J.G. Ballard died this morning at 79. He was probably best known for his novel Empire of the Sun, a supremely tough and well-wrought tale drawn from his childhood in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, which Steven Spielberg made a brave attempt at adapting for film. I grew up on Ballard’s science fiction work, particularly the mind-warping stories in Chronopolis and Vermilion Sands, but it became clear pretty quickly that “science fiction” was simply a default designation: stories like “The Drowned Giant,” or “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As a Downhill Motor Race,” or “The Voices of Time” were sui generis, and Ballard’s work answered to genre conventions only at its weakest.
The violence and alienation in his work put him closer to William S. Burroughs than Robert A. Heinlein — in fact, Burroughs wrote the preface to The Atrocity Exhibition, an outrageous collection of stories and story-fragments Ballard called “condensed novels.” When David Cronenberg adapted Ballard’s difficult and rather repulsive novel Crash into an equally difficult and rather repulsive film, all you could do was marvel at how it had taken so long for the two to come together.
Ballard was better understood and more widely celebrated in the U.K. than the U.S., but I hope the interest stirred up by his death leads to more of his work becoming available.