J.G. Ballard, Author of “Empire of the Sun,” Dies of Cancer at 78

April 20, 2009 02:30 PM
by Liz Colville
The China-born British fiction and science fiction writer had been battling prostate cancer for several years.

Ballard Died on April 19

J.G. Ballard, who had been suffering from prostate cancer “for several years,” according to his agent, died at his home in London on April 19. He was best known for his autobiographical novel “Empire of the Sun,” published in 1984, writes The Times of London in an obituary.

Not many authors have adjectives named after them, but Ballard, whose science fiction was often “set in ecologically unbalanced landscapes caused by decadent technological excess,” made his way into the British dictionary with the word “Ballardian,” used to describe the kinds of ominous societal conditions Ballard imagined.

Ballard had three children by his first wife, who died of pneumonia in 1964. Before becoming a full-time writer, he worked as a Royal Air Force pilot, a copywriter for an advertising agency, an encyclopedia salesman and an editor of the journal Chemistry and Industry, the Times writes. He was educated at Cambridge University.

After he was widowed, Ballard would drive his children to school and sit down to write. His status was that of an “underground writer” during the 1970s and his work was primarily of the science fiction genre. He broke into the mainstream with the prize-winning “Empire of the Sun,” based on his childhood experience living in a Japanese internment camp after the Japanese seized Shanghai during World War II.

When it was first published, The Guardian said of “Empire of the Sun:” “[I]f there is still room for a masterpiece about the Second World War, then this is it.” The book was made into a film in 1987, directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard.

Background: Ballard's vision

J.G. Ballard once described his work as “picturing the psychology of the future,” according to CBC’s obituary. His style was influenced by Joseph Conrad, the Encyclopedia Britannica writes, evidenced in 1987’s “The Day of Creation.” Ballard also took a balanced view of his internment camp experience, though he returned to the “devastated city and nearby countryside” in later “apocalyptic” works.

Hephzibah Anderson, former editor at The Daily Mail, said of Ballard’s writing, “If you look at the start of his career, he began writing science fiction stories and he was regarded as very avant garde … they've come to seem less and less futuristic and you know it's as if we're embodying, we're living in now a kind of Ballardian world.”

In a lengthy profile of Ballard in City Journal, fellow Brit Theodore Dalrymple says, “No contemporary British writer captures our malaise better than does J. G. Ballard. In a writing career dating back half a century now, he has explored with acuity, from the aerie of his respectable suburban home outside London, the anxieties of modern existence—of what he calls the marriage of reason and nightmare.”

Ballard was a crucial commentator on modern society. He commented on the media, technology, politics, 9/11, his own work and more in an extensive interview in The Guardian in 2004. Of the Internet, Ballard said, “Twenty years ago no one could have imagined the effects the internet would have—entire relationships flourish, friendships prosper on the e-mail screen, there's a vast new intimacy and accidental poetry … not to mention the weirdest porn. The entire human experience seems to unveil itself like the surface of a new planet.”

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