Walt Disney, spinner of fairy tales, had an early life that no child should dream of—poverty, alcohol and war all figured into the equation. Disney shrugged it off and, while serving as an ambulance driver during World War I, spent his free time improving on the bullet holes and blood inside German helmets and dreaming of Main Street.
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J.G. Ballard, the anti-Disney of our time, also had a spectacularly difficult boyhood as a prisoner of Japan, as he would record in his memoir Empire of the Sun. His dreams of High Street would turn out to be very different from Disney’s. The one’s home was a never-never-land, the other’s always subject to being exposed as a dream turned nightmare.
Consider Ballard’s late novel Millennium People, published in Britain in 2003 but not released in America until last year. The events of 9/11 had not yet begun to fade into memory, and those of 7/7 were yet to be revealed, but Ballard was right on time with his depiction of a police psychologist who, infiltrating a band of terrorists in the London suburbs, finds them to be, well, suburbanites, “likeable and over-educated revolutionaries” who eat vegan and blow up innocents, including his own ex-wife.
And how does London respond? With a resigned tolerance of the sort reserved for very naughty children, if not indifference: “I had overturned cars and helped to fill Perrier bottles with lighter fuel, but a tolerant and liberal society had smiled at me and walked away”—heading, no doubt, for a Euro-Disney sojourn across the Chunnel.
Ballard, who died in April 2009 at the age of 78, insisted that his dark view of the present was really a sneak preview of “the psychology of the future,” which perhaps explains why so many of his characters are credentialed experts in human behavior, if sometimes clueless about it all the same. He resisted as well the categorization of his novels as “science fiction,” preferring the adjective “apocalyptic” to describe books such as Crash, with its discomfiting suggestion that we crane our necks at automobile accidents because we find them to be vaguely arousing. Certainly he did, or at least the scars of a girlfriend who had lived through one terrible collision; he lingered over phrases such as “the mysterious eroticism of wounds: the perverse logic of blood-soaked instrument panels and sun visors lined with brain tissue.”
Yet science fiction most of his books must be branded. His fictional landscapes are those of the very near future in which people of the present find themselves thrust without preparation. Lost, bewildered, terrified, they make do with their scant psychological resources—which, of course, are never quite up to the tasks piled upon them.
Ballard remains what is too often dismissively called a “cult author,” which amounts to saying that Johnny Cash is a cult country singer because he can’t be found on the radio. The cult, one hopes, will grow to fill a Disneyland or two as Liveright embarks on a program this spring to reissue his books. Watch for Millennium People, Kingdom Come and other titles to appear soon.
5 Must-Reads by J.G. Ballard
Rushing to Paradise One person’s island paradise is another’s inferno, just as one person’s cause is another’s heresy. Ballard mixes nightmares and visions in this brilliant 1995 novel.
The Kindness of Women Ballard may have taken a dim view of humankind, but he had a soft spot for women—particularly the women who helped him grow up. So his alter ego, “Jim,” recounts in this sequel to Empire of the Sun.
War Fever You might as well ask a stone why it exists as to ask why humans go to war, says Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian. Ballard would approve of the sentiment, as this set of 14 meditations on human savagery shows.
The Unlimited Dream Company If you’ve puzzled your way through the film Inception, which owes Ballard a debt, you’ll know that dreams are powerfully weird things. This novel begins as a hallucination—and the trip just gets longer and stranger.
The Day of Creation Ballard had a thing for terrorism and the people who committed it, as well as a fascination for the distant edges of civilization. Both interests play out in this 1988 novel, set in the Sudan, where, among other things, a washed-up documentary filmmaker meets the guerrilla of his dreams.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to and longtime reviewer for Kirkus. His latest book is Aelian's On the Nature of Animals (Trinity University Press).