Monday, April 20, 2009


I first read "The Voices of Time" in 1965.

My friend Kathy was a brilliant English graduate student at UC Berkeley; madly smart. She spent her fellowship taking speed and reading every Science Fiction book ever written -- or pretty damn close, in between the complete works of Chaucer and Spenser and Shakespeare. She handed me the seminal collection of Ballard stories, "The Voices of Time."

"This is very special," she said. "Ballard is a Genius."

"The Voices of Time" destroyed me as a writer for years. Everything I wrote, and everything I wanted to write was a slavish emulation of Ballard's cubist nihilistic romanticism. I was smitten. A while later the magazine he edited, Ambit, had a contest for the best story written under the influence of drugs (which almost cost the magazine its state subsidy). But Ballard was a man of keen sensibility, not easily fooled by crap and imposture. The winner wrote her story under the influence of caffeine.

I returned to those stories again and again, and eagerly awaited each issue of Ambit. He crossed the Rubicon with "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," staked new territory with "The Assassination of John F. Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race," and went into an amazingly distant orbit with "Mae West's Reduction Mammoplasty." But until he completely re-floored me with "Empire of The Sun" I always preferred the earliest stories.

As a body of work, Ballard's writing is one of the most singular and precise visions of life in the late twentieth century refracted through the lens of a cracked-up future. His portraits of people confronting the unthinkable in the face of the inevitable are peerless. It's all there. His brilliance was clairvoyant. Every mandala carved on the floor of an abandoned swimming pool, every singing flower and mad surgical procedure is a precisely placed cryptogram, designed by a master, for our instruction and delight.

As with Fellini, another artist I grew up on, there will never be anyone to replace him. They stand alone. Others will come, and if we are lucky they will succeed, in their own ways, as Ballard did in his. He was a true original, and they are rare indeed.

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