“I really would not want to fuck George W. Bush!”: A Conversation with J.G. Ballard

Author: Dan O'Hara • May 17th, 2008 •

Category: Bruce Sterling, Germany, Lead Story, New Worlds, Philip K. Dick, WWII, William Gibson, consumerism, politics, psychology, science fiction, short stories, surrealism

“I really would not want to fuck George W. Bush!”: A Conversation with J. G. Ballard, conducted by Werner Fuchs and Sascha Mamczak.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard

ABOVE: JGB in 2006 (photo courtesy The Terminal Collection).

Translation by Dan O’Hara.

The interview below was published in a vast tome, an annual German review of the year in science fiction which came out in July last year. The interview itself was presumably conducted sometime in Spring 2007, after the publication of Kingdom Come and the re-issue two-volume set of The Complete Short Stories.

Ballard seems to be in an unusually priapic, puckish mood, bemoaning the inadequate sexual and literary skills of younger authors (whom can he be thinking of?), wistfully aware of his age, and speaking with uncommon authority about the genres he employs. Where he compares the short story to the lyric form, or dismisses modern short fiction as mere vignettes, one suspects a point to the joke. After all, a vignette is a simple character sketch, and Ballard himself has always been assaulted by critics for his poor characterization. Perhaps this is his revenge on some younger authors who, in Ballard’s view, lack penetration.

One suspects, in the end, that Ballard’s playful teasing of his interviewers results from a certain sanguinity about the state of his health; it’s less a callous dissimulation at the expense of his interlocutors than the resolution of the old Lunghua survivor. Evidently by the time of the interview he had already been visiting hospitals, as he notes their science fiction-like hypermodernity, and even advises his interviewers to visit one. I’d rather remember the Ballard of this interview, his sense of mischief intact even in the face of his physical atrophy, than the Ballard who has appeared in recent TV interviews, in which he seems oppressed by less considerate and more parasitical personalities.

Dan O’Hara

Many thanks to Michaela Pape for proofing these interviews.

WERNER FUCHS & SASCHA MAMCZAK: Mr Ballard, last year marked a very special anniversary for you: fifty years ago, in 1956, with the publication of your first story, your career as a science fiction author began.

Yes, that’s true. But don’t remind me of it! I’m an old man.

Well, your publishers have effectively reminded you of it by newly publishing a thousand-page-plus collection of all your stories from the last fifty years.

Naturally, I was very impressed. After all, that’s half a century of hard work, half my life, if you like. You know, short stories were always very important for me. Like many science fiction authors, I began by writing short stories, which isn’t the norm any more, at least not among British authors today. Today young authors would rather write novels straight off – and that’s precisely why these novels are mostly so poor. In every job you need a certain amount of practice, whether you’re a violinist or a joiner, and short stories offer writers a wonderful chance to acquire the necessary tools. The Mona Lisa, was, after all, not exactly Leonardo da Vinci’s first painting. In any case I learned what it meant to be a writer by writing short stories; what my weaknesses and strengths are.

Today, short stories – even SF short stories – have fallen out of style somewhat.

Yes, one’s become used to these overlong novels in which everything is explained and tidied up. At the heart of every good short story lies a certain ambiguity, a sort of “Yes, but.” That’s very seldom found in novels. And yet this ambiguity is the very stuff of life. Many people tell me I should write more short stories – and I reply that I don’t know where I’d publish them. When I began writing them fifty years ago, it was completely different: nearly every paper and magazine in those days published short stories, some of them even every day. And then there were of course the science fiction magazines, which had an almost insatiable appetite for short stories. The SF magazines in those days were an entirely wonderful training space for budding authors – one could pursue one’s obsessions, one’s fantasies; one could discover what kind of writer one wanted to be. It’s a little like the way that, in one’s youth, one has a lot of affairs: one learns how to make love. It’s different now: most young authors don’t know how to make love, and they don’t know how to write. Oh, well, that’s only the grumbling of an old man.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard

ABOVE: JGB in 2006. Photograph by Adam Bloomberg & Oliver Chanarin.

How, back then, did you come to write science fiction?

Now, most authors in those days were fans before they began to write professionally. Which means that they’d already written something or other in their youth, mostly for fanzines. With me it was different, I only came to science fiction later. I was twenty-six when I published my first story. Before then I’d scarcely read any science fiction. It was when I went to Canada with the Royal Air Force that I first became aware of SF. We were based somewhere in the Canadian provinces, it snowed incessantly, and there was nothing to do and nothing to read, not a single daily paper. So I started to read science fiction magazines – and I was extraordinarily surprised. It gave me a glimpse of a hitherto unexplored terrain. The then literary mainstream – the stories which the New Yorker or other magazines published – was purely oriented towards the past, both thematically and stylistically. That didn’t interest me. I was interested in the changes around us – the consumer society, the first computers, TV, the fear of nuclear war, gigantic motorway and airport complexes – all of that created a new landscape, an external landscape like the mental one. I wanted to write about that. So I thought, why not science fiction? One could investigate this landscape there.

And of course the nascent space age.

Of course. I remember very well how in 1956 – as I said, the year in which I published my first short story – I heard for the first time on the radio the Sputnik 1 signal: beep, beep, beep. The sound of a new world. So long, past! Hello, future! They were really very exciting years. Years in which, in practice, I wrote exclusively short stories.

Which authors – both within science fiction and outside it – influenced you the most back then?

Within SF, very few – I simply learned too little from them. I was weaned, if you will, on the classical European and American menu, and the one to make the most impression on me was Franz Kafka. He was the most significant writer of the 20th century, far more significant than James Joyce. Edgar Allan Poe and Dino Buzzati also fascinated me. Of the SF authors in those days I had the most respect for Ray Bradbury, but I’ve never written like him. He was too romantic, too naive for me at times.

What about Philip K. Dick? And Theodore Sturgeon?

I did like Sturgeon. Dick, less so – he was too American for me. Many British authors imitated the Americans in those days, so as to get published in the US magazines. And that’s exactly what I didn’t want. I’d prefer the neutral tone of a Robert Sheckley or a Cyril Kornbluth. But if you ask me who really influenced me – it was less writers than painters like Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Giorgio di Chirico, René Magritte. The surrealists. I wanted to create in words what they created on canvas. These dreamlike landscapes, this fascinating way of artistically realizing psychological states. You know, as a teenager I lived through the greatest surrealistic situation on the planet: the war. You go into the street, and half the houses are in ruins. A car sitting on top of one of the houses. And so on… War is full of surreal surprises, full of surrealist images. Back then it became clear to me that something in human culture was taking a dreadfully warped turn – and as an artist, a writer, I wanted to understand it.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard LEFT: The Drowned World, German edition (Phantasia, 2008).

When your first stories were published in British SF magazines, what was the reaction in the USA? Were many of the stories accepted?

No, the Americans were very hesitant to publish my stories. They just didn’t understand what I was driving at. The American SF magazines of the late 50s and early 60s wanted conventional SF stories, stories set in the future or in space. An SF story set in the present irritated them terribly, and many of my stories were set in the present then. In time it got better, naturally, and many of my stories could then appear over there, but the experimental pieces were really published almost exclusively in Britain. So up to 1963 – when the success of my first really serious novel The Drowned World brought me a certain independence – I wrote almost entirely experimental short stories.

Can it be that your 1964 short story ‘The Terminal Beach’ marked a turning point in your work? With respect to what one generally designates ‘inner space’?

Absolutely. ‘The Terminal Beach’ is certainly one of my most important stories. Even though it was published in New Worlds, it wasn’t a science fiction story at all, but rather conveyed merely a certain science fiction atmosphere. It described a landscape that was the expression of a particular psychological state – our fear of nuclear war. Yes, I think ‘The Terminal Beach’ is the first real ‘inner space’ story and it leads directly to The Atrocity Exhibition, but also to novels like Crash, High Rise and Concrete Island. There, there are particular mental landscapes described throughout, like those made by the surrealists in their paintings.

‘Inner space’ was also the thematic centre of the start of the New Wave back then. When you look back today, how do you see your rôle in that literary movement?

I was the New Wave! (Laughs.) Well, in some ways there was something inevitable about the New Wave. Back then in the early 60s American science fiction had exhausted itself in repeating its themes, and people were looking for something new and exciting. You know, as soon as I began to write, I constantly saw in SF authors and especially in the American ones a collection of truly naive and, if you like, innocent men – people who truly didn’t know what they were doing. Ray Bradbury is a prominent example. A few years ago someone sent me a book about him, with many photographs. One of these showed Bradbury in his work room, which is about as large as a tennis court – and every millimetre of this huge workroom is stuffed full of toys: rockets, spaceships, dinosaur models, every kind of monster. A child’s room. A wonderful image for the American science fiction of these times, even for the whole of American culture.

You said that you wouldn’t describe ‘The Terminal Beach’ as a science fiction story at all. Would that go for everything you’ve written since?

Absolutely. I don’t see novels like Crash, High Rise or Concrete Island as science fiction. And I think that many people only describe it as science fiction because in that way they can neutralize the uncomfortable feeling it radiates.

Then what are these novels and tales?

Good question. They’re certainly not part of Realism, which dominates modern fiction – I’ve only really written one ‘realistic’ novel: Empire of the Sun. No, I think they belong to another literary tradition, one which goes back to Sade and which was carried on by writers like Genet or Celine. The bad boys of literature, if you like. An extraordinarily powerful tradition that deals with truths people don’t want to hear. I’ve always seen myself as a kind of moralist, one who stands on the roadside holding up a sign with the legend: Look out, dangerous bends, drive slowly!

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard

ABOVE: JGB in 2006 (photo courtesy The Terminal Collection).

So, stories that read like science fiction, but aren’t?

Something like that. It’s simply that the themes of science fiction were eagerly ingested by the mainstream, and readers got on with them better and better. Just take William Burroughs, who I admire greatly: he demonstrated very early on, with his paranoid fantasies which naturally go back to Kafka, that one doesn’t have to be a science fiction author to write science fiction. No, I think that with The Atrocity Exhibition at the latest, I abandoned the genre for good. And I’ve not gone back to it since. But that’s not at all uncommon: even H. G. Wells began as a science fiction author, and at some point left off with it and wrote mainstream novels.

In the 80s with cyberpunk there arose a literary movement about which, in retrospect, one asks oneself if it was still science fiction.

Yes, I greatly admired the cyberpunk authors, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, many others. Whether they wrote science fiction or something else is hard to say. The fact is that new forms of communications have a great influence on literature, particularly the internet – and cyberpunk was the first expression of it. But it came too late for me. I’ve never owned a computer, and I still don’t have one even today.

But you surf on the internet now and then, don’t you?

Naturally. One cannot avoid it anymore. The internet’s a fascinating thing – it really has made the world into a global village.

Let’s come back to your short stories. Or rather to the fact that in the 90s you hardly wrote them any more…

I think that short stories are basically a playing field for young authors, a bit like the lyric. Moreover there are, as I said, scarcely any more opportunities to publish short stories. Of course now and then a magazine rings me and asks for a story, which is quite wonderful. But when I then ask how long it should be, they answer: 2000 words. 2000 words! That’s not a story, it’s a vignette. Yes, I stopped writing short stories in the 90s. But in some ways all my most recently published novels are extended short stories. But please don’t tell anyone.

And all these novels seem to have a common theme: the failure of every form of middle-class utopia.

Yes, in some ways. I’m very interested in social pathology, in what really drives us on in our everyday lives. My newest novel Kingdom Come raises the question of whether the consumer thinking of the present day might not at some point suddenly turn into fascism.

A very trenchant thesis.

Yes, but just take a look at what’s going on in these huge shopping malls. Evidently not much more than shopping is left for us. That and sport. That’s where we get our kicks, those are the new religions. I already believe that one of these days we could end up in a kind of leisure-time dictatorship.

But don’t events like the attacks of the 11th of September or the catastrophe in New Orleans remind people of the hard facts of reality?

I’m not so sure about that. I think it was difficult for many people to distinguish the picture of the collapsed World Trade Center from all the other images they know from Hollywood. It’s such a binary matter: real, unreal, real, unreal… And as for whether the current American administration finds itself brought down to reality or not, I very much doubt it. No, I think we live in dangerous times.

Do at least modern SF authors react appropriately to what’s going on around us?

I can’t say, I read practically no science fiction any more. You know, it’s like an old affair: if it ends, it’s gone forever. It doesn’t come back. What fascinated me about science fiction fifty years ago has long become a part of our everyday life, it’s permeated the whole of society. Just go to a modern hospital sometime – it’s pure science fiction. I only very seldom read novels at all. I read far more non-fiction, political analyses, biographies. The older one gets, the more one clings to facts.

And to come back to the aforementioned tome of fiction, your collected short stories: could you tell us what your favourite short story is?

Hm… My favourite story is probably ‘Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan’. That story changed everything for me.

And will there one day be a sequel? ‘Why I Want To Fuck George W. Bush’?

No, I really would not want to fuck George W. Bush! Hillary Clinton, maybe. If you know what I mean.

Many thanks for the chat, Mr. Ballard.

Originally published in German as Werner Fuchs and Sascha Mamczak, ‘George W. Bush möchte ich nun wirklich nicht ficken!’ in Das Science Fiction Jahr 2007, eds. Sascha Mamczak and Wolfgang Jeschke (Heyne, 2007).

Author: Dan O'Hara
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