J. G. Ballard may not be a household name. Readers familiar with him might just shrug him off and say, “That’s the guy who wrote Crash.” Yes, Ballard wrote the cult classic Crash, but this is the least of Ballard‘s vision. The majority of Ballard’s short stories and novels focus on possible futures: futures of pollution, biological abnormalities, and political horrors.
Ballard was a prolific and prophetic writer. Through the course of his career, he predicted many possible ends. Rising water levels, endless cityscapes, and drugged-up suburbanites are all the familiar territory of Ballard‘s books.
His 1962 novel The Drowned World describes an Earth in which pollution and solar flare have melted the polar icecaps and submerged the world as we know it. The Drowned World features bizarrely evolved animals and plants in a future London. A similar work, also strangely on cue, is his 1965 novel The Drought, which portrays a possible future in which trash dumped into the ocean has made water both toxic and a scarcity.
These themes, which sound like the wild ideas of a reactionary being interviewed on CNN, are so often near to the mark with the problems our globe faces today. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for instance, discovered by accident in 1997, is a oceanic reef of garbage and toxic sludge very similar to that described in The Drought and citing examples of rising water levels based on pollution would seem redundant for any follower of world news.
Many of Ballard’s shorter works follow scientists who take on godlike ambitions by toying with nature and genetics. His characters invent new life forms or accelerate evolutionary outcomes in existing species. Invasive species was a favorite theme of Ballard’s, and as we begin to discuss whether or not to engineer and reintroduce such bygone animals as the wooly mammoth into our world, we would do well to look at what such tinkering has done in Ballard’s imagined worlds.
In his shorter work War Fever we are introduced to a world engulfed in war that isn’t at all what it seems. This well written exposé on clinical world diagnosis through social statistics is perhaps his best short story. War Fever follows its central character, Ryan, through a Beirut that knows nothing of peace. Ryan dreams of a ceasefire that never happens. Ryan is surrounded by guns and the blue helmets of well meaning UN peacekeepers. The iconic blue helmet is a spectre at the end of every skirmish and the savior behind every bullet wound, but the UN peacekeepers aren’t what they seem. The ending of War Fever can not be guessed at and comes with a shock that is impossible to forget.
Ballard’s future worlds, unlike the worlds of Phillip K. Dick, for instance, are right now coming into view. The best science fiction seems to represent real world possibilities and Ballard’s books are no different. If something sets them aside it is the timely relevance of his many apocalypses. What is truly scary about them, besides the mutant animals and brutal environments, is their location. Each of Ballard’s dark visions is a vision of Earth. A surreal, terrifying Earth. His characters never manage to lift off into other worlds, but rather they create a world so overwrought with trash and experimentation that when disaster rears its head it is as if the sky were collapsing; nothing left to run from, no distance to run from it and nowhere safe to escape to.
Ballard’s success as an author is perhaps best judged in this way, we all know the words Socratic, Shakespearian, and Oedipal. Ballard has his own word too, Ballardian which means, “Of or pertaining to the characteristic fictional milieu of author J.G. Ballard, typified by dystopian modernity, bleak artificial landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, societal, and environmental developments.” Not many authors are unique enough nor leave a large enough cultural impact for scholars to coin them a word, but J. G. Ballard definitely did.
Books by Ballard that I recommend are:
- The Drought
- The Drowned World
- The Unlimited Dream Company
- The Day of Creation
- The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard
-Christopher J. Johnson