In the course of his life Ballard creatively deployed a remarkably wide range of different styles and genres, but nearly all of his novels and most of his short stories seem to me to explore a single theme. Whether the subject is an apocalyptic shift in the environment as in The Drowned World (1962) and The Drought (1964), mental breakdown and transgressive sex in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and Crash(1973), urban collapse in Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975), the therapeutic functions of crime in Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000) or the black comedy of Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006), Ballard is showing how the personal identity we construct for ourselves is a makeshift, that comes apart when the stability of society can no longer be taken for granted. Empire of the Sun (1984) – the autobiographical novel Steven Spielberg brought to a wider audience – explores the same theme: it is in extreme situations where our habit-formed identities break down that we learn what it really means to be human. A drastic shift in the familiar scene may be the entry point to a world that is closer to our true nature. The paradox that is pursued throughout Ballard’s work is that the surreal worlds created by the unrestrained human imagination may be more real than everyday human life.
For Ballard himself these surreal landscapes may have had a healing function. His traumatic childhood left him with the conviction – fully corroborated by events in the 20th and 21st centuries – that order in society has no more substance or solidity than a rackety stage set…. Ballard spent 20 years forgetting what he had seen during his childhood, he said more than once, and another 20 remembering. His fiction was a product of this process, an inner alchemy that turned the dross of senseless suffering into something beautiful and life-affirming.
–John Gray on J. G. Ballard
The Guardian, Friday 4 April 2014
JG Ballard: five years on – a celebration
(In addition to John Gray, Hari Kunzru, Robert Macfarlane, Deborah Levy, James Lever, China Miéville and Michel Faber also discuss their favorite Ballard works in this article.)