19 April 2009

J.G. Ballard, 1930-2009

There is nothing quite like Mr. Ballard's work. It is bizarre and surreal, yet oddly familiar and comforting. His characters do weird things in strange settings, but seem like normal, postmodern Westerners. In fact, Ballard's entire appoach to fiction and non-fiction alike is to make the mundane seem psychotic, and, in doing so, make the psycho-neuroses of the world seem as necessary as breathing. It's a tough act, and you've got to have the chops to pull it off:

I dreamed of other accidents that might enlarge this repertory of orifices, relating them to more elements of the automobile's engineering, to the ever-more complex technologies of the future. (Crash, 1973)

He looked down at his pallid, blood-flecked body, a trapped adolescent puzzled to find himself in this senile flesh, caught after hours in the therapy room with his broken toys, yet still cunning enough to put on an ingratiating smile. (Hello America, 1981)

Streamers of smoke wove through the trees on either side of the path, and a blizzard of unsettled insects swept the cliff face. The albatross rose from their rocky perches, soaring out to sea as the grey billows enveloped the summit. (Rushing to Paradise, 1994)

Apparently he lost his battle with cancer early this morning. We are in the midst of William Gibson's Spook Country, and if any contemporary author owes J.G. Ballard a debt, it is Mr. Gibson. They share a fetish for pop-culture's detritus, for brand names and technology, and have similar sense of dislocation in their work, as if they see the truth behind the facade, but find the facade to have a more powerful allure than what it is hiding. Gibson is a Luddite, drowning in a cyber-sea, the oscillations of the endless upgrade-obsolescence cycle propelling his fictional vision forward. Ballard is a psychoanalyst unfettered by Freudian orthodoxy probing the dreamscapes of the neurotic. Both are obsessed with the fuzziness of the future, and especially its dystopian--though suprisingly appealing--possibilites. But where Gibson is diamond-hard, almost brittle, with crisp, percussive prose, Ballard is sinuous and musical, with a rhythmic grace, smooth and soothing. Both are essential, and carve out the territory of modern SF.

David Cronenberg and Steven Spielberg made films of Ballard's work, and both Crash (1996) and Empire of the Sun (1987) provide an excellent introduction. His short work, in particular Vermilion Sands and The Terminal Beach, will give you the essence in small doses. Fair warning: once you start, you'll be hooked. It's a good thing there's a lot of it. After you are fully immersed, then try The Atrocity Exhibition. I think you'll find it an essential balm for the chaos and confusion of the 21st century.

Requiescat in pacem.

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