J G Ballard

Arguably the strangest writer to be included in this series is J G Ballard, sometimes described as a writer of science fiction, though his work hardly fits into that genre. In fact his best known book, The Empire of the Sun, is a traditional novel, based on a seminal episode in his own life, when he spent a couple of years in a Japanese internment camp. This was in Shanghai, where his parents had been working before the Second World War.

It has been argued that the oppression Ballard experienced as a child during this period – he was 13 in 1943, when the Japanese took over the International Settlement in Shanghai, which had hitherto thought it was sacrosanct – contributed to the violence that is endemic to his work. He himself however said that, though there was brutality, the children also had fun. Certainly that book seems to me the least dark of the novels of Ballard that I have read.

In presenting the whole experience emphatically through the eyes of a child, and indeed removing his parents from the action for most of it, Ballard conveys also a sense of the innocence that governs responses to the violence and suffering that have to be endured. There is also a wonderfully human element in the boy’s relationship with the Japanese soldier who responds as the youth he still is to the demands of the youngsters he is supposed to control. The description of his dead body, when finally the camp is liberated, is dispassionate, but also moving in its reminder of the random destructiveness of war.

What I think did affect Ballard then, and seems to me to have governed much of his writing, was a deep distaste for authority, and a conviction that power rarely went with responsibility or consideration for others. This I think led to an anarchic streak in his writing, while at the same time he deplored also the irresponsibility of most anarchists.

The second work of Ballard that I read then I found deeply depressing, and it prevented me from dipping into his work again for a very long time. This was Running Wild, about the murder of several rich couples living in a housing estate for the wealthy, and the disappearance of their children. The immediate assumption is that they have been kidnapped but there seems no reason for this, since there is no one left to respond to demands for ransom. Investigation indicates an inside job, given the manner in which the elaborate security arrangements the estate used were subverted, and before long the conclusion is that the children had plotted the whole business themselves. Evidently they were disgusted by the lifestyle of their parents, in which they themselves were treated as commodities, and decided to revolt. The novel ends with them acting as a anarchic group that tries, though without success, to engage in political terrorism.

The novel, though it came out in 1988, could be related to the emergence in the sixties in Europe of anarchic groups rooted in the upper classes, as for instance the Red Brigade in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany. Ballard however, through his ruthless exposition of the self-centred lifestyles of the murdered parents, introduces a dimension of social criticism that, if exaggerated, drew attention to the dehumanizing effects of corporate employment.

I was enthralled but not impressed, and only returned to Ballard a decade later, when I had to judge the Eurasian section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Both the chairman and I were impressed by his Super-Cannes, though the Indian judge was not in favour, and we agreed then on Amitav Ghosh’s novel about Burma, The Glass Palace. But Ghosh rather dramatically turned down the prize, so we then agreed hurriedly on Ballard, which of course put paid to his chances of being considered seriously for the overall prize.

Super-Cannes again dealt with the extravagant and perverse lifestyles of the very rich, again in an enclave reserved for them, with stringent security safeguards. These however are regularly breached, because the rich need stimulation, and this is best provided by the underworld. Apart obviously from drugs, of increasing potency, the excitement the jaded crave includes not just prostitution, but child sex too. All this is confusing for those who are supposed in all innocence to provide security, and they find that, apart from chosen security personnel contributing to the corruption, the denizens of the enclave themselves usually support each other rather than the principles that are supposed to preserve their privileges.

Super-Cannes was supposed to be a sequel to a book called Cocaine Nights, which I had not read previously, and which I only caught up with much later. In fact the two books are not really connected, and the first is in fact a different version of the same thing, as a man investigating a crime with which his brother has been charged ends up being charged for a similar crime. The deaths are part of the efforts of yet another rich enclave to preserve their secrets, but the crux of the book lies in the way the protagonist realizes how he too has begun to be dragged into the corruption, and that perhaps being charged with a crime he did not commit is the only way to free himself in his own conscience.

The concept is strange, and explains why Ballard was not really a popular writer, in his efforts to prick the consciences of the rich through his analysis of the corrosive effects of modern society, with its stress on sensations. He was also perhaps too intensely analytical in his more conventional science fiction work, for I gather that Crash, his best known work in this genre, which I have not read, deals with the ‘violent psychosexuality of car crashes in general, and celebrity car crashes in particular’. Remembering however the drama over Princess Diana, one realizes that Ballard was certainly prophetic.

Certainly the links he draws between the demands of sexuality in a world in which values are fluid, the thrills violence provides in particular for those who have abandoned any sense of responsibility except within a charmed circle, the essential isolation of individuals who refuse to abandon their particular commitments, are well worth noticing. I am not sure myself that all this adds up to a coherent or helpful world view, but the ideas cannot be ignored. Given that these are areas fiction, with its stresses usually on personal relations and general social problems, often ignores, Ballard’s idiosyncratic contribution to fiction deserves continuing attention.