestrating the savage adventures in Eden-Olympia, claims that the Adolf Hitlers and Pol Pots of the future will come not out of the desert but from shopping malls and corporate business parks. Both our exterior and interior spaces have now been completely colonized. "We live like figures embalmed in moral Lucite," Ballard recently said. "Very few moral decisions are left for us today any more. How we care for and educate our children, our behavior with our spouses, is closely regulated by the law... I mean you can happily and responsibly live your life today without ever making a moral decision at all."

"Total security is a disease of deprivation," says a character in Cocaine Nights. The essential monotony of modern life has created a dangerous itch in we who are naturally novelty-seeking beings. "Novelty is as important as Vitamin C," Ballard says. While he continues to find it in his fiction writing, Ballard is curious about the rest of us who may, he’s afraid, take our novelty in whatever form we can find it.