Interview with J.G.Ballard by Akihiko Kokuryo, 1974.
Greetings to all lovers of speculative fiction,
This is Akihiko Kokuryo, an old speculative fiction lover, born in 1955, 66 years old.
At the age of 18 years and 8 months, I was young enough to dare to propose an interview with Mr. J. G. Ballard. Thanks to his greatness, kindness, and generosity, Mr. Ballard accepted my daring attempt without asking for anything in return. The conversation took place at his home in Shepperton on a day in late August 1974.
With the efforts of Mr. Koichi Yamano and the permission of Mr. Ballard himself, the interview was published – in Japanese translation – in the journal of speculative fiction “NW-SF”, Volume 10, April 1975, and collected as an additional chapter in the Japanese edition of “Concrete Island”, published by NW-SF, January 1981.
And I believe it made a positive contribution to the flourishing of the speculative fiction scene in Japan. But the original English version has not been published until today.
Then more than 40 years have passed.
Last year, I retired from my full-time job at an engineering firm for which I had worked since 1978.
One day, in a small room in my apartment, I opened a box in which I had kept papers related to my work in a speculative fiction community in the 1970s.
Among them, I found a bundle of beautiful English handwriting – a real manuscript – by Ms. Kazuko Yamada, then editor-in-chief of NW-SF, which she and I had transcribed together from a tape. I also found a photocopy of the questions and answers attached to the interview, although the copy of the answer typed by Mr. Ballard himself was almost faded due to the aging of the thermal paper.
I think it is a pity that these original English words and texts of Mr. Ballard disappear before being made available to the worldwide readers of speculative fiction, who mostly access his works written in English or other European languages, but hardly in Japanese. This text, of course, was not included in “Extreme Metaphors,” the collection of Ballard’s interviews. So I decided to digitize this interview. Fortunately, Akira Okawada and the other editors of SF Prologue Wave are kind enough to realize my wish to put it on the web.
A lot happened after my 1974 interview. In 1984, one of Ballard’s masterpieces – perhaps his most famous work – “Empire of the Sun” was published. With the paperback, I stayed at the construction site of an oil processing plant in the Kuwait oil field in 1985 and 1986, where I learned about the explosion of the space shuttle “Challenger” and the Chernobyl disaster.
Across the Kuwait-Iraq border, less than a hundred kilometers from the construction site, the Iran-Iraq war was raging. It was the time when the good old days of “Sense of Wonder” evaporated, and Ballard’s nightmare became a reality for me.
In 2009, when I was stationed in Rio de Janeiro, enjoying life on Ipanema Beach as if it were Vermillion Sands, I heard that J. G. Ballard had passed away.
And today, in 2022, as I observe from a variety of digital gadgets about people’s protests, cruel political crackdowns, terrorism, and refugees elsewhere in the world amid the threat of climate change and the pandemic of Covid-19, the world resembles what J. G. Ballard observed in the 1960s.
Would you share this Ballardian nightmare?
○The Letter of permission
○Interview with J.G.Ballard
Kokuryo: First of all, I should like to hear about your recent works especially since “THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION”. In “THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION”, you used non-linear narrative called “condensed novel”. I wonder if it isn’t a dangerous technique but you could admirably succeed to express our complex consciousness by using it.
However in your latest novel “CRASH” or “CONCRETE ISLAND” you came back to a linear narrative again. Of course I never suppose this style is as same as conventional ones. But from the point of view of style and construction of fiction it is something like a regress, isn’t it? Would you tell me the process of your changing of style since you wrote “THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION”?
Ballard: Well, I have worked at “THE ATROCITY EXIHIBITION” from 1965 to 1969. I was writing very much about the world of 1960’s, in particular I was writing about the distracted ten years period. It was very important period with the assassination of President Kennedy, with the space programs. It was the period of big explosion in television and mass communication, the period of whole pop explosion of the youth protest movements. I was writing about very confused and I felt that I had to use narrative technique which make sense of this period. I thought life in the 1960’s became very complex, for something was invented by most of film, music, information moving high speed everywhere, so I thought to use the technique that make sense of the 1960’s.
The technique I evolved in “THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION” seemed to be able to do it, because it is very fragmentary, non-linear and so on. Now, with the end of the 1960’s everything became very quiet, less agitated and I thought this was the sort of matter I wanted to write about, presented the subject matter of “CRASH”. Subject matter of “CRASH” and “CONCRETE ISLAND” could not tackled, could not deal with those subject by using the technique that I developed in “THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION”. It didn’t work for the subject.
“CONCRETE ISLAND” is a story of psychological survival in the technological landscape. I couldn’t use the technique that I used in “THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION” and I had to use the right technique if it seemed to be conventional, traditional technique.
Likewise, “CRASH” is a story like theological prayer, religious prayer and it isn’t really a novel in one sense and another sense it is a novel.
I feel in general I have to use the best technique for the subject, because subject matter comes first and the technique comes second.
K: I suppose in “CRASH” you expressed the automobile collision as a junction between our death and sex. Sex in this novel is not sex for generation or pleasure but is sex pointing to death, I think.
B: What I want to show in “CRASH” is what future may be. “CRASH” is the book about the marriage of sex and technology. Sex is separating now from organic doing and I think in the future sex will be involved more and more technology. By sex I just mean not sexual intercourse, I mean the whole biological drive. In a social term, biological force reproduces new generations, moves the whole biological kingdom. But I think sex has been getting involved with technology. They have a sort of overlap and their marriage is totally unexpected.
Now I expressed the motorcar crash as a model of psychopathological mad, insane marriage. Not saying this is the future going to be or in future this insane marriage must be real. I’m saying this is danger. “CRASH” is a sort of book of warning, warning people that danger.
K: I think we are unconsciously influenced by technology. What do you think about it?
B: We have in our ordinary life very complex relations with the world of technology around us. For example, during you travel by aircraft from Japan to London across Atlantic Ocean, you are involved in very complicated technological system. I think you are not fully aware, conscious of all relationship going on, not conscious of the way in which modern technology is reaching inside your mind. I think modern landscape, technology, aircrafts, automobiles, motorways, high-rises, concrete are reaching inside our heads, getting inside our imagination. It’s beginning to change our perception of the world. I think it’s beginning to make us; it will make us more like machines. We are becoming much more abstract, our relationships are becoming very abstract to each other. It will be beginning to be like the moon, shoot line, black, white, very sort of isolate thing. We are moving to much more abstract world. I think our imaginations are very much touched by psychological atmosphere, the mental atmosphere of modern technology. Our attitude to the motorcar crashes that is one example, is not what we would expect, the most people are not shocked or frightened by car crash. Why are people interested in car crash? Why? That’s what I am writing in my book about. If you compared it with train crash or even aircraft or ship, big ship sinking, peoples are not very interested in them. It doesn’t touch their imaginations, but the car, crash of the motorcar does touch their imagination. Why? Because the car is bound up with the advertising, mass manufacture, the car is bound up with psychological factor when we drive ourselves our own car.
For the most people the car represents the 20th century’s technology that they can understand. People can’t understand how a color TV works, for it is too complicated, they can’t understand how telephone system works, but they can understand how motorcar works. When we drive motorcar personally, we are involved in technology. I’m interested in the way in which our relationships with each other, the all relationships in our mind, are changed by the present technology. The relationships are really three corners, triangle, you, me, and technology. Because the technology is moving into our mind, is changing the whole world. I think it makes you in the state of what I called “the death of affect” and makes you much more abstract in our relationships. I think it is moved about by technology and I was writing this is what the car crushes represent and I’m trying to show how are whole mental system at conscious and unconscious, normal behavior and psychopathic behavior. What I’m trying to do in “CRASH” is to find the psychopathology of technology. You can’t just look at normal behaviors or psychopathological behaviors. I’m trying to find psychopathology of modern technology.
K: I’m sorry, I have not read your latest novel “CONCRETE ISLAND” yet. Would you tell me some clues to understand this fiction?
B: “CONCRETE ISLAND” is the story of a man who is driving the motorcar alone at big motorway in the central London. His car has blow-out and he goes over the side of the motorway and down in the concrete island. He finds he can’t get off the motorway. He is a sort of the 20th century Robinson Crusoe. His island is in a big city.
Now the book is about technological landscape and now, one, is danger of technological landscape, two more seriously, of psychological way. It’s about the way in which technological landscape makes possible certain kinds of mental reaction. Now this book is psychological study of a man of isolation. This is the study of, not physical, but psychological, mental isolation, that modern technology makes possible.
K: Would you tell me something about your work doing or going to beginning now?
B: I have just finished a novel about a huge high-rise of 40 floors and thousand apartments. And my story is about how psychological things go wrong and people in high-rise begin to revolute, how they begin to devolve back, the primitive men, how they go back the Stone Age, primitive age.
K: I think that is similar to “DROWNED WORLD”
B: Yes, but this book is writing down in political, social terms.
K: Do you know anything about modern Japanese writer, especially about Kobo Abe or Yukio Mishima?
B: Is Kobo Abe the writer of “Woman in the Dune”?
B: I didn’t read it and I saw film and love it. And about Mishima I haven’t read his works much and can’t say anything. One Japanese writer I true like is Shohei Ooka and his story “Nobi”. I like and interested very much. It has very big influence on my book “DROWNED WORLD”.
K: I feel some similarity between Yukio Mishima’s death and Vaughan’s death in your “CRASH”. For example, their sexuality and their fetishism. Vaughan’s death is pointing to film actress and car crash an Mishima’s death to nation our emperor.
B: Yes, it has similarity sure. But one thing about “CRASH” is a study of not just modern technology but also modern communication. It’s about the way in which film on TV begin to get inside our heads and it’s more real, more ordinary.
Now, how are the SF field of Japan?
K: In Japan, readers of SF are more and more low aged and …
B: They like space opera? Of course, of course, it’s like England, too. If you take 100 readers of SF in England or America, you find 50 percent want nothing but Asimov, Heinlein, then about 25 percent want a bit more imaginative, more intelligent, more sophisticated writer like F. Pohl or Harry Harrison. Small but 10 percent like the new wave.
K: In Japan, the situation is same.
B: I went to Japan myself 30 years ago. But I see films about Japan on television and Japan looks very much SF country, I mean more than America. I think U.S.A. stopped, from 1960 U.S.A. went down but Japan went on, more more science, more more technology. Japan is like the SF of 1950’s for the super city. It’s like SF fantasy, SF dream.
K: Quite right. We are afraid, but we can’t stop it.
B: Industry of technology, mass communication, everything are terrific. Do you think so?
K: Yes. Now would you tell me about some English or American writer, for example, what about Ursula K Le Guin?
B: She is a good writer but I’m not interested now very much.
K: Who is most interested writer for you?
B: Very interested writer in America is William Burroughs. Not many writers, I’m afraid.
K: Do you know the 19th century’s French writer Huysmans?
B: Yes. I know and I read “AGAINST NATURE” in English and I like him very much.
K: Koichi Yamano has pointed that there are some similarities between his novels and your early three novels. He said in his critique that “AGAIST NATURE” is in correspondence to “DROWNED WORLD” and “LÁ BAS” to “DRAUGHT” and “CATHEDRAL” to “CRYSTAL WORLD”.
B: I think that’s sure. I’m very interested in them. I mean it’s just chance of working on imagination.
K: Do you know Julien Gracq, modern French writer?
B: No, I don’t know. I don’t read book much but I write book. I’m more interested in painting, not painting myself but looking.
B: Dali of course and all surrealists. I like American pop painters, too, as Richard Hamilton. They are very interested. Dali is sometimes genius, sometimes very bad. In another painter, I like Andy Warhol.
K: Would you tell me something about your exhibition in New Arts Laboratory?
B: That was psychologically big success. I held it 4 years ago as an experiment as scientist in a laboratory, test, see how people would behave, how people are coming to damage, seeing cars, what they could do, their reactions the way they behave.
I had a big party at gallery first night among the crashed cars. I had closed-circuit TV and everybody is wandering in TV show on closed-circuit TV. I had a girl, topless girl with microphone interviewing people. So TV shows and crashed cars and topless girl, and on closed-circuit TV everybody was too much drank, breaking glasses, and girl was near raped in the back of the car. And that show was on, everybody was very exciting by crashed cars and big American car Pontiac and two other cars were crashed. And I had a show for one month. In that time people came into the gallery, breaking cars, with the crashed cars, breaking the window, some people got white paint and painted it to the car, turn it over, they got very angry. I knew my feels about car crash was right, so then I wrote “CRASH”.
○Questions from the editors of NW-SF
1: Your early novels seemed to have some intention to a sort of metaphysical world and in “CRYSTAL WORLD” your various ideas, logics etc. have attained the highest perfection. But since then you began to write many stories which deal much more with the contemporary world. It seems to mean that you come back, return to the actual world. Would you tell us why you have been more interested in the situation of modern world than before?
2: I have translated your story “The Killing Ground” and felt that you express that the world revolution is unable but must be raised by guerilla. How do you think about the world revolution? and Palestinian guerilla and Japanese Red Army as a matter of subjectivity in our individual mind?
3: Would you tell us what do you think about the difference of science from technology, or the connection of science with technology?
★ If you have any message for the readers of NW-SF, please.
★ If you want to know anything about Japan, please do not hesitate to write us.
○Answers to questions.
1) Since I first started writing science fiction in 1958 there has been one extremely significant event in the world — without exaggeration I would describe it as “the death of the future”, by this I mean that up until the first flight of Sputnik 1 and the beginnings of the Space Age of mankind for the whole of the past century had a strong belief in the idea of the future, from the social, political and imaginative points of view, the belief that the future would be better and more rich in senses – social justice, political freedom, economic growth, moral idealism, and so on. In short, in the idea of progress. Until 1957, roughly, the future contained all ideals that people strove for. Now for some reason this came to an end by the late 50’s. People everywhere lost interest in the future, in the same way that they lost interest in the past after World War II. They began to live in a continuing present, where they could have anything they wanted, adopt any style of life, any imaginative or political idea, and then discard it when they no longer needed or wanted it. To a large extent this was made possible by modern technology and communications.
Now, my early writing is still dominated, I think, by the sense of the future, of various metaphysical and psychological goals towards which one moved forward in time. However, by 1963, and the assassination Kennedy (which I think marked the real end of the 20th century), the future no longer existed, and I felt that the moral obligation of the writer was to try to understand the new world in which he was then living, and that one had abandon the notion of time.
2) I think that you are probably right that more and more radical means will be used for political ends, and that, the patterns established by organizations such as the Viet Cons, the Japanese Red Army and so on will become increasingly widespread. The landscapes of modern technology are especially vulnerable, in physical but also psychological terms, to this kind of extremist action.
3) I take technology to mean the application of scientific discoveries to everyday life. However, in many ways technology is not limited by science, but begins to invent new systems on its own – motor-cars, types of architecture, food-manufacture and so on. Here technology becomes intimately involved with our needs and imaginations.
Message to NW-SF readers
My very best wishes to you all. I hope that you will always be skeptical, passionate, analytic, revolutionary, idealistic, dream-like, serene and hallucinated.