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Author J.G. Ballard dies at age 78

Author J.G. Ballard, a survivor of a Japanese prison camp whose vision was so dark and distinctive it was labeled "Ballardian" and who reached a wide audience with the autobiographical "Empire of the Sun," died Sunday, his agent said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Author J.G. Ballard, a survivor of a Japanese prison camp whose vision was so dark and distinctive it was labeled "Ballardian" and who reached a wide audience with the autobiographical "Empire of the Sun," died Sunday, his agent said. He was 78.

Ballard was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006. He had been ill "for several years" and died in London at the home of his long-term partner, his agent Margaret Hanbury said. She did not give the cause of death.

"His acute and visionary observation of contemporary life was distilled into a number of brilliant, powerful novels which have been published all over the world and saw Ballard gain cult status," Hanbury said.

Ballard was born in Shanghai, China, and was interned there in a prison camp by Japanese troops in 1941 — an experience he drew upon in the 1984 novel "Empire of the Sun," adapted as a film by Steven Spielberg, an early effort by the director of "Jaws" and "E.T." to take on more serious material.

The movie, released in 1987 and starring a young Christian Bale, didn't attract the usual blockbuster crowds of a Spielberg film, but it did receive six Academy Award nominations. Ballard himself had fond memories of Spielberg ("an intelligent and thoughtful man" who even allowed the author a brief appearance in the movie) and a mixture of awe and confusion about the film's opening in Hollywood.

"A wonderful night for any novelist, and a reminder of the limits of the printed word," he wrote in 2006. "Sitting with the sober British contingent, surrounded by everyone from Dolly Parton to Sean Connery, I thought Spielberg's film would be drowned by the shimmer of mink and the diamond glitter.

"But once the curtains parted the audience was gripped. Chevy Chase, sitting next to me, seemed to think he was watching a newsreel, crying: `Oh, oh ..  !' and leaping out of his seat as if ready to rush the screen in defense of young Bale."

An artistic inspiration
Known for his dystopian narratives, Ballard was also admired by such rock bands as Radiohead and Joy Division and by songwriter-producer Trevor Horn, who claim that Ballard's short story "The Sound-Sweep" inspired "Video Killed the Radio Star," performed by the Buggles and the first song ever aired on MTV.

Spielberg wasn't the only filmmaker drawn to Ballard. His 1973 novel "Crash," which explored contentious themes about people who derive sexual pleasure from car accidents (and which featured a character named James Ballard), was made into a 1996 film by David Cronenberg.

Messages left for Spielberg's publicist and Cronenberg were not immediately returned Sunday.

Ballard would eventually be deemed worthy of his own adjective, "Ballardian," defined by the Collins English Dictionary as "resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard's novels & stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes & the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments."

The writer moved to Britain in 1946, where he lived until his death. As a young man Ballard was torn between writing and medicine and he struggled for years to catch on, working at an ad agency and selling encyclopedias while writing science fiction stories that few read.

Full-time novelist
His first novel, "The Wind From Nowhere," came out in 1962 and sold well enough for Ballard to become a full-time writer (although the author himself disliked the book). Other works included the novels "The Drowned World" and "The Crystal World" and the story collection "Vermilion Sands."

In the 1980s, he was finally ready to take on his childhood and so began "Empire of the Sun," the story of a young boy living through Japanese occupation of Shanghai, detailing his struggle and complex emotions toward the invading forces.

"In fact, I found it difficult to begin the novel, until it occurred to me to drop my parents from the story," he wrote in 2006.

"My real existence took place in the camp, wheedling dog-eared copies of Popular Mechanics and Reader's Digest from the American merchant seamen in the men's dormitory, hunting down every rumor in the air, waiting for the food cart and the next B-29 bombing raid."

Born James Graham Ballard, the author was a sharp critic of modern politics, who once mocked the West's search for "near mythical weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, in the buildup to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Ballard focused heavily in his work on what he saw as the negative effect on mankind of advancing technology and rejected the belief that humans can constantly improve themselves.

Ballard often portrayed social and technological developments as adding to a sense of human worthlessness, rather than aiding the progression of mankind.

"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," Ballard said in a 2003 interview with Australian newspaper The Age.

Ballard was educated at Cambridge University and served as a British Royal Air Force pilot before working as a writer.

He revealed in a January 2008 interview that he had been diagnosed in 2006 with advanced prostate cancer.

Ballard married Helen Matthews in 1954. She died of pneumonia in 1964, a tragedy that he fictionalized in "The Kindness of Women." He is survived by their three children.

There was no immediate word on funeral plans.