Grave New World
The Decline of the West in the fiction of J.G. Ballard
The division of Ballard’s career into periods is also based on the genre criticism, Pringle distinguished early ‘romantic’ stage when Ballard published in science fiction press his stories concerned with inner landscapes of characters’ minds and the post-science fiction period. Then Ballard shifted his interests to outer landscapes, abandoned science fiction conventions and embraced the avant-garde and literary periodicals. This is a ‘dark’ period of formal experiments, and bitter criticism of violence involved in the contemporary life. Pringle also suggests that Ballard is at the beginning of yet another ‘period’ of writing present-oriented fiction describing technological environments: “he has also made larger concession to social realism… he is trying to become more of a novelist” (Pringle 1979: 50).
Pringle explains the last statement by saying that Ballard tries to construct rounded characters, while in his early prose his characters are symbolic “figures in an inner landscape” (Pringle 1979: 51). These symbolic figures are classified by him according to Jung’s archetypes as the lamia, the jester and the king and most Ballardian characters are proved to belong into one of the categories. A similar symbolic key is used to deal with Ballardian themes (categories are: Imprisonment , Flight, Time Must Have A Stop And Superannuation) and to classify his obsessively recurrent images . Ballardian mythology is four-folded: Pringle distinguishes four groups of symbols representing mythical meanings of water, sand, concrete and crystal. Water stands for the past and the return to previous stages of evolution, sand and dryness are in the future of the human race when only exhausted shell of the planet will remain. Further, concrete is the world of the present day – the urban culture, while crystal, like a Jungian mandala represents oneness with the Universe.
Generally speaking Pringle’s book represents Jungian criticism (though once he very rightly though briefly remarks that in Ballard references to Jung and Freud are mixed) and as such it is usually quoted. Pringle is also the first critic to mention Ballard’s biography in the context of his fiction and to announce Ballard’s affiliation to the avant-garde and social realism. In the following years Pringle remained the major Ballard’s critic . In Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers (1981) edited by Curtis C. Smith, a lexicon of these author whose work goes beyond realism (even if they usually are not referred to as science fiction writers) his books are the sole bibliography in the entry “J.G. Ballard”.
Written by George W. Barlow the entry shows Ballard as original and distinctive and his style is described as idiosyncratic “as a signature” and shaped by the painter’s eye of the author. The stress falls on Ballard’s intellectual fascinations: “masterpieces of literature (from Homer and the Bible through Shakespeare to Coleridge and Melville) and the arts (from Bosch to Dali and Leonor Fini)” (Barlow 1981: 31). His early fiction is called romantic and exuberant science fiction rich in intertextual allusions, where bizarre landscapes “reflect and amplify the inner and mutual conflicts of… glamorous lamias and their suicidal wooers, in a baroque symphony of art, love, and death” (Barlow 1981: 31). Barlow gives the year 1966 as the turning point after which Ballard abandons science fiction and starts to describe contemporary world and criticize its technology, violence and perverted entertainment. Such a present is (according to Barlow) just a fossil of future, the interest in science fiction gives Ballard an ability to look at social life in a detached, scientific way. Also Ballard’s style changes abruptly, all exuberance is gone and instead we read about people like us, with popular names, living in real cities and made to cope with inhuman urban existence.
It is interesting to juxtapose this entry with a later one coming from the prestigious The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993, revised 1999) edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls. “J.G. Ballard” by David Pringle is a long entry and, for the first time, the author is presented not as a primarily science fiction writer (despite the very character of this Encyclopedia) and the stress falls on these aspects of Ballard’s output which transgress the standards of the genre. Even the earliest stories are showed as eschewing traditional science fiction themes and instead concentrating on “near-future decadence and disaster”.