The publication of any book by J.G. Ballard at this moment–let alone so colossal and career-spanning a volume as The Complete Stories, running to nearly 1,200 pages–is an occurrence that can only be about more than itself. All writers are writers of their time, of course, but Ballard, who after a fight with cancer died in April 2009, feels somehow uniquely, precisely so. This book marks the fact that we are all post-Ballard now: it’s not that we’ve gotten beyond him but rather that we remain ineluctably defined by him. Completists have pointed out that, its title notwithstanding, this volume is not a truly comprehensive collection of all Ballard’s published short fiction. Those few omissions are a disappointment. Nevertheless, they are few, and despite them the book is indispensable.
The volume’s ninety-eight stories (including two written for this edition) are printed in chronological order of publication, which illuminates Ballard’s trajectory. There is something fascinating and poignant about watching various obsessions appear, reappear or come gradually or suddenly into focus: birds, flying machines, ruins, beaches, obscure geometric designs, the often-noted empty swimming pools. That the earlier stories are on the whole less compelling than the later, and more numerous, suggests a career-long process of distillation, a rendering-down. Both in facility and insight, early works such as the wincingly punning “Prima Belladonna”–the first of many journeys to Vermilion Sands, an artists’ colony-cum-fading seaside resort supposedly somewhere in the real world though full of impossibilities and dream technologies–or “Now: Zero” and “Track 12,” rather overwrought Dahl-esque tales of the unexpected, are slight compared with the later dense and strange forensics. Many of the stories function as testing grounds for Ballard’s novels. For the admirer of his longer work there is the slightly disconcerting pleasure of déjà vu, of stumbling into précis and dry runs. Here are various aspects of Empire of the Sun, Crash, The Crystal World. This book is a valedictory, an event, the ground-laying for investigations.
Still, among what must be considered these mostly minor early Ballards, enjoyable-enough exercises pegged often on single ideas or images (“Chronopolis”: what if timekeeping were illegal?; “Billennium”: what if no one had any living space at all?) are important moments of exceptionality. The relatively early “The Waiting Grounds” prods at the sheer unthinkability of time in ways that would be dramatically pronounced later. On an inhospitable planet, peculiar evidence pushes the narrator, Quaine, to have visions of beings who have slowed their temporal subjectivities by extraordinary factors, waiting for some “mantle of ideation,” some unthinkable Godot, that may or may not be a “cosmic redeemer.” The epochal, inhuman patience Quaine touches occurs in what he calls “Deep Time.” “The Voices of Time,” from 1960, arrives like an outrider of later Ballard, with gnostic sigils carved in swimming pools and the pre-emptive evolution–prevolution?–of extraordinary creatures maladapted for the here and now by their very adaptations for possible futures: a frog laboring under a radiation-repelling lead carapace; chromatophagic anemones, preparing to feed in and on a “world of violent colour contrasts”; spiders that spin their own brain matter for varying neurological needs.
And there’s “Manhole 69,” from 1957, about the effects of an experiment in sleeplessness. Ballard interrupts the relatively workaday prose and generic as-you-know-Bob explanations with an extraordinary image of a shrinking room. There is a subtradition in imaginative fiction about the horrors of disobedient geometry, ranging from John Buchan’s “Space,” with its nervous dream of “triangular railway platforms with trains running simultaneously down all three sides and not colliding,” to, surely the ne plus ultra of the tradition, H.P. Lovecraft’s magnificent reference in “The Call of Cthulhu” to “an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse.” Ballard’s geometric “planes severing in a multi-dimensional flux” are similarly disobedient, but they do not crush the room’s inhabitants or close mouthlike and rapaciously on them: rather, they change from one everyday space (a large hall) to another (a manhole). The horror for the inhabitants is not the impossible shift, which they do not perceive, but the claustrophobic roomness in which they remain and notice themselves.
More than a quarter-century later, Ballard inverted the conceit with “The Enormous Space,” in which a man’s refusal to leave a suburban house bloats it until, psychotic, he perceives it as a universe. (In a slighter variation, “Report on an Unidentified Space Station,” the entirety of our cosmos exists within one set of rooms.) The pornography of infinity is a longstanding science fiction trope. H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke and Olaf Stapledon, among many others, counterpose the vasty deeps of the universe, the interplanetary sublime, with a specklike human subjectivity to produce a by-now rather well-worn satori of unconvincing humility. (This is brilliantly and affectionately parodied by Douglas Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, with its Total Perspective Vortex.) In “The Enormous Space,” Ballard’s skewed fidelity to the trope transforms the banal topography of a living room or a kitchen into something unthinkable, and we respond with genuine awe at the narrator’s lunatic Scott-of-the-Antarctic explorations of his kitchen. Whether they contract or expand, Ballard’s rooms never change, and never let us go.
There can be as many Ballardian worlds as readers, and thus many Ballards. (For whom what is the collective noun: A flight? A fugue? An empty pool of Ballards?) Each of those Ballards is real enough to someone, thrown up by a reader who experiences the world through the fiction. Even the word “Ballardian” is now commonplace, enshrined not only in the url of an extensive website of speculative cultural investigation but also the entirely mainstream and eminently respectable Collins English Dictionary. But this profusion of Ballards cannot deter one from passing judgment among them: these Ballards must be compared, and some found more Ballardian than others.
Zadie Smith, in a typically insightful and provocative piece in the Guardian, describes Ballard’s stories as “at once well made, full of the supposedly contemptible components–plot, setting, character–and yet irreducibly strange in proportion.” Irreducibly strange, certainly, but the image here of a literature that is “weird”–her word–despite appearing to obey conventional rules of fiction is not quite convincing. No one would deny that Ballard is interested in setting. Like the Surrealists he so admired and refers to so often, he renders setting in an obsessive and visionary manner. With its flat, vivid colors, with or without human habitation, under red suns and in sands, and with its carefully examined and itemized physical minutiae, Ballard’s “entire landscape,” to borrow a phrase from “The Venus Hunters,” seems “haunted by strange currents and moods.” But character and plot?
There is, to be fair, plot aplenty, but on the whole Ballard is least weird at his most conventionally plotty. Particularly in his early stories, the attempts to work through beginnings, middles and ends, let alone with “revelations” or “twists,” range from the pleasingly efficient to the clunky. It tends to be despite plot that the stories ensnare, and–I’m leaving aside the brilliant but difficult and overtly formally experimental texts or works made up of an index or questionnaire or footnotes or an invented zodiac–Ballard is at his most powerful when he presents a sequence of described events as if it were a plot but does not deliver anything approaching conventional catharsis or a clever reveal.
One of his greatest works, “The Drowned Giant,” for example, is also one of the most formally straightforward-seeming. There are no post-Burroughs cut-up shenanigans. The story opens with a hook–where did this dead giant on the beach come from?–and follows in a simple temporal line from that beginning through the middle to an end, abjuring even flashbacks. But while this might look, at a squint, like a narrative arc, there is no rising action. The mystery is deliberately understated and rapidly tails off into a bureaucratized dismemberment. There is no climax, unless it is the exaggeratedly muted mention en passant that the giant’s head is missing. There is no falling action and no denouement. A drowned giant is found and removed. Its life and death, the only events demanding investigation, have passed by the time we arrive and remain unexamined. Nothing happens, is revealed or explained. The work is, and surely not despite this antiplot, utterly compelling.
Character? Ballard the man, from all the affecting tributes, was, if sometimes difficult, loved and loving and fascinated by people. His humor and care have been vividly described by friends like Michael Moorcock and by his daughter Bea Ballard, who in a moving recollection published last year in the Times of London (“My Dad, the Perfect Mum”) emphasized the “very happy nest” he created. Ballard the writer, certainly when at his best in these stories, seems almost completely uninterested in actual, concrete characters. Names offhandedly recur, with a few tweaks here and there. Sometimes they are simply borrowed from admired figures, as with Leonora Carrington, the drama teacher in “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” who, in passing homage, shares a name with the famous Surrealist writer and artist. Many of the figures are deeply traumatized–wives or children are often already dead, offstage before a story’s start–but they are not particularly specific. His “characters” are aggregates of intersecting functions.
This idea is overtly investigated, and played for rather dark laughs, in “Minus One,” where it is mooted that a man who has disappeared in fact never existed: he has been erroneously believed into existence by an overlap of administrative necessities. That this conclusion, it is implied, is not the case does not preclude it from having real and oppressive effects. Ballard is in no way inhumane. But his fascination with the question of what “human” might precisely mean, his evasion of received opinions on the matter, make him at his best an admirably antihumanist writer. If a reader returns again and again to a much-loved Ballard text, the allure is certainly not the inner life of the protagonist. There are no Tom Sawyers here. This is not a criticism; rather, given what this approach unlocked, it is the opposite.
In the various reviews and encomiums for Ballard, we meet more unlikely Ballards still. A characteristic repeatedly invoked and praised is his “prescience.” It is perfectly true that certain things he imagined have ended up resonating with some of the less salubrious or more distressing developments of modern life. The surveillance and camera-mediated societies depicted in “The Greatest Television Show on Earth,” “The 60 Minute Zoom” and “The Intensive Care Unit” have been interpreted as having foreseen reality television and programs such as Big Brother; and The Drowned World, with its astounding visions of a sunken London, has been read as a warning about global warming.
Ballard largely refuted the claim that prescience is his differentia specifica. He says in the book’s brief introduction that though he is “interested in the real future that I could see approaching,” his works aren’t “set in the future at all, but in a kind of visionary present.” This is absolutely right. Of course, this is not to say that these investigations may not anticipate some actuality or other–doubtless more than once, in some variably accurate way, they have inadvertently done and will continue to do just that, and it is noteworthy when that occurs. But Ballard repeatedly emphasizes that his apocalypse landscapes are expressions of modern psycho-sociopathology. It is arguable that this is true of all, and in particular all nonrealist, fiction, but if so Ballard’s self-consciousness about the fact is remarkable. He offers not prescience but present-sense. To stress futurology as the quality that makes his writing so astonishing is to misgauge the engine of his plots. The Drowned World is not a warning about climate change–that is not what it does. And even if it were, where would that leave The Crystal World, anticipated here in “The Illuminated Man,” an astounding literary achievement in which apocalypse is simultaneously terrifying, unspeakably beautiful and profoundly inhuman? There is, after all, very little likelihood that the world will end not with a bang but with the crystalline coagulation of time into faceted integuments of eternal now-ness that occurs in The Crystal World. So has Ballard’s “prescience” failed him?
Even more unlikely is the Ballard of those admirers who attribute a Pollyannaish drive to his supposed prognostications. A descendant of the Stalinist insistence on “uplifting” fiction and the Victorian predilection for “improving” stories, this hankering for positivity feels nevertheless intensely au courant. We see it in, for example, the celebration of so much fiction as “life-affirming,” as if, even where that is not a tendentious reading, that were a self-evident good. (Might a work of art not be brilliant in its unflinching nihilism, or in its evasion of any such categories?) Writing in 2001 about a different Ballard collection, the novelist Robert Edric, astonishingly, lionized Ballard not only as a seer but as an optimist, a writer whose stories “keep alive…hopeful, needed futures.” This is truly bizarre. There is no question that Ballard deserves such energetic, almost flustered praise. But it is difficult to find a single future in this volume that does not require vigorous contortion to seem hopeful. Mass disaggregation from chronology as a societal response to the space race (“News From the Sun,” “Memories of the Space Age”)? A world under siege by predatory giant birds (“Storm-Bird, Storm-Dreamer”)? Murderous civil war and the invasion of Britain by the United States (“Theatre of War”)?
Edric is clearly no fool, and rather than simply dismissing his peculiar and misplaced praise, we should consider it in light of his remarks about genre. He goes on to say that to regard Ballard’s work “purely as science fiction is to misunderstand completely what [Ballard] has accomplished over half a century.” This coolness toward the genre echoes Martin Amis’s assurance, in the introduction to this volume, that science fiction “couldn’t hold” Ballard. One is also reminded of the way Margaret Atwood packaged her novel Oryx and Crake in 2003: choosing as its epigraph Jonathan Swift’s remark in Gulliver’s Travels that “my principal design was to inform you, and not to amuse you,” while simultaneously distinguishing her work from science fiction (SF) during her publicity tour on the grounds that SF is about “talking squids in outer space.” It appears that Swift and squid are antipodes. Since literary fiction, you see, has something to say about the real world, ipso facto it cannot be SF. And though there are many ways a piece of nonrealist fiction can be “about” the real world, when it is set in the future, one of the simplest and most obvious interpretations is to perceive it relatively directly as an aspiration or warning. Underlying the unhelpful sense of Ballard as a prophet, let alone an aspirational one, then, is an ongoing campaign to rescue him from genre–from those talking squids in outer space. (Atwood’s phrase has been exuberantly picked up by SF readers and writers, of course: there are now many websites dedicated to celebrating fictional cephalopod cosmonauts.)
The campaign, and the embedded myopia about and antipathy toward genre, are foolish. Anyone who works in SF has had this argument multiple times, and has become tedious in the process. It would be nice if we could all just shut up about this. Clearly the claim that SF has nothing meaningful to say and that therefore meaningful fiction cannot be SF is a tautology predicated on a question-begging and evasive conception of genre as canard. Clearly Ballard was, among various things, an SF writer. Though on occasion he was slightly more equivocal about it, he was quoted after his death on the BBC’s The Last Word as having said, “I’ve always insisted that I certainly was a science fiction writer and very proud of it.” Authorial intention isn’t everything, but it certainly counts for something. To say that Ballard couldn’t have been a science fiction writer because one admires his fiction so much is absurd. Clearly anyone who nonetheless insists on this is speaking not from analysis but from an uninvestigated generic prejudice. They, not Ballard, are hostages of those squids. These should be commonplaces.
This undying nondebate has cropped up again not only because of Ballard’s death and the publication of his Complete Stories. Nor is it because of Kim Stanley Robinson’s assault on the Man Booker Prize committee, in a September 2009 article for New Scientist, for sidelining SF, wherein he pointed out Virginia Woolf’s admiration for the books of Olaf Stapledon and bemoaned the fact that with “no Woolves” on the Booker panel, SF, despite its being “the literature of your time,” would be simply ignored. The piece was well put and just, but–as Robinson would probably agree–pointed out nothing new. No, what forces tired loins back to this front is the reaction to Robinson’s argument by Booker judge John Mullan, who described SF as a “self-enclosed world” “in a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.” (It would be infra dig and a cheap shot, of course, to ask how well this description fits the self-conscious literati obediently seeking the latest lit-fic hit at the London Review Bookshop or Politics & Prose.) Mullan’s counterattack was so deliberately rude, so preposterous and illiterate and parochial, particularly at a time when SF tropes are viraling and infecting hitherto healthy literature, that it is hard to believe it was not simply an attempt to épater les geeks.
If so, les geeks should refuse to rise to the bait–except that perhaps being a bore about it is less of a crime than being quiescent. Besides, in the case of Ballard the issue of genre and its relation to capital-l Literature is more than just a nerdy turf war. Certain surprising elements that give his stories their power are related directly to his generic apprenticeship. I’m thinking not only of his use of such traditional SF fare as space travel, the ends of the world and the combination of the two but also his facility with much-derided formal conventions.
Ballard dreams up extraordinary situations, yet they create for him the prosaic challenge of explaining their genesis. Blithely ignoring the injunction beloved of creative writing teachers everywhere to “show, not tell,” Ballard is happy, where necessary, to use the SF technique known as the “infodump,” in which undigestible nuggets of necessary facticity are simply thrown in, to bob about like gristle in a stew or pennies in a Christmas pudding. “The frantic mining of the oceans in the previous century to provide oxygen for the atmospheres of the new planets had made their decline swift and irreversible, and with their death had come climatic and other geophysical changes which ensured the extinction of Earth itself” (“Deep End”). “The outward growth of cities had at last been checked; in fact, all over the world former suburban areas were being reclaimed for agriculture and population additions were confined within the existing urban ghettos” (“Billennium”). Backfilling a story with an infodump can sometimes be vastly smoother, particularly in a short story, than torturously constructing conversations or flashbacks. There is a place in fiction for the unapologetic infodump, and there is something charming about the fact that it is this most visionary, most illuminating, of modern writers who so cheerfully vindicates this most lumpen, pulp technique.
There are other alchemies. While there have always been outstanding exceptions within the genre, those of us who admire and love it should admit that the clichés about SF dialogue–that it is clumsy, unnatural and deeply unconvincing–are not always unfair. At his best Ballard can take something so base and gold it. “I may actually be stepping out of time,” he has one character tell another in “The Overloaded Man.” “Eliminating the vector of time from the de-identified object frees it from all its everyday cognitive associations. Alternatively, I may have stumbled on a means of repressing the photo-associative centres that normally identify visual objects.” But his friend’s not having any of it. “The subject-object relationship is not as polar as Descartes’ ‘Cogito ergo sum’ suggests. By any degree to which you devalue the external world so you devalue yourself.” Oh, snap!
It is trivially obvious that real people do not speak in such a way. But is that a demerit, any more than such studied unnaturalism is, say, in Beckett? Certainly in its sheer artificiality, such dialogue, like the infodump, might decouple readers from the internal world of the story–by no means necessarily lessening the work’s hold on them but barring them from an enjoyably ingenuous inhabiting of it. But even if this is inevitable, it doesn’t follow that this would be a problem–certainly not for Ballard, for whom strange cool distancing from extraordinary events, the kind of negative hysteria at brilliant work in “The Drowned Giant,” is carefully cultivated. For Ballard, then, these techniques might operate as a kind of pulp-derived Verfremdungseffekt, for which he is perfectly willing to breach received literary good taste. He will tell, not just show; his dialogue can be as stilted as a highbrow Star Wars; he has no fear of the passive voice. This last choice is one that in a lesser writer might evidence timidity and, as Stephen King argues in On Writing, might be used “for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with.” In Ballard, contrariwise, the passive voice is part of an invocation of paranoid totality and helps create a baleful world stripped of human agency in which things occur and are done to things.
Such detachment cannot keep all the world’s maggots under control. Ballard’s analyses are delivered in a new jargon that evades complete decoding, yet sometimes his acutely symptomatic writing replicates what might better be investigated. It is not an author’s duty, for example, to be “interested in” race, and Ballard mostly is not, but race is certainly interested in him. Where there are occasionally sympathetic or intriguing characters of color, there are also groups of opaque “natives” operating as some kind of vaguely threatening social function. In “A Question of Re-Entry,” Ballard’s revisiting of Heart of Darkness, a-rational cannibalistic “Indians” are “prone to these sudden irresistible urges” “like lemmings”; they are “a jabbering pack” whose terrifying behavior is predicated on their category error in–that hoary imperial slur-cum-boast–worshiping an incoming white man as a god. Those of us committed to Ballard shift in our seats and regret that such tropes were not subject to more assiduous skepticism.
Another tradition of much SF–though not of SF alone, God knows, and for Ballard Surrealism is as much a culprit–is an equally unwelcome inheritance. The stories are populated by many mad, beautiful women, dolls and metaphoric lamias (mythical succubus-like part-woman-part-snakes). These inhabit particularly Vermilion Sands, one of the most enduring but, to me at least, less successful of Ballard’s settings, in part because its dunescape seems inextricable from supposed hysterical femininity, jealousy and pathologies brought on by male maltreatment and an inability to countenance aging.
These tics are considerably less compelling, because they are more rote by far, than the more outré anxieties Ballard finds in architecture, rockets and car crashes. The most disappointing representations of women are failures of the very estrangement that he elsewhere deploys so effectively. The sheer abstraction not only of his women but of all his characters to varying degrees makes these particular gendered fancies, while by no means unproblematic, relatively bloodless. Most of these women are more iterations of bundles of preconceptions and functions than concrete women, but so–if in less discomfiting ways–are the men more functions than they are men.
There is an enormous amount of eroticism and libido in these stories, and, notoriously, regular fascinated ruminations on pathologically sexualized elements of everyday brutality, such as car crashes. Banal landscapes become littered with dangerous protean drives. These drives, however, and the sometimes gendered gaze that Ballard inevitably brings to them, are, he insists, both more and less than they might seem. In the story with the most famous and by far most shocking and open declaration of lust in the book–“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”–the Anglo-Saxon enthusiasm of its title is followed by a dry, hilarious and buttoned-up scientific report. Similarly veering from the overt lubriciousness it had seemed likely to invoke is “The Smile,” in which the protagonist, while staring at a doll-woman, gives way to a “wholly unprurient impulse” in undressing her; in “The 60 Minute Zoom,” a story of sex, jealousy and murder becomes a rumination on camera angles, colors, framing shots and dispassionate geometric representation. On the one hand all this is (deliberately and bleakly humorous) exculpatory special pleading for the eroticizing (male) gaze; on the other, though, it is not totally unconvincing. These stories, while obsessed with the act and its relentless variety, do not become breathier, more urgent, more vivid, during sex. Ballard’s cool distance does not end at the bedroom door: if anything, what goes on behind that door seems to be dreamlike and abstract fucking, and it spills back out and affects everything else. Investigations of the pornographizing drive as much as an expression of it, this porn is all metaporn.
For some readers, and I am one, when the late novels fall off it’s precisely when this kind of rigorous and skeptical inquiry changes into a more everyday and liberal critique, one that the writer and critic John Clute, in an outstanding and admiring review of this volume, described as “wise we-have-met-the-enemy-and-he-is-us-like homilies.” A similar, though less pronounced, narrowing of the horizon is discernible in some of the late short fiction. In “War Fever,” for example, the new war in Beirut is maintained by the United Nations to function as a laboratory of violence meant to keep the rest of the world peaceful. Though it appears to be pitched as one, this is no revelation at all, blending as it does the key elements of the conspiracy thriller and the kind of reactionary scapegoat fiction that skewers any utopian impulse with the simultaneously slanderous and banal “reveal” that everyday peace is, the claim goes, predicated on some exonerated violence. “War Fever” reads like an extrapolation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” in which the happiness of a utopian community is predicated on the grotesque mistreatment and torture of a child. Fredric Jameson has described “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” as a “nasty little fable”: “War Fever” may not be nasty, but it is trite. So is the microfiction “A Guide to Virtual Death,” a television listing from a future close to humanity’s demise, which offers a highbrow pub jeremiad about how awful and decadent it all is and how all that virtual stuff gets in the way of real life. It’s hard to imagine the author of “The Terminal Beach” committing the leaden juxtaposition that this bagatelle contains: “Gourmet meals to watch as you eat your diet cellulose.”
To be sure, there are much better later stories. But in general Ballard’s late-career tut-tutting is unconvincing because the kind of zero-sum choice between the good life and the muck of modernity implied in “A Guide to Virtual Death” had never really been, for all his unerring sense of catastrophe, part of his toolbox. Rather, there was always the sense that the kind of psychotic and ecstatic reactions to the world he depicts are, at least to some extent, adaptive. The prevolved lead carapace of the frog in “The Voices of Time” might kill it, but it is also the beast’s only possible response to an unthinkable reality. “The Intensive Care Unit,” which depicts a world of people separated and interacting by camera, is–sure, why not?–a critique of the media gaze, of the mediation of society by the screen. But the story also turns for its shocking conclusion on a sense that such mediation is not without its benefits, and its removal potentially disastrous. The violent displacements of humanity from linear time in “News From the Sun” destroy the world but, as one character muses, are perhaps also “a preparation for something, and we’ve been wrong to fear them.” The crises of everyday life, for which such mutations may prove evolutionarily fit, are themselves objects of yearning inextricable from anxiety, as in “The Ultimate City,” when a dirty modernity (an un-airbrushed remembrance of urban todays) is nostalgically reconstructed. Such stories are reminders of the delight Ballard took in indulging fiction’s blessed facility at having it at least two ways. Ballard’s ambivalence is one of the reasons he is a diagnostician, not a dystopian, and a brilliant one.
We must mark Ballard’s passing, and this is a fine book for doing so. There could be no better candidate. As the legacy volume it sadly is, The Complete Stories is more than the stories it contains. Ballard’s “introduction” is not really anything of the sort: it is a brief throat-clearing. That is entirely appropriate; authors are rarely the most interesting people to talk about their own works. But one is left hankering for something more substantial to mark this Ballardian moment. In Martin Amis’s introduction we do not have it.
It is not a good piece. There are two main faults, and it should be stressed that Amis cannot in fairness be held responsible for one of them. By some unfortunate meander of history, we have reached a place where it is not considered vulgar, tacky, embarrassing or out of place to conduct interviews with other people, write introductions to their books or even their obituaries, all filtered through the prism of oneself. A rummage in the bookshop through the introductions to novels reveals a thicket of “I”s and “me”s. I first read, I first met, I first came across, have always found, have always believed and so on. One can easily imagine, with a slight kink of cultural politics, a world in which the etiquette of the introduction is to start from the assumption that its writer is almost certainly not a particularly interesting aspect of this other person’s book, and that absent a strong counterargument, she or he should therefore be invisible.
This is not the world in which we live. It is an open question as to whether the source of the collegial narcissism of the existing norm is publishers requesting “personal insight,” the writers or readers. Perhaps many readers are fascinated to hear that Amis first came across Ballard at such and such a time and had coffee with him in 1984, or are keen to submit to authority by anecdote, peppered with the affectionate foreshortened names we beyond the velvet rope have no right to use–“I always felt a strong surge of warmth whenever I saw Jim.” It is obvious that Amis has lost a loved friend, and he deserves our condolences, but his introduction, as is so common, is the equivalent of leaving the curtains open during a glamorous dinner party. This focus, particularly for this book, at this time, feels a waste.
The second fault, for which Amis is not blameless, is the thin discussion of the stories. Not that there is nothing to what he says: his description of Ballard’s “glazed and invincible conviction,” for example, is intriguing. His reiteration of the often repeated bon mot that Ballard was less interested in outer than inner space suggests nothing much new, but it is a good bon mot and deserves to be repeated, perhaps especially in this venue. Yet Amis offers little else, no insight into this epochal writer’s mind other than warmed-over familiarities. At least the “inner space” line is reasonably convincing; far less so is the trotting out of the crashingly uninteresting nonsurprise that a writer of such perverse and astonishing cast of mind lived in cheerfully anodyne Shepperton, a small town southwest of London. No sooner does Amis mention Shepperton than he dutifully invokes the name Dunroamin, a venerable English joke house-name predicated on a class nostrum about the vulgar anonymity of the suburbs.
It is more or less de rigueur for any article about Ballard to cite the supposed chasm between his environs and his mind. The ubiquity of the notion, of course, is good reason to investigate it in an introduction but not, one would hope, merely to recycle it, particularly since it is such a specious paradox. In the era of David Lynch, of films like The Burbs and Disturbia (now the title of a Rihanna track), even of a television series like Desperate Housewives, nothing is more constipatedly quotidian than the assumption that the suburbs are hotbeds of perversity, sex, violence and other lurid divertissements. Far rarer is the allegation that behind those sneered-at white picket fences, nothing is going on. The notion that the suburbs are really strait-laced, quiet and boring is a kind of anti-cliché, and it only exists as the faintest shadow of its putatively edgy transgression.
Indeed, though Ballard is happy to evoke those unconvincing “neat suburban lawns and the minds of those who tend them” (“The Enormous Space”) for effect, his connection to the suburbs is deeper and more perspicacious. He surely had an indispensable role in the morphing of suburbia into disturbia in the cultural imagination, the real conception underlying the pretend-naïveté about the Sheppertons of the city and the mind–not only in the simple and tediously scandalous fact of his living there but in the power of his depicted suburbs too. They, after all, are the souls of his cities and the loci for violence and the uncanny, from as early as 1957 in “The Concentration City” to later in “Chronopolis,” “Billennium,” “Now Wakes the Sea,” “The Ultimate City,” “Theatre of War” and “News From the Sun,” among other stories. We cannot think of suburban landscapes without them anymore. For such reasons, with Amis’s conclusion, at least, that Ballard is probably the most original English writer of the last century, it is a relief to agree.