J.G. Ballard’s Best Stories, Pre-1970

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Following are my favorite short stories (the top 25) written by J.G. Ballard before 1970.  I list them from the best batch of stories (Batch One) to the least of the best (Batch Four). Within each batch, it’s a toss-up which story rules.

BATCH ONE:

End Game — A man is sentenced to death by the system.  He must live in the care of his executioner until the fateful day arrives.  He is not given any idea when that day might be.  As the days drag on, he begins playing chess with his stoic and laconic executioner, trying to win him over before it’s too late.  The game is on.

Cry Hope, Cry Fury — A beautiful, beautiful tale.  A man sails a desert ocean of sand hunting flying sand-rays.  But his life veers sideways after he becomes the lover of an alluring and probably mentally unbalanced woman.  Mystery and intrigue and psychological games ensue.  And what are those eerie images that keep showing up overnight in the paintings?

The Cloud Sculptures Of Coral D — One of Ballard’s greatest cast of characters.  Competitive, artistic, troubled, and insecure men carve awesome cloud sculptures for donations from the public… Until the day a wealthy woman hires them for a private performance… with tragic consequences.

Garden Of Time — Ballard at his best.  He creates a lovely world of calm marital bliss, harpsichord music, and crystal flowers– but with a melancholic undertone of eventual doom running beneath it.  The imagery of the special garden, surrounded on all sides by barren plains, is remarkable.

….The Count and Countess live in a garden of six-foot plants, each with a goblet-sized, crystal flower at its top.  This crystal flower, when plucked, can roll back time for a short period.  Up til now, plucking the flowers have kept the invading army yo-yoing on the horizon: the hordes approach, the Count picks a flower and time reverses and they are sent back… only to eventually return and necessitate the plucking of another flower.  But the flowers remaining are few… what will happen once the last Time-Flower is plucked?

The Impossible Man — An extremely well-written story.  A young man is hit by a car.  The driver died in the accident, but the young man lived.  However, his leg has been amputated, and is to be replaced with one from a donor.  Guess who that recently deceased donor just happens to be.

Chronopolis — A world in which clocks have been outlawed…  A young man obsessed with Time…  this will not end well.

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BATCH TWO:

Minus One — A man disappears from an insane asylum.  But as the Director of the asylum worries over the consequences for his own career, he begins to entertain the idea that perhaps the missing man was never here at all.  A story of an inconvenient truth meeting a malleable past.

The Recognition — The most dismal circus you’ll ever attend.

Terminal Beach — The prose is not as fluid and clear as normal for Ballard, but that is on purpose:  he is experimenting stylistically with this one…  A military man lives a mostly solitary life on an atoll once used for bomb-testing, and now covered over entirely with concrete and bunkers.  He lingers there in a haze, occasionally seeing images of his dead wife and son.  Very desolate imagery, devoid of Ballard’s normal incorporation of nature… except for the fly…  The interaction between the man, the corpse, and the fly at the end of the story is exquisite… a sort of dark comedy.  As in End-Game, there is a Sartre influence and/or Existentialist feel to this one.

The Illuminated Man — Some beautiful imagery (especially the image of the crystallizing man running through the woods).  The premise is also intriguing:  imagine that matter exists in Time like salt dissolved in a solution.  Then imagine that Time begins colliding with Anti-Time, annihilating itself (similar to Matter meeting Anti-Matter).  As Time reduces, matter is crystallized out… Not… good.

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BATCH THREE

Zone Of Terror — A man finds himself displaced in Time, and running into his past selves.  Things turn deadly when he enlists a friend to help hunt down his other selves.

Track 12 — Infidelity and payback… amplified 1,000 times

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BATCH FOUR:

Most of the following stories are less than satisfactory due to Ballard’s propensity for FIZZLE endings.  Nevertheless, many of them still possess some of his:  best prose, most outstanding visual descriptions, most marvelous and fantastical creations, most intriguing ideas and scenarios, and some interestingly neurotic characters.

The Gentle Assassin — A Time Paradox story.  One of Ballard’s more conventional pieces, but solid for its genre.  Enhanced by its brevity.

Prima Belladonna — Singing plants and mysterious girl.  Great style.

Waiting Grounds — A man on an outpost planet keeps a secret from his successor.  The secret is big, but is it worth dying for?

Now Zero — What if you had the power to write fiction… that comes true?  And what if you just happened to know someone who deserves to die?

The Voices Of Time — The story is too long, but has some good writing and intriguing ideas.  Scientists in the not too distant future begin unlocking some of the “silent genes” in the human genetic code.  Maybe there was a reason they were silent…

The Last World of Mr Goddard — Sure, you might can put your entire neighborhood in a box… but can you keep a lid on it?

The Insane Ones — A man just released from prison for the crime of attempting to psychologically treat the mentally disturbed comes face to face with young woman who desperately needs his help.  But is she worth a return trip to the slammer?

Thirteen To Centaurus — Decades before the novel, Wool, Ballard imagines a situation in which people are kept locked away from the world and the truth for generations.  They are told they are in a spaceship heading for Centaurus… but are they?

The Reptile Enclosure — Why does fat, sweaty humanity pack together for a day at the beach?   “If you accept the sea as an image of the unconscious, then this beachward urge might be seen as an attempt to escape from the existential role of ordering life and return to the universal Time-Sea.”  

The Time-Tombs  — Long ago, souls were stored on magnetic tape and placed inside tombs for later retrieval and resurrection.  But today, historians are raiding these ancient tombs for the trove of information contained within– destroying the stored souls in the process.  Another great and stylish story ultimately unsatisfactory.

Now Wakes The Sea — A suburb sets atop what was once an ancient sea.  But now the sea is gone… that is, except for one man, for whom the sea returns nightly.  Is he crazy, or is what he sees for real?

The Sudden Afternoon — It’s really not fair for someone, without warning, to replace the soul in your body with their own, now is it?

The Delta At Sunrise — has a Snows Of Kilimanjaro feel to it.  A man with seriously infected foot can only watch the snakes return to the beach every night, and his co-worker beginning an affair with his wife.

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