fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard by J.G. BallardThe Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard by J.G. Ballard

The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (1979) was published in 1977 in the UK and 1978 in the US. It contains a few stories from J.G. Ballard’s earlier, more conventional SF phase in the late 1950s, his most productive and lyrical phase in the early and mid 1960s, and a small sampling of his experimental ‘condensed novel’ phase of the late 1960s/early 1970s. The stories are taken from these collections: The Voices of Time (1962), Billennium (1962), Passport to Eternity (1963), The Terminal Beach (1964), The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), and Vermilion Sands (1971).

The stories themselves are: “Concentration City” (1956), “Manhole 69” (1957), “Chronopolis” (1960), “The Voices of Time” (1960), “Deep End” (1960), “The Overloaded Man” (1961), “Billennium” (1961), “The Garden of Time” (1961), “Thirteen for Centaurus” (1961), “The Subliminal Man” (1961), “The Cage of Sand” (1962), “End-Game” (1963), “The Drowned Giant” (1964), “The Terminal Beach” (1963), “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” (1966), “The Assassination of JFK Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1965), “The Atrocity Exhibition” (1966), “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy” (1967), and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” (1968).

In The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, I found his earlier stories to be more conventional than in his later collections, and while still interesting, lacking that distinctive Ballardian lyrical and thematic style: namely, “Concentration City” (1956), “Manhole 69” (1957), “The Overloaded Man” (1961), “Billennium” (1961), “Thirteen for Centaurus” (1961), and “The Subliminal Man” (1961). Interestingly, both “Concentration City” and “Billennium” are about impossibly overpopulated future cities, a direct contrast to Ballard’s later obsession with solitary characters lost in desolate, deserted cities, space launch sites, jungles, etc. The other stories from that period didn’t really leave much of an impression on me.

“Chronopolis” (1960), “The Voices of Time” (1960), “The Garden of Time” (1961), and “The Cage of Sand” (1962) were the standout stories that do not overlap with his collection The Terminal Beach and contain the most classic Ballardian themes of entropy, melancholy, time coming to a halt as the past merges with the present and future, lonely couples, obsessed eccentrics, deserted hotels, empty space launch sites, empty swimming pools, strange and pointless scientific experiments, dead astronauts orbiting space forever, and the moribund US space program.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFinally, The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard includes four bizarre ‘condensed novels’ from Ballard’s controversial collection The Atrocity Exhibition (1970): “The Assassination of JFK Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1965), “The Atrocity Exhibition” (1966), “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy” (1967), and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” (1968). From the titles alone, you know they are not your normal subject matter. In fact, the first US edition was destroyed by publisher Nelson Doubleday due to concerns about lawsuits from celebrities mentioned as well as general concerns over obscenity. That, of course, made the few remaining copies extremely valuable, and with most such cases, makes readers even more interested. Eventually, US publisher Grove Press took the plunge and published it in 1972 as Love and Napalm: Export USA.

Inspired by William S. Burroughs, these stories are fragmented, bizarre, experimental, and explore the unstable main character’s twisted attempts to come to grips with major public events of that era such as Marilyn Monroe’s suicide, the Cold War and space race between the US and USSR, and most of all the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Honestly, it’s hard to really grasp what Ballard intended with these stories, as they defy any conventional storytelling standards. They certainly explore his patented ‘inner space’, which often extends to the external environment, but there isn’t much pleasure to be derived from reading them now. Basically they’re of historical interest now as experimental writing from that period, but not much more (some fans may disagree, of course).

Overall, I think The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard is a good sampling of three distinct phases of Ballard’s writing: his earlier, more conventional SF period, his most lyrical and distinctive middle period, and his later, more experimental period. In that sense, it is a convenient way to trace his development as a writer. However, as I think his best and most enduring short work comes from his middle period, I would recommend The Terminal Beach and Vermilion Sands, which contain the bulk of his best, most memorable stories. Of course, if you are a dedicated completist, then the only way to go is with the massive The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard, which itself has some notable omissions.

Finally, it’s worth noting that after the 1984 publication of Ballard’s autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun and the 1987 film version by Steven Spielberg, he suddenly found himself in the limelight and enjoying much more mainstream attention, and went on to a very prolific writing phase which produced a number of notable mainstream novels (none of which I’ve read), such as Running Wild (1988), The Kindness of Women (1991), Rushing to Paradise (1994), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003), and Kingdom Come (2006).