J.G. Ballard Book Reviews

by Mac Tonnies

J.G. Ballard's surreal vision of the future blossomed alongside the British New Wave science fiction movement of the 1970s. His harrowing first novel, "The Wind From Nowhere," portrayed a world on the brink of utter dissolution by forces beyond humanity's control. Later works were equally bold in their use of entropy as a metaphor for the human condition. With the publication of the controversial, sexually charged "Crash," Ballard turned his unflinching eye on the 20th century's technological landscape and its psychological effects. Violent and explicit, novels such as "High-Rise" and "Concrete Island" present a society existing symbiotically with an apocalpyse of its own design, in which expanding frontiers have left the planet's dominant species psychotically maimed. With steely, objective prose, Ballard deconstructs our aspirations and fetishes. As subversive as Philip K. Dick and as radical as William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard's novels and story collections are unmatched documents from a world in perpetual transit.

Related links:

J.G. Ballard's official website

Ballardian


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THE DAY OF CREATION

Ballard's 1987 novel "The Day of Creation" is a sinuous odyssey through a surrealized Africa drunk on the potential of Western technology. Ballard's narrative voice is rich and engaging, the fluctuating exterior and interior landscape rendered with delirious conviction. "The Day of Creation" reads like a particularly brutal 20th century fable, deftly pointing the cool lens of technology on our secret fascination with the Dark Continent. "The Day of Creation" has been compared to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." But Ballard's novel is at once deeper and more topical; by infusing his story with a compelling and unlikely romance, Ballard reveals a sensual versatility lesser writers would gladly kill for. Read as an adventure story or as erotic allegory, "The Day of Creation" is a pleasure.

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WAR FEVER

Ballard's slim, highly effective collection "War Fever" showcases some of the author's most outrageous and experimental work, including the chilling "Memories of the Space Age" (see the excellent collection of the same name), the convoluted "Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown" and "The Index" (a story told in the form of an index to a nonexistent biography). The title piece is a wicked Philip K. Dick-style satire featuring Ballard's harrowing sense of inevitability. "The Secret History of World War 3" is the funniest story in "War Fever"--as well as the scariest. This collection traverses the badlands of the collective Western psyche with wit and courage.

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CONCRETE ISLAND

In "Concrete Island" Ballard delivers a haunting urban fable that's better than "High-Rise," more accessible than "Crash," and charged with the Ballard's trademark irony and psychological horror. "Concrete Island" opens with architect Maitland bursting through a crash barrier and into a dessicated patch of land that has gone all-but-unnoticed by the city around it. Maitland quickly realizes that he's stranded, and the rest of the novel deals with his persistent efforts to escape and claim the "island" as his own before re-emerging into civilized society.

"Concrete Island" is an inventive and horrifying story that illuminates the thin line between savagery and civility as deftly as "Crash" dissected our collective fetish for the mechanical. Ballard's thoughts on the modern predicament are as insightful as they are chilling, and "Concrete Island" ranks among his finest visions.

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CRASH

"Crash" is a dark and compelling novel that documents the sexual escapades of a filmmaker who succumbs to the mystique of a deviant scientist convinced that automobile crashes function as potent sexual metaphors. This unlikely premise allows Ballard to dissect the "fetish of the machine" with unparalleled precision. A ruthlessly uncompromising and unprecedented examination of the omniscience of technology, "Crash" is a prose landscape not unlike an H.R. Giger painting. Gruesome, sensuous and stark, "Crash" is an important novel sure to rattle readers' mindscapes. ("Crash" was successfully adapated to the screen by David Cronenberg.)

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THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF J.G. BALLARD

"The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard" is a completely stunning introduction to one of the century's most important writers. The worlds Ballard depicts are haunting caricatures of our own: dreamlike landscapes that merge with the subjectivity of the psyche with eerie precision; characters whose neuroses and fetishes reveal the fractures implicit in our own assumptions.

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THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION

"The Atrocity Exhibition" is an unsettling collection of post-linear vignettes devoted to the technolization of lust, the role of perversity in the late 20th century information landscape, and the shifty barrier between the organic and the architectural. Annotated by Ballard, the expanded edition of "The Atrocity Exhibition" includes three "stories" detailing cosmetic surgery on celebrities and a witty science-fiction yarn about Ronald Reagan's third Presidential term. Ballard's prose is disquietingly precise.

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COCAINE NIGHTS

"Cocaine Nights" is a return to Ballard's psychological preoccupations. We're ushered into the quintessential Ballardian scenario: the microcosmic "culture" of the wealthy and retired. We quickly learn that all is not well, and follow the quasi-hard-boiled narrator as he succumbs to the community's visceral core. Bloody and provocative, "Cocaine Nights" is an excellent compliment to Ballard's other "landscape" novels ("Crash," "High-Rise," "Concrete Island"), in which he plumbs the apocalyptic interface between desire and environment, turning the psyche inside-out with the steely objectivity of a lab tech. "Cocaine Nights" is vintage Ballard psych-noir and won't disappoint.


Check your local library or used-book store for the following...

HIGH-RISE

In "High-Rise," Ballard once again attacks our uneasy truce with the artificial. Four futuristic high-rise apartment buildings have been built. Catering to the wealthy, these buildings are in fact enclosed worlds, featuring day-care, schooling, swimming pools and grocery stores. As the new tenants adjust to life aboard one of the high-rise complexes, violence escalates and members from adjacent floors break off into tribal factions that roam the corridors at night. It gets more frightening and visceral (if a bit predictable); "High-Rise" is the 21st century's "Lord of the Flies," a sometimes profound statement on what we are doing with technology--and what technology is doing to us. Additionally, it is a scathing commentary on leisure culture (a topic Ballard returns to in "Cocaine Nights"). If you haven't yet read Ballard, "High-Rise" is a great starting point.

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