The Complete Short Stories
(Flamingo, £25.00, 1200 pages, hardcover, November 2001.)
J.G. Ballard's The Complete Short Stories, collecting in chronological
order 96 stories from 1956 to 1992, charts the author's transformation
from short-story writer to novelist as he slowly abandoned one form
to concentrate on the other. The themes and ideas
Ballard still explores in his novels are here given trial runs. To say
that the novels are usually better than the stories is not to belittle
the stories but simply to say that, while Ballard is an innovative short-fiction
writer, he eventually found in the novel the perfect vehicle to express
His best-known novels are Crash (1973) and Empire of the
Sun (1984), the former filmed by David Cronenberg in 1996 and the
latter by Steven Spielberg in 1987. Both films utterly failed to convey
the surreal imagery, subversive wit, and disturbing characterizations
that are endemic to Ballard's oeuvre.
Since he began publishing in 1956, Ballard has produced fifteen novels
and numerous short pieces, all of which explore the author's peculiar
obsessions. Among the many recurring elements in The Complete Short
Stories, readers will find empty swimming pools, isolated environments,
speculative architecture, crashed aircraft, visionary and/or megalomaniac
psychotherapists, and the fetishization of consumption and technology
subsuming beauty and desire. With surgical precision, Ballard diagnoses
the cultural diseases of post-industrial society.
For Ballard, fiction is a laboratory, and human consciousness is his
test subject. How do architecture, the media landscape, and transportation
technology affect human identity and the relationship between the individual
and the lived environment? In Ballard's fiction the processes of the
human subconscious are externalized, and the outer world metamorphoses
to reflect the inner changes undergone by his characters.
From the first story, "Prima Belladonna", Ballard's most important
influence is made explicit: surrealism. The approach of the surrealist
painters--especially Max Ernst--informs all of Ballard's work, which
could be described in the same way as Ballard describes the psychosis
of the protagonist in the 1981 story "News from the Sun": "a series
of little tableaux, psychosexual shrines to the strange gods inside
His earliest stories, from the late 1950s, reveal influences by Franz
Kafka, H.G. Wells, and the science fiction of Galaxy magazine.
By the mid-1960s, William S. Burroughs's distinctive innovations had
crept into the mix. In the 1970s, Ballard, with his tales of alienated
aviators and astronauts, injected into his fiction a postmodern take
on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. After 1980, Ballard, riffing on
his familiar tropes, still produced a number of major stories, such
as "The Secret History of World War 3" (1988), "War Fever" (1989), and
"The Message from Mars" (1992). Sadly, the book ends with the amateurish
"Report from an Obscure Planet", by far the weakest story here.
This collection's many highlights include the series set in the decadent
resort of Vermillion Sands, where Ballard choreographs stories like
a sequence of surrealist paintings, and "The Drowned Giant" (1964),
in which the corpse of a giant is stripped of its mythic beauty as its
body parts are integrated into the consumer economy.
Gathering Ballard's short fiction has always been a puzzle for his
readers. Over the years, Ballard collections have overlapped, and often
the selection of stories changed between editions. The Complete Short
Stories includes the entire contents of Ballard's nine collections
as they are now configured, two sections from The Atrocity Exhibition
(1970), and four stories never before reprinted in a Ballard book. Still,
with no explanation, a few stories from various literary magazines have
not made the cut.
When Ballard was most prolific as a short-story writer, he was at the
vanguard of the New Wave, a 1960s literary movement in science fiction.
A group of writers perverted the pulp influence that had come to define
the genre, and they reclaimed the political and literary radicalism
of its founder, H.G. Wells. Looking beyond genre boundaries, they were
inspired by new ideas in anthropology and psychology, bringing to science
fiction the same revolutionary spirit that fuelled other artistic movements
of the time, such as the Avant-Garde jazz of Ornette Coleman and John
Coltrane. Ballard and his cohorts transformed science fiction into a
pertinent and cutting-edge twentieth-century idiom. In the 21st century,
Ballard's vision is still fascinating and radical.
Originally published, in slightly different form, in The Gazette,
Saturday 30 March 2002.
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