Today starts a lengthy comparative analysis of the works of Philip.K. Dick and J.G. Ballard from an Anglo-American perspective. Over the next few weeks, this analysis will cover similarities between their work, differences between their work and an analysis of their representations of America in their writing. But today we will start with an Introduction to two of the finest genre writers of the Twenteth Century and to the topic in general.
A Comparative Analysis of the Works of J.G. Ballard and Philip.K. Dick from an Anglo-American Perspective - Introduction
Philip.K. Dick once said that in America:
“the position that writers such as myself hold in America is very lowly. Science fiction is considered something for adolescents to read. And then I discovered that in Europe, especially in France, science fiction was taken seriously, and the science fiction writer wasn’t considered something on the level of a janitor” (Dick, 1994).
This perception of SF as juvenile entertainment in America, yet not in the rest of the world, is the key not only to how Ballard’s and Dick’s work was received, but also to how they approached their work. And the fact that this difference existed is borne out by their respective careers, and their relations to the genre.
Indeed, from his earliest attempts at writing, Dick believed that he wrote two distinctively different kinds of fiction - SF and “mainstream/ literary” fiction, and it was his non-SF work which for decades meant far more to him than any success within the SF genre. Despite having six SF novels published between 1955 and 1960, he also wrote eleven mainstream novels in this period, eventually abandoning SF altogether in 1956 and 1957 in order to concentrate on these "literary" efforts. The publishing house Harcourt Brace, rejected his mainstream novel Confessions of a Crap Artist (written in 1959) and contracted him to write two more non-SF novels, The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike, and The Man in the High Castle, both of which they later refused to publish. However, his SF work continued to prove popular, and did receive reviews outside of the fanzine world of SF. The New York Times reviewed The Man in the High Castle, and deemed it “scarifying”, hardly the kind of literary criticism he longed for of his work, and in 1963 it won the Hugo award, SF’s highest honour. This lead Dick to concentrate on his “SF” work, writing eleven such novels in 1963 and 1964.
However, Dick found the categorising of his work to be a continuing problem. When Martian Time-Slip was published, Dick felt that he “had bridged the gap between the experimental mainstream novel and science fiction” (Sutin, 1991, p117), but instead found that it was rejected by every hardcover publisher because it was set on Mars and so, therefore had to be SF, while many SF publishers rejected it because it offended science fiction sensibilities in that a Martian would have been impossible by 1994. Similarly, Dick wrote several letters to his publishers begging them to treat his analysis of the sixties drug scene, A Scanner Darkly as non-science fiction - although his name as an SF writer was enough to prompt the editors of Doubleday to reject the idea without even reading the manuscript.
It is interesting therefore, that it is Dick’s SF work that has led to his status as a “literary” writer - albeit some 35 years after his death. Russ Galen, Dick's literary agent since 1977, believes that:
"..... the science-fiction language he used repelled a large audience because of the stigma associated with it. His work was as relevant in the sixties, and would have been more popular than now had it not been for the externals of the genre, that made people think the material wasn't worthwhile" (Interview with James Burr, 1996).
Fay Weldon agrees: "Dick was a serious writer posing as a science fiction writer. He had a view
of reality as an iceberg. What lay under what could be seen was a great shifting mass of unreality. His work dealt with an unliteral world in literary terms, using the vocabulary of everyday life to give a simplified view of profound philosophical notions" (Interview with James Burr, 1996).
However, this is a relatively recent development, and certainly in the world of American publishing in the 60s there was a polarisation between SF and so-called “literary” writing. Britain and the rest of Europe, however, seem to have been far less likely to categorise work into commercial genres. In 1955 the British publisher Rich and Cowan published a short story collection (A Handful of Darkness) in hardback, an honour rarely accorded to science fiction in the US at the time. Similarly, as Dick himself said, his “SF” novels were well-received in France. In 1966 he was elected as an honorary member of "The College du Pataphysique" in France because of Ubik, and Jean Baudrillard has hailed Dick as one of the greatest experimental writers of our era, praising Dick’s works as “a total simulation without origin, past or future” (Sutin, 1995, pxxvi). Indeed, during the mid-seventies much of Dick’s income came from overseas sales.
Ballard too, noticed the more rigid categorisations prevalent in American publishing as opposed to British:
"To some extent it reminds me of the huge disservice which American writers of the old Analog school .....have rendered to the cause of SF. There were commercial constraints and conventions that I felt severely handicapped the American and British writers of the early '50s.” (Ballard in V/Search, 1984, p119).
However Ballard’s experiences as an SF writer are much different to Dick’s. He was a mainstay of the well-respected New Worlds magazine where the New Wave of science fiction was born, and his publisher was not a trashy SF paperback publisher, but Berkeley books. Indeed, Ballard’s association with the New Wave worked to his advantage tremendously, as he was seen as a young, hip writer, which on the campuses of the late 60s helped boost sales and literary “coolness”. As New Wave writer Christopher Priest notes:
“The purpose of the New Wave was to release writers and readers from the preconceptions of the pulp magazine idiom” (Priest, 1978, p170).
Younger writers responded to the cultural upheavals of the sixties and rejected the formulaic restrictions of the previous one. The first beginnings of the New Wave were in London. At the time London was at the centre of popular culture - in music, fashion and the visual arts. At the forefront of the New Wave was Michael Moorcock, who edited New Worlds magazine. Moorcock rejected many of the older SF writers, focusing instead on the likes of Ballard and William Burroughs. The kind of fiction New Worlds published, especially with its loudly proclaimed aims of reflecting the sexually liberated, drug-taking times which spawned it, proved popular, and soon many young American writers such as Thomas Disch, John Sladek and Pamela Zoline relocated to London. When the American writer and anthologist Judith Merril moved to England, putting together anthologies of this new SF, the kind of fiction they were writing became known as the New Wave. By 1968, however, the deliberate obscurity and experimentalism of much of the New Wave work had resulted in a certain lack of interest in England. However, America had latched onto the style and the likes of Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delany were producing New Wave work outside of the confines of New Worlds, culminating in the movement’s defining moments - the publication of Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthologies in 1967 and 1972. Dangerous Visions drew together the New Worlds writers (the English Ballard and Moorcock, and the American expatriates, Disch and Delaney), with newer American writers, as well as some of the more experimental established writers - Dick among them. Indeed, Dick, like many of the fifties SF writers had been worried about being regarded as passe, but what with his (apparently false) claims to have written his Dangerous Visions story under the influence of LSD, and the success of his hallucinogenic novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch his popularity continued to grow.
There were profound differences between the English and American “New Wave”, however. As Christopher Priest notes in his essay “New Wave”:
“The American argument was about a product: a ‘type’ of story with an invented label. The process which Moorcock and others had been encouraging writers to explore, was to find an individual approach to writing speculative fiction.......and this process could only be understood by each writer in his own terms. (......) The American controversy therefore centred on the wrong area. They were not saying: should we or should we not rethink our ideas about SF? They actually said: is it a good or a bad thing that the New Wave should exist?” (Priest, 1978, p170).
In many ways, the way that America received the New Wave sums up its attitudes towards SF in general. Where the likes of Ballard saw the SF idiom as a means of expressing their artistic vision most freely, in America it was seen, not as possible literature but only as juvenile entertainment, so that when the New Wave offered writers and editors artistic freedom, they reacted in the only way they knew how - they treated it as a sub-genre of SF. Indeed, Dick’s work (labelled “Nuts” by 50s SF editor Herb Gold) changed little during the New Wave period, it was only the way that he was perceived as “hip” that altered, and Ballard himself has said that:
"As soon as I started writing for the American magazines, I started to get a lot of rejections. It was obvious to me that the conventions of American SF were very tight and prescriptive. If I'd had the freedom to do so (my italics) I'd have been publishing experimental SF long before the mid-'60s.” (Ballard in V/Search, 1984, p122).
Thus all the New Wave allowed both writers to do was to write what they had always wanted to write, without the strict genre guidelines of 50s American SF. However, Dick was one of the few New Wave writers who had been working in the genre since the 50s, having thirty stories appear in 1953, and twenty-eight published in 1954. In that same year he started to write novels, having six SF novels published between 1955 and 1960. As an American being published in the pulps (the likes of Astounding and Amazing), Dick was perhaps unusual in that he did see his work as artistically valid and not just trash, as many of his countrymen, including the SF writers themselves, did. As Ballard once commented, “I came across philistine attitudes in many of the American writers in the '60s when I began to meet them.” (Ballard in V/Search, 1984, p122).
By 1967 Dick had become increasingly worried about his amphetamine intake, yet despite his fears he continued to take them because he thought that they helped him to write; he wrote 140 pages of Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1970) in one forty-eight hour burst. In 1970 he moved to Vancouver for a year, his stay ending in his fourth nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt. In April 1972 he returned to California, finished Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, and started work on his classic analysis of the sixties drug scene A Scanner Darkly. He married an eighteen year old psychiatric patient and a son was born in 1973.
In February to March 1974 Dick experienced a number of visions, as (he claimed) pink beams of light beamed information into his head, and allowed him to communicate with God, and he spent the rest of his life writing his 8000 page long Exegesis; an attempt to try and explain his experiences. In February 1976 his fifth wife left him, and he tried to kill himself again, for what was to be the last time in his life. He found it difficult to extrapolate his visions into novel form, although he finally succeeded in his experimental novel, Valis. However in 1982 he was found unconscious in his apartment, the victim of a stroke, and he died several days later.
Dick was widely-read, his biographer, Lawrence Sutin, describing his reading as “virtually limitless, from technical papers on physics..... to Jung, Kant and William Burroughs,” and he describes how Dick would frequently cite Stendhal, Flaubert, and especially Maupassant as influences on his work, learning how to structure the short stories of the early fifties on Maupassant’s stories in particular (Sutin, 1991, p3). In a 1969 Questionnaire for SF writers, he recommended that any young writer should base the structure of their novels on the novels of a writer that they admired: “I, for instance, based my first novels on the structure used by A.E. van Vogt” (Sutin, L. 1995, p65).
In the same questionnaire, he also recommended young writers who want to create “realistic” characters and effective dialogue to: “read modern quality writing, especially the short pieces of Algren, Styron, Herb Gold, the so-called New School writers. And the fine left-wing writers of the thirties, such as Dos Passos, Richard Wright, and go back as far as Dreiser and Hawthorne - try to stick to American writers, because it is among the American writers that realistic dialogue has developed. Try the French realists, such as Flaubert, for plot and characterisation. Avoid Proust and other subjective-type writers. And by all means intently study James Joyce, everything from his early short stories to Finnegans Wake” (Sutin, 1995, p65).
However, SF played a major role in Dick’s development as a writer and his choice of SF as his favoured genre. From childhood he read the SF pulps such as Amazing and Unknown Worlds, a collection that he cherished for decades. However, this interest in SF declined sharply when he moved into a shared house with a number of aspiring writers when eighteen. In a 1977 interview Dick admitted that he had continued to read SF but that the Berkeley culture of the late forties “required you to have a really thorough grounding in the classics.” In 1968 he said, “Let us simply say that I gained a working knowledge of literature from (Xenophon’s) Anabasis to Ulysses” (Sutin, 1991).
Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle had many direct literary influences that Dick openly cited. First his basic premise of a world where the Axis powers won the Second World War was influenced by Ward Moore’s novel Bring the Jubilee (1953) in which the South won the Civil War, and also the I Ching . Dick had the characters ask the I Ching questions in the novel, and then would base the novel’s future events on what the I Ching would tell him when Dick consulted it on their behalf.
However, in the same way that Ballard claims to have been influenced more by visual artists, especially the Surrealists, Dick too was influenced by arts other than the literary. To Gregg Rickman (in Philip K. Dick: In His Own Words (1984)) he described his novel Mary and the Giant as a retelling of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with Schilling seduced and destroyed by a young woman, and quotations from operatic libretti abound in his SF novels, particularly from Wagner and Gilbert and Sullivan.
J.G. Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930, and lived there until he was fifteen. He has said of Shanghai that it was:
“an American zone of influence. All the foreign nationals there lived an American style of life. They had American-style houses, air-conditioning and refrigerators, and American cars. We had Coca-Cola - and American-style commercial radio stations which blared out American programs and radio serials.” (Ballard in V/Search, 1984, p112).
After the attack on Pearl Harbour he was interned by the Japanese in a civilian prison camp. He moved to England in 1946, but was shocked by the lack of impact the War seemed to have on British culture.
"It seemed a world of self-enclosed little suburbs and village greens where nothing had ever happened. To come from Shanghai, and from the War itself where everything had been shaken to its foundations, to come to England and find this narrow-minded, puritanical world - this was the most repressed society I'd ever known!” (Ballard in V/Search, 1984, p114).
After leaving school he read medicine at King's College, Cambridge then went to London University to read English Literature. He became interested in psychoanalysis and began to read every library book he could find. He also started to read many of the leading writers of the day, such as Kafka and Hemingway. He also became interested in the Surrealists, more the visual Surrealists than the literary ones, although he did read Jarry and Appollinaire. By 22 he had worked for an advertising agency and as an encyclopaedia salesman, eventually joining the RAF because he “wanted to get out of England desperately” (V/Search, 1984, p117), and he had discovered that the flight training was done in Canada. It was there that he discovered various American SF magazines, and he decided that SF was a genre that could contain the richness of his ideas.
On returning to England he was an editor of technical and scientific journals, and he got to know many of the early English Pop artists, the Independent Group. He felt a kinship with their belief that the media landscape was a proper subject matter for the artist, and he believed that it was these subjects that SF should explore, not aliens and far-off worlds. He married in 1955, his first short story appearing in 1956. In his early thirties he wrote The Wind from Nowhere in his fortnight's annual holiday, in an attempt to make a break and become a professional writer - it was a moderate success and it led to various short story collections being published. His semi-autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun, won the 1984 Guardian Fiction Prize, the James Tait Black Award and was nominated for the Booker Prize.
While at school Ballard, “read on .......the international menu, not the English one” (V/Search, 1984, p119), but as an adult writer, he has claimed to be influenced more by the surrealist painters than any writer, although he does admire the work of William Burroughs immensely. However, his disdain for many contemporary writers is also well-known. In 1984 he said:
"I think William Burroughs is without doubt the greatest American writer since W.W.II. There are very, very few writers in his class; I think Genet is about the only one whom I'd put in the same category. All the other British and American writers so heavily touted - the Styrons and Mailers and their English equivalents - it's just not necessary to read anybody except Burroughs and Genet” (Ballard in V/Search, 1984, p6).
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