Monday, September 18, 2006

J. G. Ballard

Interviewed on the South Bank Show last night, he's reckoned by some to be the one of greatest living British novelist. He started by writing SF of an unusual nature, surrealist scenarios exploring how the human mind might change, usually revert to earlier forms, in a radically different setting.

A turning point came with the Atrocity Exhibition, a collection of individual mini-stories that form a collective whole (sort of), yet is meant to be read at random, not forming in any way a single narrative from beginning to end. Themes of violence and celebrity worship recur as do images such as the human spine. Must admit I found the notes more readable than the text itself.

His works since then perhaps could be called 'present fiction' rather than science fiction, set in the here-and-now or perhaps just a few years on, usually stories of suburban middle classes or stressed out executives exploding into rioting, attempting to find meaning in a barren existence. The settings are the most soulless of places - West London residential areas, airports, shopping malls, motorways or the concrete sprawl of the Mediterranean coastline.

It's not just an emptiness of place, but also a lack of belief, the death of myth and religion. If nothing else they've been edged out (even shoulder-barged...) by all-permeating advertising. We have only our imaginations left, perversely, as our only way of hanging on to any sort of reality.

As many have noted, those that believe in nothing are often all to ready to believe in anything.

The programme spent perhaps too much time over his most famous and outrageous work, Crash. Where as other writers explore our relationships with machines in the form of cyborgs, this novel and the much vilified Cronenbourg film, uses instead a small cult who fetishise brains being splatted over crumpled dashboards.

If nothing else he tackles far more interesting areas than the majority of comfortable, smug, well-off British writers, often these days recruited from the Oxbridge elites; best quote of the programme - "The great thing about sci-fi is that no-one lives in Hampstead."


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