J.G. Ballard's candid autobiography impresses through its hallucinatory evocation of the human (war, social, psychological) scenery, the unfolding of the deep sources and motivations of his authorship and the emotions in his life as a family man.
As a young boy in Shanghai, J. G. Ballard was unsettled by the deep social differences between the wealthy foreign bourgeoisie and the extreme poverty of the local population with `orphans left to starve in doorways'.
The picture became even grimmer when the Japanese invaded China and war atrocities (clubbing to death) became nearly an everyday street scene. `Starving families sat around the gates, the women wailing and holding up their skeletal children.'
On his return to England after the war, he was confronted with the English class system, `an instrument of political control'. For the higher classes `change was the enemy of everything they believed in.' Meanwhile, the living standard of the working class was dreadful: `how bleakly they lived, how poorly paid, educated, housed and fed ... a vast exploited workforce, not much better off than the industrial workers in Shanghai.'
Studying in Cambridge he saw that for the inmates `heterosexuality was a curious choice.'
His family life
At the beginning of the 20th century, `children were an appendage to parents, somewhere between the servants and an obedient Labrador' and `childhood was a gamble with disease and early death.' To the contrary, J.G. Ballard was a father and a mother for his children after the early death of his wife.
His medical studies in Cambridge (dissection) taught him `that though death was the end, the human imagination and the human spirit could triumph over our own dissolution.'
As an editor of a scientific magazine `Chemistry and Industry', he read at first hand reports on new discoveries in the drug, computer and nuclear weapons industries.
He saw the originality and vitality of Science Fiction, which he wanted to `interiorize' by `looking for the pathology that underlay the consumer society, the TV landscape and the nuclear arms race.' For him, writers of so-called serious fiction wrote first and foremost about themselves.
Other deep influences were Freud and the surrealists, who showed him a more real and meaningful world.
As a writer he considered himself a lifelong outsider and maverick, devoted to predicting and provoking change.
Themes and vision on mankind
Against all these backgrounds, J.G. Ballard saw perspicaciously that `human beings have far darker imaginations' than normally accepted. Human beings are often irrational and dangerous.' Mankind is ruled by reason and self-interest only when it suits us.
Fundamentally, his fiction `is the dissection of a deep pathology, witnessed in Shanghai and expressed in the threat of nuclear war and the assassination of J.F. Kennedy.'
The result of all these unsettling confrontations and psycho-pathological insights are masterpieces like `Empire of the Sun' or disturbing provocative nightmares of auto-destruction like `Crash'.
This book is a must read for all amateurs of English and world literature and or the admirers of J. G. Ballard's iconoclastic prose.