What the hell is reality and how do we distinguish it from fiction? Who decides? Furthermore, if those who decide the allocations of the real and unreal are cruel, mad or colossally wrong, what then? These are the sorts of questions to which J G Ballard returns again and again in his fiction and non-fiction. His writing career spanned more than five decades. His work ranged from short stories published in New Worlds and Science Fantasy in the 1950s through to anti-realist novels exploring malfunctioning societies, psychological extremity, fragmentary modernity and technomania: from Crash! (1973), Concrete Island (1974), The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) to Rushing to Paradise (1994) and others. In later novels, such as Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006), Ballard focused intently on savage anomie among the upper-middle classes, devising his own genre of bourgeois noir. Like Philip K Dick – who defined himself as ‘a fictionalising philosopher’ – Ballard deployed the creaking conventions of the novel to pose deep questions about reality, truth and the relationship between the inner mind and the external world. In his introduction to the French edition of Crash!, Ballard wrote: ‘The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a complete fiction.’
Like Dick, Ballard was (oddly) castigated by some critics for the unrealistic nature of his portraits of fictional reality. In turn, he suggested that the social-realist novel was dead and that only science fiction and fantasy could express the fantastical character of the 20th century. He also argued, perhaps inevitably, that in a ruined reality the distinctions between fiction and non-fiction must be ruined as well. This bestows an inescapable element of paradox on any attempt to select and publish Ballard’s non-fiction, as the editor Mark Blacklock (a novelist and cultural historian who teaches at Birkbeck, University of London) acknowledges in his clear-sighted introduction to this wonderful edition. Until now, the only collection of Ballard’s non-fiction was A User’s Guide to the Millennium (1996), which contains a selection of reviews published between 1962 and 1995. Blacklock has chosen works written over the entirety of Ballard’s prolific and varied career and arranged this vast oeuvre into loose categories: statements, manifestos, lists, captions, glossaries, commentaries, reviews and articles. This works well as it acknowledges Ballard’s resistance to orthodox categories without engendering chaos. It is ‘high time’ such an edition was published, adds Tom McCarthy in his lucid foreword, in which he gently bemoans the fact that so many of his students find Ballard’s fiction revolting, badly written or both. (Such responses, however, are mild compared with the reaction of an employee of Jonathan Cape in the 1970s who, after reading the pre-publication manuscript of Crash!, reported that ‘the author is beyond psychiatric help’.)
A version of Ballard’s childhood emerges in the quasi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984), adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg in 1987. Born in Shanghai in 1930, Ballard was interned with his family in the Lunghua civilian camp in 1943, remaining there until August 1945. At the end of the war, he went to England, a ‘derelict, dark and half-ruined’ country. After studying first medicine then English literature, Ballard worked as a copywriter, a porter and a door-to-door salesman. He lived in Shepperton near Heathrow and wrote vaulting paeans to the unloved suburbs. He married Mary Matthews and they had three children; Mary died suddenly in 1965. Ballard identified his early experiences as fundamental to the recurring ideas in his work: that atrocity and cruelty lurk beneath placid surfaces, that the ordinary world can be erased at any moment, that a possible node of reality lies in the mind, though the world assails this tenuous inner realm. Fiction is the antidote to the pathology of adamantine certainty, but this only works if fiction avoids adamantine certainty as well.
‘The writer knows nothing any longer,’ wrote Ballard in 1973. The modernists – who also knew they knew nothing – were mired in pessimism and alienation, he added. Ballard’s mock manifestos, such as ‘What I Believe’ (1984), are rallying cries, not laments:
I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.
I believe in my own obsessions.
In his lists and glossaries, Ballard crafts a playful counter-canon: Dalí, Max Ernst, Titian, Goya, Borges, Francis Bacon, Magritte, Hemingway, Baudrillard, Burroughs, H G Wells (with some reservations), Aldous Huxley (with a few more). In a 1994 foreword to The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, Ballard declares Brave New World – with its ‘unsettling picture of a scientifically engineered utopia’ – a ‘shrewder guess at the future’ than Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In a 1990 article for The Guardian, he criticises James Joyce’s Ulysses for ‘lacking in imagination and [failing] to engage the reader’s emotions, defects that of course recommend it to academia’ and simultaneously commends it as ‘the greatest work of fiction’ of the 20th century. Also in The Guardian, he gleefully eviscerates the Bloomsbury Group – ‘that bloodless set who haunt English letters like a coterie of haemophiliac royals’. We know that Ballard was many things – novelist, fabulist, one-time assistant editor of British Baker, seer of Shepperton, poet laureate of airports. But, it seems, he was not a fan of Mrs Dalloway.
Ballard died in 2009, before the advent of our AI utopia/dystopia (opinions vary), before tech barons reignited the space age with their tumescent rockets, before driverless cars mistook solid objects for clouds, and so on. On the evidence of these writings, he was an ambivalent futurologist who predicted the future while also predicting the inevitable error of his predictions. In ‘Project for a Glossary of the Twentieth Century’ (1992), Ballard foresees that the ‘totalitarian systems of the future will be docile and subservient, like super-efficient servants, and all the more terrifying for that’ (time to defriend Alexa). In a 1977 piece for Vogue, ‘The Future of the Future’, Ballard conjures a possible version of the year 2000: each moment of our daily lives will be recorded on video tape and collated by computer, so we can watch the daily show in private every evening, each of us becoming ‘the star in a continually unfolding domestic saga’. This is prophetic, with one vital exception: Ballard imagines that the total capture of our private lives will stay within the four walls of our homes. Even he couldn’t foresee the rapacious intrusions of surveillance capitalism.
One more thing about the future, writes Ballard in ‘The State of Fiction’ (1978): ‘it will be boring.’ For that reason, ‘the role of imaginative fiction becomes more and more important for survival’. If you’re in danger of being bored at any point this winter, buy this book. I concede it’s ostensibly non-fiction rather than fiction, but on every page Ballard tells us that such distinctions are no longer tenable because reality is an enormous novel. Furthermore, Ballard’s essayistic fictions and fictionalised essays are incandescent with ideas and provocations, wildly eclectic and always fascinating. Blacklock’s edition is a gift to readers in the present and the unreal future.