Interesting facts about the life and books of J. G. Ballard
1. When they rejected J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash, one publisher remarked that the author was ‘beyond psychiatric help’. Known for exploring unusual and controversial human impulses and their relationship to modernity and technology, Ballard said that everything he wrote was inspired by his early childhood and teenage experiences in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai in the early 1940s. His most popular novel, Empire of the Sun (1984), is about these early years which showed him the ‘pathology’ underlying modern life. In 1987 Steven Spielberg successfully filmed Empire of the Sun. David Cronenberg directed Crash in 1996; the novel, and film, focus on people who get a sexual thrill out of car accidents. A film adaptation of his 1975 novel High Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston, is set to be released soon. Ballard also provided the story for the 1970 film When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, although he was credited as ‘J. B. Ballard’. In a sense, Ballard was always close to the cinema: for much of his life he lived in Surrey near Shepperton Studios. (Fittingly, Shepperton was one of the places destroyed in H. G. Wells‘s The War of the Worlds, that classic written by Ballard’s great predecessor in British SF.)
2. J. G. Ballard’s work has influenced a raft of songwriters and bands. From Joy Division’s song ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ (named after Ballard’s book of that name) to Madonna’s 1998 song ‘Drowned World’ (which takes its title from Ballard’s 1962 novel), numerous artists from the world of rock and pop have paid homage to the Ballardian worldview. Gary Numan’s ‘Down in the Park’ and John Foxx’s ‘Underpass’ show that Ballard’s influence extended into synthpop of the early 1980s, too. But his influence has survived into the current century: the Klaxons’ album Myths of the Near Future took its title from a 1982 collection of short stories by Ballard.
3. Ballard’s own favourite song, though, was a world away from the post-punk of Joy Division or Gary Numan. Ballard liked to relax by listening to ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’.
4. Ballard predicted that Ronald Reagan would one day become US President. In a pamphlet of 1967 called, provocatively, ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ (later reprinted in his experimental 1969 novel The Atrocity Exhibition), Ballard drew attention to the smooth TV persona of the then Governor of California, and the disjunction between what Reagan was saying and the polished manner in which he said it. Such a media-savvy performance marked Reagan for the White House. Ballard’s prescience in this and a number of issues earned him the sobriquet ‘the Seer of Shepperton’: his novel Crash has been seen as an anticipation of the fetishising of the death of Princess Diana (which occurred 24 years after the novel was published, and the year after the David Cronenberg film), while Will Self has often drawn attention to the fact that the skyscraper on Canary Wharf in London is situated on more or less the very spot that the tower block inhabits in Ballard’s 1975 novel, High Rise.
5. The adjective ‘Ballardian’ is now in the dictionary. Like George Orwell, whose work has spawned the term ‘Orwellian’, Ballard has been paid one of the highest literary honours: he has his own adjective. Like ‘Orwellian’, the word ‘Ballardian’ refers to a dystopian vision of society: the Collins English Dictionary defines it as ‘resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments’. Unlike ‘Orwellian’ however, the word ‘Ballardian’ has not yet made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary. We’re sure it’s only a matter of time.
Image: J.G.Ballard paperback cover art by David Pelham, by Jim Linwood, 2010, via Flickr.