Sunday, April 19, 2009

Writer J. G. Ballard Passes On

(WARNING If you are a bit uncomfortable with content that is rated at least PG-13, you might want to pass this blog entry by....)

Sometimes controversial writer J. G. Ballard passed today at the age of 78. He had been ill for many years and was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006.

J. G. Ballard was born James Graham Ballard on November 15, 1930 in Shanghai, China. His father was managing director of the China Printing and Finishing Company, a subsidiary of the Calico Printers Association. Ballard grew up in the Shanghai International Settlement, an area controlled by foreign interests including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and others. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Ballard and his family were interned in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre (an internment centre where the Japanese sent British, American, and European citizens) for two years. In 1946 Ballard went with his sisters and his mother to the United Kingdom. They lived outside Plymouth and he attended The Leys School in Cambridge. His mother and sisters returned to China to be with his father after a few years. Ballard remained in England. He majored in medicine at King's College, Cambridge, wanting to become a psychiatrist.

While at university J. G. Ballard was already writing fiction. In May 1951, his second year at King's College, his story "The Violent Noon" won a crime story contest and was published in the student newspaper Varsity. This event made Ballard realise he preferred writing to medicine. in 1952 ge left King's College, Cambridge and went to the University of London to study English literature. Ballard was asked to leave the university before the year was even over, after which he took a job as a copywriter for an advertising agency and an encyclopaedia salesman. In 1953 he joined the Royal Air Force and was sent to Royal Canadian Air Force flight-training base in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. It was there that he started reading science fiction in American science fiction magazines. It was while he was in the RAF that he wrote his first science fiction story, "Passport to Eternity."

In 1954 Ballard left the RAF and returned to the United Kingdom. It was in 1956 that he had his first science fiction story, "Prima Belladonna," published in New Worlds. For the next few years Ballard would be an assistant editor on he scientific journal Chemistry and Industry and an editor of Ambit. It was in 1960 that Ballard finally decided to become a full time writer. His first novel, The Wind from Nowhere, was published in January 1962.

Ballard's second novel, The Drowned World, was published later in 1962. The novel established Ballard as a leading voice in the New Wave movement within science fiction (a movement which was more literary and artistic than previous sci-fi and encouraged a large degree of experimentation). It was in 1969 that one of J. G. Ballard's more controversial books was published. The Atrocity Exhibition was a collection of experimental pieces centred on a psychotic individual as he tried to make sense of such events as Marilyn Monroe's suicide and the Kennedy assassination. His following work would prove no less controversial. Crash (1973) was a novel centred on characters who become sexually aroused by car crashes--both real and staged. The work was so disturbing that a publisher's reader actually recommended, "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!" The novel was adapted by David Cronenberg as a film in 1996 and may have served as the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (part of the film Grindhouse).

For the most part Ballard's works continued to be dystopian in nature and more often than not violent. High Rise (1975) centred on a futuristic, high-rise apartment building where the inhabitants turn violent after the high-rise starts to deteriorate. Hello America (1981) focused on a European steamship, the SS Apollo, sailed to North America following an ecological disaster. Ballard finally broke into the mainstream with his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun in 1984, which drew upon his experiences growing up in Shanghai. The novel was adapted as a movie by Steven Spielberg in 1987. Ballard's final novel, Kingdom Come, was published in 2006. His autobiography, Miracles of Life, was published last year.

J. G. Ballard was one of the most original writers of his time and certainly one of the most controversial. His works tended to be dystopian in nature, set in a world where the advance of technology does not improve the quality of human life, but merely degrades mankind even more. In Ballard's novels advances do not improve human life, but merely deteriorate its worth and even bring about violence and perversity. Although indubitably dark, Ballard's work would prove very influential. He is considered a forerunner of the subgenre known as cyberpunk. His influence can be seen on writers ranging from Martin Amis to Jean Baudrillard. Ballard would even have an influence on modern music. Hawkwind produced a song titled "High-Rise," based on Ballard's novel of the same name. Many of Joy Division's songs were drawn from Ballard's works (most obviously "The Atrocity Exhibition"). Andrew Eldritch of The Sisters of Mercy, has admitted that Ballard influenced his music. Radiohead posted excerpts from Kingdom Come on their blog in the months leading up to the release of their 2007 album In Rainbows. Although not the most optimistic of writers, J. G. Ballard had a profound effect on both modern literature and music.

1 comment:

J. Marquis said...

Wow, another giant has left us. I always admired his literary vision and courage.