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Obituary: JG Ballard

JG Ballard [Pic: Fourth Estate]
Ballard fused internal and external landscapes

JG Ballard's novels, disquieting, visionary and often apocalyptic fables of technological and social anarchy set him at the very pinnacle of contemporary writing.

The self-professed "architect of dreams, sometimes nightmares" enjoyed a cult status, and Steven Spielberg's film of his book Empire of the Sun brought him a popular fanbase, too.

Fusing external landscapes of futuristic visions with the internal workings of his characters' minds, Ballard created a series of montages in which the world was, in turns, flooded, desiccated, crystallised and concreted over.

Seer of the atomic age

He was, some said, the seer of the post-Hiroshima age.

Born in Shanghai in 1930, the son of a British executive, James Graham Ballard lived in style in the city's international settlement, until Japanese forces swept in during December 1941 and his life changed forever.

Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg brought Ballard's work to the screen

The three years which the family spent in a Japanese internment camp moulded the youngster's vision of the world, and influenced all of his works, where a sense of "the world turned upside down" is an all-pervading and recurrent theme.

Ballard finally returned to Britain, by now "like a foreign country", and later abandoned his medical studies at Cambridge to become a writer.

He also served in the RAF, spending six months at an airforce base in Moose Jaw, Canada, where he began writing short stories.

An architect of dreams, sometimes nightmares
Ballard on Ballard

Ballard's first novel, The Drowned World, published in 1962, charted the psychological breakdown of a group of scientists examining a London waterlogged by the melting of the polar icecaps.

He followed this impressive debut with works like The Wind from Nowhere and The Drought, pioneering novels dealing with ecological disaster.

Poetic or pornographic?

The death in 1964 of Ballard's wife Helen provoked a sea-change in his work. It was an unexpected catastrophe, a bout of pneumonia leaving Ballard to raise three small children - the "miracles of life" after whom he named his 2008 memoir.

His decision to stay at home with the children was unusual for the mid-1960s. Friends and family advised him to bring in help, freeing him up to write but Ballard refused.

He reflected of the time that "my greatest ally was the pram in the hall". Tied to the home, his imagination took flight in his next novel, The Crystal World, a mystical fable exploring the spiritual transformation of the world.

More controversial was Crash, written in 1973 and adapted for the big screen by director David Cronenberg in 1996. Ballard described what he called "the perverse eroticism of the car crash" and, while some critics praised its poeticism, others damned Crash as technological pornography.

Scene from the film "Crash"
Controversial: The film adaptation of Crash

Following the 1984 publication of Empire of the Sun - a surrealist fusion of autobiography and hallucinatory narrative - Ballard's status as a best-selling author was secure. Readers clamoured for his earlier works.

Cocaine Nights (1996), perhaps Ballard's most accessible novel, is set in a retirement community on Spain's Costa del Sol, where random acts of violence serve to stimulate the ageing population.

Capitalism warning

Super-Cannes (2001) examined a techno-community in the South of France, where offices and homes mix in one large landscaped park.

Once again, violence intervened, liberating people from their dreary and predictable lives.

Ballard also seemed to warn of the dangers of unrestricted globalised capitalism. Kingdom Come (2006) expounded on the theme, as a sinister cult took root in a surburban shopping centre.

As a child, he had witnessed the worst of man and the author's works were filled with imagined horrors to come. But he kept a core of optimism, saying in a 2006 interview: "I think of myself as a kind of weather forecaster. I see stormy weather ahead.

"Those storms will pass but I just want to limit the damage."

While JG Ballard's seeming obsession with technology, disaster, sex and violence was not to everyone's taste, there is no doubting the huge impact of his work. He was an original, a man who spent most of his life charting hopes and terrors, and trying to make sense of the 20th century.

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