Extreme Metaphors: ‘A Launchpad for Other Explorations’

Simon Sellars J.G. Ballard

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‘A Launchpad for Other Explorations’ by Simon Sellars. Introduction to Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967–2008, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara, Fourth Estate, 2014. 


The conditions of J.G. Ballard’s childhood in wartime Shanghai are well known, exposed by the success of his semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984), and Steven Spielberg’s film version of that compulsive self-mythology. Yet pre-Empire, Shanghai was admitted only in metaphor to Ballard’s writing, and the war mentioned en passant in the ubiquitous mini-biographies adorning the front-papers of his novels. A typical example contained various combinations of the following elements: ‘He was born in Shanghai in 1930 to English parents. The Japanese interned him for almost three years in a civilian war camp. He came to England when he was sixteen. He studied medicine at King’s College, Cambridge. He worked as a copywriter, then as a Covent Garden porter, then as an editor on a scientific journal. He trained to become an RAF pilot. His first professionally published short story was “Prima Belladonna” in 1956. He was a leading light in the so-called “New Wave” of science fiction. He lives in Shepperton, England. Crash is his most notorious novel…’

Occasionally, there would be self-reflexive variations, statements so intense they were surely the handiwork not of bored copywriters but of Ballard himself: ‘He believes that science fiction is the authentic literature of the twentieth century’ (or ‘science fiction is the apocalyptic language of the twentieth century’). ‘He believes that inner space, not outer, is the real subject of science fiction.’ Today, given Ballard’s post-Empire canonisation, it’s easy to forget he began as a writer of science fiction, although in the 1960s he established his name with a quartet of end-of-the-world disaster novels that anticipated climate change: The Wind from Nowhere (1961), The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (1964) and The Crystal World (1966).

In that decade, he also produced a number of short stories that inverted science fiction via one of its most cherished tropes, time travel, using the premise to formulate the fabled theory of inner space informing those early bios. Anticipating Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard, Ballard demonstrated how encroaching advertising and mass consumer culture played on submerged desire, implanting new, artificial subjectivities to create a schizophrenic underclass. In response to such conditions, his characters retreated into the private imagination – ‘inner space’ – cordoning it off as a virtual ‘nature reserve’, preserving its sovereignty by any means possible. A recurring theme was the idea of escaping or cheating time, precipitated by a period of psychic turmoil. Recording the Daliesque motif of stopped or ‘melting’ time, Ballard uses the symbolism of time (that is, the unit of measurement; clock time) as an arbitrary, man-made construct imposing order and control on the free reign and chaos of the subconscious. Faced with the reality of life in that tumultuous decade, inner space for Ballard was a far more strange and compelling setting for science fiction than its traditional environs in outer space.

Coining the slogan ‘Earth is the only alien planet’, Ballard joined forces with Michael Moorcock to lead the British New Wave, producing an extended, linked sequence of fragmentary, non-linear short stories that continued to address the psychosocial effects of the media landscape. These were mainly published in Moorcock’s revolutionary New Worlds magazine, the mouthpiece for the New Wave, and later collected as The Atrocity Exhibition (1969), which, billed as an ‘experimental novel’, cemented his reputation as a dark magus, a writer able to face the most extreme aspects of our culture and divine a secret logic from the chaos.

In the mid-seventies, Ballard mostly abandoned formal experimentation in favour of traditional narrative technique, although the subject matter was just as confrontational, perhaps even more shocking for the neutral style encasing it. The novels of this period include Crash (1973), about a cult of bored, middle-class professionals who feel alive only after modifying their bodies via staged car crashes; Concrete Island (1974), about a man who crashes into a patch of wasteland beneath a motorway, subconsciously ‘marooning’ himself in the city; and High-Rise (1975), in which a high-tech apartment block descends into tribal warfare. These seductive, disturbing narratives seek out the edgelands of cities, making strange the familiar landscapes of suburbia, and have proved enormously influential for their clinical portrayal of the new roles we assume from the technological landscape. They have inspired not only writers but also musicians, artists and filmmakers, who respond to Ballard’s highly imagistic style (itself influenced by surrealism), and even architects and urbanists, drawn to his penetrating critique of the contemporary urban condition.

Then came a brace of unclassifiable novels: The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), Hello America (1981), The Day of Creation (1987) and Rushing to Paradise (1994). If an overarching theme could be detected, it’s perhaps that each presented a lysergic vision of mythical lands (sometimes right before our eyes, as in suburbia) undermining and degrading the structural integrity of the urban West. In between were Empire and its sequel The Kindness of Women (1991), both playing surrealistic games with Ballard’s life story. In his later career, there was a final incarnation: Ballard, the writer of subversive crime fictions such as Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006). Indeed, crime was the perfect genre for the age of conspiracy theory and inscrutable global power structures that would come to define the new millennium, and which Ballard’s work had always foretold. Of course, he continued to write brilliant short stories throughout, as well as the novella ‘The Ultimate City’ (1976), about a future New York abandoned and then repopulated, regarded as among his finest work.

Illustration for Ballard’s ‘The Drowned Giant’ by Shafeen Alam.

Actually, what this potted history suggests is that Ballard’s career is almost impossible to summarise. Reading the blurbs of his later novels, therefore, with their Shanghai-Empire focus, feels like submitting to a ritual incantation designed to fix a public mask for this most elusive of writers. In reality, if your first introduction to Ballard is by way of, say, his short story ‘The Drowned Giant’ (1964), 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?

Ballard published approximately 1,100,000 words in novels, 500,000 in short stories and at least 300,000 in non-fiction. The combined word count of all the interviews he gave is around 650,000. In the Ballardian galaxy that’s a second sun, an enormous parallel body of speculation, philosophy, critical inquiry and imaginative flights of fancy that comments critically on his writing, often explains it and, sometimes, extends or even goes beyond it. Ballard enjoyed talking about his work, in marked contrast to the contemporary literary landscape where authors see interviews as a tiresome duty, or as a PR exercise, a chance to push product, or even as a chance to vent spleen on real and imagined enemies. As Iain Sinclair said of Ballard: ‘He doesn’t speak badly of anybody, any named individual. It’s almost a superstition, no gossip.’ In interviews, it was common for him to ignore any mention of literature and fellow writers altogether. Questions as to his literary influences were deflected or summed up with a short list of his childhood reading.

Ballard was never comfortable defining his place within the canon, and had little time for contemporary literature, which he saw as stuck in the mode of the nineteenth-century ‘social novel’, unwilling or unable to confront the fragmented subjectivities induced by the new media landscape. In contrast, his stories and novels present psychosociological case studies, based on highly skilled readings of real-world trends in culture, consumerism, technology and media. Frequently, this predictive charge was fomented in the interview situation, a kind of philosophical ‘laboratory’ where he could test ideas, opinions and observations, and later smuggle them into the airlocked worlds of his fiction. The opportunity to review his interviews is therefore an important one, and, in the twilight zone of critical opinion that invariably follows an important writer’s death, to be taken seriously. With the benefit of hindsight, and Ballard’s complete body of work before us stretching back fifty-five years, not only are we able to unearth the philosophical and imaginative seeds that would spawn his most significant writing, but we are also able to experience a kind of extended remix of the themes woven throughout his work.

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Arguably, Ballard’s most striking interview is the one he gave to Carol Orr in 1974, soon after the publication of Crash, when his notoriety was riding high. Four years earlier, the entire run of the American edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, to be published by Doubleday, had been pulped after a Doubleday executive became apoplectic at some of the more controversial material within (principally the story ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’). Then, Crash was turned down by a publisher’s reader with the infamous words: ‘This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.’ Ballard was probably about as ‘cult’ as a writer could be at the time, and although still regarded as primarily a writer of science fiction, was distancing himself farther and farther from the genre. As a writer of SF, his ostensible line of work was to collate the future, yet he undermines that job description by telling Orr that there is no future, that ‘the present is throwing up so many options, so many alternatives, that it contains the possibilities of any future right now. You can have tomorrow today. And the notion of the future as a sort of programmatic device … a compass bearing … a destination that we are moving towards psychologically and physically … is rather outdated.’ It is for this reason, he has claimed elsewhere, that science fiction is dead, its predictive capacity castrated by the ever-changing, real-world present. The prophetic nature of that observation can be gauged by the fact that William Gibson, among the most intelligent and successful of contemporary science fiction writers, has said in recent interviews that he has given up on writing SF for similar reasons – almost three decades after Ballard.

Orr asks Ballard about the likelihood of nuclear holocaust, and his response both predicts and undermines the nuclear hysteria and paranoia that would peak in the 1980s. Warning that networked technology and identity theft will become greater threats, he argues that we must be prepared for a coming age ‘where bank balances will be constantly monitored and at almost any given time all the information that exists about ourselves will be on file somewhere… where all sorts of agencies, commercial, political and governmental, will have access to that information’. (This can be tested empirically: how many of us have been the victim of online identity theft, and how many of a nuclear holocaust?)

Compare with Alvin Toffler’s bestselling non-fiction book Future Shock, published three years earlier but in 1974 still considered a frightening, all-too- real future vision. Toffler warned of ‘massive adaptational breakdown’ unless ‘man quickly learns to control the rate of change in his personal affairs as well as in society at large’. He predicted turmoil on an epic scale, with most of the population struggling to cope with the psychological shock of a mass- mediated life. Ballard, although concerned, discerns a rather different outcome, rooted in his belief in the affirmative possibilities of new technologies. He tells Orr that modern urban dwellers are psychologically tougher than ever before, ‘strong enough to begin to play all kinds of deviant games, and I’m sure that this is to some extent taking place’. He explains how the isolation that results from immersion in technological systems will invariably play into our latent fantasies: ‘We tend to assume that people want to be together in a kind of renaissance city if you like, imaginatively speaking, strolling in the evening across a crowded piazza … [But people] want to be alone. They want to be alone and watch television.’ Orr is unsure, her voice trailing as she struggles to articulate: ‘No, I can’t agree with you there. I think it is not a question of a conscious decision…’

Patiently, Ballard clarifies the true ‘togetherness’ of the technological age: people pressed together in traffic jams, aeroplanes, elevators, hemmed in, an artificial connectedness that breeds pathologies of violence, following by withdrawal into, for all intents and purposes, inner space. Protesting, Orr says she doesn’t want to be in a traffic jam, but neither does she want ‘to be alone on a dune, either’. Ballard counters: ‘being alone on a dune is probably a better description of how you actually lead your life than you realise … The city or the town or the suburb or the street – these are places of considerable isolation. People like it that way, too. They don’t want to know all their neighbours. This is just a small example where the conventional appeal of the good life needs to be looked at again.’ The exchange is significant because, with hindsight, we can determine Ballard testing the hypothesis behind Concrete Island, the follow-up to Crash, and a concentrated study in willed social isolation (Concrete Island’s protagonist crashes and maroons himself under a motorway overpass; he decides to stay there, finding new reserves of psychological strength as he escapes the pressures of his city life). Here, Ballard’s interview-art is in full effect: running the test, storing the results, turning the tables on his interrogator.

ballard concrete

In later interviews, Ballard would refine his views on affirmative social isolation, enthusing about the possibilities of private media and suggesting that the average home would soon acquire the processing power of a small TV studio, enabling us to broadcast our intimate fantasies to one another. In 1982 he told V. Vale that ‘everybody will be doing it, everybody will be living inside a TV studio. That’s what the domestic home aspires to these days … We’re all going to be starring in our own sit-coms, and they’ll be very strange sit-coms, too, like the inside of our heads. That’s going to come, I’m absolutely sure of that, and it’ll really shake up everything.’ It is this vision, not Toffler’s, that continues to resonate.

Yet for Ballard there was always a dark side. Today, online persona factories frame a fluid performativity enabled by the irresistible connective tissue of social media. What is YouTube – now inevitably banal, smoothly integrated into the fabric of everyday life – if not the medium for each of us to design and star in ‘our own sit-coms’? Anyone familiar with Ballard’s brutal short story ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ (1977) will recognise the dark shadow of those ‘very strange’ productions (indeed, of what we now recognise as social media), with its disturbing warning about the dangers that await when we have the capacity to broadcast ‘the inside of our heads’. Ballard’s futurism, always potent, extremely well reasoned and argued – frequently alarming – was, above all, uncannily accurate. He did not flinch, and he expected us not to, either.


From the moment I first read a Ballard interview (before any of his fiction, in fact), his slyly subversive conversational style colonised my thoughts and I became obsessed with tracking down every interview he ever did (my search continues; this collection merely scratches the surface). Back then, naive and inexperienced, I convinced myself that these interviews were superior to his novels. Sacrilege today, of course, but there was a case to be made, for I deeply admired how he worked the interview format with a neurosurgeon’s skill, finessing philosophical positions and aesthetic strategies that would later find purchase in his work, triaging real-world scenarios into the dark revelations of his fictional mirror worlds. I would find a new fix in obscure zines. I would painstakingly transcribe his radio and TV appearances. I would badger my elder Ballard-watching associates for access to their magnificent collections, but I had a lot of catching up to do. Henry James gave just three interviews in his life; there are at least two hundred published Ballard conversations. Before he’d even uttered a word, Don DeLillo once presented an interviewer with a card that warned: ‘I don’t want to talk about it’. In his heyday, Ballard could talk for hours, plying his interrogators with Scotch to keep things sociable.

He was courteous, approachable and generous with his time, and patient in explaining the terms and conditions of his work, although he once told an interviewer that ‘the ideal interview is one where I remain silent and you just ask a stream of hundreds of questions. Or – the interviewer hasn’t read the books he’s asking questions about, and the author can’t remember them!’ (He came close to achieving this goal in one of the more unusual interviews in this collection, the series of yes/no answers he gave to Sam Scoggins in 1983, an exercise in stylised repetition that, like a tape loop of music, grows in the imagination the more it is repeated.) Of course, he was being flippant. His real interest in making that remark was probably psychoanalytical, wanting to uncover the hidden intentions behind a particular line of questioning, or to turn the process into an autodidactic, quasi-surrealistic game.

He championed the independent press, often granting interviews to obscure photocopied fanzines and other small publications. A review of the publication history of his interviews reveals titles like Speculation, Corridor, Cypher, Vector, Search & Destroy, Aether SF, Etoile Mecanique, Hard Copy, The Hardcore, Hard Mag, Albedo One. These are labours of love on the parts of their publishers, mimeographed enthusiasm, largely forgotten, even in the all-seeing digital age. After Empire of the Sun, mainstream newspapers and magazines clamoured to speak to him, but still he held court with the underground. In the early days, it was the SF zines that came knocking on his door, but after RE/Search, specialists in ‘industrial’ culture, published Vale’s remarkable 30,000-word interview with him in 1984, punk and music periodicals picked up the pace. Ballard welcomed them, for he did not think his art was ‘pure’ and could speak for itself, nor did he appear to think it was degrading to explain his work, or that he had a certain type of audience, high or low.

In a 2010 article on ‘why novelists hate being interviewed’, Tom LeClair notes a recent trend: novels that portray interviewers as ‘irresponsible or unworthy of respect’. According to this ‘genre’, interviewers are hapless lackeys of the evil media machine, pilloried by long-suffering novelists because they haven’t read the books they’re supposed to be asking about, or they put words into the novelist’s mouth, or they want to talk about gossip and nothing else, or the novelist is forced to do the interview out of contractual obligation to the publisher. Finally, LeClair wonders ‘if the novelists’ animus against interviewers might be displaced animus against passionately curious readers, those who want to learn about authors to better comprehend their books. It appears that some novelists want to be understood, but not too thoroughly understood. [Philip Roth] suggests a darker, Oedipal motive for the animus: “Old men hate young men”.’ Such charges cannot be levelled at Ballard, who talked to almost anyone willing to make the trip down the motorway to his home in Shepperton or to ring the phone number he nonchalantly allowed to be listed in public phone directories.

Of course, earlier in his career, he had little time for ‘fandom’ as at least one interview in this collection attests, but he was always prepared to converse with those genuinely interested in the mysterious forces propelling his work, which he catalogued in his prose poem ‘What I Believe’ (1984). There, we find an index of his obsessions, including the ‘power of the imagination’; motorways; birds (indeed, flight of all kinds, powered and unpowered); the ‘confidences of madmen’; ‘the beauty of the car crash’; abandoned hotels; forgotten runways; Pacific islands; ‘all women’; supermarkets; the ‘genital organs of great men and women’; the death of the Space Age; Ernst, Delvaux, Dali and de Chirico; and ‘all the invisible artists within the psychiatric institutions of the planet’. In fact, that small list could be a mini-index to this present volume, in which all its elements are present and correct, and which in turn function as launchpads for other explorations, other themes: psychological, ontological, metaphysical, sociological, political, satirical, comical.

As evidenced by the reference to Ernst, Delvaux and the rest, visual art was a touchstone for Ballard, and he often said he wished he’d been an artist rather than a writer. Perhaps it is within that discipline, rather than the navel-gazing, venom-inked pens of literature, that we might find the light that can illuminate Ballard’s inimitable strengths as an interviewee. Daniel Miller, in an essay on the function of interviews in the art world, wrote of the interview itself ‘as art form’. This is meant both literally and figuratively, the former in that the conversation piece becomes a thing of crafted beauty, and the latter in that it becomes an appendage of the visual artist, albeit one with a mutually beneficial, symbiotic function: ‘the principal vehicle of public relations and vital theoretical supplement to artistic practice’. Miller identifies interviewer and interviewee as switches in a circuit, an ‘actor network’ (after Bruno Latour) that also includes inanimate and virtual objects. Because visual artists, perhaps more than any other creative discipline, are constantly in negotiation with institutional and bureaucratic politics in order to find funding – ‘negotiation, exploration and strategy’ – they are also constantly in negotiation with their ideas and their work, and the best ways to present them in order to ride the dynamism and flow of the network they are enmeshed within. In this respect, Miller explains, ‘the interview serves both as a clinic in which abiding patterns are seen to and as a laboratory in which new connections are forged’.

In the same way, Ballard sought to make new connections in the interview situation, to use the occasion as a workshop for experimentation, a test bed for later integration into his art. Nonetheless, these are experiments based on familiar patterns, for repetition is vitally important to his work (both in the fiction and in the interviews, and in the body of both combined), as a kind of linguistic hypertext that endlessly turns in on itself, erases itself and erects itself anew, providing no discernible start or end point – evading linear time once again, even in death – yet still providing familiar markers with which to orient oneself. It is not for nothing that interviewers came to refer to Ballard as the ‘Seer from Shepperton’, for the insights he offered so casually were always infused with that deep intelligence, itself informed by a vast cosmology of inner space. All who interviewed him knew it well. We were struck by it, lost deep in thought, sometimes confused or disconcerted, after it came to us as part of that disarming mix of full-frontal future shock and old-world, erudite charm, delivered like a child’s spoonful of medicine that turns out to be surprisingly pleasant to the taste.

Doubtless you, too, will become enamoured of the taste as you make your way through the chronology we have assembled, spiralling down through wormholes to the far side of his fiction, and a parallel universe familiar but strange, where Ballardian pronouncements reveal their covert meaning, as he pulls all the outer limits and farthest reaches of his career into sharper focus.

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