So much missing: Miracles of Life by J. G. Ballard.

It’s hard to believe this is the whole story, or even much of it. Ballard generally played his cards close to his chest, and this is no different. It’s interesting. It’s written in his customary pithy, precise prose and the pages zoom by.

The cover of <i>Miracles of Life<.i> by J. G. Ballard.

The cover of Miracles of Life by J. G. Ballard.

A few quotes:

“My mother never showed the slightest interest in my career until Empire of the Sun, which she thought was about her.”

“But bridge, alcohol and adultery are the royal cement that societies together…”

“I had … endlessly experimented with my short stories, which were becoming steadily more unreadable.” (And this is before he had published anything!)

“..,poetry readings were a special form of social deprivation.”

“My children were at the centre of my life, circled at a distance by my writing.”

“The 1960s were an exciting decade that I watched on television.”

The book does explain his characteristic distance, his ability to view the world as a kind of experiment and then extrapolate in a clear-eyed way. It will not satisfy anyone looking for salaciousness, drug stories, or gossip. Though Ballard was the most influential writer to debut in the genre science fiction magazines, SF was only accidentally his jumping-off point — he read some copies of Galaxy and F&SF and realised that maybe venues like that would take his work. Yet only two SF figures are mentioned in the whole book — editors of New Worlds, John Carnell (see also Science Fantasy) (without whom none of us may have heard of Ballard) and Moorcock.

There’s also, oddly, not that much about Ballard, even though it is all about Ballard. It gives a list of influences, and a fairly schematic view of his life. The Shanghai stuff is fascinating and detailed, and must-read for anyone in love with Empire of the Sun or Ballard’s drained swimming pools and abandoned cities, but after that it is… it’s not dishonest. He seems to be saying what he thinks, but only a selection of what he thinks. At the end, I know more about Ballard but I don’t feel like I know Ballard any better.

Written after his diagnosis with advanced cancer, the book is sharp-eyed, economical and polite but unapologetic. Ballard’s voice was to me central to the development of a genuinely 20th C literature, a voice truly of the scientific age when so much literary fiction seems to wish the motorcar had not been invented, let alone the computer. That his biggest-selling book was a fictionalised autobiography says much about us. It is his most comfortable, most conventional work. One can only wonder what readers who liked that and so bought or borrowed High Rise or Crash might have thought.

I consider his best work, whether short (‘The Voices of Time’, ‘Terminal Beach’ and the like) or long (from his first significant novel, The Drowned World) as essential; canonical. This book is neither, it is interesting, an oddly low-key word.

Fascinating, but the tip of the iceberg.




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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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