Sunday, May 10, 2009

James G Ballard dies

It had not escaped my notice that JG Ballard had died recently, aged 78.

Yet when I was young, reading all sorts of science fiction, it did escape my notice what was different about Ballard. This was because what I read of his fitted into the general pantheon, so he was absorbed along with the rest. It takes a lot of reading, for example, to identify Ray Bradbury's particular lyricism, Clifford D Simak's wry humour, Philip K Dick's (very instructive) paranoia, Robert Heinlein's right-wing libertarianism - or even AE Van Vogt's Scientology sympathies.

First, Ballard was British, where not many regular names were. Although science fiction is ostensibly - and should be - a universal language, in practice the writers are informed by their cultural background. Do I detect a certain reserve in Brian Aldiss' characters? A less gung-ho attitude to the stars in Clarke's?

The overwhelming echo for me in Ballard's work is the image of a lone, alienated figure (often an airman), wandering across a desolate landscape. Not always the desolation of a nuclear war: the environments were so different across his works, but the barrenness - physical or metaphorical - seemed a constant. Others characterise his oeuvre as an exploration of disturbing distopias.

Of course, Ballard by now is best known for his works that were translated to film: Empire Of The Sun, semi-autobiography set in Japanese-occupied China, and Crash, a Cronenberg film wherein the protagonists have an erotic fixation with car crashes. That latter story is taken from his collection Atrocity Exhibition, whose title was borrowed for a harrowing Joy Division song (on Closer).

And what does it say of environment in the imagination of an author, that he lived over 50 years of his life in the same suburban house?

Some said he was a quirky writer, but that should be no more than a decent science fiction writer gets anyway. Yet he was certainly more literary - and metaphoric - than many writers in what I consider the golden age of SF, the 1950s and 60s. That was still the era when raw ideas trumped writing quality. But not for all; some meshed both.

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