Writing to JG Ballard
FACT Contributor Jamie Mckittrick remembers Science Fiction author JG Ballard, who inspired our current exhibition Science Fiction: New Death and considers his impact on the genre
15 April 2014
In my final year of university I was given almost free-reign to write a short essay on a topic of my choosing. I decided to write on JG Ballard. I also decided to write to JG Ballard. I guess I wanted to get a first-hand quote in the hopes of bolstering my grade by a few marks. The essay would compare Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition with the Elizabethan epic poem, The Faerie Queen. It was a wild time.
I can't recall exactly what my letter to Mr Ballard said. I must have outlined the essay, must have asked if he’d ever read The Faerie Queen. I’m pretty certain I told him I enjoyed The Atrocity Exhibition. I do remember consciously adopting a blushingly abstract, clinical style of writing for that letter (a blatant parody of Ballard’s own voice) by way of gently ribbing a response from him.
The essay was written and marked before a reply could come. I forgot entirely about the letter I’d posted. Eventually he sent me a nice postcard to say that he was glad I enjoyed The Atrocity Exhibition and also to say he saw the whole lit-crit edifice erected in the last fifty years as a rival to the Tower of Babel. It would have been fun to slip that into the essay.
I don’t particularly classify Ballard as a Science Fiction writer. He seems too slippery to pigeonhole so easily. He was not concerned with the wild gizmos, robots or aliens that occupy so much of an archetypical futurist’s thoughts. He was a writer who considered potential – often farcical – futures based on what he saw around him, casting silhouettes of the present onto the blank screen of the future.
Ballard's books present desolate futures populated by insane people. His is a future where globalisation often does more to alienate than integrate. These ideas stem from a keen insight into human behaviour, human sexuality, and (that slippery fish) the Human Condition. The future, as seen through Ballard’s lens, is one of alienation solely because that’s the road we have been steering it down throughout history. That’s a bold statement and a sad one. But it seems to me that at their heart Ballard’s cold tales are cautionary ones, depicting nightmarish possibilities that are oddly relatable simply because they are extreme versions of our own world. His books are about people not understanding each other; they are a guide on how not to live.
Ballard died not ten months after sending that postcard to me. He confessed to never having read The Faerie Queen; I confess to never having finished it. I doubt that he gave me a second thought after sending that card off in the post but that’s not what’s important. His words were friendly, his warmth was human, his kindness was already erasing the cold future of his books one hastily-scribbled postcard at a time.
For more information on our new exhibition, Science Fiction: New Death, please visit the project page.