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The Complete Short Stories

by JG Ballard

(Flamingo, £25.00, 1200 pages, hardcover, November 2001.)

Review by Claude Lalumière

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 cover scanideas 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 vision.

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 head."

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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