A few years back, before work on the incomplete second arc of his comic book series "Desolation Jones" began, Warren Ellis once posted on his blog that he and Alan Moore once had a conversation/argument regarding their views on who was the one SF author who beat summed up the sentiment 20th Century. Ellis argued that Philip K. Dick was the "voice" of the 20th Century, while Moore felt that the unease of the 20th Century was best summed up by H.P. Lovecraft (someone please correct me if I'm remebering this wrong). While I feel personally indebted to the works of both Dick and Lovecraft, I would personally like to cast my vote for J.G. Ballard.
Having lived through only the last 20 years of the 20th Century, my view on what that era was and was not may be skewed, as it is steeped in the concepts of post-modernism. That being said, nobody sums up the alienation, the paranoia, and the wonder of post-modern society as effectively, poetically, or as cleverly as Ballard. His fiction is almost always dark and morbid, but darkened with confusion and ignorance of his protagonist's conditioning. It is more of a psychological darkness, than a purely aesthetic darkness (as it is in most post-modern fiction). His accusations and criticisms of modern society are always direct and candid, but it was always his voice and his prose that brought it alive for me.
"Concrete Island" is a modern-day reinvention of the Robinson Crusoe story, with Ballard's protagonist being a rich and pampered surgeon who's luxury automobile has crashed onto a highway island, leaving the doctor stranded. The time-span of the novel is only two or three days, but Ballard is able to cover immense thematic ground by exposing the psychological machinations of the protagonist in minute detail. While tha analogies between this novel and the original Crusoe story and the symbolism can be pretty thick and heavy-handed at times, it never comes off as gratuitous in any way. Ballard's writing style, for me, is the very definition of economically ornate.
While the subject of the story has absolutely no relation to common sci-fi tropes, aliens and spaceships have never been what made Ballard one of the great SF writers. While his stories are almost alway set in the present day (or maybe it's the very very near future?), he uses modern society to in depthly explore much of the same cultural and socio-psychology of many of his contemporaries. You want to talk hard SF science? Read the chapter devoted to the socio-psychology of luxury automobiles. You want speculation? Ballard's predictions of what western culture would be like has more accuracy than any of Arthur C. Clarke's! It sets him apart, but at the same time brings to mind comparisons to some of the great SF writing sociologists, like Ursula K. Le Guine or James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon or even Asimov.
Growing up, SF always provided an escape from the mundanity of my own existence, but it also allowed me to confront aspects of said existence in a round-about, but often times, more honest fashion. To me, this dichotomy is what makes SF so rich and powerful. Sometimes there is more accuracy in talking about things in analogy and metsphor than directly, with the inherent limitations of language. To this degree, Ballard is one of the greats. His metaphors and analogies never needed to be extravagent because the direction that contemporary culture was heading (and has been heading at this point) was already so extravagant and sensational already. He was one of the great mirrors for me, exposing all the absurdity and all of the suffering inherent in so many of the everyday things that we take for granted... Like highways.
FINAL ASSESMENT: Mandatory.
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