SFS: Applied Ballardianism

‘Books in Review: Applied Ballardianism’, Science Fiction Studies, 45:135, November 2018
Reviewed by Rob Latham

As its subtitle suggest, Simon Sellars’ Applied Ballardianism is a strange sort of personal memoir that refracts the author’s life through the lens of J.G. Ballard’s characteristic preoccupations. Sellars is the co-editor of an excellent collection of Ballard interviews, Extreme Metaphors, and founder of the superb website Ballardian.com, which curates literary and general news emanating from the “Ballardosphere”. Long before these sorts of positions were commonplace among critics, Sellars championed a view of Ballard as a postmodern prophet whose work powerfully intervened into a range of fields from architecture to media criticism, while more or less founding new transdisciplinary areas such as techno-occultism and the postmodern travelogue. Sellars sees Ballard less as an sf writer than as an avant-garde thinker aligned with other transgressive artists and philosophers, from Chris Marker to Iain Sinclair to Paul Virilio. Above all, Ballard is a writer who inspires passionate devotion in a certain kind of obsessional reader, most centrally Sellars himself.

The book’s title refers to Sellars’s lifelong attempt to convert Ballard’s worldview into a personal praxis, a hallucinatory mode of apprehension perfectly suited to a world transfigured by technology. His first efforts took the form of a PhD thesis that Sellars could never complete, in part because his idiosyncratic methods could not be straitjacketed into an academic framework, in part because his admittedly schizoid tendencies led him repeatedly into torturous theoretical and personal cul-de-sacs. Sellars recounts, with an affecting mixture of poignancy and self-loathing, his peripatetic career as a back-packing bohemian, UFO enthusiast, and drug-addled dilettante, all the while pursuing his delirious “mission”—“to track … Ballard’s trans-disciplinary mutant word virus” (288). Sellars tilts at this windmill through bouts of depression, on-again/off-again flirtations with academia, and descents into substance abuse. As a travel writer for the pseudonymous “Rough Planet,” Sellars haunts uniquely Ballardian sites, such as the Pacific proving grounds of “The Terminal Beach” (1963) and “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island” (1974), where he feels himself turning into an “atomic rubbernecker” (175). Fired from this job, Sellars circles aimlessly through the exurban “edgelands” of his native Melbourne, convinced that “the city’s blurred zones … can provoke an evolutionary step change” propelling him out of the bleak cycle of self-defeating ambition in which he knows himself to be caught.

Applied Ballardianism is, obviously, not an academic study, but it is a compelling and illuminating glimpse into a life governed by “the utter impenetrability of Ballardian discourse” (235). It is very well-written, engaging even in its most painful moments of authorial self-revelation. I recommend it highly to all those obsessive Ballardians out there: you know who you are.