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Originally published Sunday, October 18, 2009 at 12:06 AM

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Book review

'The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard': beautiful nightmares

"The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard" offers a perfect introduction to a visionary writer's work.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard"

by J.G Ballard, introduction by Martin Amis

Norton, 1,199 pp., $35

Has any author imagined our civilization's future ruins as lovingly, as lavishly or as lyrically as J.G. Ballard?

The British writer (1930-2009) is renowned as an imaginer of dystopian nightmares. What's less noted is how beautiful those nightmares can be, in both their imagery and phrasing — and how funny. No matter how grim or murderous the action gets, there's an energizing glee and pressing sense of quest in Ballard's handling of it. And his powers of invention are downright extravagant.

"The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard," published in the U.K. in 2001 and making a belated appearance here, gives fans of Ballard's novels ("Empire of the Sun," "The Drowned World") a chance to explore his full range as a writer. For those unfamiliar with him, it offers one whopper of an introduction.

Martin Amis, in his preface to the collection, sees Ballard as the unlikely offspring of Saki and Borges. I'd throw in Roald Dahl and Steven Millhauser as other useful reference points. Still, Ballard's voice, with its disorienting mix of jubilance and ferocity, is one-of-a-kind.

Obsessions with time — stretched time, stopped time, shrinking time, preserved time — run through at least a quarter of his stories. "The Voices of Time" is his first treatment of a repeatedly explored story-premise in which protagonists fall subject to increasingly long fugue states or lapses in consciousness, making survival ever more difficult, even as a sublime sense of timelessness opens up for them.

Fantastic "mutabilities" of space (symptoms of mental breakdown?) are another recurring motif. They're given a sci-fi treatment in "Report on an Unidentified Space Station," as stranded astronauts slowly discover that their temporary sanctuary is bigger than they can apprehend. In "The Enormous Space," things start on a more workaday note as an estranged husband, unhappy in his job, holes up for good in his dull suburban house, only to get lost in its vast and ever-expanding reaches.

The marvel of most of these tales is how instantly comprehensible their alternate realities are when so little is explained — and how believable they are, too, thanks to Ballard's unflappable narrative voice. With unerring instinct, he finds the ordinariness in the most preposterous scenarios, thus connecting them in detail and tone to our own reality.

In a class all their own are the stories set in Vermilion Sands, a surreal variation on Palm Springs. There, fading movie stars make unreasonable demands on the locals, while boutiques offer the latest in mood-sensitive "bio-fabrics" (be careful — they may strangle you). A world of cloud sculptors, sonic statues and poetry machines is couched in prose that combines satire, languor and hallucination.

In 1,199 pages of stories, some entries are naturally going to be stronger than others. Of the previously uncollected tales, "The Recognition" from 1967 and "The Message from Mars" from 1992 are most striking. The earlier story, about a fourth-rate circus coming to a small English town, is a perfectly calibrated exercise in "Twilight Zone" spookiness. "The Message from Mars" tries to penetrate the mindset of five astronauts who, returning to Earth from a successful Mars mission, refuse to leave their space capsule upon landing. What can it mean? Should it be televised? Can any "ruses, pleas and stratagems" lure them back into the world?

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None, it would seem. They're the Bartlebys of the space-age.

There are still two Ballard novels and a memoir awaiting U.S. publication. Let's hope the overdue appearance of this volume means the rest are on their way.

Michael Upchurch is a Seattle Times arts writer: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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