Tuesday 11 July 2017

A Comparative Analysis of the Works of J.G. Ballard and Philip.K. Dick from an Anglo-American Perspective


It is interesting that of all the writers he could have mentioned in the same sentence, it is Dick and Ballard that Brain Aldiss links together in his history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree.  “All (Dick’s) novels are one novel elegant, surprising......  - like Ballard’s world.  Dick in the United States, like Ballard in England, has created a live and original body of work that challenges close attention.”  (Aldiss, 1973, pp.310-311). 

That the two writers have a lot in common is undeniable - they were after all writing predominantly within the same genre, a genre which had a number of stock themes and ideas to be explored.  Also, both writers were known as experimenters in the genre, extrapolating their fiction more from the “soft” sciences of psychology, philosophy and sociology rather than from the traditional “hard” sciences of physics, biology and computing.

They both explored the effect of the media and advertising on society, and were interested in altered states and (possibly fake) representations of reality, and they expressed the underlying anxieties of their respective cultures through their SF work.  However, differences between their work  do exist, and they are primarily a result of the state of the publishing industries in their native lands.  Dick wrote his 50s SF for a small group of pulp markets, all of them with strict rules as to what was “acceptable” in an SF story, and when these collections or novels were published they were often cut or re-written without the author’s consent, and almost always published in gaudy paperbacks with lurid titles that the writer had no control over.  Ballard, however, wrote primarily for the experimental New Worlds magazine, and had his books published by a mainstream publishing house, making his reputation more as an avant-garde “speculative fiction” writer (a figure-head of the New Wave) rather than as a “trashy” science-fiction writer.  This more relaxed attitude towards SF is borne out by the fact that Ballard always wrote his own particular kind of fiction, giving little regard to labels, whereas, for most of his life, Dick maintained two writing careers - that of a respected (within the genre) SF writer, and as an unsuccessful literary writer (his latter work meaning more to him than the former).

In addition, their literary influences reflect a certain Anglo-American bias, Ballard reading the likes of Genet, Wells and Burroughs (yet claiming to have been influenced more by the Surrealist painters than any writer), while Dick, despite being tremendously well-read, was reading the pulps from childhood, and based his early novels’ structure on those of the SF writer, A.E. van Vogt.  (Indeed, Aldiss has pointed out that for much of the 40s the pulps were unavailable outside of America because of the War and subsequent paper shortages).

Finally, it has been shown how both Ballard and Dick’s representations of America are actually very similar, despite the fact that Ballard’s view of America is based primarily on its media output, while Dick was a native.  Thus, perhaps, there was some truth to Dick’s claim that, “there is no culture here in California, only trash.  How can one write novels based on this reality which do not contain trash?”   After all, both writers tried to write novels based on “this reality” of America, and these novels always tended to focus on the surface gloss and plasticness of the country. 

Reference List

Aldiss, B.W. (1970) The Shape of Further Things, Faber and Faber, London.

Aldiss, B.W. (1973) Billion Year Spree: History of Science Fiction, Weidenfield and Nicholson, London.

Aldiss, B.W. (1996) Interview with James Burr.

Aldiss, B.W., Weldon, F. (1994) Arena, BBC (originally broadcast in 1994).

Allen, R. (1991) "Empire, Imperialism and Literature" in Allen, R., Calder, A., Haveley, C.P., Martin, G. and Rossington, M. (eds) (1991) End Of Empire, The Open University, London.

Ballard, J.G. (1967) "The Last World of Mr Goddard" in The Day of Forever, Panther Books, London.

Ballard, J.G. (1967) "The Gentle Assassin" in The Day of Forever, Panther Books, London.

Ballard, J.G. (1979) "Now Wakes The Sea” in The Disaster Area, Panther Books, London.

Ballard, J.G. (1980) "Time of Passage" in The Venus Hunters HarperCollinsPublishers, London.

Ballard, J.G. (1981) Hello America, Vintage, London.

Carter, P.A. (1977) The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction, Columbia University Press, New York.

Dick, P.K. (1987) "Meddler" in Beyond Lies The Wub: Volume One Of The Collected Stories, HarperCollinsPublishers, London.

Dick, P.K. (1987) "Breakfast At Twilight" in Second Variety: Volume Two Of The Collected Stories, HarperCollinsPublishers, London.

Dick, P.K. (1987) "Small Town" in Second Variety: Volume Two Of The Collected Stories, HarperCollinsPublishers, London.

Dick, P.K. (1987) "Prominent Author" in Second Variety: Volume Two Of The Collected Stories, HarperCollinsPublishers, London.

Dick, P.K. (1987) "Sales Pitch" in The Father-Thing: Volume Three Of The Collected Stories, HarperCollinsPublishers, London.

Dick, P.K. (1987) "Your Appointment Will Be Yesterday" in We Can Remember It For You Wholesale: Volume Five Of The Collected Stories, HarperCollinsPublishers, London.

Dick, P.K. (1991) Ubik, Vintage Books, New York.

Dick, P.K. (1994) Horizon, BBC (originally broadcast in 1994).

Dick, P.K. (1996) Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, HarperCollins Publishers, London.

Galen, R. (1996) Interview with James Burr.

Priest, C, (1978) “New Wave” in Holdstock, R. (ed) Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, Cathay Books, London.

Sutin, L. (1991) Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, HarperCollins, London.

V/Search, (1984) J.G. Ballard, Vale and Juno, San Francisco.

Weldon, F. (1996) Interview with James Burr.

Wilson, C. (1976) Strength To Dream, Sphere Books, London.

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