“In many ways my entire fiction is the dissection of a deep pathology,” J. G. Ballard writes in his autobiography, Miracles Of Life: Shanghai To Shepperton—his last book published before his 2009 death. Finally released in the U.S., Miracles points Ballard’s scalpel in many directions: at his career, at his chosen field of science fiction, and at postwar society in general. Most effectively, it slices into the festering darkness at Ballard’s heart: his experiences as a teenager in a Shanghai internment camp from 1943 to ’45, an ordeal that shaped—and in many ways deformed—the man and the writer.
Born to British parents in Shanghai in 1930, Ballard grew up a child of privilege before spending two years in the Japanese-controlled Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center, during which he suffered from disease, trauma, and malnutrition. (In one harrowing passage, he recounts the day his father gravely instructed his children to stop picking the maggots out of their rice—and start eating them instead.) Granted, Ballard has never been shy about this chapter of his childhood, which he remembers here, with typical Ballardian perversity, as one of the happiest times of his life. Bits of these experiences surface, often thematically rather than literally, in much of his work, from his dystopian novels of the ’60s (The Drowned World, The Crystal World) and subsequent surreal experiments (The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash) to the muted, contemporary motifs of his later period. But for his big break from genre fiction—the semi-autobiographical novel Empire Of The Sun, source of the Steven Spielberg film—Ballard began drawing extensively from his own life, which he continued in Empire’s sequel, The Kindness Of Women.
Miracles covers much of the same ground as Empire and Kindness—including the untimely death of Ballard's wife Mary, rendered with deadpan poignancy—only minus the fictional distance of those earlier works. Distance has always been a major component of Ballard’s voice and vision; often and rightly described as detached or clinical, his writing has always examined modernity’s decadence, impermanence, and moral paralysis with a lucid, unblinking eye. In Miracles, though, he edges closer than he ever has to his arch-nemeses: nostalgia and sentimentality. It’s hard to imagine the book's title being offered at face value, at least by someone as provocative as the author of Crash. But within the book, he makes it clear: its titular miracles are his children, and he earnestly dedicates the text to them.
No love is lost when it comes to his unofficial family, the science-fiction community. While waxing lyrically about the virtues of the genre as a font of imagination, freedom, and vitality, he blasts the orthodoxy and short-sightedness of the science-fiction establishment of the ’50s and ’60s. It’s thrilling to see Ballard pick apart his formative years with such intimacy, and delve into his relationships with kindred literary spirits such as Michael Moorcock and Kingsley Amis. Sadly, some of the most intriguing eras of his career are left relatively unexplored—particularly the ’70s and beyond. Some of his masterpieces—such as 1975’s High-Rise, a pivotal book that combines science fiction, coded autobiography, and his peculiar form of suburban magic realism—aren’t even mentioned.
Ballard wrote Miracles after being diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in 2006, so the book’s gaps and compressions might have been a matter of necessity. In spite of those minor letdowns, what emerges is the fullest, most emotionally rich portrait to date of an otherwise aloof and intimidating figure. During a telling account of his brief time as a medical student, he marvels at the generosity of the school’s deceased teachers, some of whom bequeathed their corpses to their pupils in one last act of pedagogical selflessness. “I felt, and still feel, that in a sense they had transcended death,” Ballard says of those professors, “if only briefly, living on as the last breath of their identities emerged between the fingers of the students dissecting them.” Miracles Of Life serves much the same morbid purpose for Ballard.