Time and Time Again, Extracts From a J.G. Ballard Interview


On Sunday 17th of October David Pringle posted an interview with J.G. Ballard to the J.G. Ballard mailing list that he had transcribed from a zine published forty years ago. The extracts I post here are taken from this transcription of Jim Goddard’s interview with J.G. Ballard conducted in November 1970 and published in “Cypher” no.3 December 1970.

Thanks to David Pringle for transcribing this interview, and of course to Jim Goddard for conducting the original interview.

I have been thinking about many issues covered in the interview and it is clear to me that the same arguments and discussions reoccur within SF time and time again. The questions and answers are always the same. We need to move on.

Goddard: What is your opinion of world SF today? And what new directions do you foresee it taking during the next 20 or 30 years to ensure survival?

Ballard: _Everything is science fiction!_ I think the future for it is tremendously exciting, but there are dangers. At present science fiction is almost the only form of fiction which is thriving — the social novel, for example, is attracting fewer and fewer readers — and for the obvious reason that social relationships are no longer as important as the individual’s relationship with the technological and fictional landscape of the late 20th century. _However_, in spite of its increasing readership all over the world, it seems to me that science fiction is in danger of losing its direction and sense of purpose — it may easily become a “closed” fiction similar to the western, with a fixed set of conventions and scope of reference. It is most important that the younger writers continue the good work done in the past ten years or so. To survive during the next 20 or 30 years? SF must go on being _relevant_, making sense of people’s lives and imaginations. In practical terms — American SF of the 1930-1960 period is now dead and buried, but it is important to go on stamping the earth down on the coffin — there are still too many people eager to jerk the corpse out of its grave and deck it in electric flowers.

[..]

Goddard: What do you think the role of the writer should be today? I say this generally, and not with particular reference to SF.

Ballard: I think that the role of the writer today has totally changed — he is now merely one of the huge army of people filling the environment with fictions of every kind — therefore he must become much more analytic, approaching his subject matter far more like a scientist or engineer. Alternatively, if he is to produce fiction, he must out-imagine everyone else, scream louder, whisper more quietly. For the first time in history, it may actually require _talent_ to become a writer — and those writers, both in and outside SF, who have no talent are being shown up already. They are resented, in particular, for not producing something sufficiently “fictional.”

[…]

Goddard: What do you think of the general standards of SF writing today? And what would you say could be done by writers, publishers and, for that matters, fans, to improve these standards?

Ballard: Most new SF is far inferior to the SF produced during the 1950’s and early 1960’s. The evolution of _New Worlds_ for example, despite its huge achievements, has been a great disappointment to Michael Moorcock, and the people who helped him, such as Charles Platt, Diane Lambert and Langdon Jones. They literally gave years of their lives to make that magazine a successful forum for the new. Were their enormous efforts re-paid? I doubt it, the writers are to blame.

[…]

Goddard: Who do you think are the greatest writers working in SF today? And why?

Ballard: Science fiction has always been very much a corporate activity, the writers sharing a common pool of ideas, and the yardsticks of individual achievement don’t really measure the worth of the leading SF writers of the 50’s — Pohl, Matheson, Sheckley. Those who seem to stand out as individuals usually tend to be marginal figures — Bradbury, really a writer of 20th century fairy tales, is the most brilliant talent produced by modern science fiction, Bernard Wolfe, great author of _Limbo 90_, was never part of SF, and William Burroughs. _The New Wave has produced no one yet_, but this was little more than a label invented by Michael Moorcock, Judith Merril and myself to wake up a sleeping, stupefied and stupid audience. However, over the next 10-20 years, I think a group of major writers will appear. The one mistake, entirely understandable, of _New Worlds_ was that about 15 months ago it ceased to be a science fiction magazine.

Goddard: At the present time the movement in SF is away from magazines and more toward the original anthologies like John Carnell’s _New Writings in SF_, Damon Knight’s _Orbit_, and Harlan Ellison’s _Dangerous Visions_. Why do you think SF magazines have remained such a minority interest? Why should it be possible for a paperback to sell 30,000 or 40,000 copies, whilst a magazine like _Vision of Tomorrow_ has difficulty in selling 15,000 copies?

Ballard: There are certain to be fluctuations in the publishing of SF as in anything else. The 40’s and the 50’s were the great years of magazine SF, the 60’s of the paperback original. I have always disliked original anthologies, which generally are bogus magazines, without the hot blood that runs through a real magazine. Carnell’s _New Writings_ is a noble effort by the editor, Knight’s _Orbit_ series is workaday, but it’s typical that he asked me in Rio last year to contribute, “… but not anything too original.” While Ellison’s _Dangerous Visions_ is a vulgar travesty of the words in its title — my own piece, “The Assassination of J. F. Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” was declined on the grounds that “… many millions of Americans might be offended” — in other words, dangerous, but not too dangerous, visions. I think it is a great shame that the new SF cannot support a vital magazine, and I lay the blame for this on the readers and _new writers_. Michael Moorcock’s _New Worlds_ has been one of the most original magazines ever published, and the history of _New Worlds_, from Ted Carnell’s great editorship, when it was without doubt the most important magazine of original fiction in this country, to its present change into a paperback, is _the_ history of original fiction of any kind in this post-war period. I am convinced that SF, whatever form it takes, will continue to grow and change, _and it can only change for the better_, but without a magazine, and the commitment of people like Carnell, Moorcock and Platt, and others, the task of the young writer will be that much more difficult. Magazines are the best rallying points — they have immediacy and direction, and the passionate involvement of one or two people. By contrast, the original anthologies are published within the machinery of a publishing house. As for _Vision of Tomorrow_ — it may well have had difficulty in selling 15,000 copies, but it would have just as much trouble in giving them away. At least, as a consolation prize, the editor can feel a certain pride in knowing that he produced, for a brief while, the worst science fiction magazine in
history.

[…]

[END]

4 Comments

  1. Damien G. Walter October 22, 2010

    Great words to share Will. I feel sure Ballard would be extrenely disappointed with contemporary British SF, if that is he even bothered to look at it at all. It has become, as he feared, much like the Western. So what next to change this situation?

  2. e.lee October 22, 2010

    Great interview! For more of the same, I recommend Ballard’s collected essays and articles, ‘A User’s Guide to the Millenium’.

  3. Will Ellwood October 22, 2010

    @e.lee – Would you be surprised if I said that I already own a copy? Fantastic book. Absolutely essential reading.

    @Damien – I have an answer, I think. But it is longer than a comment should be and needs to be typed up from my comp book. I’ll try at get to it this afternoon in a lull from editing and revising.

  4. Jim Worrad October 24, 2010

    ‘Jerk the corpse out of its grave and deck it with electric flowers’.

    Blimey! He even fills interviews with amazing mental images.

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