One of the most influential and brilliant writers of the 20th century has died. In his final book, ‘Miracles Of Life’, Jim Ballard spoke with the calm grace of acceptance about his illness, and remained, in that late volume, as quietly subversive and shockingly honest as he had been throughout his life.
Despite producing a steady stream of SF books (which were not, arguably, SF books at all but future roadmaps), he gained mainstream attention with his most SF book of all. In many ways ‘Empire Of the Sun’ felt like a greatest hits package of his work to date, but it was the one made into a film by Steven Spielberg, who did wonderful job of transposing his complex work to the screen.
He was a great hero of mine. We wrote to each other a few times, and he always took the time to answer all of my dumb questions. When David Cronenberg made ‘Crash’, his producer Jeremy Thomas invited me over to meet Jim, and I found myself faced with a problem.
I hated the film and felt it betrayed the book by turning the protagonists into freaks, something Ballard was careful not to do. The subversive trick of ‘Crash’ was to make this grotesque world appear desirable by mimicking the prose of car ads, something Cronenberg avoided.
So I did not go over and meet him, because I would have had to lie about what I had just seen, or say that I hated it – something I elt it would be wrong to do on the occasion of a genius writer’s first screen adaptation.
Part of me is also loathe to meet my heroes, but I know he would have been as charming as he was in his correspondence. I wish I had taken the opportunity now.
I hate the idea of a world where Jim Ballard doesn’t exist. We are now living inside the dystopia he predicted – sometimes I think he was less of a novelist than a clairvoyant. He dies knowing that the circle of his ideas has been completed, and that most of his most shocking observations are now casually taken for granted.
It seemed impossible in his many interviews for Ballard to open his mouth without saying something that upon analysis was deeply unsettling. His ideas about violence, consumer fetishism, dreams and reality have futureproofed his books for many years to come.
The Colours Of Light
Ballard’s ideas have been rightly celebrated but I particularly love the cadence of his sentences, and his extraordinary use of colour, light and landscape. I tried to imitate his prose in my early days and failed embarrassingly, because his unique expression came from somewhere deep inside and was not simply chosen as a style.
Shifting sands, rising waters, blazing sun, the refraction of light through crystal – there is something highly exotic and foreign in his writing which cuts like a razor through the most prosaic situations. Who else could set not one but several books around the Westway road in West London, a place so mundane as to be invisible to its users?
This point may not be obvious, but Ballard could be very funny, in that dry English way that does not feel like humour at all. For most overt proof, read ‘The Unlimited Dream Company’. Many of his stories have a streak of gently cruel wit running through them that exposes man’s foibles and preoccupations.
He was often misunderstood by critics, who complained that his characters were ciphers – but I would argue that they were only so when he wanted them to be. The problem was perhaps that he understood the English nature all too well, and our critics don’t always like to be so exposed to the world.
He also gave the dictionary a word – ‘Ballardian’, meaning a dystopian modernist urban environment. The real miracle is that for all his talk of disconnection and alienation he wrote wih more human warmth than almost anyone I can think of, because he understood what it means to be human, and to accept that state with a kind of calm detachment.
Goodbye, Jim, and thank you for a lifetime of inspiration, beauty and insight.