Earth: the alien planet

A USER'S GUIDE TO THE MILLENNIUM: Essays and Reviews by J G Ballard, HarperCollins pounds 18
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OVER the three decades of his writing career, James Graham Ballard has been called many things: a visionary science fiction stylist, a literary saboteur, a hoodlum scientist. The recent Christmas edition of Private Eye identified him as a "fruity old perve". Certainly J G Ballard is a wayward spirit. His most discomforting novel, Crash, suggested a sexuality of the road accident. ("This author is beyond psychiatric help," cautioned the reader's report. "DO NOT PUBLISH"). For a period in the 1960s Ballard was a near-addicted Scotch-drinker, and his fables of ecological dereliction were unknown to the general reader. Fame came in 1984 with Empire of the Sun, Ballard's Shanghai surprise.

For one who chronicles fictional apocalypse, Ballard retains a jolly sense of humour. On Desert Island Discs he chose "The Teddy Bears' Picnic" as a childhood favourite. Cuddly and - yes - "fruity", Ballard would not look out of place in a country club. He was born in Shanghai, China, in 1930, and read medicine at King's College, Cambridge. His wife, who died suddenly in 1964, was a great-niece of Cecil Rhodes.

There are many such autobiographical titbits in A Reader's Guide to the Millennium. A highly diverting collection of Ballard's journalism over the last 30 years, it crackles with a mandarin diversity of interests from Winnie-the-Pooh to General Schwarzkopf ("the P T Barnum of Desert Storm"). I was delighted to see included a review of my own book on Haiti, Bonjour Blanc. Much of the collection is spiced with graveyard wit. Were he alive today, says Ballard, Lee Harvey Oswald might be a staff reporter for Guns and Ammo.

Private Eye would be pushed to find anything perverse in this volume (although Ballard's interest in the call-girl ads on American TV might raise an eyebrow). There are sharp pieces on the late Sir Kingsley Amis and on Adolf Hitler's rise to power through radio propaganda. For Ballard, the 20th century is a high-speed information mosaic in which politics are a lurid adjunct of advertising. The eventless landscape of soft-drink commercials and shopping malls shimmers throughout A User's Guide to the Millennium. Each page looks excitedly at the new logic of our lives, from VDUs and Super Nintendo to the overloaded circuitry of the Internet.

Nevertheless, if an electronic Armageddon is round the corner, Ballard doesn't seem too unhappy about it. He likes the glittery embrace of modernity: Michael Manser's space-age Heathrow Hilton is, he reckons, "the most exhilarating building in the British Isles today". Yet Ballard shows little interest in the Russian and American space programmes, and wonders why these no longer touch the human imagination. In the 1950s even teapots were streamlined into imaginary space vehicles. Today there's virtually no cultural spin- off from the capsules that orbit our planet. For Ballard the only truly alien planet is Earth; he has never bothered with intergalactic bogeymen.

Ballard wrote his polemical essay "Which Way to Inner Space?" in 1962 and it still stands as his literary credo. He pleaded: "It is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored." Ballard had already turned London into a seething jungle swamp with publication of his classic anxiety fantasy The Drowned World. In it the hero finds himself heading south through proliferating vegetation towards the greater heat of the sun. This was a "neuronic odyssey" where disaster was used as an analogue for a state of mind. The most thrilling pieces in this collection first appeared in Michael Moorcock's influential 1960s magazine New Worlds. With Moorcock, Ballard was at the vanguard of the New Wave in British science fiction, and helped to release the genre from the stranglehold of American pulp magazines.

It is fascinating to see how Ballard's memories of his Shanghai childhood appear as a submerged influence in his fiction. In an article for The Woman Journalist, he describes how the flood-table of the Yangtze, with its underwater paddy fields, later fused in his mind with the surrealist landscapes of Max Ernst. But if Ballard is a surrealist, he must be just about the only one in Shepperton, the cosy patch of Thames-side suburbia that has been Ballard's home for over three decades, his toe-hold on the British Isles when he is not in the South of France. Ballard's essay on Shepperton is a delight, but it does not explain why this town was destroyed by Martians in The War of the Worlds. Did H G Wells have something against the Thames Valley?

Few writers can write with equal facility about Elvis Presley, Norwegian lobsters and Deng Xiaoping. Ballard does so with great flair and energy in this fabulously diverse collection. As we get closer to the year 2000, Ballard offers an exhilarating account of 20th-century mayhem.

Ian Thomson is currently working on a biography of Primo Levi.