China Miéville on J.G. Ballard

It’s been said so many times before, but it deserves to be said again:

Edric is clearly no fool, and rather than simply dismissing his peculiar and misplaced praise, we should consider it in light of his remarks about genre. He goes on to say that to regard Ballard’s work “purely as science fiction is to misunderstand completely what [Ballard] has accomplished over half a century.” This coolness toward the genre echoes Martin Amis’s assurance, in the introduction to this volume, that science fiction “couldn’t hold” Ballard. One is also reminded of the way Margaret Atwood packaged her novel Oryx and Crake in 2003: choosing as its epigraph Jonathan Swift’s remark in Gulliver’s Travels that “my principal design was to inform you, and not to amuse you,” while simultaneously distinguishing her work from science fiction (SF) during her publicity tour on the grounds that SF is about “talking squids in outer space.” It appears that Swift and squid are antipodes. Since literary fiction, you see, has something to say about the real world, ipso facto it cannot be SF. And though there are many ways a piece of nonrealist fiction can be “about” the real world, when it is set in the future, one of the simplest and most obvious interpretations is to perceive it relatively directly as an aspiration or warning. Underlying the unhelpful sense of Ballard as a prophet, let alone an aspirational one, then, is an ongoing campaign to rescue him from genre–from those talking squids in outer space. (Atwood’s phrase has been exuberantly picked up by SF readers and writers, of course: there are now many websites dedicated to celebrating fictional cephalopod cosmonauts.)

The campaign, and the embedded myopia about and antipathy toward genre, are foolish. Anyone who works in SF has had this argument multiple times, and has become tedious in the process. It would be nice if we could all just shut up about this. Clearly the claim that SF has nothing meaningful to say and that therefore meaningful fiction cannot be SF is a tautology predicated on a question-begging and evasive conception of genre as canard. Clearly Ballard was, among various things, an SF writer. Though on occasion he was slightly more equivocal about it, he was quoted after his death on the BBC’s The Last Word as having said, “I’ve always insisted that I certainly was a science fiction writer and very proud of it.” Authorial intention isn’t everything, but it certainly counts for something. To say that Ballard couldn’t have been a science fiction writer because one admires his fiction so much is absurd. Clearly anyone who nonetheless insists on this is speaking not from analysis but from an uninvestigated generic prejudice. They, not Ballard, are hostages of those squids. These should be commonplaces.

The whole article is interesting, but I feel like I would have gotten a lot more out of it had I ever actually read any J.G. Ballard. And yeah, I know that’s something I should really get on, especially given twin obsessions with transcendent genre fiction (which is a stupid label, but I think you know what I’m talking about) and paranoid literature.

Any Ballard fans got recommendations on where to start?

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One Response

  1. I’ve got a pretty sweet copy of his complete stories…

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