The Ballard of J. G.: The Themes of A Freudian Disciple

6 min readApr 21, 2024

Most recently, I’ve been looking at a potential PhD on the topic of J. G. Ballard. For anyone who doesn’t know, Ballard was one of the central authors in the New Wave movement of science fiction and a pioneer, alongside names such as Michael Moorcock and John Brunner, of the Inner Space movement. The idea was that the future of science fiction, at least by the late sixties/early seventies, was no longer in the stars but between the ears of humankind.

Ballard’s most famous work by far is The Empire of the Sun (1984), which became even more popular after the Stephan Speilburg movie of the same title (1987). In interviews, Ballard talks about The Empire of the Sun as the book he spent over twenty years trying to write. It’s a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s early life in Shanghai and his imprisonment in the Lunghua prison camp during the Second World War.

What’s fascinating about the novel is the young Jim’s reaction to his internment. As a boy growing into adulthood, Jim comes to associate the camp with stability and endows it with a sense of belonging, which was interestingly absent from his life at home. It is only in the confinement of the camp that the wondering Jim finds figures of authority that inspire him with awe.

As readers, we come to realise Jim’s confusion between the Allied and Axis powers, particularly as the Japanese soldiers take the place of the authority father/older brother figures who were absent from Jim’s upbringing. The war is neither a negative nor an entirely positive experience for Jim — half starved and diseased, he nonetheless finds a home and is almost reluctant to leave by the end of the novel.

Ballard’s Freudian obsession and early childhood have shaped much of his work. In forming my own thesis topic, Rethinking Ecology: J. G. Ballard and the Human Relationship to Ecological Catastrophe, I returned to this author, whom I’d read many years ago, in order to read the entirety of his works. What I found was, indeed, a man obsessed with a few potential motifs whose work, particularly in his novels, smacked of a fairly fetishised modernity that was heavily reliant on symbolism.

In this sense, he’s as much to blame as any obviously terrific writer who couldn’t hide his or her own voice, from Ursula K Le Guin to Cordwainer Smith and Philip K. Dick. But, perhaps in reading one book after another, I found his themes return again and again in an insistent tapestry of symbolism that alters through the years but doesn’t diminish in its ‘Balldrillian’ nature. So, what were his main themes?

The Lost/Altered World Motif.

The most obvious and earliest of his novels deal with natural disasters that end the world. These disasters, either through wind, drought, heatwaves or crystallisation of the world, estrange the main characters from the rest of the world. But, like Ballard’s own experience, these disasters don’t destroy the inner lives of the characters. In fact, they allow the characters to explore aspects of their own existence and live out unusual fantasy meditations on the wastelands of existence. We see this theme repeated not just in disaster novels but also in later stories such as Concrete Island and High Rise. Essentially, the world limits Ballard’s characters in the same way English society felt like an uncomfortable stranglehold on the author’s psyche. Disaster and death open a gateway to new possibilities and potentials of being.


Ballard deals a lot with ecological movements both outside our control and because of our direct impact on the Earth. The most obvious of these is in The Burning World, where plastic pollution has trapped water vapour from rising from the Earth’s oceans, resulting in a lack of rain and eventual elimination of most water sources. But Rushing to Paradise and The Day of Creation also share this theme, with both novels depicting a mystical link between nature and human greed and expansion.

Commercialism and modernity

Ballard was a keen critic of the modern world, particularly of institutions such and structures such as high rises, shopping malls and living complexes. These appear in novels such as High Rise, Concrete Island, Super-Cannes and Kingdom Come, where massive structures become religious centres of being in which humans can revert to their more natural forms, turning back to primitive tribalism or even worshipping the very objects they’ve built. In many of his works, including short stories such as ‘The Ultimate City’, shrines are built from TVs and electronics, celebrating the commercialism which has consumed our lives. TV figures become messiahs, and football clubs tribal groups bent on protecting their turf.


As a Freudian, Ballard was obsessed with the concept of sexuality in determining identity, particularly in the sexual possibilities beyond the norm. This is most easily seen in The Atrocity Exhibit and in Crash, in which sexuality is disembodied and fractured, examined in the extreme lens view of a buttocks or orifice. In these uncomfortable close-ups, we are asked what constitutes the sexual urge, whether it exists in the possession of the thing or in its geometrical potentialities. Crash, in particular, explores the sexual possibilities behind the excitement of a car crash, both in the near-death experience and the creation of new ‘entry points’ in the wounds and reshaping of bodies.


Ballard plays with time in many of his stories, most obvious in The Crystal World, where time is manipulated by the lensing of the double universes, which are causing the crystallisation of all things on Earth. This process, rather than leading to death, seems to hint at a new idealistic life, removed from strife and competition, in which all things are static and live forever. Like many of Ballard’s protagonists, though, Edward Sanders has a choice between staying or fleeing this alternative existence, and in removing himself in order to save his friends and love interest, he ultimately approaches something of regret in removing himself from this heavenly bliss outside of time. The Drowning World also explores this theme in the reversion of time to the prehistoric, with humans entering the increasingly scorching limits of a drowned Europe in search of a more authentic prehistoric self.


What might not seem obvious from this short summary of themes is that all of Ballard’s novels deal with the search for identity and estrangement from normal society, with the destruction of the old world order being necessary to find the ‘true’ nature of our reality. Death itself is no obstacle — in fact many of Ballard’s characters forgo food, life and limb to find the ‘inner peace’ that awaits them.

In short, Ballard’s humans are motivated by more complex desires than move beyond self-preservation. Like Ballard, they’re intent on exploring themselves in another time and space, which promises worlds beyond this one, in an attempt to understand their place in this one. Whether it’s an escape from time to the prehistoric or crystal universe or an escape to a new ideal through commercialism and gang violence, Ballard’s characters are on a quest to find meaning in a world of pain, violence and ultimately very human motivations.

In that sense, his legacy is very much an interconnecting one that has grown with his development as a writer.




A literary student by nature (and training), with a splash of ad experience, I’m setting out to make passion my career — reading, writing and SF.