New Wave icon J.G. Ballard dead at 78

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

On Sunday April 19, 2009, after a protracted and courageous battle with prostate cancer, James Graham Ballard succumbed to his disease at the age of 78. His most recent publication at the time of his passing was his autobiography, Miracles of Life (2008), the book in which he first revealed his terminal condition.

But of course it is for his science fiction and his brilliantly unclassifiable, surrealistically mimetic and prophetic contemporary fiction that Ballard was best known, and will continue to be honored (despite US publishers shamefully neglecting to offer him American editions recently).

As an adolescent, Ballard was resident in Shanghai with his parents when the Japanese invaded China at the start of World War II. He and his parents were rounded up with other foreigners and sequestered in a prison camp. These deracinating, absurd, frightening and deadly experiences were to mark the boy and the man permanently, helping to form his coolly alienated, wryly outraged and subsurface-penetrating worldview. His most famous book, Empire of the Sun (1984), fictionalized this period and was adapted for film by Steven Spielberg.

Repatriated to England, Ballard studied medicine, began to write, and served time in the RAF. Inspired by certain American SF writers with whom he felt an affinity, such as Jack Vance, he began to write science fiction and sell it to the UK and US genre magazines. His earliest stories and novels, including the "disaster quartet" of The Wind from Nowhere (1961), The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964), and The Crystal World (1966), hewed to the conventions of genre writing, but also added unique and disturbing subtexts, such as protagonists who seemed half in love with their various apocalypses.

These tendencies made Ballard controversial among the fans, and this fannish attitude of rejection or ignorance was heightened when he began his more outrageous experimentation as part of the "New Wave" movement in SF, creating "condensed novels" collected as The Atrocity Exhibition (1969), a book deemed so repugnant by its first American publisher that the entire print run was pulped when executives belatedly learned of its imminent release. But although his mainstream reputation and audience increased as his genre audience decreased, he never repudiated or abandoned the methodologies of science fiction.

Ballard focused mainly on novels in the latter part of his career, although his Complete Short Stories volume from 2001 features a fair number of late-period items. In such books as Crash (1973; film by David Cronenberg, 1996), The Day of Creation (1987), and Super-Cannes (2000), Ballard deployed his standard troupe of characters—wounded, overly cerebral heroes; insane and insanely attractive women; authority figures mad on power and megalomaniacal delusions—in surreal morality plays that anatomized the pathologies Ballard saw all around him, in luridly seductive narratives. His influence upon several subsequent generations of writers, from cyberpunks to humanists to practitioners of the New Weird, is almost incalculable.

Ballard's home life stood in utter contrast to his fiction. After the premature and tragic death of his wife Mary, Ballard was left a single parent raising three children. Having moved to the quiet suburb of Shepperton in 1960, he remained there for almost five decades, relishing the town's stability and normality which allowed him to chase, capture and dissect the myriad specters and phantoms conjured up by his powerful imagination acting upon the postmodern world he simultaneously loved and loathed.