The Voices of Ballard

Losing J G Ballard was a shock but not a surprise. His 2008 autobiography Miracles of Life – a warmly cheerful book, despite his image as guru of entropic doom and near-future mayhem – casually revealed that the cancer was unstoppable. As he wrote in an iconic SF story of 1960: "These are the voices of time, and they're all saying goodbye ..."

Once he'd gone, of course, we heard the voices of snobbery explaining that Ballard was too good to have written SF. His US editor Robert Weil said, "His fabulistic style led people to review his work as science fiction. But that's like calling Brave New World science fiction, or 1984." (New York Times.) Ursula Le Guin, bless her, had fun inventing parallel claims: it's like calling Don Quixote a novel, like calling The Lord of the Rings a fantasy, like calling Utopia a utopia!

Ballard's own approach to SF was iconoclastic and controversial, but he wrote in 1974: "I firmly believe that science fiction, far from being an unimportant minor offshoot, in fact represents the main literary tradition of the 20th century ..." In a 2009 BBC interview he stated again that he was an SF writer and proud of it.

Showing how respectable he'd become, both The Guardian and The New Yorker marked his death with a Last Ballard Story. Two different ones, each published as if brand-new: "The Dying Fall" and "The Autobiography of J.G.B." Though the first of these was indeed his final story, both had been in Interzone in 1996, with the second reprinted from Ambit (1984). Don't believe everything you read in the papers.

If the SFX Book Club tackled short stories, a strong contender would be Ballard's weirdly haunting "The Voices of Time", already quoted above. Though not at all a trad SF story, this was selected by the traditionalist – indeed, reactionary – Kingsley Amis for his anthology The Golden Age of Science Fiction.

No one then knew how and why Ballard injected such an emotional charge into symbols like abandoned buildings and drained swimming pools. Eventually Empire of the Sun and Miracles of Life showed how these settings had a huge impact on young Jimmy Ballard, wandering as a boy through Japanese-occupied Shanghai. This was an author who'd actually seen civilisation come (if only temporarily) to an end.

"The Voices of Time" opens with a huge mandala carved into the floor of an empty swimming pool. It flaunts defiantly daft ideas like a house built as a geometric model of the square root of minus one. There are cryptic messages from the stars, every one a count-down, ticking towards zero and the heat death of the universe. Surreal new plants and animals seem to be evolution's doomed attempt to fight back. Nonsense science is used as incantation: "NGC9743, somewhere in Canes Venatici. The big spirals there are breaking up, and they're saying goodbye." There are no alien hordes to be defeated, just entropy, cancer, the Second Law of Thermodynamics transformed into bizarre sad poetry. Unforgettable.

Ballard played more tricks with time and psychology in "The Garden of Time", a rare fantasy tale, and "Chronopolis", describing a nightmare anthill city of 24/7 precision timekeeping that seems slightly more prophetic each year.

Surrealist artists were another key to early work like his Vermilion Sands sequence. Our man plugged Dali and others to bemused SF fans in 1960s New Worlds articles like "The Coming of the Unconscious". Max Ernst's painting The Eye of Silence has such a perfectly Ballardian strangeness that it became the cover for his novel The Crystal World.

Ballard moved on to tersely cryptic "condensed novels" that manipulated 20th-century icons in edgy, disturbing ways. Even the titles collected in The Atrocity Exhibition were enough to make red-blooded Americans gibber: "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy", "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" (homage to Alfred Jarry's similar title involving Christ and bicycles), and – long before its object of desire became President – "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan". No wonder his US publishers, Doubleday, lost their nerve after printing The Atrocity Exhibition and pulped it before release.

Ballard's novels are rightly celebrated, but when a career gets crammed into an obituary there's rarely room for short-story details. These, however, were stories that rewrote the SF map. They literally changed readers' minds.

Now the voices of time have called James Graham Ballard, and they're all saying goodbye ...

David Langford is rereading his Ballard collections.