The Strange Visions of J.G. Ballard

The sci-fi author behind Steven Spielberg's next movie, 'Empire of the Sun,' opens the doors of perception in our everyday lives

J.G. Ballard Credit: David Levenson/Getty Images

IN 1984 A NOVEL TITLED 'EMPIRE OF THE SUN' was published in England and the United States to great critical acclaim. ("An astonishing piece of adventure fiction," said the London Sunday Times. "A profound and moving work of imagination," said the Los Angeles Times Book Review.) This partly autobiographical work describes the life of an eleven-year-old boy named Jim who lives with his British parents, nine servants and a chauffeur-driven Packard in Shanghai at the outbreak of World War II; his incarceration in a Japanese concentration camp; his witnessing – as if it were a hallucination – of the soundless light of the "second sun" of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki; and his reunion with his missing parents and his plan to return with his mother to England at the end of the war. Steven Spielberg read the book and decided to make a movie of it. Filmed in Shanghai, Spain and England, Empire of the Sun is Spielberg's first directorial effort since The Color Purple and is scheduled for an early December release. The novel was a fascinating choice for a film. But who, many people in the United States might ask, is its author, J.G. Ballard?

J.G. Ballard is best known in science-fiction circles for his close to twenty quasi-sci-fi novels and story collections, which are filled with strange and memorable images. He lives alone – his wife died many years ago, and his three children are grown – in suburban Shepperton, England, a fifty-minute train ride from London. "In a way," he told the San Francisco publication Re/Search, "a suburb like this is the real psychic battleground - it's on the wavefront of the future, rather than a city area…. . . I would almost call it an airport culture that's springing up in suburbs like this – a very transient kind of world. It's interesting to watch."

"We live inside an enormous novel," J.G. Ballard once wrote. "For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer's task is to invent the reality." A student of medicine between 1949 and 1951, Ballard has always been fascinated by advances in science. In the mid-Sixties, for example, he arranged with one of his computer-scientist friends to send him the contents of his wastepaper baskets, which included printouts, scientific handouts, giveaway magazines and laboratory detritus. "These strange crossovers from the communications world," Ballard has said, "were psychopathology, experimental applied psychology, commercialism – you know, the latest stuff the computer firms are trying to sell you…. . . . All those, overlaid together, provided a wonderful sort of compost which my imagination could feed on."

Ballard has stated that his two favorite books are the Warren Commission report ("There's an obsessive concentration on little details") and Crash Injuries – a medical textbook that Ballard calls his bible ("One should approach the material as, say, an engineer approaches stress deformations of aircraft tail-play – as a fact of life…. . . . The human body may crash, so let's look at it anew. Texts like that are a way of seeing the human self anew").

Ballard's controversial novel Crash, in fact, is a work about the psychosexuality of car wrecks ("In his vision of a car-crash with the actress, Vaughan was obsessed by many wounds and impacts – by the dying chromium and collapsing bulkheads of their two cars meeting head-on in complex collisions endlessly repeated in slow-motion films . . . by the compound fractures of their thighs impacted against their handbrake mountings, and above all by the wounds to their genitalia, her uterus pierced by the heraldic beak of the manufacturer's medallion, his semen emptying across the luminescent dials that registered for ever the last temperature and fuel levels of the engine").

The novel was praised by William Burroughs and called a masterpiece by the Parisian newspaper Le Monde, but the reader for Ballard's London publisher wrote, "The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help." Ballard responded, "The person who wrote that was the wife of a psychiatrist and had some psychiatric training herself…. . . . For a psychiatrist to say, 'You're beyond psychiatric help' – in a way, that's the greatest compliment you can be paid! You've achieved freedom then – absolute freedom."

J.G. Ballard is a master of several genres – the s.f. novel and story, the "technological" works like Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition (from the late Sixties) and the more recent, visionary novel The Unlimited Dream Company, in which an aviator, after having crashed his small plane in the Thames, becomes a pagan god and turns the town of Shepperton into a garden of earthly delights.

The following interview with J.G. Ballard took place in the writer's small study, which is simply furnished with a silver-foil palm tree, several chairs – each teeming with books – an overstocked bookshelf and a desk with a manual typewriter.

Dominating the room is a five-by-four-foot copy of a painting by the Belgian surrealist painter Paul Delvaux. It depicts statuesque nudes in a dreamlike landscape. Ballard commissioned it from a London artist (the original was destroyed during the London blitz). These nudes in frozen motion seemed to watch over us as we talked.

The astronomer Carl Sagan tells how, as a child, he eagerly read the novels and stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, L. Ron Hubbard, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. But as he got older, he began to feel frustrated and incredulous when he was asked to believe that the first probe of a neutron star was accomplished by a manned rather than an unmanned spacecraft or when characters were able to build interplanetary cities but had forgotten the inverse-square law. Sagan adds, "I find science more subtle, more intricate and more awesome than much of science fiction." Do you agree with this?
Yes and no . . .… with the emphasis on the no. Because science fiction represents a body of popular mythology inspired by science, and it isn't necessary for strict scientific accuracy to play a dominant role. For example, the idea – long since exploded – that the Martian canals were constructed by some ancient race does have a certain poetic force. It says something to us about our very small place in the great scheme of things. And it inspired at least one great work of literature – Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles.

So if you regard s.f. as the folk literature of the twentieth century, as many people do, its inaccuracies pale into insignificance. In many ways, accuracy is the last refuge of the unimaginative – it's a last-ditch retreat. Because I think there's something vital about the power of the imagination and its ability to remake the world. You see this, for instance, in the classic surrealist paintings of Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Giorgio de Chirico and Paul Delvaux, where the laws of time and space are constantly being suspended, and where reality is decoded in an attempt to discover the superreality that lies behind the façade of everyday life. And that means everything from the world of politics and mass merchandising to something as trivial as the fabrics people have in their homes.

Sagan does say, "The greatest human significance of science fiction may be as experiments on the future, as explorations of alternative destinies, as attempts to minimize future shock."
I think he's right in the sense that science fiction should look at the future and prepare us for it – science fiction puts the emotion into the future . . . something science tends to leave out. So it can help you to respond emotionally to what it may be like to fly across the Atlantic in five minutes in a rocket plane. But in fact, I think science fiction is really about the here and now – it's a branch of visionary fiction.

Remember, I was brought up in the school of British science fiction that goes back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and on through the works of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. That's the background out of which the British audience reads s.f. They don't expect the outer-space, interplanetary-space, far-future approach of s.f. that seems to be the exclusive monopoly of the science fiction written in the United States. When I first submitted stories to American magazines like Amazing or Astounding – even in the early Sixties – just setting a story in the present day made editors and readers uneasy.

But here we are in 1987 living, to a large extent, inside an enormous science-fiction novel! S.f. is a wonderful tool with which to try to make sense of this novel that we all inhabit – and it's a shame that the American view of s.f. is generally so concentrated on the interplanetary and the far future. Though it's a good sign that the new generation of s.f. writers, the cyberpunks [William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Michael Swanwick – see RS 488], have gone back to the original role of science fiction as a direct comment on everyday experience – which today is that communications landscape with its glowing terminals and invisible computer links netting the planet into a McLuhanized village.

But you yourself once wrote, "Modem science fiction became the first casualty of the changing world it anticipated and helped to create. The future envisaged by the science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s is already our past." And you went on to compare the film '2001: A Space Odyssey' to 'Gone with the Wind,' commenting that the former seemed to you "a scientific pageant that became a kind of historical romance in reverse, a sealed world into which the hard light of contemporary reality was never allowed to penetrate."
Sadly, I think that is true. S.f. as a whole is, of course, time sensitive; its predictive role means that it can be overtaken by events. It's impossible now, except as a spoof, to write a realistic story or novel about the first landing on the moon, as if it had never taken place. The moment Armstrong put his foot on the turf, that was one piece of possibility deleted from the repertory of s.f. And the same will happen as we move into an ever more technological landscape. It's very difficult to grasp how much things have changed just during the past thirty years: TV, computers, heart transplants, extrauterine fetuses, AIDS – which is like a science-fiction disease. It almost seems like a deliberately designed plague by a vengeful deity who has read too much s.f. So a lot of s.f. of the 1940s and 1950s looks like discarded snakeskins. They may glisten a little bit in the deep grass, but the stuff is perishable.

You've commented that s.f. films of the Forties and Fifties, like 'The Day the Earth Stood Still,' 'Them!' and The Incredible Shrinking Man,' were masterpieces in which "time suddenly starts accelerating" from their first moments. But you've said that with a film like 'Star Wars,' "the moment the film begins, time stops." What did you mean by that?
Those earlier films sprang out of a period of rapid scientific changes that were taking place, especially in the States. In The Incredible Shrinking Man, a man and wife are on a power cruiser, just quietly meandering in the Pacific Ocean. The boat drifts through a cloud of radioactive crop chemicals, and this sets up processes in the man's body that begin to make him shrink. And the movie just accelerates away, with the audience thinking, "My God, is this what the future is going to be like? Are we all going to be shrunk down to the size of microdots?" In a film like this, one gets the sense of a speeding replica of the twentieth century caught upon a spinning carrousel.

Now, in Star Wars there are supertechnologies brilliantly described and realized, but there's no sense of time. The action could be in the very far future or the very far past. There's no direct connection with our own world or any other world. The characters inhabit a timeless continuum, such that one senses that any action performed by any one of the characters will have no long-term effect on anything. They're just dealing with events, like speeding dots on a video game.

But you could say that the film's main characters – who are variations on Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion in 'The Wizard of Oz' – really make 'Star Wars' a kind of children's literature rather than science fiction.
Yes, Star Wars is a children's movie, and I'm not putting it down as a type of children's literature. But I think there's a great difference between Star Wars and, say, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which does encourage one's imagination on the deepest possible level, giving a sense of how ordinary lives can be transformed by some unique perception, whatever it may be.

That film seemed to be precisely about the imaginative process itself.
I agree completely. And I'd like to see science fiction moving more in that direction, because it's much more successful and touches much deeper depths. I also, by the way, loved The Road Warrior – I thought it was a masterpiece. For ninety or so minutes I really knew what it was like to be an eight-cylinder engine under the hood of whatever car that was; the visceral impact of that film was extraordinary. And seen simply from a science-fiction point of view, it created a unique landscape with tremendous visual authority.

So as you can see, I'm all for variety in science fiction. I'm against the idea of unchanging conventions, which is a form of death. Rules have no business in the realm of the imagination.

It's ironic that you like Forties and Fifties s.f. films and at the same time find fault with the books published during that very same period.
Partly because the movies then were low-budget films, and the directors had to make them out in the streets, so to speak – they couldn't afford to build fancy sets the way people like George Lucas can today. And in that way they maintained their contact with reality, as did film noir. It forces a certain relevance on you. Even the recent Blue Velvet was shot against a very stylized American suburb – but it's a real suburb, and that lends a lot of power to that film. I think the lifeline to reality is all-important – like the umbilical cord between the fetus and the mother.

'Empire of the Sun,' your last book published in America, is the semiautobiographical lifeline to the reality of your own childhood. And in reading it in the light of your past work, I recalled a dream I once had in which I saw, at the foot of a crossroads, a sign that read, "Remember the Future!" I recalled that dream because in 'Empire of the Sun' there seems to be a kind of remembering of future motifs, images, themes and obsessions that you would develop in your earlier works: the boy Jim looking at the drained swimming pools by the deserted houses of the International Settlement in Shanghai; the halo of the sun falling from the Mustang fighter plane and the American pilot's body as he's burning to death; and the Japanese soldiers confiscating their prisoners' watches and clocks so that they will lose all sense of time – all of these images correspond to those in your later works. So in a way, 'Empire of the Sun' remembers the books you were going to write in the future, though paradoxically, you wrote it after those books – if you know what I mean.
All of my fiction up till Empire of the Sun is filled with echoes of my own childhood, and in this book, my dreams of the future and a dream of the past – which is what Shanghai now is to me – came together in a very peculiar way . . .… though it wasn't thought out yet.

But I know what you mean about remembering the future. When one looks back on authors from the past – Dickens or Dostoevsky – one doesn't necessarily remember their books in the order in which they were written. In fact, I've often thought that writers don't really produce their works in the order in which they were really written. So that Empire of the Sun may really be my first novel that just happened to come out rather late. Whereas some of my earlier fiction may be late works of mine, drawing on experiences of my first book. In my writing I've made a kind of mythology out of things like drained swimming pools and abandoned hotels and the like, but I was unaware of most of this. What prompts the imagination to put its head above the parapet, God knows! It's a risky business. All I know is that the jigsaw only began to stare back at me in Empire of the Sun.

In that book you describe the war newsreels you used to see as a boy in Shanghai, and you even write that it seemed as if "the whole of Shanghai was turning into a newsreel." Today you're living in the suburban town of Shepperton, which is, in fact, famous for its film studios. And it seems as if you've moved from one movie set to another.
It's very strange. And the ultimate strangeness, of course, is that during the filming of Empire of the Sun they picked a couple of locations near Shepperton to represent Amherst Avenue – the place in Shanghai where I used to live – and several of the houses that were used in the film were found only a ten-minute drive from here in a place called Sunningdale. And Steven Spielberg very kindly offered me a walk-on part as a guest at a fancy-dress party in Shanghai on the eve of World War II, which, of course, I accepted. I got myself up as John Bull, with Dickensian top hat, Union Jack waistcoat, red cutaway coat, white britches and boots. And a number of my Shepperton neighbors, whom I've known for about twenty-five years, are also in the film. I felt that we had all been recruited to go back to a China of forty years ago, as if in a dream.

I recall a strange moment during the second day of shooting, in which the guests were leaving that fancy-dress party. We, as the guests, were all standing in the large hallway of this house in Sunningdale – the cameras were outside in the drive. At a signal we stepped out of the house, and there, in this large circular drive, were these Thirties Buicks and Packards with Chinese chauffeurs – all of them actors – standing beside them. I suddenly felt the wheels were coming full circle. It was like time travel, but the kind of time travel that occurs in the central nervous system. It made me so conscious that there were many layers of time that were being rolled backward to reveal other layers of time beneath – perhaps with their weave running in a different direction.

As you write in 'Empire of the Sun,' "Jim knew that he was awake and asleep at the same time, dreaming of the war and yet dreamed of by the war."
And that's the way it felt when I and my neighbors were asked to perform in the movie. People always ask me why I came to live in this nondescript London suburb. But perhaps my life here has been a deep assignment I've been carrying out – like a secret agent – without realizing I was doing it. Perhaps my playing a part in the film has been just a vast therapeutic exercise! But to say that would trivialize it, because it's very difficult, for me and for all of us, to return to one's roots, to go back to one's home town and see how everything's changed – that your childhood house is now a supermarket or a toothpaste factory and that whole street patterns have been transformed. On the psychological level it's even more difficult to go back to the sources of one's own personality and identity. But thanks to Steven Spielberg's film, I was able to do so. He generously told me he really liked it, and it was clear that his imagination had grasped it in a single swoop. It's so vital to the film to have had a director who was able to enter a child's mind.

In 'Empire of the Sun,' Jim reads Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass' and finds it "a comforting world less strange than his own." And you later comment on Jim's ability to double his sense of reality, "as if everything that had happened to him since the war was occurring within a mirror. It was his mirror self who felt faint and hungry."
I can remember that strongly from my childhood during the war – which was a very strange period. But Shanghai even before the war was a strange city, like an elaborate stage set that could be changed overnight – and often was, what with the Chinese, the Japanese, the British fighting for control of it.

You once commented that the only alien planet is the earth.
This planet is genuinely strange. If we were all flown to the moon or to Mars and walked around on them, they wouldn't seem that strange to us because there would be no yardsticks or anything to measure their strangeness by – they're just vast museums of geology. Whereas the earth is a deranged zoo, and somebody left the doors of the cages open. We have real strangeness because we can measure the degree to which things are or are not what they ought to be.

Against what would we measure this?
Against change, for instance. A mutates so rapidly into B and C. But at least we can remember A. I mean, moral principles survive. If you're bringing up children or looking after the elderly and making something of your own life – whether it's tending a little garden or starting an aircraft company – there are yardsticks that define reality and responsibility. You mustn't lose sight of these. And I hope I've never done so in my work; otherwise, I'd consider myself simply a pure fantasist, and I've never wanted to lose the sense of moral compass bearing. I mean, even in a book like Crash, which some people consider to be out-and-out pornography, I attempt – I hope – to make some kind of sense of the marriage of reason and nightmare that has dominated the twentieth century.

At the conclusion of 'Empire of the Sun,' you tell how Jim, imprisoned in Shanghai's Olympic Stadium, suddenly sees the soundless flash of light of the distant Nagasaki A-bomb – "the light was a premonition of his death, the sight of his small soul joining the larger soul of the dying world" – which seems to him like a "second sun." And one is reminded of the earlier description of the intense "halo of light" emanating from the downed Mustang fighter plane and its burning American pilot.
I wanted Jim to see light in a special way, because the crash of the Mustang and the burning pilot give him one of those brief glimpses that many of us have had where one is looking through the dimensions of time and space into a reality beyond. And that anticipates the blinding reality of the A-bomb, which Jim sees as the final judgment of the human race.

But the burning light of the Mustang pilot also has a kind of sacrificial quality: as a child I saw the Japanese killing fallen American pilots. Throughout the book, Jim is obsessed with survival on a minute-by-minute basis, but a sense of the larger scheme of things does, I think, come through. Jim imagines seeing his parents and taking them not only away from the war but also away to a world beyond this one. And he catches a glimpse of that world in the burning light of that crashing Mustang. Later, at the Olympic Stadium, he sees the final white light. And from then on he sees ordinary daylight in a different and final sense – there's a sense of an apocalypse that's waiting for him at the end of the book. Even when he's about to take a ship leaving Shanghai for England, he notices in the distance one of the city's outdoor cinemas showing a newsreel. The camera breaks down, there's an enormous white screen and again he sees the white light as a window into another universe.

In your s.f. novel 'The Drowned World,' you write of "a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun." And in your visionary novel 'The Unlimited Dream Company,' you describe the townspeople carrying the godlike pagan hero away "toward the sun, eager to lose themselves in that communion of light."
I'm aware that there's a visionary sense in my work, but I don't have any kind of orthodox or conventional religious feelings, and I can't really call myself "mystical." What I do have is the notion, which I take from modern experimental psychology, that the universe presented to us by our senses is a kind of ramshackle construct that happens to suit the central nervous system of an intelligent bipedal mammal with a rather short conceptual and physical range. We see rooms and people and have perceptions – but it's all a construct. And I see the role of the imaginative writer as an attempt to get through this neuro-psychological construct into something closer to the truth.

I've been struck by the extraordinary number of characters in your books who manifest an intense longing to transcend or escape the continuum of time and space.
That's true – it's probably the real matter of my fiction and something I've never been consciously aware of. It's a peculiar thing, because as I write, I take it for granted that many of my characters wish to escape the time and space of these walls or this chair or this ball-point pen, and they try to break out of all of this by some sort of rearrangement of the perceptual apparatus, which they think can be fueled by the imagination.

In my short story "Myths of the Near Future," for example, a character named Sheppard is living alone in a series of deserted hotels near a long-abandoned Cape Kennedy. His wife has died, he has visions of her, he thinks he can bring her back to life by means of a kind of time machine that is powered by the empty swimming pools outside – because the light at Cape Kennedy is extraordinarily intense, partly reflected as it is from these drained concrete swimming pools. But of course it's also an inward light. Sheppard believes his dead wife is trapped in time. So he climbs down into one of these pools with a young woman who has befriended him and tells her, "There's a door out of this pool. I'm trying to find it, a side door for all of us to escape through. This space sickness – it's really about time, not space, like all the Apollo flights. We think of it as a kind of madness, but in fact it may be part of a contingency plan laid down millions of years ago, a real space program, a chance to escape into a world beyond time."

Light, time, the attempt to break out of the metaphysical structures that lock us all into our little rooms and mental cubicles and categories – it's a strain that runs through all of my work.

You once commented that "the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul."
I'm afraid that might be so. People have willingly lobotomized themselves with the aid of tools from suburban hardware stores, with TV, with consumerism.

In the 1970s, I was invited to make a trip across Germany from Bremerhaven to Stuttgart –- this as part of a journalistic junket sponsored by Mercedes-Benz – and we drove along secondary roads. Everything we observed dated from 1945, of course. We trundled through endless immaculate suburbs of executive housing where even a drifting leaf looked as if it had too much freedom. There was a Mercedes or a BMW in every driveway, motor-boats on their trailers, identical children identically dressed. We might have been looking at a population of brilliantly designed robots placed there merely to establish a contextual landscape! And this went on and on. I suddenly realized that the future of this planet was not going to be like New York City or Tokyo or London or Moscow but rather like a suburb of Düsseldorf. And you know, most of the Baader-Meinhof gang in fact grew up in these suburbs, and I realized why that kind of terrorism erupted from this kind of landscape. Because in that world, madness is the only freedom.

But think of the nineteen-year-old West German guy who recently flew his Cessna to Red Square.
Yes, it's wonderfully encouraging to see the human imagination still capable of these huge conceptual leaps that leave air-defense systems completely paralyzed!

Oddly, I feel that the 1980s are a good time to be alive, because the consumer conformism – "the suburbanization of the soul" – on the one hand and the gathering ecological and other crises on the other do force the individual to recognize that he or she is all he or she has got. And this sharpens the eye and the imagination. The challenge is for each of us to respond, to remake as much as we can of the world around us, because no one else will do it for us. We have to find a core within us and get to work. Don't worry about worldly rewards. Just get on with it!