Vermilion Sands; or, Adventures in Reader Reaction

I’m off reading new stuff, so you’re getting old stuff.

Specifically, the short J. G. Ballard series continues work with this book of linked stories.

Speculiction provides an alternate perspective.

Raw Feed (1997): Vermilion Sands, J. G. Ballard, 1971.Vermilion Sands

“Preface” — A collection of linked stories from a time when futurists worried about how we would adapt to the future leisure society. Vermilion Sands is a place, cheerfully admitted by Ballard to exist in no real geographical point in the future, in such a world. Ballard says its “spiritual home lies somewhere between Arizona and Ipanema Beach” but that he sees it popping up on the northern shores of the Mediterranean where all of Europe seemingly spends its summer. Alas, this world where “no-one has to work, but that work is the ultimate play, and play the ultimate work” was not to be, and Europeans now find their vacations cut short to compete with Americans, Japanese, and the ambitious Asian nations. Vermilion Sands, says Ballard, celebrates the “neglected virtues of the glossy, lurid, and bizarre”.

The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” — Like his novel Crash, this story starts with a rather melancholy summary of how the story ends (though here the summary is shortened because this is a short story and not a novel). (The deaths of major characters in both cases transpire in attempting to fulfill some artistic obsession.) The invented art of sculpting clouds by silver iodide dispersing gliders is implausible but a wonderful image. This story has been described by some critics as a sf version of the movie Sunset Boulevard. There is some truth to that in that it is a tale of artists destroyed by a rich, vain woman – here out of a desire to win her approval, in the film to presumably to tap her fortune.

Prima Belladonna” — This story reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappacini’s Daughter” in that both feature strange, exotic women with affinities for strange plants. In Hawthorne’s story, it was a woman of poisonous breath in a poisonous garden. Here beautiful singer Jane Ciracylides appears to be some mutant hybrid of insect and man attracted to the “Arachnid orchid”. The image of singing plants is bizarre and wonderful and Ballard works it out in enough implausible, but compelling, detail to make work even better. It is strongly hinted that, like the “khan-Arachnid spider” she needs to lay eggs in it. This is Ballard’s first story, and he does a wonderful job depicting leisured young men casually pursuing art and attracted to the woman with “insects for eyes”. Ballard has wit and a knack for concise evocation of mood and character in his first work. I suspect this story with its “Recess”, a ten year period of economic slowdown and “high summer” lethargy and part-time artists, was the inspiration for Andrew Weiner’s excellent “Waves”.

The Screen Game” — This wonderfully moody story might as well be called a fantasy rather than sf. To be sure, it initially purports to be set in some near-future with the familiar trappings of such things as dollars and Lincoln cars, but, the deeper into the story and Lagoon West we go, the more fantastic the landscape becomes. While I might admit to being unimpressed with the Ballard I’ve read before – “The Terminal Beach” and Crash (my main complaint about that novel is that the language, sometimes too clinical, often too long and overblown, didn’t create the effect I think Ballard wanted) I can see why he is acclaimed given this and the other Vermilion Sands stories I’ve read. His prose is concise, and he has a real talent for arresting images. However, I wouldn’t describe him as having a painterly eye. I think he could become a bit more diagrammatic since his descriptions sometimes get lost in images and lose their preciseness as descriptions of action and place. Vermilion Sands is a surrealistic sea of sand (traveled by “sand yachts” and sand-rays – never explained as reptiles, machines, arachnids, birds) complete with reefs and surrounded by Monument Valley type landscape. Ballard never really tries to rationalize this landscape in terms of an actual land on Earth or the result of geological processes just like he never really describes sand rays or rationalizes the workings of the sculptures which whisper the murderous guilt of Amerelda across the deserted valley in a ghost-story style ending. Still, they are wonderful, compelling images and not beyond rationalization, and many other authors don’t rationalize their fantastic images. Ballard who, in a Dream Makers interview with Charles Platt, said he chose sf because it was a commercial genre that could bring his images to a wide audience, takes a swipe at auteurs with his Aphrodite 80 film crew that is oblivious to commercial restraints on their art. He also satirizes some filmmakers as making movies wholly financed by patrons and that will only be shown once at Cannes.

The Singing Statues” — This is a rather pointless story plotwise, but it has a couple of things going for it. First is the marvelous idea of statutes keyed to sing to the biometric specifications of an individual. Secondly, the organic quality of the singing statues that take root and grow – shows once again that many of the visions of the nanotechnology sub-genre of sf are not that novel and merely rationalized with different instrumentalities.

Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” — Ballard begins this story exactly the same as his “The Singing Statues”: “Again last night, as the dusk air”, and then both stories began with a moody, evocative summary of the story to follow. This story’s new art form is painting with “photosensitive pigments” which produce an image the canvas is exposed to over long times. The “impressionistic blurring” produced by this long exposure time, so the conceit goes, provides an insight into a person’s psyche. (The story reminded me a bit of Barry B. Longyear’s later “The Portrait of Baron Negay”.) The story is a tale of madness, attempted murder, malicious psychological manipulation, and fated role playing. Ballard’s prose is moody and evocative, and this is another story about perverse rich people as most of the Vermilion Sands are.

Venus Smiles” — This is another precursor to some of the nanotechnology motifs of later sf. It features more organic-like sonic statues as in Ballard’s “The Singing Statues” and some of the same characters as “Prima Belladonna” and “The Screen Game”. Essentially, this is a sf working of an old fairy tale/fantasy story: the unpleasant revenge of the spurned sorcerer/witch. Sculptor Lorraine Drexel is annoyed at Vermilion Sands for snubbing her new sonic sculpture. (Ballard seems to be taking another sly swipe at modern art forcing its way – in a most vigorous way here – on an unwilling public.) The sculpture begins to grow and threaten the narrator. Efforts to curb its growth and, ultimately, destroy it come to naught. Its wreckage ultimately infects all sorts of things when it’s melted down and used in steel for all sorts of projects.

Say Goodbye to the Wind” — The new artform Ballard introduces this story is “bio-fabric”, living fabrics that change their color, texture, and sometimes shape in response to their weaver’s mind and, to a lesser extent, the presence of others. It’s a neat conceit, far more appealing than “static” clothes which are fixed in their deadness. The narrator runs a boutique selling such clothes and relives a murder by a psycho film actress (Another example of a sort of Sunset Boulevard perversity running through those Vermilion Sands.). Her name is Raine Channing, “a macabre relic of the 1970s and its teenage cult”, and her constant plastic surgeries to remain a “teenage ingénue” are a a forecast of a Michael Jackson type of celebrity. She tries to relieve the murder of her manager (he wants her to remain fifteen) by trying to kill the narrator. (There is even, a la Sunset Boulevard, a chauffeur accomplice to Channing.) Significantly Channing is not brought to justice for her crimes.

Studio 5, The Stars” — This is Ballard’s sf version of the myth of Melander and Corydon. It’s a delightful story of a time when the literary aesthetic proclaims that, in the words of one character, “that literature was in essence both unreadable and unwritable” and computers turn out “automatic” novels and poems (simply select subject matter, style, meter, and rhyme scheme). As one character notes, in our time few people wrote poetry and none read it. The “poets” of Vermilion Sands have simply taken the matter one step further. They are a wonderful satire on arid, sterile literary pretensions with their automatic translations of James Joyce’s Ulysses into Homeric Greek to see how well they match the original. Into this world comes Aurora Day, a woman with the peculiar notion that people and not machines should write poetry. Her verse is authentic if a bit overwrought and clichéd, and, through sabotage, she forces Vermilion Sands’ poets to rediscover the joys of writing their own poetry.

The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista” — This is another supernatural gothic theme Ballard has rationalized into sf: here the haunted house. Ballard comes up with another wonderful conceit (which, if written today, may have been another of his stories rationalized with nanotechnology): a house (they are common in this world) constructed of “psychotropic” materials which respond to a person’s psychological state. Eventually, a sort of psychic sympathy develops between a house and its inhabitants. In this story, the new couple inhabiting a house finds themselves reliving the lethal marital strife of the previous inhabitants. The house even tries to kill the man since it identifies with the previous wife who was bullied by her husband before she killed him.


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