Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday Fiction: J.G. Ballard’s Empire

--by Hanje Richards & Peg White

James Graham Ballard (November 15, 1930 – April 19, 2009) was an English novelist and short story writer. He was a prominent member of the New Wave movement in science fiction, but his best-known books are the controversial Crash (1973) and the autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984). The latter was based on his boyhood in Shanghai, where he was born in the International Settlement, and on his internment by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.

Both novels were adapted into films, Crash by David Cronenberg and Empire of the Sun by Steven Spielberg. Both are available in the Copper Queen Library's film collection.

The literary distinctiveness of Ballard's work has given rise to the adjective "Ballardian," defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.”

With the exception of his autobiographical novels, Ballard most commonly wrote in the post-apocalyptic dystopian genre. His most celebrated novel in this regard is Crash, in which cars symbolize the mechanization of the world and man's capacity to destroy himself with the technology he creates.

In addition to his novels, Ballard made extensive use of the short story form. Many of his earliest published works in the 1950s and 1960s were short stories.

Particularly revered among Ballard's admirers is his short story collection Vermilion Sands, set in a desert resort town inhabited by forgotten starlets, insane heirs, very eccentric artists, and the merchants and bizarre servants who provide for them. Each story features peculiarly exotic technology -- poetry-composing computers, orchids with operatic voices and egos to match, phototropic self-painting canvasses, etc. -- and in his introduction to Vermilion Sands, Ballard cites this as his favorite collection.

Ballard's fiction is literary, sophisticated, and profoundly concerned with creating cognitive and aesthetic dissonance in his readers. Because of his tendency to upset readers to enlighten them, Ballard does not enjoy a strong mass market following, but he is recognized by critics as one of Britain's most prominent writers.
[With thanks and acknowledgement to Wikipedia; for a more in-depth treatment, consult]

Here is a sampling of the library's Ballard holdings:

Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard - With 98 pulse-quickening stories, this volume helps restore the very art form that Ballard feared was comatose. Ballard’s inimitable style was already present in his early stories, most of them published in science fiction magazines. These stories are surreal, richly atmospheric, and splendidly elliptical, featuring an assortment of psychotropic houses, time-traveling assassins, and cities without clocks.

Over the next fifty years, his fierce imaginative energy propelled him to explore new topics, including the dehumanization of technology, the brutality of the corporation, and nuclear Armageddon. Depicting the human soul as “being enervated and corrupted by the modern world” (New York Times), Ballard began to examine themes like overpopulation, as in “Billenium,” a claustrophobic imagining of a world of 20 billion people crammed into four-square-meter rooms, or the false realities of modern media -- as in the classic “Why I Want to F[***] Ronald Reagan,” a faux-psychological study of the sexual and violent reactions elicited by viewing Reagan’s face on television, in which Ballard predicted the unholy fusion of pop culture and sound-bite politics thirteen years before Reagan became president. Stories from Vermilion Sands are included in this collection.

Day of Creation - At Port-la-Nouvelle, on the parched terrain of central Africa, Dr. Mallory watches his clinic fail and dreams of discovering a third Nile that will make the Sahara bloom. When there is a trickle on the local airstrip, and soon a river, the obsessed Mallory claims it as his own creation and sets out for the river’s source.
Empire of the Sun - The classic, award-winning novel, made famous by Steven Spielberg's film, tells of a young boy's struggle to survive World War II in China.
1941 Shanghai is a city aflame from the fateful torch of Pearl Harbor. In streets full of chaos and corpses, a young British boy searches in vain for his parents. Imprisoned in a Japanese concentration camp, he is witness to the fierce white flash of Nagasaki as the bomb bellows the end of the war -- and the dawn of a blighted world.

Ballard's enduring novel of war and deprivation, internment camps and death marches, and starvation and survival is an honest coming-of-age tale set in a world thrown utterly out of joint.

Rushing to Paradise - Led by a charismatic and slightly unhinged woman, a group of environmentalists wins control over a small atoll in the Pacific and sets up a utopian community. Breeding other threatened species and among themselves, these homesteaders slowly transform an Eden of their own into a much darker place. A savage send-up of environmentalism, feminism, and extremism of all sorts.