If the quarantine-label ""science fiction"" is ever retired from the bookshelves, maybe people will start reading J. G. Ballard as an author of fiction pure and simple. It is true that most of his stories are set in the future and involve premises based on ""extrapolation."" But from this collection it is clear that science-fiction ideas have always sat in his stories like watches in a Dali landscape. Certain elements have always recurred, but with differing emphases; for example, shrunken or distorted space, which is linked to the sociological themes of overpopulation and regimentation in stories like ""Billennium"" or ""The Concentration City,"" is explored as a psychological state in ""Manhole 69."" And, later, in The Atrocity Exhibition (several excerpts here) and ""The Terminal Beach,"" Ballard fuses these two approaches in a savagely logical pop art. Labeled artifacts weigh down the world of this later work: mechanical images visually and sonically multiply and divide it. The protagonist of ""The Terminal Beach,"" roaming the deserted complex on Eniwetok, uses a list of jukebox-record titles as captions for charts of mutated chromosomes. In ""The Atrocity Exhibition,"" the huge photographed image of a psychiatrist's wife is distributed part by part over hundreds of billboards, an arrangement neatly consummated when her deranged husband blows her to bits. Even the less violent earlier stories present solitary, numbed figures wandering through deserted seascapes or technological ghost towns like the Cape Kennedy of ""The Cage of Sand."" As a storyteller, Ballard has always been coolly efficient, a master of the intellectual tension that conceals tension (though some of the later stories are bedecked with over-explicit signposts about ontology and such). These 20 selections, chosen by the author as a representative record of his shorter fiction, afford the rare privilege of seeing a synthetic imagination--in the best sense of that term--at work.