Dystopian visionary dies

The author, J.G.Ballard, died 15 April 2009. He was known mostly for his successful autobiographical work, Empire of the Sun, but his work was mostly science fiction. He created dystopian visions of society challenging his readers’ perceptions.

The author, J.G.Ballard, died 15 April 2009 (born 15 November 1930). He was known mostly for his successful autobiographical work, Empire of the Sun, but his work is found most often on science fiction shelves. His brand of science fiction created dystopian visions of society challenging his readers’ perceptions.

As a young man I had read mountains of science fiction, including Ballard’s, which I either bought or borrowed from the library. I was a bit surprised when I searched through my old and yellowing paperback collection to find only one of Ballard’s books amongst the Vonneguts, Moorcocks and Philip K Dicks. I enjoyed reading the pulp adventures stories of galactic battles and malevolent extra-terrestrials but it was these writers exploring the perversities of our own real world that I recognised as providing the true alternative futures.

Ballard was one of these writers who used the science fiction genre to explore the dark side of modern, suburban life. He creates dystopian worlds where what we take for granted is twisted and darkly exposed. In an obituary his works were described as apocalyptic fables of technological and social anarchy.

Dystopian is the opposite of utopian. Utopia was an island invented by Thomas More (1516) as the location of his perfect society; a society with perfect legal, social and political systems. His derivation of the word is based on Greek and its literal meaning is nowhere – a deliberately ironic derivation. Utopian came to mean idealistic and impossibly visionary.

Dystopia was coined by John Stuart Mills (1868) to describe a society where all things are bad. It is a portmanteau word made up of dys meaning bad, abnormal, or difficult and a modification of (u)topia.

The great fictional dystopias include the Brave New World of Aldous Huxley, the society of George Orwell’s 1984 and the misfunctioning bureaucratic place of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. They were Ballard’s stock in trade.