A silhouette of a child holding a toy plane as a real plane falls from the sky in flames, with a orange and gold sun behind against a grey sky

Why Ballard's Still The Boss

Christopher Fowler

It is now six years since Jim Ballard died. In a world with few heroes, he was one of mine. He began writing short stories in 1956, part of SF's 'new wave', in which space ships and intergallactic battles were eschewed in favour of 20th century problems taken to extremes. His work is therefore more relatable and his early years in Shanghai gave even his most English fiction an exotic tropical tone. While living a calm, ordered and rather suburban Thames Valley life, he wrote novels of increasing prescience. His first, 'The Drowned World' in 1962, looked at the consequences of global warming, but even at this stage he refused to conform to normal scenarios, splicing psychological insight into the story. At the end his hero takes the opposite route that you'd find in a conventional tale because although it seems less logical, from a psychological point of view it makes more sense. In 1973 he published 'Crash' , a disturbing, explicit meditation on the relationship between sexual desire and cars, and caused debate about the limits of censorship. David Cronenberg made a hopelessly literal version of the film that failed to capture the tone of the book and turned a genuinely horrific idea — that sex would eventually become fetishised with death — into a drab, prosaic experience. In his late years, Ballard explored links between consumerism and violence - but it was now the height of new consumerist culture, and many critics failed to understand or appreciate his novels.

But it could be that Ballard is finally on the edge of a revival? Vincenzo Natali (director of 'Cube' and 'Splice'), did not get to film 'High Rise', a book that went through so many filmmakers' hands without results before reaching Ben Wheatley, the most interesting of the UK's few directors working on native soil. Now it's finally about to be released. Recently, all of Ballard's short stories appeared in two huge volumes and online. For filmmakers Ballard is hard to adapt — how do you keep his ideas and the flavour of his writing intact? After the travesty of Cronenberg's 'Crash' it was felt that no-one could do justice to Ballard's words. Oddly, Steven Spielberg came close with Ballard's only mainstream book. The genius of Ballard's subversive text is that he seduces you with unpalatable, anarchic ideas. 'Running Wild', 'High Rise' and 'Concrete Island' came from another period of Ballard's writing when he seemed to be accurately predicting the future in his novels. In 'Concrete Island' a man crashes his car over the side of the motorway and finds himself in one of those dead areas beneath the tarmac where no pedestrians ever venture. But he discovers that others are trapped down there, their cries having gone unnoticed by the cars overhead. Ballard makes the impossible believable. In 'High Rise', internecine warfare break out between the social classes in a tower block. Such high concepts throw up all kinds of logic challenges to a film-maker. About the upcoming film version, Wheatley says; 'It's a very relevant book. It was written in the '70s, projecting itself into a near future, but we live in that future now. It's a book that's about our parents in a way, that generation, and we're the generation that's the Thatcher generation. We're almost in a new version of the '70s. Nothing's really moved forward particularly. It just resets, doesn't it?'

Ballard's shadow falls heavily across writers and directors. You can detect a strong influence in the latest episode of Mad Max, a series Ballard admired, and you can read more about some of his more ill-fated projects on the excellent website Ballardian here. Jim Ballard and I wrote to each other for a time (I have the letters somewhere, God knows where) but I turned down the chance to meet him at the 'Crash' premiere because the film appalled me and I didn't want to risk offence, knowing that he had embraced it during production. Ballard could also be very funny - his book 'Low Flying Aircraft' is witty, and 'The Unlimited Dream Company' is uncharacteristically joyful. In the early stages of my career his name was yoked to mine in a few reviews, something I did not deserve. I now have a chance to make amends for that in a very small way with my upcoming novel 'The Sand Men', which I wrote as a direct homage to my mentor.


P.S. While Ballard's prose was extreme and frequently shocking, his top ten list of favourite SF movies was surprisingly tame and mainstream; 1. Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965) 2. Mad Max 2 (George Miller, 1981) 3. The Man Who Fell To Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976) 4. Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974) 5. Barbarella (Roger Vadim, 1968) 6. Dr Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1963) 7. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) 8. The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957) 9. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977) 10. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)  


Roger (not verified) Sat, 20/06/2015 - 17:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"His first, 'The Drowned World' in 1962, "

Ballard wrote an earlier novel, The Wind From Nowhere, which he later disowned or suppressed. It's a very conventional "cosy catastrophe", if I remember rightly.

Jackie Hayles (not verified) Sat, 20/06/2015 - 19:26

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Concrete Island with Christian Bale looks promising. I heard it as a radio play (with Andrew Scott) but it suffered from a lack of imagery, which I think benefited Locke, as both are incursions into The Labyrinth! High Rise too!!!

peter dixon (not verified) Sat, 20/06/2015 - 20:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Ballard started with 'The Wind From Nowhere' in a very John Wyndhamesque style, continuing the 'unexpected calamity' trope of 'nature against man' - like 'The Kraken Wakes' and 'Day of the Triffids' which recall Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger story of the earth passing through a gas cloud with no hope of human or animal escape.
This is dystopia without the human element - simply showing how insignificant humanity is against cosmic forces.
The Drowned World is significantly different in that we are drawn into small enclave of survivors trying to eke out an existence in a world and situation they are not adapted to.

'Crash' and 'Concrete Island' are two sides of a debased coin and should be read together as a critique on society's fetishism for cars, speed and the architecture of roads and motorways - the antithesis of Futurism and Marinetti's rants about the beauty of the machine and architecture.

But the very best thing about Ballard was that he predicted that Ronald Reagan would become America's President.

He's still my favourite author.

Keishon (not verified) Sun, 21/06/2015 - 19:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I plan to give him a try this year. I think I have "High Rise" in my stacks. Thanks for this excellent post.

John Griffin (not verified) Thu, 25/06/2015 - 21:22

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

He had a quietly heroic ordinary suburban life too.