Although more readers have probably encountered Ballard’s “Empire of the Sun” than his science fiction, the latter genre arguably contains his best and most interesting work of which many peoples’ favourite is “Vermilion Sands”. First published as a whole in 1971, the book is a collection of short stories, written over the previous two decades. All are set in the eponymous fictional beach resort, (which might have certain similarities to Palm Springs), filled with futuristic technologies and weirdly decadent characters of great wealth and very limited merits. The use of the word “vermilion” in the title, incidentally, is most unlikely to be accidental (Ballard was scientifically trained, had studied medicine at Cambridge and worked for a period as assistant editor of a chemistry magazine), rather referencing the traditional artists’ pigment, made from lethally poisonous mercuric sulphide, whose manufacture and use cost the lives of many involved in the process.
Run down and isolated after an undefined ten year “recess”, the surrounding deserts of red sand are gradually encroaching on the fading buildings and failing lives of the inhabitants, many of whom, including the narrators of every tale, are in some way “artistic” without having any very great artistic merit. They are abetted in their mediocrity by technologies such as singing plants, poetry-writing machines and light-responsive paints all of which allow previously inert or insensitive materials to respond to the moods and feelings of the humans (or it is sometimes suggested “mutants”) with whom they come into contact, often with disastrous consequences. There are no heroes in these stories, simply a collection of narcissistic and deeply damaged film starlets, singers, trust fund heirs and artists, together with their freakish servants and self-serving suppliers, all of whom are further harmed and often die as a result of their interaction with the strange technologies the stories reveal.
In “Prima Belladonna”, for example, the narrator owns a business, Parker’s Choro-Flora, supplying genetically modified, and highly temperamental singing plants and especially orchids, to customers throughout the world. These require constant tuning like a horde of unruly pianos, using a range of acid and alkaline media applied to their control tanks and taking their lead from the valuable Khan-Arachnid orchid that has a vocal range of twenty four octaves and is Parker’s prize stock item. When a travelling singer, Jane Ciracylides, with a “good deal of mutant in her”, her golden skin and “insect eyes”, arrives in town she both starts an affair with the narrator and appears on the verge of carrying on another with the orchid. In Ballard’s words “The Arachnid had grown to three times its size. It towered nine feet high out of the shattered lid of its control tank, leaves tumid and inflamed, its calyx as large as a bucket, raging insanely. Arched forward into it, her head thrown back was Jane.” She appears to escape, at the least disappears, and the next day the orchid is found dead. Nothing in these stories ends well.
Ballard has managed to imagine many of the worst effects of digitisation, data transfer and genetic engineering some seventy years before these begin to be generally viable. The real art of course lies in Ballard’s writing and the curiously painterly and surreal quality of his descriptions of settings which seem to mirror Dali or de Chirico. Describing driving through a a particularly sinister piece of desert in “The Screen Game” Ballard writes “The hanging galleries of the reefs were more convoluted and sinister, like the tortured demons of medieval cathedrals. Massive towers of obsidian reared over the roadway like stone gallows, their cornices streaked with iron-red dust. The light seemed duller, unlike the rest of the desert, occasionally flaring into a sepulchral glow as if some subterranean fire-cloud had boiled to the surface of the rocks. The surrounding peaks and spires shut out the desert plain, ….” He continues “Abruptly, around a steep bend the reefs and peaks vanished and the wide expanse of an inland sand-lake lay before us… The tyres cut softly through the cerise sand and soon we were over-running what appeared to be the edge of an immense chessboard of black and white marble squares. More statues appeared, some buried to their heads, others toppled from their plinths by the drifting dunes. Looking out at them this afternoon, I felt, not for the first time, that the whole landscape was compounded of illusion, the hulks of fabulous dreams drifting across it like derelict galleons.”
One couldn’t possibly describe the world of Vermilion Sands as in any way normal or pleasant, but it is deeply fascinating and a most captivating construct. Somehow one just wonders whether this imaginary extension of an entertainment centre for shady people in sunny places may represent the future for a technology obsessed USA in locations such as Donald Trump’s Mar a Lago or Jeffery Epstein’s strange mansion. Whatever, it’s an excellent read, however weird. If you want to buy, try your local independent book shop first, because without your support it may just not be there next time you need it.