J.G. Ballard, 78, Dies; British Author Gained Fame With 'Empire of the Sun'

Monday, April 20, 2009

J.G. Ballard, 78, best known for the autobiographical novel "Empire of the Sun," which drew on his childhood detention in a Japanese prison camp in China, died April 19 in London.

The cause of death was not immediately announced, but prostate cancer was diagnosed in 2006.

Mr. Ballard began his career writing science-fiction short stories before moving to a more adventurous "new wave" style, which focused less on the world beyond the stars and more on the society around him. He said his goal was "picturing the psychology of the future."

His early novels in the 1960s, including "The Drowned World," "The Wind From Nowhere" and "The Drought," imagined the world after it had been hit by different kinds of disasters and brought him commercial success.

But he found a much wider audience with "Empire of the Sun," published in 1984. The autobiographical novel drew on Mr. Ballard's experiences as a boy living through the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, where he was born in 1930. "Empire of the Sun" described his struggle and his complex emotions toward the invading Japanese forces.

"I have -- I won't say happy -- not unpleasant memories of the camp," Mr. Ballard once said of his childhood internment. "I remember a lot of the casual brutality and beatings-up that went on, but at the same time we children were playing a hundred and one games all the time!"

The book was later adapted as a film by Steven Spielberg.

He was born James Graham Ballard and moved with his family to England in 1946. He studied medicine at Cambridge University and served as a British Royal Air Force pilot before working as a salesman, an advertising copywriter and a scientific-journal editor before establishing himself as a novelist.

He wrote more than 15 novels, including the controversial 1973 book "Crash," which described what he called "the perverse eroticism of the car crash." It was made into a film by David Cronenberg in 1996.

Mr. Ballard questioned what would happen if people's desires or habits are taken to the limit, a theme he returned to in "Cocaine Nights" (1996) and "Super-Cannes" (2000), which describe ordinary people whose lives are liberated by violence.

He also focused on the negative effects of advancing technology and rejected the belief that humans can constantly improve themselves. He often portrayed social and technological developments as adding to a sense of human worthlessness, rather than aiding the progression of humankind.

"The Enlightenment view of mankind is a complete myth. It leads us into thinking we're sane and rational creatures most of the time, and we're not," Mr. Ballard said in a 2003 interview with the Australian newspaper the Age.

Mr. Ballard was also critical of modern politics and once mocked the West's search for "near mythical weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

He married Helen Matthews in 1954. She died in 1964.

He is survived by three children.

-- From news services

© 2009 The Washington Post Company