Tuesday, April 21, 2009


British writer J.G. Ballard died Sunday at age 78. The Guardian obituary and links to related articles are here.

This is sad news, but as Bob Dylan says, "now ain't the time for your tears." If you've never read Ballard or haven't read any of his books recently, now's the time to rediscover him or read him for the first time. Often pigeonholed as a science fiction writer, Ballard did indeed begin his career as a member of the British SF New Wave of the 1960s, but he very quickly burst the commercial bounds of genre and began to write formally original, aesthetically and intellectually challenging, transgressive fiction with deep, sometimes imperceptible, roots in the traumas of his early life. The child of British residents of Shanghai, Ballard spent his early teens imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp, an experience explored in his uncharacteristically realistic and (thus) commercially successful novel Empire of the Sun. About the effect of his early life on his work, he once said, "In many ways my entire fiction is the exploration of a deep pathology I had witnessed in Shanghai and later in the post-war world." For a good introduction to his obsessive themes--techno-nuclear annihilation, the technological death of affect, the mechanization of eros and the eroticization of mechanical things--check out The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (with an intro by Anthony Burgess) and Crash. The former is a collection of works ranging from his early science fiction to the experimental, avant-garde fictions of the 1970s. I especially recommend "The Concentration City," "The Terminal Beach," "The Drowned Giant," "The Atrocity Exhibition," the two brief fictions on the Kennedy assassination, and "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan." His notorious novel Crash, the inspiration for David Cronenberg's film, is probably his most important statement on the theme of technology and eros. It's also surely one of the greatest and most original pornographic novels ever written. Far from shying away from the word 'pornography,' Ballard embraced it in his 1974 introduction to the French edition of Crash: "Throughout Crash I have used the car not only as a sexual image, but as a total metaphor for man's life in today's society. As such the novel has a political role quite apart from its sexual content, but I would still like to think that Crash is the first pornographic novel based on technology. In a sense, pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other in the most urgent and ruthless way."

In a world of 'producers' and 'consumers' of corporate 'product,' Ballard was an artist. He will be missed.

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