like to start off by asking you to tell us something about your origins and
I was born in Shanghai in China in 1930. My father was a businessman there. We
returned to England in 1946 after three years of internment by the Japanese. I
went to school, and then to Cambridge University where I started off by reading
medicine. After two years I gave that up and began writing. In 1956 I had my
first short story published in New Worlds; After working on a scientific
journal for a while I became a full-time writer - that was about fifteen years
ago - and I've been at it ever since.
GODDARD: Do you think the period of
internment under the Japanese has had any effect on the kind of fiction you
would guess it has. The whole landscape out there had a tremendously powerful
influence on me, as did the whole war experience. All the abandoned cities and
towns and beach resorts that I keep returning to in my fiction were there in
that huge landscape, the area just around our camp, which was about seven or
eight miles from Shanghai, out in the paddy fields in a former university.
There was a period when we didn't know if the war had ended, when the Japanese
had more or less abandoned the whole zone and the Americans had yet to come in,
then all of the images I keep using - the abandoned apartment houses and so
forth - must have touched something in my mind. It was a very interesting zone
psychologically, and it obviously had a big influence - as did the
semi-tropical nature of the place: lush vegetation, a totally water-logged
world, huge rivers, canals, paddies, great sheets of water everywhere. It was a
dramatized landscape thanks to the war and to the collapse of all the
irrigation systems - a landscape dramatized in a way that it is difficult to
find in, say, Western Europe.
PRINGLE: Your Far-Eastern childhood
interests me. Did you live anywhere else apart from Shanghai?
BALLARD: No, but we travelled a fair
amount in the Far East. We made a trip to America in '39, just before the
outbreak of the war across the Pacific via Hawaii. By the time I came to
England at the age of sixteen I'd seen a great variety of landscapes. I think
the English landscape was the only landscape I'd come across which didn't mean
anything, particularly the urban landscape. England seemed to be very dull,
because I'd been brought up at a much lower latitude - the same latitude as the
places which are my real spiritual home as I sometimes think: Los Angeles and
Casablanca. I'm sure this is something one perceives - I mean the angle of
light, density of light. I'm always much happier in the south - Spain, Greece -
than I am anywhere else. I think a lot of these landscapes meant a great deal.
The English one, oddly enough, didn't mean anything. I didn't like it, it
seemed odd. England was a place that was totally exhausted. The war had drained
everything. It seemed very small, and rather narrow mentally, and the physical
landscape of England was so old. The centre of London now is a reasonably
modern city - so much of it has been rebuilt. Then, of course, none of these
high-rise office blocks existed, only the 19th century city. The rural
landscape of meadow didn't mean anything to me. I just couldn't latch on to
that. That's why the SF of John Wyndham, Christopher and so forth I can't take.
Too many rolling English meadows. They don't seem landscapes that are
psychologically significant, if that means anything.
PRINGLE: You mention light. The visual
values are a strong element in your writing. Is this Just from growing up in a
place like Shanghai, or did you have any artistic background? Were your parents
Not particularly. I've always been very interested myself I've always wanted
really to be a painter. My interest in painting has been far more catholic than
my interest in fiction. I'm interested in almost every period of painting, from
Lascaux through the Renaissance onwards. Abstract Expressionism is about the
only kind of painting I haven't responded to. My daughter, about two years ago,
bought me a paint set for my birthday. I'm still waiting to use it. When I
start painting I shall stop writing! I've said somewhere else that all my
fiction consists of paintings. I think I always was a frustrated painter. They
are all paintings, really, my novels and stories. The trouble is I haven't any
talent - the Vermilion Sands stories - even the novels like Crash - as a sort
of visual experience. I'm thinking particularly of painters like- I hate the
phrase Pop Art because it has the wrong connotations - the British and American
Pop Artists, or people close to them, like Hamilton and Paolozzi over here, and
Wesserman Rosenquist... and Warhol above all: a tremendous influence on me. I
composed Crash to some extent as a visual experience, marrying elements in the
book that make sense primarily as visual constructs. - I've always wanted to
paint, but never actually done any, never had any form of training.
PRINGLE: You talk about
places and landscapes which you remember. I recall a three-word sentence in The
Assassination Weapon where you simply say: 'Guam in 1947', and this evoked for
me when I read it the landscape of some American airbase littered with rusty
wire, etc. Have you actually seen these things?
BALLARD: Yes, I have, absolutely. A
lot of that post technological landscape stuff that people talk about is a
straight transcript. After World War II, the American war machine was so
prolific - you got B-29s stacked six-deep on the ends of airfields. The riches
of this gigantic technological system were just left. Right from early on I was
touched not just in an imaginative way - but as though some section of reality,
of life and movements of time, were influenced by the strange paradoxes that
are implicit in, say, a field full of what seem to be reasonably workable cars,
washing-machines or whatever, which have just been junked there. The rules
which govern the birth and life and decay of living systems don't apply in the
realm of technology. A washing-machine does not grow old gracefully. It still
retains its youth, as it were, its bright chrome trim, when it's been junked.
You see these technological artifacts lying round like old corpses - in fact,
their chrome is still bright. All these inversions touch a response to the
movements of time and our place in the universe. There's no doubt about this. I
think perhaps my childhood was spent in a place where there was an excess of
these inversions of various kinds. I remember when the Japanese entered China
after Pearl Harbour. in December 1941. I was going to do the scripture exam at
the end-of term examinations at the school I went to. Pearl Harbour had just
taken place, the previous night I suppose, and I heard tanks coming down the
street. I looked out the window and there were Japanese tanks trundling around.
It doesn't sound very much, but if tanks suddenly rolled down this street you'd
have a surprise: Russian tanks say. The Japanese took over the place, and they
segmented Shanghai into various districts with barbed wire, so you couldn't
move from Zone A to Zone B except at certain times. They'd block off everything
for security reasons, and on certain days the only way of going to school was
to go to the house of some friends of my parents who lived on one of these
border zones, between I think the French Concession and the International
Settlement. There was an abandoned night club, a gambling Casino called the Del
Monte - this is just a trivial example - a huge building in big grounds. We'd
climb over the fence and go through, and go up the main driveway on the other
side of the border-zone, and go to school. This abandoned casino, a huge
multi-storied building, was decorated in full-blown Casino Versailles style,
with figures holding up great prosceniums over bars and 10 huge roulette
tables. Everything was junked. I remember a roulette table on its side and the
whole roulette wheel section had come out, exposing the machinery inside. There
was all this junk lying around, chips and all sorts of stuff, as if in some
sort of tableau, arranged, as I've said, by a demolition squad. It was very
strange. Now I was only about eleven when this was going on. Examples like this
could be multiplied a hundred times. Our camp was a former university campus,
occupying I suppose about one square mile. In fact, we occupied about
two-thirds of the campus. There was a section of buildings which for some
arbitrary reason - maybe the Japs were short of wire - they'd left out.
Something like fifteen buildings were on the other side of the wire. You can
imagine a little township of big, two -or three- story buildings, the nearest
of which was about twenty yards away. A complete silent world, which I looked
out on every morning and all day from my block. After about ~a year the Japs
agreed to allow these buildings to be used as a school, so we used to enter
this place every day, and walk through these abandoned rooms. Military
equipment was lying around all over the place. I saw rifles being taken out of
a well. All rifles were taken away, but spent ammunition, ammunition boxes and
bayonets, all the debris of war, was lying around. We used to walk through this
totally empty zone. It had been deserted for years. I'm sure that that again
must have had a great impact on me. There were curious psychological overtones.
One's the product of all these things.
PRINGLE: The Marxist critic of SF, Darko
Never heard of him. Go on.
PRINGLE: ... suggests that the fall of the British Empire is a
'hidden theme' in your work. What do you say to that?
BALLARD: I'd say that my stuff is
about the fall of the American empire, because this is what I was brought up
in. I wasn't brought up in a British zone of influence. The area was dominated
by Americans, by American cars, by American styles and consumer goods. I
remember when I landed at Southampton in '46 looking round at the little roads
and mean houses by the docks. It was a sad place. The British working class, I
suddenly realized, existed. They were nine-tenths of the population and they
were appallingly treated. The little side-street away from the docks were lined
with what seemed to be black perambulators with doors - too large for
perambulatorsl - which I assumed were some sort of mobile coal-scuttle used for
bunkering ships. Because cars were all black, you see. English cars were black,
whereas American cars were every colour under the sun, in the '30s. These
things impacted. Going back to your question: what I saw, what I've been
writing about in a way, is the end of technology, the end of America. A lot of
my fiction is about what America is going to be like in 50 years time, but it's
an interesting idea.
PRINGLE: Do you regret the world of the past, the pre-war world, in
any way? I'm thinking of your story, 'The Garden of Time', where one man
appears to be trying to halt history.
BALLARD: No, I don't, I think some
social changes that took place in this country in the mid-60s, are the best and
greatest thing that ever happened here. It's slid back now, but for about five
years this country entered twentieth-century, and a whole new generation of
people emerged - the youth explosion. The class divisions began to break down
which was so marvellous. It all slammed into reverse a couple of years ago,
which is a shame. But I certainly don't feel nostalgic, because I came from a
background where there was no past. Everything was new - Shanghai was a new
city. The department stores and the skyscrapers were about my age. I'm
exaggerating a bit, but not much. The place didn't exist before the year 1900.
It was Just a lot of mosquito-ridden mud-flats. I was brought up in a world
which was new, so the past has never really meant anything to me. The use in
that story of an old aristocrat, or whatever he was, was just a
PRINGLE: What was your favourite type of reading as a child?
BALLARD: I was one of those
children who read a great deal. Up to the age of 14 or 15, I read everything
from Life magazine, Reader's Digest, to American best-sellers. Plus all the
childhood classics which, in those days, you read as part and parcel of
childhood all the English children's classics, Treasure Island, Alice in
Wonderland, etc., Nothing out of the ordinary. What everybody else of my age
PRINGLE: So you didn't discover SF then?
BALLARD: I was unusual in that I
came, unlike most SF enthusiasts, very late to science fiction. I don't suppose
I picked up a copy of Galaxy or Astounding or what-have-you until I was about
22 or 23. It was really when I was in the Air Force in Canada. There was
nothing to do, nothing to read on the news-stands. There were no national
papers, just local papers. These were packed with stuff about curling contests
and ice-hockey. They relegated international news to about two columns on the
back page. The papers were packed with ads for local garages and so forth - you
know, this was Moosejaw, Saskatchewan. Time magazine was regarded as wildly
highbrow. The only intelligent reading-matter was science fiction!. This was in
'54. I suddenly devoured it. This was the heyday of these magazines, there were
dozens of them, or seemed to be... some of which were really rather good.
Magazines like Fantastic Universe - it was probably never distributed over here
- published some great stuff. Plus Galaxy, which I thought was the best, the
most tuned-in to me, and Astounding. I started reading it all then, and I
started writing it very soon after I started reading it, and then I stopped
reading it. There came a point when I just couldn't read it any more,
particularly when the American writers - all credit to them - began to run out
of gas a bit. By the early '60's they weren't really doing anything very
Which authors impressed you?
BALLARD: A lot of American writers
were very good. Bradbury above all I thought he was head and shoulders above
everybody else. He had that wider dimension to his writing which the others,
however good, didn't really achieve. I liked Sheckley very much - very droll
and witty. Pohl, too I liked. Matheson, I liked - very much, actually, because
he showed you why SF wasn't about outer space, wasn't about the future. So many
of his stories were psychological twist stories. I liked those.
PRINGLE: The Incredible Shrinking
BALLARD: That I
liked - the film too. Yes, I read the book, But I liked Matheson's short
stories - the sort of standard story where the character can't remember who he
is. Those sort of stories I liked. They did them so well. Fritz Leiber I rather
liked. Funny thing - I was throwing out a lot of my stuff the other day, and I
came across a copy of a Fritz Leiber story the actual sheets that I had kept
from Galaxy. The Big Time. I don't know if you've ever heard of it, but it
impressed me enormously when I read it in the mid-50s. I thought, really, this
was so brilliant.
PRINGLE: You must be a fan. It won a Hugo.
BALLARD: In its day, you mean? I
thought how brilliant that story was. I remember when I first met Edmund
GODDARD: Bruce Montgomery.
BALLARD: That's right. When I first
met him about ten years ago, we were swapping anecdotes and swapping stories. I
mentioned The Bug Time and he said: 'What a marvellous story!' anyway, I read
it the other day, and I thought: 'My God, what did I ever see in this thing!'
It wasn't really very good at all. But who else? I don't know. I never liked
Asimov, I never liked Heinlein, I never liked Van Vogt that school of American
SF I couldn't take. I never liked Astounding very much. I thought that fellow
what's his name, I met him once, the editor....
PRINGLE: John Campbell.
BALLARD: I thought he was a baleful
influence. He consolidated all the worst tendencies of American SF. He
introduced a lot of bogus respectability, all that hard sociology thing. You
know: 'I was up at MIT last week, talking about the future of...' something or
other, and it all sounded very serious. He allied SF to the applied
engineering, social engineering, and so forth, of somewhere like MIT. He gave
SF a serious, real dimension which was all wrong because that isn't what SF is
about, I couldn't stand those writers - Kuttner and all those people: they're
GODDARD: You have none of the SF background that was almost regarded as
obligatory for success as an SF writer at one time, and yet you've achieved an
enviable reputation as one of the leading exponents of the field. Any
Was it obligatory? I don't know.
GODDARD: Well, we read of people like
Bradbury and Pohl and Asimov growing up reading the stuff, writing letters to
magazines, joining clubs doing their own fanzines and so on, yet you have none
of this background.
BALLARD: In America yes, that's true, but there have always been people outside
that. Bradbury apart, I think the best American SF novel I've ever read is
Bernard Wolfe's Limbo 90. He's never struck me as having anything to do with SF
fandom. You're really talking about fandom, aren't you? Which is an entirely
different kettle of fish!
GODDARD: Well, the writers who have come out of
There are some, I suppose, but I don't really know the American scene. It's
very peculiar thing, after all - modern American SF was virtually invented by a
single generation of writers. They lived in a sort of intense dosed world with
each other. Everyone seemed to be married to someone else's second wife or
third husband or something. I know Judy Merril very well, she was of that
generation - in fact her second husband was Pohl, and she lived for a long time
with Kornbluth I think, though I don't know if they ever married. She described
to me this world of the American SF writers in the '50's, where they would move
around the States like something out of On the Road, living together in little
groups and enclaves. There were all of these collaborations going on, and they
just surfaced now and again at an SF convention, and plunged around in endless
car-rides - a strange sort of Bonny and Clyde existence. They never seemed to
meet anyone outside that little circle The tremendous homogeneity of American
SF, and the rigid conventions that sprang up concerning what was or wasn't the
correct way to write a story, were all part of the self-protective ghetto they
built. That's something that's never taken place over here. Americans are
always surprised when they come over here and realize that for the most part SF
writers don't need each other. There's no more homogeneity here among SF
writers than there is among writers in general.