Thursday, May 7, 2009

Vermilion Sands

Vermilion Sands, by J.G. Ballard
1971, 208 pp.

As I was writing my review of Ballard's The Burning World, I did a quick New York Times search to see what his most recent book was. Instead I saw that he had died the day before. I admit I was a bit taken aback: I'd liked the book and looked forward to reading more of his stuff. I remembered reading that China MiƩville considered Ballard one of his heroes, that Kingsley Amis was a big fan, and that Anthony Burgess wrote a few glowing reviews of Ballard's early books. I read a half-dozen or so appreciations in The Guardian and went back and re-read the half-dozen reviews Martin Amis wrote of his work. I came away regretting that I'd only gotten round to reading him so late, and resolved to be better acquainted with his body of work.

To that end I picked up his short story collection Vermilion Sands. It is always mentioned in one breath among his greatest work, and among the greatest work in the genre, so I felt on solid ground. I was not disappointed; nor, in the interest of disclosure, was I astounded. Instead I finished the book as intrigued as I was when I began it.

Vermilion Sands is a collection of nine stories, all vaguely connected by character and location, but inextricably connected in mood and theme. All of them take place in a sort of run-down future Palm Springs equivalent called "Vermilion Sands," which seems to be on the shore of an ocean made of shifting, dangerous sand where white manta rays fly around in the sky. There are mentions of something called "the Recess," a time when apparently everyone on Earth took a decade off from work and productivity. Vermilion Sands is populated by the idle rich, particularly the idle rich as envisioned from the vantage point of the mid-1960's: these are not unemployed stockbrokers or venture capitalists, but avant-garde artists and mysterious actors. Each story revolves around some sort of futuristic art medium: psychologically sensitive architecture, flowers that produce sound instead of smell, singing statues, moving painted screens, cloud sculptures, living fabric, paintings that remember what they see, and automated poetry computers. Each story is told via first-person narrator, usually a professional artist, who encounters a demented, listless, dangerous woman. These women tend to wear billowing white gowns over their naked bodies, often are rich or formerly famous, usually live in abandoned villas, have mysterious pasts, and frequently are obsessed with a dead person. Often the art medium in question goes terribly wrong or turns out to be dangerous.

The earliest story is "Prima Belladonna," first published in 1956, the latest is "Say Goodbye to the World," from 1970. All of these stories are slathered in the aesthetic of the old New Worlds science fiction magazine during its run under the guidance of Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison. New Worlds brought together a collection of avant-garde, speculative, so-called "new wave" writers, mainly anarchists and socialists by nature, who were interested in William S. Burroughs, psychedelic drugs, sexual liberation, and the decay of Western Civilization. They printed a lot of MC Escher art and Beat poetry. Here's a mission-statement excerpt from one of their many defenses of their freedom to publish: "Tired of the familiar hypocrisies and the empty moralising of the middle-class, bored with the sententious orthodoxy of the official Left, suspicious of the motives of big business, especially the arms trade, hearing the first intimations of a very noisy uncontrollable cyberspace, a virtual universe of spin and image manipulation, understanding how popular media can become a sinister instrument of public brainwashing, how easily the culture of consumerism buys and sells our representatives..."

Marshall McLuhan's ideas were manifest (though sometimes excoriated) on almost every page, as they are in Vermilion Sands as well: there is all manner of concern over the implications of a medium, on the degrees of participation demanded of a consumer of that medium, and the potential evolution of our continued detachment from media and disinterest in actual experiences. I love the stuff these guys wrote. It's weird, often profane, frequently mind-bending, but subversive, interrogative, and instigative in a way that I think only science fiction can be and in the way I think science fiction ought to be. M. John Harrison is still one of my favorite writers of all time, and perhaps the finest prose stylist currently working in English. Gene Wolfe is some kind of demented genius. Michael Moorcock is the dean of aggressive, anarchist, anti-heroic, counter-culture fantastic fiction. I even like Harlan Ellison's early stories. I've never made it anywhere into Samuel Delaney, though. Ballard was frequently in New Worlds, especially his "condensed novels," which were later aggregated into The Atrocity Exhibition, a savage bit of madness I'm also currently reading.

New Worlds got in rather a lot of trouble when they decided to serialize a novel called Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad which was morally, verbally, and thematically explicit in rather inventive ways. It also featured the excellent line, "The saddest day of your life isn't when you decide to sell out. The saddest day of your life is when you decide to sell out and nobody wants to buy."

I digress. Here Ballard's stories are somewhat leisurely and restrained, and admittedly seem to be hitting the same note over and over. As ever, he is strong with the peculiar visual simile. For instance: "His dead clothes hung on his muscular body like the husk of some violated fruit." Or "Her skin dimmed and the insects in her eyes slowed to a delicate waving." At times he lets his characters, who are intelligent, though gripped with unconquerable ennui, reflect and philosophize. At this the story "Studio 5, the Stars" is certainly the strongest. It concerns a future in which poetry is produced by automated machines that are programmed with rhyme schemes, assonances, themes, and so forth. Poets are incapable of writing their own work, instead their "art" comes from how well they can program their poetry computers. "Fifty years ago," a character says, "a few people wrote poetry, but no one read it. Now no one writes it either. The VT set merely simplifies the whole process." To these people "great literature is not only unreadable, but unwriteable as well." The medium really has become the message.

Vermilion Sands is an interesting read, particularly as a sort of time capsule, though I feel it would have benefited from some variation. By the last story, the reader knows precisely what is going to happen and when, which is too bad because each story individually is quite worthy of consideration. I will report back when and if I survive reading The Atrocity Exhibition.

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