by Mark Howard Jones
We'd been told by the media - that fractured lens of intellectual failure and popular psychosis - that he had terminal cancer. It was only a matter of time, we'd been led to understand.
But when J G Ballard actually died and the media scrambled to gather biographical data on perhaps the most mysterious of British writers, I felt a shock that I was surely no longer supposed to feel in our peculiarly numbed times. But what had started in one man's mind had become the world I now lived in. I felt like a prophet had died.
He was a 'celebrity', so the media was comfortable with that. But it seemed puzzled by the apparent normality of his everyday existence, compared to the near-deranged quality of his best writing; his seemingly subtle yet actually seismic re-interpretation of the world that we live in, or that he saw we would soon be living in.
Then Hollywood rode to the rescue (doesn't it always?). Spielberg had made a film of one of his more 'normal' books - stitch that together with some salient biographical details and that would do to 'explain' the man. You could hear editors and illiterate imbeciles in newsrooms all over the country breathe a collective sigh of relief. Not realising that they were behaving in a way that Ballard predicted several decades earlier. The symbols had taken over from the substance, and they could refer to something easily accessible without getting their hands or their minds dirty.
My own introduction to the familiar yet paranoid world of the quietly-spoken Englishman came at the tender age of 9, or maybe 10. I was quite badly asthmatic and often kept home from school. In an effort to keep me amused, my mother would buy me science fiction paperbacks from the local Woolworths.
She had no interest in the contents herself and, as many of them were anthologies, the cover blurb spoke about them in a very general way. On the cover was usually an innocent-looking rocket ship or space station. But many of the anthologies contained stories by the 'New Wave' writers from both sides of the Atlantic, and were more to do with the mind that any mission to Mars.
In one such anthology I came across Ballard's short story 'The Terminal Beach'. On the surface it is about a man called Traven who has willingly exiled himself on a former nuclear test island following the death of his wife and son. The island is covered with abandoned concrete blockhouses, interspersed with the odd observation tower and the hulk of a wrecked bomber. There is the corpse of a dead Japanese soldier, and a fly that keeps him company. Two scientists are exploring an abandoned submarine pen at the other end of the island, hoping to find new forms of aquatic life created by the nuclear tests. Traven becomes lost, both mentally and physically, knowing he is waiting to die.
The story was unlike anything I had ever read before. To an ill, anxious child it both underlined that I was right to be anxious and, at the same time, informed me that there was a world where survival and status were not at the top of everyone's list of priorities. That other, more esoteric, concerns were a valid way to respond to the narrow demands of an invalid society.
The story haunted me for years and I kept going back to read it, poring over its Cold War symbolism and technological ghosts. Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s was full of wreckage, both human and industrial, that echoed the images in Ballard's writing. I began to see his influence everywhere and recognised people who were unwittingly living lives that he'd transmitted the essential data about years ago. We were all wandering through a world that was increasingly 'Ballardian'.
Ruined psychology paralleled the rusting technology that surrounded it. A world where the 'Space Age' had failed to lift off, blowing up on the launch pad and causing millions of casualties.
Boys growing up in the late 60s or early 70s all wanted to be astronauts; but after reading Ballard, we all wanted to be psychonauts instead.
Standing in the ruined hotel lobby in the abandoned desert resort, waiting for the renegade psychiatrist and his crippled daughter, we suddenly realised in a flash of compacted, enigmatic symbols that there was so much inner space still left to explore. In fact, we'd hardly begun.
So we handed in our spacesuits and pointed our cars away from the de-populated hinterland of 'normality' that hid behind the everyday, hoping to die with the movie star of our choice in a head-on collision before we reached our uncertain destination.