Don’t say I never give an author a second chance. After my relentless thumping of J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash last year, you’d think I’d never touch anything by the man again. Not so. Truth be told, I became a little obsessed with Ballard following that initial and disappointing foray into his work and decided I wanted to try something else. His short stories seemed to make the most sense, since a good portion of his reputation is built upon them.
To start, though, the collection known as The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard is a bit of a misnomer. My edition is a reprint of the 1978 original (it even includes, happy day, an introduction by Anthony Burgess) and thus doesn’t contain any of the great stories Ballard wrote after that year. (For example: the ingenious tale “The Enormous Space,” which you can hear Ballard read aloud at the tail end of this audio interview, and you can also watch the creepy BBC production of it, renamed “Home”.) Still, the anthology provides a decent cross section of the best pieces he wrote during the first epoch of his long literary career.
Many of Ballard’s early stories fall into the category of “straight” science fiction, but of course that is not where their true strength lies. Ballard was forever obsessed with “inner space”, and so even when a tale is set on another planet, its primary preoccupation remains human psychology. For Ballard, the key to many of these early stories was to establish a fantastical technological or political future and then play out that premise to see what impact it has on his characters’ inner worlds.
The most successful of these early pieces really get that marriage of premise and psychology right. In “The Concentration City” we discover a future Earth that has been completely covered by a single megalopolis, and meet a man determined to ride its infinite transit system in the hope of finding the mythical and elusive notion of “empty space.” (Through his travels, he reveals that humanity has lost the knowledge that the Earth is actually round.) “Chronopolis” is a kind of post-post apocalyptic story where keeping track of time – owning a clock, wearing a watch, etc. – has actually been outlawed following a brutal dictatorship built on highly regulated time. “Billennium” explores the idea of overpopulation writ large: people are forced to live in smaller and smaller cubicles of space for increasingly more expensive prices (residents of Toronto may relate!) as the Earth’s population explodes out of control.
As weirdly fun as these stories were, I found that the further Ballard got away from straight SF, the more I enjoyed his work. “End Game” is probably the strongest story in this collection, and it tells the (relatively simple) tale of a man named Constantin, sentenced to death for his participation in some vague, unnamed revolution, who is forced to share a villa with a man named Malek, who will be his executioner. The problem is that, as part of Constantin’s sentence, Malek will reveal neither the time nor the method of Constantin’s execution – it could happen at any moment and through any means. The two men spend most of the story playing chess together in the villa, with Constantin dreaming up new ways of squeezing Malek for information about his looming fate. It’s a taut psychological exploration and one of the tensest short stories I’ve ever read.
The last four pieces in the collection might be categorized as the beginning of vintage Ballard – i.e. the kind of surrealist, postmodern writing he is best known for. Their titles are predictably po-mo – “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race”, “The Atrocity Exhibition,” “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy,” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” – and their emotional/intellectual impact will vary, naturally, from reader to reader.
In the end, I felt that The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard accomplished what I hoped it would, which was to wash out the bad taste that Crash left in my mouth and get me on board with why so many people see Ballard as one of the preeminent British writers of the post-war, late 20th century period. There’s no denying the power of this man’s twisted genius and the cautionary tales it has left behind.