RIP, JG Ballard

I see that JG Ballard has died at the age of 78. He is one of my favorite writers. Those who listened to my Reality Break interviews know that one of my tics is to always work Ballard into every interview if I can. When I talked to Kim Stanley Robinson about Red Mars, we talked about how you could interpret the terraforming as a Ballardian disaster novel. This is a common pattern across many of my interviews. Even today, as the climate change debate rages a large portion of the way I feel about it was formed from reading The Drowned World 20 years ago.

I was a young man in my early 20s when I read Crash and that was the book that really knocked the legs out from under me. There are a handful of books that upon reading them, my worldview was irrevocably different, and Crash was one of those books. A few days after I finished reading it, I was driving home from work on my motorcycle. I was at a red light, the first one in the line so I had a very clear view of the whole intersection. A woman coming the opposite way did not notice the light had changed and ran the light. I watched a man come out of the industrial park to my left, plow into the woman’s car and slide them across this intersection. I could see both faces of the drivers the whole time, watching as the shock settled in. It was a moment straight out of the novel and the way I felt for watching this was different post Crash than it ever could have been before. My reaction was tangible and disturbing and different. The book had changed the way I viewed the world around me.

Goodbye, James. With you around to warp my worldview what will I do, have an unwarped worldview? That’s the most unthinkable outcome of all.

Our Ballardian Present

Cousin Brucie blogs about JG Ballard getting recognized as a visionary for his novels of global disaster. When I started getting into science fiction, it was at the beginning of cyberpunk, with which I was smitten including that of Cousin Brucie. At the same time, I really was getting into the “new wave” SF which at that point was distinctly No Longer New. I loved the works of Michael Moorcock but particularly JG Ballard.

I know Ballard was reacting to a specific literary trope, that of the British disaster novel where the heroes stave off large scale defeat by being plucky and British. There was something fascinating to me about these stories of non-plucky Brits facing global catastrophe and almost always failing to avert it. In the best case, they learn to live their lives in the catastrophe. I think of things like The Drowned World where the protagonist learns to love the post-catastrophe world so much that the “happy ending” is his undoing of the fixes to London by the plucky British engineers.

As much as I love those books, I never wanted to live in one. As time goes by, it is becoming clear that those futures are going to come true to a greater or lesser extent. I’m really hoping for lesser, but if you want a moral and emotional preview of what life might be like when the seas rise and wash away most of what we hold dear, try reading some Ballard. To quote Peter Gabriel:

Lord, here comes the flood
We’ll say goodbye to flesh and blood
If again the seas are silent
in any still alive
It’ll be those who gave their island to survive
Drink up, dreamers, you’re running dry.