History: This book was first published in 1973. It was a highly controversial novel: famously one publisher's reader returned the verdict "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!"
Plot: The story is told through the eyes of narrator James Ballard, named after the author himself, but it centers on the sinister figure of Dr. Robert Vaughan, a “former TV-scientist, turned nightmare angel of the expressways”. Ballard meets Vaughan after being involved in a car accident himself near London Airport. Gathering around Vaughan is a group of alienated people, all of them former crash-victims, who follow him in his pursuit to re-enact the crashes of celebrities, and experience what the narrator calls "a new sexuality, born from a perverse technology". Vaughan’s ultimate fantasy is to die in a head-on collision with movie star Elizabeth Taylor.
Review: The book explores themes such as the transformation of human psychology by modern technology, and consumer culture's fascination with celebrities and technological commodities. The human characters in the novel are cold and passionless, unable to become sexually excited unless some kind of technology is involved (typically architecture and cars). The gruesome damage inflicted on car-crash victims is not seen as shocking, but as the liberation of new sexual possibilities that have yet to be explored, such as in one scene where a man and a woman have sex in a car that was involved in an accident, but rather than have vaginal sex, he penetrates a wound on her thigh that she received in the crash.
Finally, the book asks why we, as an enlightened society, accept such a “perverse technology” – that kills a vast number of people yearly – as such an integral part of our culture.
Ballard writes in the foreword: “Do we see, in the car-crash, the portents of a nightmare marriage between technology, and our own sexuality? … Is there some deviant logic unfolding here, more powerful than that provided by reason?”
Opening Line: ”Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash.”
Closing Line: “The aircraft rise from the runways of the airport, carrying the remnants of Vaughan’s semen to the instrument panels and radiator grilles of a thousand crashing cars, the leg stances of a million passengers. “
Quotes: “Trying to exhaust himself, Vaughan devised an endless almanac of terrifying wounds and insane collisions: 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 slaughterhouse.”