Dammit. Dammit. Dammit all to hell. The last of the great, formative SF authors from my youth has passed on.
Some may prattle on about Heinlein and Asimov and (Shudder) Clarke, but in my mind, none of those guys were fit to carry Ballard's pencil box. A deliberate anomaly in SF, Ballard was something of a surrealist author. His style was moody, dream like, oppressive, and occasionally incoherent, but always compelling. He did things with the genre that no one else before him could do, that no one coming after him will ever be able to do as well. His voice was unique, and - curiously - a lot of his inescapable talent came from simply refusing to use any of the staples of the genre.
In sixty years of writing, and a fourty-seven year since his first book was published, Ballard never wrote a story that took place off of planet earth. What was the point? As Lem has noted, most SF worlds are constructs of utter fantasy who have no relationship to the observable universe, and as Ballard himself later explained, 'Our world is far more alien than anything anyone could dream up.' His books tended to posit our world rendered unrecognizable in some form - the Atlantic Ocean drained, North America abandoned and swallowed by desert, Africa crystalizes when time stops flowing, global warming changes coastlines, an inexplicable wind destroys everything on the surface of the earth, florida is burried under megatons of dirt brought back from mars - you name it. It's still our own world, but seeing it transformed again and again in myriad ways gives it that quarter turn in to unease that all his books carried.
Following the death of his wife, Ballard wrote far more disturbing books that weren't so much Science Fiction as they were deiberately offensive explorations of the Paranoiac Critical school of art. This phase was fairly short lived - mercifully - and very disturbing, and probably our readers should avoid "The Atrocity Exhibition" and "Crash."
By the late 1970s, he was writing nightmarish books that skirted the fringe of SF. Is it or isn't it in the genre? As with all high literature, it's hard to tell. Books like High Rise and Concrete Island exist in worlds slightly apart from our own, but not so massively so as his early work, and thier focus is somewhat more intimate - showing how modern life is leading to a breakdown in the psyche of humanity. In large part, these more introspective later books are playing out strange alien tapestries on an internal tableau, rather than the epic scope of his earlier works.
As anyone who saw "Empire of the Sun" knows, Ballard was born in Shanghai, China, in 1930. When World War II broke out, he was separated from his family and dropped in a Japanese prison camp for the duration of the war. This kind of experience will twist a kid, as Ballard himself admitted on more than one occasion, and his very surreal literary perspective is largely owing to the fact that he never really recovered from these experiences. He moved to England at age sixteen, which he described as "Like being on an alien world." Initially studying to be a doctor, he became more and more interested in writing and eventually, on a lark, he decided to follow his appetite for nuclear destruction and joined the RAF. He was sent to Moosejaw, Canada, where he first came in to contact with pulp SF magazines, and realized he'd found his chosen genre.
Following the death of his wife, he remained single and raised his children (Somewhat unusual in the day, everyone told him to ship them off to a boarding school.) He continued writing and living innocuously in a London suburb. In 1985, he had a cameo in the movie version of "Empire of the Sun," and that experience frames the conclusion of his as-yet-unfilmed sequel, "The Kindness of Women,"
I can not say that I understood everything that he did, I never felt like I was getting everything there was to get out of his work, but his writing challenged me and moved me in ways that really no one else has ever done, that probably no one else could ever do.
He will be missed.