D. Harlan Wilson, J.G. Ballard

D. Harlan Wilson, J.G. Ballard (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017) 214 pp. $22.00 Pb. ISBN: 9780252082955

D. Harlan Wilson’s J.G. Ballard is the first dedicated monograph on J.G. Ballard (1930–2009) since the British novelist’s death to encompass the entirety of Ballard’s literary output, from the early short fiction through to his late autobiography Miracles of Life (2008). Wilson’s study is organised chronologically: after an opening biographical chapter which offers a crisp, informative outline of Ballard’s life, the following five chapters deal with Ballard’s writings largely in order of publication. The chapters are keyed to what Wilson sees as the five main phases of Ballard’s career: the short fiction of the 1950s; the transitional ‘Disaster Quartet’ of the 1960s; the breakthrough experimental work of the 1970s; the autobiographical novels; and the satiric-dystopian novels of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Wilson engages with every prominent commentator on Ballard to date, treating the work of other scholars generously even where he politely disagrees with specific interpretations. As well as offering thoughtful reflections throughout on the key moments of Ballard’s life and their influence on his writing, J.G. Ballard also contains stimulating readings of every one of the author’s major works, including a well-chosen selection of the short stories. At 161 pages, the study is relatively short, yet this is due to an admirable concision rather than a dearth of ideas. Wilson covers a lot of ground in each chapter and the result is a compact but substantial book which feels complete on its own terms.

The central contention of J.G. Ballard is that, contrary to the quite widespread view that Ballard ceased to write science fiction around the late 1960s, Ballard in fact remained a science fiction writer from the beginning to the very end of his career. Wilson characterises his own approach as ‘a somewhat revisionist look at the author, resituating him in the science fictional milieu from which some scholarship has attempted to remove him’ (11). His argument for regarding Ballard as a science fiction writer—as opposed to someone who began in science fiction and then, with the publication of The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and Crash (1973) moved on to more “literary” pursuits—is nuanced and multifaceted, taking the entire book to develop in full. ‘A bird’s-eye view of [Ballard’s] progression as a writer,’ Wilson acknowledges, ‘shows him emerging within the science fiction genre, growing disconcerted with the confines of the genre, slowly turning away from it, and abandoning science fiction in the end’ (2). Against this common impression, however, and via innovative readings of the works of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s in particular, Wilson goes on to make a persuasive argument for seeing Ballard as ‘simultaneously one of science fiction’s most important authors, ardent critics, and distant nomads, conjuring prophecy with one hand, paradox with the other’ (160).

One of the most interesting aspects of J.G. Ballard—one which ought to attract scholars from across science fiction studies—is its engagement with the question of just what is meant by the term ‘science fiction’. Ballard, Wilson argues, can only be excluded from the realm of science fiction so long as an insufficient and by now out of date understanding of the genre is retained. Critics are quite right to note that Ballard was often ‘writing against the codes and norms of the science fiction genre’ as it existed in the first half of the twentieth century (1). They are likewise right when they observe that, during the 1960s, Ballard ‘quickly distinguish[ed] himself as a unique voice [,] destabilizing the traditions established by editors like Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell and authors like A.E. van Vogt and Isaac Asimov’ (2). With all of this, Wilson is in full agreement.

Wilson cites numerous occasions on which Ballard claimed not to be a science fiction writer, as well as a remark from a 2007 interview in which he suggested that there was no longer a need for science fiction ‘because the world that science fiction envisaged is already here in many respects’ (7). Wilson’s ingenious critical manoeuvre involves showing that Ballard’s definition of science fiction is inadequate as it neglects the developments undergone by the genre during the second half of the twentieth century – including, crucially, those changes owing to Ballard’s own influence. Drawing at points on the work of the critic Darko Suvin (1934–) and his influential account of science fiction as the genre of ‘cognitive estrangement’, Wilson describes Ballard’s writing as serving to ‘defamiliarize and alienate readers in the context of conceivable, technologically advanced dystopias’, concluding that, ‘[f]rom start to finish, [Ballard’s] body of work is coded by the cognitive estrangements, affective technologies, and latent desires of science fiction’ (8). Wilson even makes a strong case for seeing Ballard’s two autobiographical novels—Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991)—as science fiction in this sense.

In Wilson’s view, Ballard was right to see contemporary society as having surpassed the visions of the future found throughout earlier science fiction—to regard William Burroughs (1914–1997), for instance, as a more instructive guide to the present than H.G. Wells (1866–1946). What Ballard realised, in effect, is that there is no longer a need to go to other planets to imagine the future: in both form and content, late modernity is, itself, a work of science fiction, leaving writers like Ballard with the task of helping readers to try to make sense of the world they already inhabit. It is this shift of focus from galactic future to eerie present that constitutes Ballard’s most decisive and lasting contribution to the science fiction genre.

J.G. Ballard is an engaging and comprehensive study that marshals a constellation of insights around a single, robust argument. No scholar writing on Ballard in future will want to be without it. The book would also serve as an ideal introduction to Ballard for undergraduates or others coming to his work for the first time.

Sean Seeger, University of Essex

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