Prophetic short stories and apocalyptic novels like The Crystal World made J. G. Ballard a foundational figure in the British New Wave. Rejecting the science fiction of rockets and aliens, he explored an inner space of humanity informed by psychiatry and biology and shaped by Surrealism. Later in his career, Ballard's combustible plots and violent imagery spurred controversyeven legal actionwhile his autobiographical 1984 war novel Empire of the Sun brought him fame. D. Harlan Wilson offers the first career-spanning analysis of an author who helped steer SF in new, if startling, directions. Here was a writer committed to moral ambiguity, one who drowned the world and erected a London high-rise doomed to descend into savageryand coolly picked apart the characters trapped within each story. Wilson also examines Ballard's methods, his influence on cyberpunk, and the ways his fiction operates within the sphere of our larger culture and within SF itself.
About the Author
D. Harlan Wilson is a professor of English at Wright State University “Lake Campus. He is the author of Cultographies: They Live, Technologized Desire: Selfhood and the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction , and over twenty novels and fiction collections.
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J. G. BALLARD, A.K.A. SHANGHAI JIM
In a review of John Baxter's problematic biography, Roz Kaveney writes:
J. G. Ballard would not have liked the idea that he could be summed up in a standard "life and works." He was far too savagely pessimistic a Futurist to welcome the inevitable explanation of his work and life in mutually reductive terms of each other. ... On the other hand, much as Ballard disliked the process of having his portrait painted, he liked the sense of having been captured. Although he played off potential biographers — including John Baxter — against each other, and never committed himself to any, it is possible he would have welcomed a biography in the same spirit as a portrait — part of the due paid by the world to a writer who had forced it to see things through his eyes, at least some of the time.
Likewise does Simon Sellars express misgivings about a biographical effort in his introduction to Extreme Metaphors, the most comprehensive collection of Ballard's interviews to date. In the first few pages, Sellars collates a series of chronological "facts" that form a "potted history" in order to show how Ballard's "career is almost impossible to summarise" given the variable nature of his writing (xiii).
In reality, if your first introduction to Ballard is by way of, say, his short story "The Drowned Giant," then you might think you have stumbled on to a master magical realist in the Swiftian tradition. If Crash is the initiation, then you might think twice before proceeding further, unless your palate is already sufficiently developed with a taste for the blackest intellectual meat. And what if your introduction is via one of the many interviews he gave across the arc of his career? (xiii)
Kaveney and Sellars aren't alone. While certain themes, motifs, images, and characterizations run the gamut of his library, Ballard does seem to spread himself all over the map, exploring a wide diversity of subject matter and evolving across different physical, social, and psychological landscapes. In a sense, this chapter is doomed to failure. As fun as it would be, I will not at- tempt to biograph Ballard in the vein of, say, a surrealist montage. Nor will I make any unfounded claims or speculations about his personality, desires, emotional condition, and so on, as Baxter does in his biography.
Ballard's fictional autobiographies, Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, have been mined as codings for his science fiction as well as documents of his real life. They both take significant liberties. Andrzej Gasiorek calls them "teasing explorations of narrative form as much as they are accounts of the writer's life" (19). Ballard himself has said that the books are largely inventions. Even his "real" autobiography, Miracles of Life, wears the grin of the sphinx. That said, Ballard didn't live in Pynchonesque obscurity He was a private man, even a reclusive man, like many professional authors with robust work ethics who do their writing from home. He wasn't inaccessible, however, and he didn't experience the deep sense of isolation that affected many of his protagonists, whose actions and desires, he once said, have "nothing to do with any quirks of my own" ("Interview," Goddard and Pringle 25).
I have appropriated the alias in the title of this biographical chapter, Shanghai Jim, from the 1991 BBC biopic that casts Ballard's work against the background of his origins in China and expatriate residency in England. The film documents his first and only return to Shanghai, and he figures prominently in it. Combining names that belong to two distant and very different cultures (in other words, the names of a decidedly non-Western city and a definitively Western male), the title substantiates Ballard's self-confessed feelings of alienation and unbelonging that punctuated his life and fiction. He never felt at home in England and had a strong distaste for British culture. And, as he concluded in the biopic, he thought of Lunghua Camp, where he was interned during the war, as his real home, the place "to which I've always referred in my imagination."
BIRTH AND PARENTS
James Graham Ballard was born on November 15, 1930, in Shanghai, China. His father, also named James, and mother, Edna, were English natives, but work brought James Sr. to China shortly before the birth of their son and, in 1937, the birth of their daughter, Margaret, James Jr.'s only sibling.
Ballard profiles his parents in Miracles. They met on holiday in the 1920s in northwest England's Lake District, the picturesque stomping ground of the Romantic poets. His father held a degree in chemistry and worked for the Calico Printers Association, a British textile company based in Manchester that specialized in cotton production and goods. The year after their marriage in 1929, he transferred to Shanghai to run the CPA's overseas operation, the China Printing and Finishing Company. It paid well. At the time of the registration of James Jr.'s birth, the Ballards lived in a modest apartment inside the expatriate International Settlement, but they soon moved into a large, three-story house at 31A Amherst Avenue outside the settlement. They enjoyed many bourgeois amenities, including ten Chinese servants, a cook, a chauffeur, and a country club. This was in dire contrast to the native Chinese living in greater Shanghai, thousands of whom were impoverished and homeless. There were some wealthy Chinese, Japanese, and multinational gangsters, but the poor far outnumbered them, incessantly replenished by the influx of refugees from greater China. Ballard calls Shanghai "a media city before its time" (Miracles 5). Among his most vivid memories is the great divide he witnessed between rich and poor, excess and dearth, glitz and misery, even though as "a small boy aged 5 or 6," he wrote, "I must have accepted all this without a thought" (14).
In The Inner Man, Baxter says that Ballard had a bad relationship with his parents, who were indifferent to him. "With infant mortality high, it didn't pay to become too attached. Also, James and Edna were still young and enjoying their privileged life. They took little notice of Jim, meeting his numerous irritating questions with a blank stare and silence. His status, he wrote bitterly, was somewhere between a servant and the family Labrador, and even the servants never looked him in the eye" (11). As with much in Baxter's would-be torrid biography, his claims — sometimes wild and unfounded, casting his subject as a pathological maniac — should be taken with a grain of salt. True, Ballard often found himself left to the company of his imagination, but the fact is his early boyhood was reasonably happy and duly pampered. Not until the breakout of war and the internment of the International Settlement residents by the Japanese did he feel a disaffection toward his parents. It would last their entire lives. There never seemed to be a major falling out, but Ballard remained ambivalent about them. Shortly before the end of his life, he divulged: "I think I have to face the fact that I didn't really like them very much. I tried in my earlier fiction — and in my earlier life ... to maintain a kind of neutral stance, particularly towards my mother. I mean it is perfectly possible she wasn't a very nice human being; I don't think she was. I don't think either of them had that big an influence on me. One habit I'd learned from the war was that I'd have to look after myself" ("Marinated").
Ballard mentions James Sr.'s interest in science and science fiction in Miracles, underscoring his esteem for H. G. Wells and his belief in "modern science as mankind's saviour" and "the power of science to create a better world" (8, 43). It's tempting to read his fiction as a reaction to or revolt against the proverbial Law of the Father. After all, the fiction, while far more positive and hopeful than it has been given credit for, customarily extrapolates "science" into various internal and external architectures of dystopia. Ballard was adamant about the ways in which science had become a fictional enterprise. In 1968 he suggested that the social and psychological sciences are "the major producers of fiction. It's not the writers anymore" ("Interview," Storm 17). His father came from a generation whose ideology of optimism deliquesced in the wake of two world wars. James Sr.'s belief in the primacy of science belonged to the nineteenth century and the Victorians, who had yet to experience the technological horrors initiated by the Great War. In contrast, his son's beliefs reached for the future and the consumer-capitalist media technologies that would unhinge the studios of reality and desire.
Ballard accentuates the capitalist dog-eat-dog way of life that dominated the "bright but bloody kaleidoscope that was Shanghai" (Miracles 6). As a boy, with one eye he witnessed great wealth and comfort, with the other the deepest and darkest blight. It wasn't uncommon for him to see corpses littering the pavement. "Chinese roamed the streets of Shanghai, ready to do anything to find work. Every morning when I was driven to school I would notice fresh coffins left by the roadside, sometimes miniature coffins decked with paper flowers containing children of my own age. Bodies lay in the streets of downtown Shanghai, wept over by Chinese peasant women, ignored in the rush of passers-by" (14). Civil war, floods, and famine had driven millions of peasants from their villages to Shanghai. "Unlimited venture capitalism rode in gaudy style down streets lined with beggars showing off their sores and wounds" (5).
Shanghai struck him as an oneiric and mystical society, much as England did later, but for different reasons. He always asserted that his fiction was, first and foremost, an invention, yet he wasn't reluctant to discuss the real-world experiences and phenomena that informed it. Reality itself proved to be an evolving fiction, and in a way, his novels and stories merely channel their own essence. All told, Shanghai was "a self-generating fantasy that left my own little mind far behind. ... I think a large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory" (6).
Ballard attended a prestigious boys' school affiliated with the Holy Trinity Cathedral, an English-speaking Anglican church. The Japanese invaded in 1937 and established a stranglehold on Shanghai, inaugurating the Second Sino-Japanese War. They left non-Chinese residents alone, and life in the International Settlement continued as usual adjacent brutal fighting in the countryside just a mile from the Ballards' home (24). They fled and rented a house in the French Concession, which was not part of the International Settlement and better insulated from warfare. The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 ushered Japan into the World War with Europe and America. That same month, the Japanese occupied the International Settlement, and by 1943 they had detained British expatriates and other civilian Allies in internment camps. The Ballards entered one such camp, Lunghua Civil Assembly Centre.
On the grid of Ballard's personal and narrative life, Lunghua is a seminal coordinate. It is the primary setting for Empire of the Sun, his most widely read and bestselling novel, and it is the traumatic kernel for the alienation, violence, dehumanization, and psychological terror that flares up again and again in his fiction. I'm disinclined to make any allegations about the state of Ballard's actual psyche. I will submit to Umberto Rossi's argument that "the suggestion remains that J. G. Ballard's mind — and the minds of his fictional alter egos — is a battlefield, a complex psychological landscape of violent images, memories and histories, some of which are real and some of which are fictional" ("Mind" 68). If this is the case, surely the greater part of that landscape owes a debt to Lunghua and what the young Ballard experienced during his internment.
Located several miles from the city, Lunghua was a middle school and former university campus that had been damaged earlier in the war. It encamped nearly two thousand people, mostly European and American civilians. There wasn't much to the complex. As Baxter explains in his biography, it consisted
of seven three-storey concrete buildings, with three large wooden barracks, standing on an area of open ground. ... The surrounding land, so flat you could see the distant towers of Shanghai, was paddy fields, infested with mosquitoes. The most visible landmark, a Buddhist pagoda, with a giant and threatening statue inside, bristled with anti-aircraft guns to protect the nearby airfield. In addition to installing a barbed-wire fence around the camp, the Japanese refurbished fifty-nine dormitories to house about a dozen individuals each, and 127 family rooms. (21)
This is similar to the way Ballard describes the layout of Lunghua in a 1975 interview and Miracles (58) as well as Empire of the Sun. Each description evokes a sense of desolation, wilderness, and looming violence. In Ballard's memory, though, Lunghua was a playground and, ironically, a site of literal and imaginative freedom. He loved it. For two and a half years, he lived in relative happiness.
I thoroughly enjoyed my nearly three years in Lunghua camp. It was a huge slum, and the people who really relish life in a slum are of course the teenage boys. They run wild. I ran wild. I was totally out of the control of my parents. And that's why I left them out of Empire of the Sun when I came to write the book, because it wasn't psychologically true to have had my parents in the novel. To all intents and purposes in Lunghua camp between the ages of twelve and fifteen, I was a hooligan. ("Memento" 276)
Ballard didn't skulk through the camp in a gang like the teenage droogs of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962). His "hooliganism" consisted mainly of innocuous horseplay with other boys, playing chess with bored internees, bartering for copies of popular magazines from American sailors, snatching the odd sweet potato, and so forth. He attended school regularly, and there were rules and discipline for children in the camp, but not like there had been in the International Settlement. Ballard gained a sense of independence and autonomy that few children his age ever experience. Coupled with the atrocities he was exposed to, it changed him dramatically, forcing him into an early adulthood.
Unlike his elders, he didn't mind the ramshackle state of the camp, which worsened over time. Food and water, on the other hand, concerned everybody. He didn't starve to the extent of his protagonist in Empire of the Sun. The denouement of his actual internment wasn't as apocalyptic as the novel's either. But he was often hungry, and rations steadily depleted as the Japanese lost footing in the war. Near the end, there was almost no food left. Melancholy and despair accompanied a fear that the Japanese would close the camp and execute everybody in it. Then, one day in August 1945, the internees awoke to find that the Japanese militia had fled during the night. By September the Ballards had returned to 31A Amherst Avenue. Shanghai was an eerily different place. No longer a multicultural, futique, mediatized city of excess, it became an insignia of "the strange surrealist spectacles that war produced" and a reminder that "the unrestricted imagination [is] the best guide to reality" (Ballard, "Nothing" 384).
"RETURN" TO ENGLAND
In November 1945, Ballard, his sister, and his mother traveled by ship to England. His father stayed in Shanghai and resumed his job with the CPA for several years before joining them. Ballard expected to return to and live in Shanghai when it was rebuilt, but it wouldn't be until 1991, in his sixties, that "Shanghai Jim" would see his birthplace again.
Contrary to the self-history Ballard spun (or allowed to be spun), his "return" to England, according to shipping records, was not the first time he had been there. The Ballard family visited England for an extended stay in 1934 (when he was three years old) and again in 1939 (when he was eight and attended school for a term in Sussex). He never lied about these visits, but he never mentioned them. By omission, he facilitated the growth of the legend of the fifteen-year-old boy raised entirely in China with no real knowledge of his parents' homeland beyond popular magazines and books.
Excerpted from "J. G. Ballard"
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1 J. G. Ballard, a.k.a. Shanghai Jim, 13,
CHAPTER 2 This Way to Inner Space: Short Fiction and Nonfiction, 29,
CHAPTER 3 Disaster Areas: The Natural Disaster Quartet, 51,
CHAPTER 4 Psychopathologies of Everyday Life: The Atrocity Exhibition and the Cultural Disaster Trilogy, 69,
CHAPTER 5 Empires of the Self: Autobiographical Novels, 100,
CHAPTER 6 The Road to Culture: Later Novels, 126,
A J. G. Ballard Bibliography, 163,
Bibliography of Secondary Sources, 179,