Born in 1930, J. G. Ballard spent his boyhood in Shanghai, China. His experiences there would have a lasting effect on him. After initially studying to become a psychiatrist, Ballard dropped out of school and began to write. The dystopian mix of sexuality, alienation and technology characteristic of his writing soon made Ballard a key figure in the New Wave movement in science fiction. Among his best-known works are the short-story collection The Atrocity Exhibition and the novels Empire of the Sun and Crash. Ballard has been called one of Britain's greatest writers since 1945. He died in 2009.
In the Empire of the Sun
J. G. Ballard was born in Shanghai, China, on November 15, 1930. His father was a British businessman based in the area and Ballard was raised on a small settlement that was under foreign control. While still a boy, however, Ballard’s world was disrupted when Japan invaded China, forcing the family to flee their home. And several years later, at the height of World War II, his family was interred at a Japanese prison camp for more than two years. The destruction and violence that he witnessed during this time would have a profound influence on his thinking and inspire some of his best-known work.
After the war ended, Ballard returned to England and attended boarding school in Cambridge. In 1949 he enrolled at King’s College, University of Cambridge, where he studied medicine with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist. His exposure to art, anatomy and psychoanalysis during this time would help further shape Ballard’s conception of the world, and a budding interest in writing would soon redirect the course of his life.
In 1951, Ballard’s short story “The Violent Noon” was published in the Cambridge student paper Varsity. Encouraged by his success, Ballard dropped out of King’s College and enrolled at Queen Mary University of London to study English literature but left that school a year later, working as a copywriter at an ad agency and selling encyclopedias while continuing to write. Ballard had little luck getting his work published, however, and in 1954 he joined the Royal Air Force and was sent to Canada for training.
In 1955 Ballard left the Royal Air Force and returned to England. Later that year he married Helen Matthews and the couple moved to the Chiswick suburb of London. Inspired by the science fiction he had read while training in Canada, Ballard persevered in his writing, and in 1956 two of his short stories were published in the magazines New Worlds and Science Fantasy. Several more would appear in the coming years, but Ballard soon grew disillusioned, realizing that his progressive ideas did not mesh with the science-fiction mainstream.
In 1960 Ballard and his family, which now included three children, moved to the suburb of Shepperton, where Ballard would live for the rest of his life. He also started writing lengthier works of fiction while commuting to and from his job as assistant editor of a scientific journal. Two years later, Ballard’s first novel, The Wind from Nowhere, was published and he quit his job to devote himself completely to writing.
Ballard quickly followed up with his novel The Drowned World (1962), which not only helped establish him as a writer but also made him a central figure in the New Wave movement, a more literary, more experimental offshoot of science fiction that included the likes of Harlan Ellison and Ursula Le Guin. Freed from the conventions of hard science fiction, Ballard began to let his dystopian vision take shape, fusing themes of sexuality, technology and violence in his powerful, disturbing, often-controversial tales.
The Atrocity Exhibition
In 1964 Ballard’s wife died of pneumonia, leaving Ballard alone to raise their three children, further darkening the lens of his fiction. Despite these strains, Ballard managed to maintain a steady output of new work. Over the next few years, he published the novels The Burning World (1964) and The Crystal World (1966), as well as a group of related stories that were ultimately collected under the title The Atrocity Exhibition. Among Ballard’s best-known works, The Atrocity Exhibition is also among his most controversial. It was initially the subject of an obscenity trial in England, and copies of an early American edition were once destroyed by the publisher.
The negative publicity it received, however, did nothing to detract from Ballard’s standing as an original and important voice in modern literature, and his work over the decades that followed continue to reverberate into the present day. Ballard followed the publication of The Atrocity Exhibition with another, slightly more optimistic, collection of stories called Vermillion Sands (1971) before returning to form with the much darker novels Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975).
But Ballard’s true breakthrough would come a decade later, when his semiautobiographical Empire of the Sun (1984) was published. Telling the story of young boy living in a Japanese internment camp, the book draws heavily from his own experiences. It also resonated with both readers and critics, earning the Guardian Fiction Prize and a spot on the Booker Prize for Fiction shortlist on its way to becoming a best seller.
In 1987 the Steven Spielberg–directed film adaption of Empire of the Sun was released. Starring Christian Bale and John Malkovich, its popularity brought Ballard’s work to a much wider audience. More novels were still to come, as were further interpretations of his earlier offerings. In the early 90s Ballard’s novels The Kindness (1991), Rushing to Paradise (1994) and Cocaine Island were published, and film versions of Crash (directed by David Cronenberg and starring James Spader) and The Atrocity Exhibition were released in 1996 and 2000, respectively.
But success and age did little to soften either Ballard’s tone or productivity. In the 2000s he published three novels noted for their violence—Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006)—as well as his autobiography, Miracles of Life. Published in 2008, Miracles of Life was begun by Ballard shortly after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died of the disease in London, England, on April 19, 2009.
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