I would feel remiss if I let the death of one of my favourite authors pass by without comment. JG Ballard died of cancer aged 78 on the 19th of April 2009. It is sad to think he will never release another book.
He was usually labelled a Sci Fi writer but he frequently strayed from this label to write unique, often dystopian, scenarios that sort of/kind of/might just happen. Tired of trying to label his writing techniques and topics, he is actually in the dictionary (some of them) as ‘Ballardian’ so you can just use that. Ballard described his work as ‘speculative fiction’.
I might write full reviews later but just in case you haven’t read any of his work, I will provide a brief synopsis of some of my favourites:
Concrete Island (1974) tells the story of Richard Maitland in a twisted modern version of Robinson Crusoe. The protagonist crashes his car into an island formed by the junction of three major motorways and gets stranded. Due to his leg being knackered he can’t cross the road and his attempts at flagging down speeding cars proves futile. So he’s stuck. He then struggles to survive and even discovers that he is not alone. As always, a great novel with a brilliant idea, but I found Maitland a hard guy to like all that much. Not that it really matters.
Buy Concrete Island here
Empire of the Sun (1984) is probably his most famous book. This is mostly due to the fact that it was filmed by Spielberg. It is almost autobiographical in that it tells the story of a boy called Jim Graham (JG stands for James Graham) who grows up in Singapore and is interned in a camp by the Japanese when they take over in World War II. This all happened to Ballard except that in real life he was with his parents. He undoubtably used a certain amount of artistic licence but his experiences were genuine. The book is debatably his finest, and most award-worthy. I say ‘debatably’ as lots would disagree. The characters are well defined and believable with a strong narrative. Which isn’t always the case with Ballard. Highly recommended. Don’t just see the film. Buy Empire of the Sun here
High Rise (1975) is possibly my favourite idea of all his work. It tells the story of a luxury self-contained high rise apartment block that comes complete with its own swimming pools and supermarkets. There is no real need to leave if the residents don’t want to. This book returns to his favourite dystopian theme and the ideas of how modern life and psyche can be affected by the artificial surroundings we have created for ourselves. The apartment block has rich penthouse owners at the top, middle-class luxury apartments in the middle, and cheaper smaller flats for the working class at the bottom. A class war effectively breaks out as the block looks inwards and the residents return to a primal state. There are raids on different floors and battles for control of the pool. A very effective, if slightly extreme, study of humanity and what we can be capable of. Buy High-rise here It is now also a great movie!
Millenium People (2003). I read this a few months ago and enjoyed it immensely. It tells the tale of a middle-class revolution in the UK. Barrsiters, art gallery owners, and media types get fed up with their lot in society and say bollocks to it all. It centres around the revolution ring-leaders in a gated community in Chelsea. While the book is witty and very readable it becomes hard to identify with many of the well defined characters. Not one of his best, Millenium People is fun – especially if you happen to be middle-class, live in London and frequent some of the novel’s locales such as Tate Modern, the NFT, and the South Bank generally. I would recommend this only once you have enjoyed some of his other works. Buy Millenium People here
The Drowned World (1962) is Ballard’s second book and a difficult one to summarize. It is set in a world were the ice caps have melted, the temperatures are rising and London is transformed into a strange, overgrown, lush tropical dreamworld. While most people have migrated north, a few feel drawn to the primeval landscape. These characters also start to regress to a more primitive state. Like High Rise and Concrete Island and others – it is a typical Ballardian exploration of a dystopian society and the way our surroundings affect our mental states. It has hardly any narrative or story but is more a a dreamlike summation of the mood of the fetid swamplike landscape and its affects on the characters. A great novel but not for everyone. Buy The Drowned World here
I intend to read all of Ballard’s books over the coming months but the above should at least give you a taste of his work and why he is so hard to categorise. I would highly recommend his short story collection Vermillion Sands as well but I haven’t read it in ages so can’t summarise it here.
If you haven’t read any Ballard at all you are in for a treat and should try some. If you have – then I’ll just shut up. He was a great writer and one of the wittiest men to see doing a reading or an interview. Along with two of my other favourite authors dying in the last couple of years – Kurt Vonnegut and George MacDonald Fraser – Ballard’s death is a loss to us all.