Not to take away from his verdict on the 20th century: Ballard’s a bard of techno-anomie, of late-capitalist disaffection, and his writings are just the tonic if your local cloverleaf traffic jam or gated community or global warming harbinger has got you feeling out of sorts. But it’s precisely his grounding in deeper undercurrents of cosmic-existentialist wonder that give that tonic its fizz. His is the voice reminding you not to take the postmodern hangover too personally: it was always going to happen this way.
A writer viewed as radical is rarely also so entrenched in formal reserve as was Ballard. Much of the energy in his fiction comes from the pull of his prophecy against the dutiful, typically middle-class English politesse of his characters, the unradicalism of their attitudes toward one another and themselves. In the “Vermilion Sands” stories, scattered through the first two decades of his career, much of the dialogue might be taken from a Barbara Pym novel, if instead of small-town vicarages Pym’s milieu had been a crumbling desert resort inhabited by aging celebrities.
After this combination or writerly genius, I’m going to need to recline for a while. If you’ve not read anything by these two, I recommend Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (slick and cool, and with more pop-culture references than you can imagine), and Ballard’s Cocaine Nights (as a gentle entry point).