Fiction of the week

The Complete Short Stories

J G Ballard <em>Flamingo, 1,200pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0007124058

If "Ballardian" were to enter the English language, as it one day must, what would it stand for? The poetry of technology? A visionary science-fiction style? Or perhaps prescience? Perhaps all of the above. J G Ballard has made futurology seem almost respectable. His novel High Rise (1975) anticipated the present disenchantment with living and working in tall buildings. His short story "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" predicted that the ex-film star would one day run for the White House. "The profound anality of the presidential contender may be expected to dominate the US in the coming years," wrote Ballard in 1968. Not for nothing was he dubbed the "Seer of Shepperton".

Fictional conceits in his work that once seemed far-fetched have become commonplace, such as 24-hour shopping and four televisions per household. His short stories "Thirteen to Centaurus" and "Manhole 69" featured Big Brother-type scenarios (the goldfish bowl as social experiment) long before Nasty Nick was even conceived. Commercial breaks in toll-free telephone conversations can be only a matter of time.

There are two striking things about The Complete Short Stories. The first is its size: 96 stories spanning 1,200 pages. The second is the consistent quality over nearly half a century. There is no falling off. If anything, the stories grow bolder and more experimental. In "Answers to a Questionnaire", he leaves the reader to deduce the questions. "The Index" is a fiendishly clever work reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges at his most playful. The "index" is all that is left of a lost autobiography of the remarkable Henry Rhodes Hamilton, who, we are told, knew everyone from Adolf Hitler to Ernest Hemingway. It's such a detailed index that the book itself is superfluous.

Ballard is one of the few postwar British authors to have created a fictional landscape that is as instantly recognisable as, say, Greeneland. When he began writing, in the mid-1950s, he entirely redefined the sci-fi genre. His early credo was to explore inner space rather than outer space, and he examined the impact of technology on human desire with a forensic imagination. His stories are not set in the future, but in a sort of reimagined present. The future is here and now. But it is misleading and reductive to describe Ballard as a science-fiction writer (a label he has always disliked), because he owes as much to surrealism as he does to sci-fi. He paints images with words. A characteristic story from his early collection Vermilion Sands, and the high water mark of his fiction, features an enigmatic Madonna figure and various other props from the surrealist panoply, such as sonic flowers, cloud sculptures, singing statues and sand rays. He is living proof, too, of Graham Greene's maxim that childhood is the credit balance of a writer's life. If his recurrent motifs - empty swimming pools, abandoned hotels, deserted airfields - are displaced memories of his Shanghai upbringing, as he claims, then his ideas are also childlike in their simplicity. In "The Thousand Dreams of Stella Vista", houses change colour according to the mood swings of the occupants. In "The Greatest Television Show on Earth", time travel allows camera crews to broadcast live footage of the battle of Waterloo and the Sermon on the Mount. And in "Now: Zero", the narrator with the power of performative utterance issues a death sentence on the reader. In essence, his stories are fairy tales for grown-ups, which perhaps is why they have lasted so well, despite the odd reference to gramophone records or a trip from Earth to Murak costing £3,000 (nothing dates in literature like currency).

The lexicon of his imagination can sometimes seem deliberately repetitive; at other times, it is just plain repetitive. It may be heretical to say this, but many of his novels, no matter how well executed, strike me as overextended conceits. He is more impressive in the narrow orbit of the short story.

But to be fair, Ballard sees himself primarily as an imaginative writer. "It's the images I produce and the ideas enshrined in the images that are the key things," he has said. "Their translation into words is the least important part of the enterprise."

Years ago, he envisaged novels being written by computer and poems regurgitated by a verse transcriber. Cynics might say we have reached that stage already. Who, after all, can recall a single line by the poet laureate? Buy this book if you want an antidote to banality.

Sebastian Shakespeare is editor of the Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And now the trouble really begins