30 April 2009

Vale JG Ballard

Earlier this month (19 April, to be exact), something happened that escaped my notice -- JG Ballard died. I don't know how I missed this news -- probably busy with my head in a book -- but it's something I should've taken notice of. It was only this morning, reading Time magazine over breakfast, that I saw a tribute to Ballard by Bruce Sterling. Sterling writes: "...the orderliness of his personal life allowed him to create a surreal, visionary fiction that was often frankly pathological".

If you've read Crash, it's easy to agree with this. Ballard is, no doubt, best known for this and for Empire of the Sun. Although I own the latter, I must confess to not having read it yet. Or have I? The more I think about it, the more I think I have. In any case, I did enjoy the movie. On the other hand, I've definitely read Crash, a disturbing book, but haven't seen the film. But it was neither of these that spoke most loudly to me. It was one of his short stories: "Billennium". 

"Billennium" is set in an overpopulated future, where humankind has solved the problem of feeding its burgeoning population, so that the main problem now facing humanity is the lack of space. It is the story of a man who lives in a cupboard under a staircase (hmm, sound familiar? Ballard visited it first!), but who discovers a secret room, a large room, which he can have all to himself. Or can he? He gives up his cupboard and moves in, and the story goes somewhere unexpected but completely inevitable. It's one of those stories that left me thinking, and thinking. And a few days later, still thinking.

Ballard wasn't a discovery of my early science fiction years, but of my middle ones. In my early years I read mainly Asimov and Clarke and Hoyle. 

I loved Fred Hoyle's The black cloud as a teenager. Years later, I read it again and it felt dated -- not so much in the science but the way all the characters were always smoking, which annoyed the hell out of me. (I had this gripe about Nevil Shute's On the beach, too -- another book I otherwise loved.) I read some of Hoyle's other books, mostly co-written with his son Geoffrey, but these didn't grab me quite the same way -- though I do remember a wonderful scene where someone skated down through Jupiter's atmosphere... Going a bit hazy there.

In my early days, I was a purist who preferred Clarke to Asimov -- mainly because of Clarke's ideas. Rendezvous with Rama was one of my favourites, but I also particularly enjoyed Childhood's end. And then of course there was the esoteric film 2001, which intrigued me (and I enjoyed "The sentinel, which it was partly based on, and loved the idea of Michael Collins considering telling Houston he'd seen a big black rectangle on the farside of the moon -- if only he had!). You know, though -- I think I preferred the less intriguing, more traditional  2010, at least at the movies. I can't remember which book I preferred. I do remember going on to read 2061 and perhaps even 3001. Did I finish it? I can't remember. I do remember that I found the lack of characterisation difficult to deal with, and these last two signalled the end of my reading Clarke.

Asimov grew on me first with a robot -- R. Daneel Olivaw -- in The caves of steel and The naked sun, but then even more in the Foundation series. Until then, I think I had mainly read his short stories, and I never liked any short stories as much as novels -- mainly because I always bought them by accident, and then would do the work and just be getting into them when they would finish. I've since learned to appreciate the form. 

Then I made the discovery that the unsophisticated but fast-paced Lucky Starr books I'd read when I was younger were by Asimov too, writing under the pseudonym of Paul French. 

But the Foundation series -- initially, just three books -- really blew me away. What a concept! How amazing. And then R. Daneel turns up in the Foundation series, tying this series with the robot series. More, more, more. Give me more. Eventually, I think I read the whole Asimov canon, and was amazed at how he'd set all his novels in the same universe -- in his universe. It was so cool. Later, after he died, I tried to read some of the follow-ons to the Foundation series, written by other authors. Greg Benford's was just too dry to engage me. I almost wept with disappointment.

Strangely, both Clarke and Asimov had their own three rules, though Clarke's were more about writing (apart from no. three), and Asimov couldn't count because he cheated and snuck in a Zeroth Law, which seemed totally right and necessary when reading the later Foundation novels. I imagine most people would be more familiar with Asimov's laws of robotics, and I confess I'm more aware of Clarke's third law -- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic -- than his other two.

The purists may prefer Clarke to Asimov, and indeed I've heard many of them snigger about Asimov, but to me Asimov's writing had a warmth, a human interest that I just couldn't find to the same degree in Clarke's books. It was this factor that I found in abundance in fantasy, which was why I responded so well -- and indeed shifted my allegiances -- to this genre.

Bradbury, as I think I've posted about before, was my first induction, and I will be forever grateful to him for the two seminal stories that changed my life: "A sound of thunder" and "The scythe". But the discovery that they were by the same author was for the future -- at that time I read Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and liked it, but didn't feel the need to dip any further.

Then I entered my middle years -- which involved Ballard and Larry Niven through his wonderful story "Neutron star". I have these two in a book of ten SF stories everyone should read, but these were the two that resonated. (And I loved Asimov's footnote about how he said to Niven that he could have written "Neutron star" because he'd written a paper on the idea behind the story. And Niven had replied that he knew -- he'd read the paper and it gave him the idea for the story! Asimov said he was kicking himself.)

My later years gave me back the terrific Bradbury (with an 800+ page book of his short stories! Just heaven.). And with his more writerly Zen in the art of writing. A great book every writer should read. But in the meantime, I'd found fantasy.

So that leaves me with Ballard, who has just died. Such was his influence that a word was coined after him: Ballardian. It probably doesn't need explaining. Orwell is the only other author I can think of offhand (I am pretty tired) with his own adjective! Perhaps you'd like to remind me of the ones I missed.


the-eulipion said...

Thanks or your thoughts on the irreplaceable J G Ballard. His death has been very widely covered here in his home country. In a late interview he laments being called a science fiction writer. "That was all so long ago, none of my major writings fit into that genre but people insist on pigeonholing instead of thinking"

I've read all of Ballards novels and stories to date and was always mystified by the label 'Science Fiction' being applied to his work so was happy to find him as irate and mystified as me.

I must return to the story you cite - and Empire Of The Sun could do with a re-read. But out of all his books are worth re-reading, not least 'Island' and 'Super Cannes'. I would reclaasify him from 'Science Fiction' to foremost writer in the dystopian tradition. He cannot be replaced and leaves us with the adjective Ballardian to describe a lot of what passes for modern life.

Sherryl said...

I thought you might have been tempted to comment on the quote, since it obviously caught your eye!
"...the orderliness of his personal life allowed him to create a surreal, visionary fiction that was often frankly pathological".

Tracey said...

Thanks for your comments, the-eulipion. I agree and disagree -- I agree that he was writing in the dystopian tradition and have no problems with your label of "foremost", but I see the dystopian tradition as being part of the wider canvas that makes up speculative (rather than science) fiction. I think spec fic was one of the genres he worked in, but not the only one.

I wonder if the irritation at being labelled a science fiction writer is to do with too narrow a view of what science fiction is -- that it is a pulp-magazine type genre, and that's it. And I'm not suggesting that that was his view, or yours, but that his being so pigeonholed meant that critics were unfairly dismissive of his work -- not because of its inherent quality, but because he was just working in "that silly little genre over there", that it meant his work was marginalised when it should have been lauded. I don't know.

I see science fiction as so much more than pulp-stories, though I do quite enjoy these. No taste, yeah, I know. To me, science fiction is an often serious genre that allows people to comment about things that are happening now -- it's a genre that sometimes embodies hope (and utopian futures), but more often explores cautionary tales that take a current problem and extrapolate where we might end up if we don't start making changes soon (as "Billennium" does). These are, of course, our dystopian stories, and I would say Ballard is doing this, certainly.

To write great literary science fiction as Ballard does (don't throw something at me!), you have to be able to satisfy the requirements of the genre *and* the "writing establishment", which is no mean feat. Rather than lessening him as a writer, this proves what a great writer he is! (And the establishment, ignoring Sturgeon's Law (about 90% of everything being crap) looks at the plot-driven stories of the genre remains dismissive of the genre as a whole. More fool it.)

Similarly, I find it odd that magic realism is a genre respected by the literati, whereas its close cousin, fantasy, is not. To me, the two genres in what they attempt are similar. I think it has more to do with the types of writers that write in the genre -- so there are the magic realist writers like Marquez who embrace the genre and those who dabble in it like Peter Carey -- they're literary writers. Whereas most of the fantasy writers are not "literary". But to then categorise a whole genre because of this seems nonsensical.

But perhaps that's just me!

Tracey said...

Thanks, Sherryl. I don't know about his personal life so couldn't quite make that distinction, but I certainly agree with the rest of the quote. You only have to look at something like _Crash_ -- reading it made me shudder and yet it was strangely compelling.

I've read several other short stories and, you know, the word that comes to mind when I recall them is "lush", both in their language use and in the worlds they established.

I haven't read his books though. Perhaps they're something I should hunt out!