J.G. Ballard dies at 78; British science fiction writer

J.G. Ballard's "Empire of the Sun" tells the autobiographical tale of life under Japanese occupation of Shanghai during WWII. Steven Spielberg directed the film version of the book.
J.G. Ballard’s “Empire of the Sun” tells the autobiographical tale of life under Japanese occupation of Shanghai during WWII. Steven Spielberg directed the film version of the book.
(Jerry Bauer)
Times Staff And Wire Reports

J.G. Ballard, one of the most inventive of the new wave of British science fiction writers to emerge in the 1960s who was best known for the autobiographical novel “Empire of the Sun,” died Sunday, his agent said. He was 78.

He had been ill “for several years” and died in London at the home of his long-term partner, his agent, Margaret Hanbury, said. She did not give the cause of death. Ballard was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006.

“His acute and visionary observation of contemporary life was distilled into a number of brilliant, powerful novels which have been published all over the world and saw Ballard gain cult status,” Hanbury said.

Writing in the New York Times in 1990, critic and writer Luc Sante noted that Ballard’s “novels are complex, obsessive, frequently poetic and always disquieting chronicles of nature rebelling against humans, of the survival of barbarism in the world of mechanical efficiency, of entropy, anomie, breakdown, ruin.”

In explaining his fascination with what Sante called “the dark underside of civilization,” Ballard once told an Australian newspaper that “the Enlightenment view of mankind is a complete myth.

“It leads us into thinking we’re sane and rational creatures most of the time, and we’re not.”

Ballard has been admired in British literary circles since the early 1960s.

In a review of the novel “The Drowned World,” Kingsley Amis called Ballard “one of the brightest new stars in postwar fiction.” Graham Greene said his short story collection “The Disaster Area” was “one of the best science fiction books I have ever read.”

In addition to “Empire of the Sun,” his notable books include “Running Wild,” “The Crystal World” “Crash” and “High Rise.”

James Graham Ballard was born Nov. 15, 1930, in Shanghai, where his father ran a large textile firm. He was imprisoned by Japanese troops in 1941 -- an experience he drew on for “Empire of the Sun.”

The writer moved to Britain in 1946 and was educated at Cambridge University, where he studied to be a doctor. He served as a Royal Air Force pilot before working as an advertising writer.

Ballard’s work was often controversial. His 1973 novel “Crash,” which explored contentious themes about people who derive erotic pleasure from automobile accidents, was called “hands-down, the most repulsive book I’ve yet come across,” when it was reviewed in the New York Times in 1973. It was made into a film by David Cronenberg in 1996.

Published in 1984, “Empire of the Sun” was Ballard’s most accessible and -- as Sante noted -- “the least typical” of his books. It was adapted for the screen by director Steven Spielberg.

The book told the story of a young boy living through the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, detailing his struggle and his complex emotions toward the invading forces.

“I have -- I won’t say happy -- not unpleasant memories of the camp. I remember a lot of the casual brutality and beatings-up that went on, but at the same time we children were playing a hundred and one games all the time,” Ballard once said of his childhood internment.

The author was a sharp critic of modern politics who once mocked the West’s search for “near mythical weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq in the buildup to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

That same year, he turned down the Commander of the British Empire award, stating that his political views wouldn’t allow him to accept an honor awarded by a monarch.

Ballard married Helen Matthews in 1954. She died in 1964. He is survived by their three children.

Services are pending.

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