Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: J.G. Ballard
Why it’s daunting: J.G. Ballard was 78 when he died in 2009, but even at that grandfatherly age, many people still viewed him through a lens of violence, perversion, and sheer weirdness. He’d earned that reputation, of course. David Cronenberg made Ballard’s most infamous novel, 1973’s car-wreck porno Crash, into an equally puzzling, off-putting film. It’s easy to forget that Empire Of The Sun, Ballard’s account of spending his childhood in a Shanghai internment camp during World War II, is also the basis of the Steven Spielberg film of the same name, and that Ballard’s 50-year career spanned everything from pulp science fiction to magic realism to stinging satire to moving memoir. Still, many challenging, unsettling themes recur obsessively throughout Ballard’s work, and can make his sprawling catalogue tough for newcomers: Armageddon, sexual deviance, the subjectivity of time, the thespian qualities of human identity, the spiritual liberation of flight, and above all, the barbarism pulsing just beneath the skin of civilized society.
Possible gateway: High-Rise
Why: Published in 1975, High-Rise is Ballard at the height—no pun intended—of his powers. Set in a self-contained, tightly hierarchical tower block in England, the timeless story isn’t so much a warning about the future as an autopsy of the eternal now: As the building’s pampered residents begin to degenerate, without real provocation or awareness, into a state of being both feral and sublime, Ballard takes a detour around morality and presents this teeming, tribal anarchy as an inevitable reaction by the collective conscious against contemporary life. After passing through the depths of experimentation with The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, Ballard used High-Rise to synthesize avant-garde science fiction with the sharp, clinical realism for which he would become known, a style partially a side effect, Ballard himself said, of the aborted medical studies of his youth. A cautionary tale minus the caution, High-Rise thrusts readers into an incest-ridden, cannibalistic labyrinth of the psyche that most never picture outside their own nightmares.
In spite of such grotesque abandon, the clarity and concision of High-Rise are remarkable. What often gets lost in the rush to paint Ballard as some highbrow shock-monger is the brilliance and rigor of his prose; wielding inventive similes, lucid depravity, and surgically crisp dialogue, he turns High-Rise from a mad stampede of orgiastic chaos into a measured, even stately parade of terror. His detractors dismiss his detachment as dryness, but Ballard’s deadpan, hermetic voice keeps the overall tone far removed from histrionic social commentary. It’s also the ideal counterpoint to his metaphysical, phantasmagorical, and frequently savage flights of derangement. In High-Rise, all these vectors converge in ringing, horrific harmony.
Next steps: High-Rise’s immediate predecessor, 1974’s Concrete Island, is almost as good a gateway. Being a transitional novel, however, it’s a bit atypical of much of Ballard’s work. It’s a stark, compact, dreamlike tale of a philandering architect stranded via car crash—yes, another car crash, a pet motif of Ballard’s, along with camcorders, gated communities, geometry, and ejaculation—on a patch of land under a freeway exit. What sets it apart is the overt magic realism of this surrogate gulag and the strange inhabitants discovered there. That air of vividly rendered impossibility first surfaced in 1966’s The Crystal World, another novel perfect for the intermediate Ballardian. Patterned after (yet neatly inverting) one of Ballard’s major influences, Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, the novel follows an expedition up a jungle river, along which all matter—vegetable, animal, and mineral—is spontaneously morphing into crystal. Not only is The Crystal World Ballard’s first mature work, it’s a dizzying, brain-imploding parable of colonialism on a quantum level.
As highly regarded, especially in England, as Ballard’s novels are, his short fiction is downright exquisite. Starting with the publication of his first pulp stories in the late ’50s, he penned densely allegorical, gemlike tales that encompassed everything from spaceships to urban claustrophobia to postmodern tomfoolery. In fact, long after he jettisoned science fiction from his longer work, he still found time to pump out the occasional amazingly bizarre story of a damaged astronaut or a messianic biologist. (That is, when he wasn’t creating a puckish tale told wholly in footnotes, or a Stanislaw Lem-like index to an apocryphal biography.) There are numerous collections of Ballard’s short stories—some of which overlap or are long out of print—so your best bet is to pony up and take the plunge with The Complete Short Stories. More consistently imaginative and engaging than his post-’70s novels, the massive yet accessible collection is a treasure chest of literary science fiction of the highest order.
Where not to start: Ballard first made waves in the early ’60s with a trio of post-apocalyptic novels: The Wind From Nowhere, The Drowned World, and The Burning World (also issued as The Drought). Of the three, The Drowned World is the best; not only does its premise of a band of survivors trapped in a partially submerged skyscraper presage High-Rise, it’s the first real hint of the genius Ballard would become. None of these early books serves as the best introduction to his work, though. And, honestly, neither does the notorious Crash. There’s a reason Crash is the only Ballard book many people have ever attempted; gratuitous and redundant (which, in all fairness, are charges that could be leveled at Ballard’s whole oeuvre), it seems almost like a parody of Ballard rather than the real thing. Give it props, though, for being the work of literature that surely bears the most instances of the word “semen.” Likewise, 1969’s The Atrocity Exhibition—a proto-Crash fugue of stunning, experimental vignettes, including the legendary “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan”—is Ballard at his most lurid and demanding. There’s greatness here, but you have to work for it.
A stronger but no less gratuitous work is 1979’s The Unlimited Dream Company, which is in many ways Ballard’s forgotten masterpiece, the apotheosis of his hallucinatory, perversion-binging ’70s. Still, it might make an even worse first impression than Crash. That is, unless rape, bestiality, and pedophilia wrapped up in poetic, suburban surrealism is your idea of a good time. After a false start with 1981’s cartoonish Hello America, probably his worst novel, he triumphed with the bestselling Empire Of The Sun. For what it is, it’s an evocative book. as is its sequel, 1991’s The Kindness Of Women. (An official, comprehensive autobiography, Miracles Of Life, was published in 2008.) But Ballard is always better when filtering his striking experiences and skewed worldview through his protagonists, even when he turns those characters into mere mouthpieces. Of his latter-day work, 1987’s The Day Of Creation—another heady Heart Of Darkness homage—and 1996’s murder mystery Cocaine Nights are standouts. What could be considered his post-9/11 novel, 2003’s Millennium People, is also a keeper, a darkly satirical look at terrorism and middle-class paradox. But these should all be approached only after baptizing yourself in the icy, obscene fire of Ballard’s ’60s and ’70s classics.