In the late 1930s, James Graham Ballard (1930–2009) was prone to go traipsing around Shanghai without his parents’ permission and was proud to be identified as “the biggest heathen” in his class by his scripture teacher. As punishment for one infraction, whose details have now been lost, Ballard was required to copy pages out of Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho!, a fairly common penalty at his school. Ballard decided that the chore would be more interesting if he made up the story as he went along, and he wrote a swashbuckling adventure about pirates instead. The following day in class his teacher called him out, saying, “Next time Ballard, don’t copy your lines from some trashy novel.” This was the renowned science-fiction writer’s first review. 

Despite this early start, Ballard’s rise to success didn’t happen quickly or easily. In the...