‘Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash.’ This, the first line of Crash, was my rude awakening to the world of J.G Ballard. An obsession with Joy Division had led me to pick up Crash in a now-defunct record shop for £3.99. I’d seen the mirrored cover of Cocaine Nights on my dad’s bookshelf since I was really young, but knew I had to start with the most controversial of his works (not counting the earlier short story Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan).
It is a horrifying story about a group of people who achieve sexual gratification through car crashes. I have always read it as an existentialist novel; people who are so numbed by the constant mental stimulation of late 20th-century media that they go to further and further lengths to feel.
J.G Ballard is responsible for the changes that occurred in science fiction across the 20th century. You could argue that Crash isn’t even really sci-fi; everything that occurs could feasibly have occurred at the time he wrote it. However, its theme of technology interfering in the human psyche is very much science fiction. Good sci-fi is always really about the present and so, with Ballard’s self-styled ‘new science fiction’, he often cut out the middle man of space travel or the setting of the year 3000.
In his teens, Ballard was imprisoned in an internment camp in Shanghai, an experience fictionalised in Empire of the Sun. It was during these years that he was exposed to the abandoned buildings and drained swimming pools that would recur throughout his work. Towards the end of the war, he was also witness to other inmates dying around him, starving to death. Many propose that this early exposure to war atrocities was the seed from which the more violent and apocalyptic ideas in his fiction grew.
Through J.G Ballard I discovered ‘Warm Leatherette’ by The Normal – a terrifying, Suicide-esque slab of industrial. I read High-Rise, Super-Cannes, and The Atrocity Exhibition in quick succession, each time discovering another horrifying work, each reading like a fictional extrapolation of an academic journal proving Ballard’s hypotheses about the human race.
In 2012, Extreme Metaphors was published; a collection of the best interviews with Ballard from 1967-2008. Featuring interviews conducted by several people I had discovered through him – Will Self, Iain Sinclair, David Cronenberg – it was a fascinating insight into the man’s thoughts through the late 20th and early 21st century. It revealed him to be, in my eyes, one of the most prescient futurists of all time. An example:
A lot of my prophecies about the alienated society are going to come true… Everybody’s going to be starring in their own porno films as extensions of the Polaroid camera. Electronic aids, particularly domestic computers, will help the inner migration, the opting out of reality. Reality is no longer going to be the stuff out there, but the stuff inside your head. It’s going to be commercial and nasty at the same time, like ‘Rite of Spring’ in Disney’s Fantasia…
(Heavy Metal, 1982)
I’m not saying he purely predicted the onset of POV amateur pornography; there isn’t a single element of that quote I disagree with.
Further examples of his predictions:
Everything’s designed to be bland, homogenous, user-friendly… The totalitarian regimes of the future will be ingratiating, subservient. No longer will it be Orwell’s vision of a boot stamping on a human face. We’ll have something highly subservient and ingratiating, where the tyranny is imposed for our own good.
On mental illness:
Some people have suggested that mental illness is a kind of adaptation to the sort of circumstances that will arise in the future. As we move towards a more and more psychotic landscape, the psychotic traits are signs of a kind of Darwinian adaptation.
And, most importantly:
Sex times technology equals the future.
You can dip into his bibliography anywhere and find something poignant and terrifying. And yet in a way his novels have that very British feeling to them, like discovering your train is cancelled, saying ‘this is shit, isn’t it?’ to someone else on the platform and laughing. We’re all going to hell but some aspects of the journey are quite darkly funny, aren’t they? And what made him write such horrific visions of the near future?
When asked why he’d written Crash, in an interview sampled on the seminal Manic Street Preachers’ album The Holy Bible, Ballard replied:
‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.’