A Tunnel in the Sky

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J. G. Ballard

Profiled by Galen Strickland
Posted March 22, 2001, with later edits

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British writer born in Shanghai, China, and held in a Japanese internment camp for four years during World War 2. He would chronicle this experience in the novel Empire of the Sun (1984), later filmed by Steven Spielberg (his best film yet, in my opinion). Ballard is perhaps the best example of a writer, even more so than Harlan Ellison or Brian Aldiss, whose work must be categorized as speculative fiction, neither of the terms science fiction or fantasy being of sufficient complexity to encompass the other-worldliness of his tales.

"Ballard considers that the kind of limitation that most contemporary fiction accepts is immoral...Language exists less to record the actual than to liberate the imagination." [Anthony Burgess, from his introduction to The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard]


He is credited with introducing the term "inner space" as a description of his work, which relied heavily on the disciplines of psychology and sociology. Even though his early stories appeared in genre publications, Ballard forsook the standard trappings of SF - space travel, alien encounters, new technologies - and instead concentrated on depictions of frightful near-future scenarios of disaster and decadence. Readers (or viewers) of Empire of the Sun should have no difficulty understanding this pessimistic fixation, since the title refers not to the "Rising Sun" of Japan, but rather to the nimbus cloud of light Ballard witnessed following the bombing of Nagasaki, less than 500 miles across the East China Sea from Shanghai.

After his family's return to England following the war, Ballard initially pursued a medical education at King's College, Cambridge, but left before aquiring a degree. In the early '50s he served with the RAF in Canada, and it is there he discovered SF. Not long after this he began his own writings, and his first stories appeared in 1956; "Escapement" in New Worlds and "Prima Belladonna" in Science Fantasy, both edited by John Carnell. The latter story was set in one of his decaying future scenarios, that of the artists' resort Vermilion Sands. He would later write eight other tales of this provocative location, and they were published as the collection Vermilion Sands in 1971. Many other collections would precede this however, including The Voices of Time (1962), Billenium (1962), The Four-Dimensional Nightmare (1963), Terminal Beach (1964), The Impossible Man (1966), and The Disaster Area (1967). As with Bradbury and Ellison, many of his collections include duplications of titles, but since all of these titles are currently out of print it would be best to look for The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard (1978).

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The majority of Ballard's SF novels are just barely of a length to qualify for that designation, and in at least one instance of which I am aware two of them were published in one volume. Most of them also follow a similar pattern found in his short stories, that of future landscapes devastated by disasters of either natural or man-made origins. The first of these, The Wind from Nowhere (1962), is perhaps the weakest work of his career - it was written in less than two weeks - and it is also the only one that can be considered to subscribe to the conventions of formula SF. Subsequent tales would depict protagonists that embraced and even perpetuated the disasters rather than fight against them. Ballard has often been criticized by many in the genre for exhibiting too pessimistic a view of man's future, and also that the repetition of these themes tended to lessen their dramatic impact. Other novels from this stage of his career include The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964) - revised and published in the U. K. the following year as The Drought - and The Crystal World (1966).

Ballard has also amassed a considerable body of work that definitely stands outside the SF spectrum, and yet they too encompass many of the same themes, primarily the breakdown of the societal values of organization and cooperation. The principal characters in Crash (1973) are victims of auto accidents who discover in themselves a fascination with other such victims, their obsession being mostly of a sexual nature. This book, adapted into the film by David Cronenberg in 1996, has been described as an example of "pornographic" SF, and one of the publisher's readers submitted this comment: "The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help." In Concrete Island (1974) a motorist is injured and stranded in a drainage culvert in the midst of several intersecting super-highways. High Rise (1975) depicts the chaos that ensues following the gradual deterioration of social values and self control within the confines of a multi-story apartment building, while the world outside goes on as normal.

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Along with the aforementioned Empire of the Sun (1984) and its autobiographical sequel, The Kindness of Women (1991), Ballard has also written several other novels which are more conventional in nature. These include The Day of Creation (1987), set in an imagined African country torn asunder by both a serious drought and a civil war, and Running Wild (1988), a murder mystery that verges on SF with its supernatural overtones. But it is with his only fully-fledged fantasy novel, The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), that I feel Ballard will be most long remembered (at least that might be the case if it was in print). It is my favorite of his books, and it is one that is at once easy and difficult to describe. Highly allegorical in nature (the protagonist is perhaps Christ), it recounts the adventures of a social misfit who steals a light aircraft and crashes it into the Thames River near the town of Shepperton. What follows is possibly a dream, possibly his afterlife, perhaps a combination of the two. The townspeople embrace him as if his appearance had been anticipated, and in the days following his rescue he begins to acquire supernatural powers which enable him to absorb others into his own being. The apocalyptic climax is approached with an intensity and colorfulness of language unmatched in any other of Ballard's work.

"Although most of his longer work of the last decade has been outside the field, the originality and appropriateness of his vision continue to assure JGB's standing as one of the most important writers to have emerged from sf." [David Pringle, in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction]


Related Links:
ballardian.com - created by Simon Sellars
Solaris Books' Ballard pages
Ballard's Bilbliography at fantasticfiction.com


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November 15, 1930
Shanghai, China

April 19, 2009

Official Website

James Tait Black Memorial (Empire of the Sun)