The author of some 18 novels over 90 short stories and innumerable essays and articles, J(ames) G(raham Ballard is perhaps the greatest living British writer. This 1,200 page collection contains 99.9% of his published short fiction in one volume.
Early Ballard novels, such as The Drowned World and The Drought are classic Science Fiction; short story collections such as The Terminal Beach and The Disaster Area exemplify the brilliance of the SF shorter form.
Later novels (Super-Cannes) and collections (Myths of the Near Future and War Fever) cemented Ballard’s acceptance into the British literary establishment, a group that Ballard the outsider has always politely despised (his fiction was once described as being a “grenade tossed into the sherry-party of English fiction”).
Unlike, say, Margaret Atwood, Ballard has never felt the need to deny that some of his best work is SF. On the contrary, Ballard once insisted that SF is the “only true literature of the 20th century.”
Not that Ballard’s SF is the tiresome rockets and ray-guns variety – a wearisome SF sub-genre that Ballard helped to obliterate. On the contrary, many of his stories that do involve rockets are set in abandoned and sand-swamped space centres, where decaying Saturn rockets and launch gantries form a rusting monument to human entropy.
Of the stories in this magnificent collection, perhaps only a quarter can be recognised as SF, and of this one-quarter, only one story (Report On An Unidentified Space Station) is actually set in space. The remaining three-quarters are, well, Ballardian; that’s to say, they are by turns surreal (The Secret History of World War 3), horrific (Now: Zero), hilarious (The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race), satirical (Report from an Obscure Planet), dreamlike (The Watch-Towers), terrifying (The Concentration City) and poetic (The Garden of Time – a masterpiece of melancholy).
Ballard was a great fan of the surrealists, and their influence can be seen in such stories as the fantastically titled Why I want To Fuck Ronald Reagan. When this piece first appeared in the so-called condensed novel The Atrocity Exhibition (U.S. title Love and Napalm: Export USA), its title alone led to the first edition of Atrocity being pulped by the publisher. In fact, the story was a laugh-aloud funny and yet highly disturbing satire on focus groups and research-obsessed laboratory scientists. It also predicated the Great Communicator’s rise to the White House
Ballard once said that “Earth is the only alien planet”, and this phrase provides one clue to Ballard’s obsessions with the inner landscape of the mind, and the way in which the environment shapes the person. His later short stories – Notes Towards A Mental Breakdown, The Object of the Attack and the sublime The Enormous Space, for example – are superb examples of a mental withdrawal from so-called reality.
In response to the befuddled opprobrium heaped on him by some clueless critics (“This author is beyond psychiatric help” was one particular response to Crash), Ballard once said: “People used to come to this little suburban house expecting a miasma of drug addiction and perversion of every conceivable kind. Instead they found this easy-going man playing with his golden retriever and bringing up a family of happy young children. I used to find this a mystery myself. I would sit down at my desk and start writing about mutilation and perversion.”