by J.G. Ballard

Essay by Ted Gioia

This disturbing novel is often classified as science fiction,
though at first glance the label may seem unjustified. The
most advanced technologies described in this book are cars
and airplanes—and very conventional ones at that. Unlike
other Ballard books, such as
The Crystal World or The
Drowned World
, with their apocalyptic sci-fi scenarios,
Crash describes a world that apparently is just like our own.

Well, on second thought, maybe not.
The technology in
Crash may be
familiar, but the people can hardly
be from this planet. At the opening
of the book, the narrator (named
Ballard in the novel) describes his
recently deceased friend Vaughan,
who had a bizarre erotic obsession
with car crashes, automobile injuries
and motorway mishaps of the most
violent sort. This might be plausible,
but when we find that the narrator
Ballard is also fixated on the sexual
potential of car crashes, the reader
is doubtful that there are two such
sickos in the same town. But then we
are introduced to Ballard’s girlfriend Catherine, who also finds
auto collisions to be an oh-so-heavy-metal aphrodisiac. And
don't let me forget to mention Ballard’s sometime mistress
Helen Remington (they met when he killed her husband in a
traffic accident) who also gets aroused by—yes, you guessed
it—car crashes.

No, these are
not believable characters. I have spent a lot of
time driving on the roads over the years, and I can attest that
you are more likely to find a hobbit, a Hogwarts alum, and two
Dune sandworms in the car next to you, than this unlikely
foursome. By sheer Darwinian logic, people who need to slam
their vehicle into a bus in order to get aroused do not
propagate. Heck, they're lucky to live beyond the expiration
date on their DMV learner's permit.

These odd characters and their strange inter-relationships
are what give Crash the aura of a futuristic book. And their
envisioned Armageddon—or “Carmageddon,” as Ballard
prefers to describe it—may be as creepy as an attack by
Triffids or a virus from outer space, but it is the people
themselves, and not their technology, who make us uneasy.
The characters here represent something new in fiction; the
nihilism of, say, Bazarov in Turgenev's
Fathers and Sons
looks like Mister Rogers in comfy slippers by comparison.

But the technology is the focus of the writing, and no author
has ever lavished more sensually-charged adjectives on the
various parts that make up a typical car. The words of
devotion that Petrarch aimed at Laura, Dante at Beatrice,
are here targeted at steering columns, toggle switches and
radiator grilles. Much of this prose is unsettling, even
sociopathic. Then again, some of it is quite lovely. No
matter what your objections might be to the values espoused
by this novel—and if you have no objections, don’t expect to
date my daughter—you will be forced to admire the sheer
sweep and daring of the writing. Of course, you will probably
also get nauseous from time to time before you have reached
the grand finale of this paean to a crash test dummy
philosophy of life.

Here is a taste:
The lungs of elderly men punctured by
door-handles; the chests of young women impaled on
steering-columns; the cheek of handsome youths torn on
the chromium latches of quarter-lights. To Vaughan, these
wounds formed the key to a new sexuality, born from a
perverse technology. The images of these wounds hung
in the gallery of his mind, like exhibits in the museum of a
. . . . Or how about this: The car crash is a
fertilizing rather than a destructive event.
And how about a
nice aphorism to append to your emails:
They bury the dead
so quickly. They should leave them lying around for months.  
No, these are not isolated passages taken out of context (trust
me, the context only makes it worse), but rather typical
extracts from a very atypical novel.

If you like edgy, this is definitely edgy. Even so, a sociopath
is a sociopath, no matter how well he writes. And the
character named Ballard who narrates this story is sick in the
head, and needs some treatment. I won’t pass judgment on
that other fellow named Ballard who wrote
Crash. Maybe he
is just offering us an oblique critique of contemporary mores.
But it wouldn’t surprise me if he had a screw or two loose too.

In an interesting postscript, Ballard was involved in his only
serious automobile accident in February 1972, two weeks
after completing
Crash.  A tire blowout forced his Ford Zephy
across the center divider, the impact causing a rollover, with
his vehicle sliding upside down in the oncoming lane.  
Fortunately no other car was involved in the accident, and
Ballard's injuries were minimized by his use of a seatbelt. It
was "an extreme case of nature imitating art," he later
commented.  Then added: "Curiously, before the accident
and since, I have always been a careful and even slow driver,
frequently egged on by impatient women-friends."
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
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