The Parting Glass

Later, Powers often thought of Whitby, and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of of the empty swimming pool...

I've reached an age where my heroes are dying. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised: many of the people whose work I fell in love with when I was in my childhood and teens were in their forties or fifties then, and now that I'm in my forties they have started to leave us one by one. Nigel Kneale, Edward Gorey, Oliver Postgate, Philippa Pearce, Andrew Wyeth... I didn't know any of them personally,* and each leaves behind a body of work which will live on long after them, but it's still sad to see these revered names cropping up in the obituary columns.

One of the things which I will remember 2009 for is that it was the last year in which I shared the planet with JG Ballard, the best writer ever to emerge from the cheap and cheerful ghetto of science fiction, and an influence on me since I first discovered his strange stories lurking among the more traditional rockets-and-rayguns fare in the sci-fi anthologies which I started reading in my early teens.

It might seem strange for a children's writer to claim Mr Ballard as an influence. His usual champions are angry young men and avant garde types, who rightly point to the brilliance of his disturbing experimental works like Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition. I certainly couldn't recommend those to the under-18s, but I think that some of his other work, particularly the short stories, has much to offer young readers, many of whom might be as intrigued as I once was to discover that sci-fi can be about more than people running about in corridors while things explode.**

To intelligent readers of 13 or so I'd suggest the Vermillion Sands stories, set in a bone-dry desert beach resort where houses go mad, clothes reflect their wearer's states of mind and airborne sculptors carve the clouds into floating portraits of a deranged movie queen. The Terminal Beach, with it's cut-up structure and strange, dreamlike imagery both baffled and fascinated me as a teenager, and there's an exciting and mischievous novella called 'The Ultimate City' in which a young man living in a peaceful, green and ditchwater-dull future eco-utopia runs away to explore the ruins of one of our cities and starts to recreate the dangerous pleasures of modern consumer society.

Of the novels, I think I'm right in saying that Hello America was originally conceived as a story for young adults.*** And his most famous book, Empire of the Sun, which fictionalises some of his boyhood experiences in a Japanese internment camp, looks unflinchingly at the brutality of war, the fragility of civilisation and the strange resilience of human beings - especially the young.

More than any other writer of the past fifty years, JG Ballard's work has come to define the world in which we live. With the increasing violence and depravity of popular culture, the weird spasms of mass grief at the death of micro-celebrities like Jade Goody, and above all the strange psychological landscapes to which the internet has granted us all access, real life often seems to be playing out much as Mr Ballard imagined in his stories of the '60s and '70s.

But above all, I admire JG Ballard, and would like to raise a parting glass to him, because he wrote things like this:

Kaldren returned to his seat and lay back quietly, his eyes gazing across the lines of exhibits. Half-asleep, periodically he leaned up and adjusted the flow of light through the shutter, thinking to himself, as he would do through the coming months, of Powers and his strange mandala, and of the seven and their journey to the white gardens of the moon, and the blue people who had come from Orion and spoken in poetry to them of ancient beautiful worlds beneath golden suns in the island galaxies, vanished for ever now in the myriad deaths of the cosmos.****

*I was lucky enough to be introduced to Philippa Pearce towards the end of her life, a strange and moving experience for someone who grew up on Tom's Midnight Garden and A Dog So Small.
**I should point out that my own brand of sci fi consists almost entirely of people running about in corridors while things explode. JGB, who was contemptuous of the fantasy end of the sci-fi spectrum, would have had no time for me at all.
***One reason why the characters in my Mortal Engines books have never visited 'the Dead Continent' is that I can't see how this tale of future explorers crossing an abandoned USA could be bettered.
****The passages in italics are the opening and closing sentences of JGB's 1960 short story The Voices of Time.