The city is a time zone not just because it is a time-less zone,
but also because it is now an area where a new kind of time is in force,
biological rather than chronological. When we say new we simply mean a
time that is different from the one we are usually accustomed to, because we
soon discover that this biological time is much older than humankind:
The further down the Central Nervous
System you move, from the hindbrain through the medulla into the spinal cord,
you descend back into the neuronic past. For example, the junction between the
thoracic and lumbar vertebrae...is the great zone of transit between the gill-breathing
fish and the air-breathing amphibians with their respiratory rib-cages, the
very junction where we stand now on the shores of this lagoon, between the
Paleozoic and the Triassic Eras. (§3:44)
The new time is described by Bodkin, the biologist, who would probably like
to be defined as an expert in Neuronics, "the psychology of Total
Equivalents." The fictional science sketched by Bodkin deserves some extra
attention. The so-called "Total Equivalents" are "symbolic
stations" stored in the spinal cord. Such stations can be reached again by
consciousness thanks to climatic change: "as we move back through
geophysical time so we re-enter the amniotic corridor and move back through
spinal and archaeopsychic time, recollecting in our unconscious minds the
landscapes of each epoch" (§3:44). The importance of landscape and symbolic
equivalences is clearly underscored in this passage; it could be said that
the first application of Bodkin’s Psychology of Total Equivalents is The
Drowned World itself. Ballard has embedded his aesthetic theory in the
speech of the biologist.
These four mutilations (deprivation of humans, name, form, and time), though
they almost annihilate the city by submerging it in the warm Triassic lagoons,
do not herald the disappearance of humankind as a biological entity. Drowned
World is a tell-tale title. Drowned does not only mean flooded, submerged,
inundated, deluged but also "dead in water because unable to breathe,"4
like Phlebas the Phoenician in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, expressly
quoted by Strangman (§10:116); indeed death-by-water is the central metaphor of
The Drowned World. Seadeath is the "mildest of all deaths known to
man," as Joyce tells us in the third chapter of Ulysses;5
such a sea-death is a sea-change, a metamorphosis that is caused by submersion
in the primitive element, an image originally taken from The Tempest
(see Ariel’s song in I.ii: "Full fathom five thy father lies..."),
and probably deeply rooted in those vegetation rites described by Sir J.G.
Frazer in The Golden Bough.
This is the very symbolic course taken by the main character, Kerans: his
trajectory culminates (but in reverse) when he dives into the drowned
planetarium.6 Here the movement against the stream of biological time
(and memory) is fully accomplished. The epiphany of prehuman constellations,
symbols of biological time, takes place in the planetarium, transformed by
waters and algae into a great cosmic uterus:
Dimly illuminated by the small helmet
lamp, the dark vault with its blurred walls cloaked with silt rose up above
him like a huge velvet-upholstered womb in a surrealist nightmare....For some
reason the womblike image of the chamber was reinforced rather than diminished
by the circular rows of seats, and Kerans heard the thudding in his ears
uncertain whether he was listening to the dim subliminal requiem of his
At this moment Kerans experiences the sea-change at a cosmic level: the light
sparkling through the cracks in the dome forms new constellations, the zodiac
"that had encompassed Earth during the Triassic period" (§9:109).
That sidereal vision should be completely new for Kerans, but it turns out to be
familiar. New images change into prehistoric archetypes, pointing to an
immemorial past. New/old constellations sanction the retrograde movement of
time: "In a vast, convulsive recession of the equinoxes, a billion sidereal
days had reborn themselves, re-aligned the nebulae and island universes in their
original perspectives" (§9:109).
Recession is a particularly significant word. Kerans and the city
underwent a change that is basically a time recession: the climate returns to
Triassic conditions, reptiles dominate Earth once again, the characters’
consciousness descends the spinal levels toward a pre-human age. The escape of
Kerans, heading southward in the reborn primeval jungle, is the synthesis of
this backward movement of consciousness:
So he left the lagoon and entered the
jungle again, within a few days was completely lost, following the lagoons
southward through the increasing rain and heat, attacked by alligators and
giant bats, a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn
Here is the epilogue of the metamorphosis: the new man is the last man, both
alpha and omega. Once the recession has been accomplished, Kerans, the second
Adam, leaves the city. His decision to do so is not at all involuntary; Kerans
sabotages Strangman’s attempt to drain London. It can be said, however, that
it is his last voluntary decision, the last of his acts that can be explained in
terms of will. Kerans says goodbye to his role of historical and cultural
subject. At the end of The Drowned World the reader can only witness the
ultimate divorce between humans and city, between human being as biological
entity and civilization.7
2. Another Tempest. There is a hiatus between The Drowned World
and Hello America. Since the aim of this essay is to compare these
two novels, we can jump from 1962 to 1979, forgetting what Ballard has written
in those 17 years, except for the 1976 novella "The Ultimate City."
Short stories and novellas have the same function for novelists that chamber
music has for symphonic composers; shorter works can be seen (apart from their
own spiritual value) as a workshop for images, themes, and scenes that will be
developed at greater length in subsequent novels. "The Ultimate City,"
dealing with a deserted metropolis, thus holds much interest as a testing ground
for Hello America. Halloway’s quest for the spiritual heritage of his
father will become Wayne’s westward travel; the longing for transcendence
through flight animates the dumb, psychically troubled Olds as well as old Dr.
Fleming (they also share an almost supernatural ability to "revive"
dead machines); the sombre, manic character of Stillman is a remarkable sketch
of President Manson; Miranda will split in two, giving birth to Dr. Anne Summers
and Ursula, the militia-girl; the anonymous, deserted metropolis will turn into
the desertified New York City and the Las Vegas invaded by jungle; the bicycled
rescue party coming from the Garden City foreshadows the European expedition to
Las Vegas. At any rate, it must be said that "The Ultimate City,"
notwithstanding its date of publication, is closer to The Drowned World
than to Hello America.
The referent of the novella is a literary one. Just as T.S. Eliot’s Phlebas
the Phoenician is an evident model for Kerans, so it is not difficult to read
"The Ultimate City" as an ironic, deranged re-reading of Shakespeare’s
The Tempest. The abandoned metropolis is as eerie as Prospero’s island;
the wise, old Shakespearean magician has been replaced by Buckmaster, the
elderly hi-tech wizard/engineer (Olds calls him "warden of this island":
42); Ariel and Caliban have technologically and psychoanalytically evolved into
Olds, described as "an excited faun, an automotive Ariel" (36), and Stillman, who, like Caliban, would like to assault Buckmaster’s only daughter,
Miranda, a sort of fashion nymph; and the main character, young and bold
Halloway, is an ironic Ferdinand of sorts, rejected by Miranda and unable to
cope properly with Olds/Ariel and Stillman/Caliban.
The passage from the deluged London to the desert-like New York City has not
been completed yet. The frame of reference of "The Ultimate City" is
still to be found in English literary tradition; the transfiguration will be
accomplished when literary models will be replaced by movies, cartoons, TV
programs, and American history/legend, or what Ballard refers to as "pop
Americana." Such a change of fictional source will be matched by a change
in the encompassing horizon of the narrative, as we will see in Hello America,
the novel stemming from "The Ultimate City."
3. The Recession of Historical Time. The gold-paved America glowing in
the first pages of Hello America is again a mythical, archetypal locus:
"There’s gold...gold dust everywhere! Wake up! The streets of America are
paved with gold!" (1:7). This is the conquistadores’ El Dorado, the
Pilgrim Fathers’ promised land, the emigrants’ land of opportunity, wealth
and plenty—it is the great empty space which served as a background for the
dreams of generations of Europeans. But we are not in 1492 or 1620 or 1903; the
story takes place in 2114.
Here we have another depopulated and climatically mutated land, but the cause
of such a dramatic change is no longer natural. The United States were abandoned
due to the total, irreparable exhaustion of energy resources at the end of the
20th century (an idea coming directly from "The Ultimate City"); the
increase of temperature and subsequent desertification are the consequence of
the damming of the Bering Straits between Siberia and Alaska to warm up the
climate of Siberia. Chapter 7, entitled "The Crisis Years," through
its short fictional overview of geopolitics and world economy, clearly states
that the reasons for the change are economic, ecological, political—or, in a
single word, historical.
This difference between Hello America and The Drowned World is
not insignificant. The overt historicity of the causes of the mutation hints at
a wider and deeper change of perspective. Hello America is not a journey
into the biological memory of humankind, where the reader (like Kerans) follows
a trail by archetypal super- or sub-historical symbols. As we read Hello
America we trek along a historical horizon, led by what we should call a
historical-mythical imagery. The recession is not a retrogressive movement of
evolutionary time, but a hallucinatory replica of American history. If The
Drowned World celebrates the divorce of humans from their historical
civilization, Hello America offers a lucid and ironic anatomy of the
American Myth (but we could call it the American Dream), a myth with a
historical genesis and a historical unfolding. Every dead city visited by the
research team led by Captain Steiner is the embodiment of a chapter of the
American legend. At the same time, it is a transmutation of events and stages in
After the landing, the crew of SS Apollo finds out that the streets of
New York City are not paved with gold, but covered with a thick layer of sand
and rust powder. Like London in The Drowned World, New York has become
wilderness, unhuman space. But the transfiguration of the American metropolis is
far drearier and more permanent. New York did not marry waters and jungle,
symbols of ceaseless fecundity; it turned into desert:
everyone gathered at the rail,
looking at the vivid quays in front of them, at the soundless city with its
great towers and abandoned streets, a million empty windows lit by the
Already they could see dunes that
filled the floors of these deserted canyons. (§4:23)
Manhattan’s great streets and avenues have become canyons; the desert of
the Wild West, tamed by American activity and its spirit of enterprise, has
taken its revenge.
The reversal is not based on the superimposition of geological moments and
landscapes, as in the Triassic London, but on the reversal of stages of American
history. This is why the very heart of New York is now a piece of Death Valley:
In the centre of Times Square a giant
saguaro cactus raised its thirty-foot arms into the overheated air, an
imposing sentinel guarding the entrance to a desert nature reserve. Clumps of
sagebrush hung from the rusting neon signs, as if the whole of Manhattan had
been transformed into a set for the ultimate western. Prickly pear flourished
in the second-floor windows of banks and finance houses, yucca and mesquite
shaded the doorways of airline offices and travel agents. (§5:36)
But the ultimate sign of the death of New York is its dried-up river:
They passed the George Washington
Bridge, and then paused to look out over the mile-wide channel of the Hudson
In front of them was an unbroken
expanse of sand strewn with sage-brush, a dusty plantation of cacti and
prickly pear. A century earlier the Hudson had dried up, and was now a broad uadi filled with the desert flora that had come in from New Jersey. (§6:40)
The river is the soul of the city, its "strong brown god," as Eliot
says in Dry Salvages; and though it has been forgotten by the
"worshippers of the machine," it animates the biological rhythms of
life in the metropolis (cp the first 14 lines of Eliot’s poem). But in Ballard’s desertified New York, the god has gone away; the bridge, which in Dry
Salvages incarnates men’s mastery over river/nature,8 bestrides
here just a piece of wasteland. And any overt literary reference has disappeared
with the watery divinity: this crucial scene of archetypal meaning does not lead—as
in The Drowned World—to a quotation of Eliot’s poetry, or of any
other text of the literary tradition.
Wayne’s view from the bridge is the skyline of the dead, mineralized
Beyond the Jersey shore Wayne
could see the rectangular profiles of isolated buildings, their sunset façades
like mesas in Monument Valley. Already they had arrived at an authentic
replica of Utah or Arizona. (§6:40)
Four hundred years of conquest have been annihilated: America is no man’s
land as it never was (at the beginning of Western colonization it belonged to
Indians, so it was no man’s land only in a relative sense). The only exception
to this coherent and deserted landscape, where all semic features of drought are
meticulously applied to urban space, is the bay where the Statue of Liberty
lies. Like Phlebas the Phoenician, she has drowned:
Wayne peered into the water....Lying
on her back beside the ship, like its drowned bride, was the statue of an
immense reclining woman. Almost as long as the Apollo she rested on a bed of
concrete blocks, the ruins of an underwater plinth. Her classical features
were only a few feet below the surface. Washed by the waves, her grey face
reminded Wayne of his dead mother’s when he gazed into her open coffin in
the asylum mortuary. (§3:20)
Death and transfiguration are hinted at when Wayne, the youngest member of
the crew, couples the statue with his dead mother. This superimposition comes
directly from the third chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses, when Stephen
Dedalus remembers his mother as if she were drowned (cp. Melchiori). As in Ulysses,
The Tempest, and Ballard’s own The Drowned World, water seems to
be the destructive and creative element and the medium of the sea-change. And
here it literally holds, or engulfs, one of the most popular and prestigious
symbols of America.
The value of the drowned statue will be wholly understood only at the end of
the novel. For the time being, we can say that water will not have the same
conclusive role it plays in The Drowned World. Wayne’s initiation will
not take place in the primitive element, but in Manson’s simulacra show. The
place of such an initiation will be reached only through a physical trip
westward, recapitulating American history and American historical mythology,
heading for the heart of darkness: Las Vegas.9
4. An Electrographic Dreamer. New York City has become a periphery of
Death Valley; Las Vegas is (like London) now surrounded by a luxuriant and
impenetrable subtropical jungle:
as they drove through the late
afternoon towards Las Vegas, their senses had been flooded by the endless
waves of heat and jungle that had followed them down from the mountains.... An
immense Mato Grosso covered the west of the United States, transforming the
desert states into a forest world of fast running jungle rivers. (§17:118)
The lot of Las Vegas is patently unlike that of New York. Its streets seem to
be bursting with activity:10
A lake of neon signs formed a
shimmering corona, miles of striplighting raced along the porticos of the
casinos, zipped up the illuminated curtain-walling of the hotels and spilled
over into the mushy cascades....the spectacle of this sometime gambling
capital seemed as unreal as an electrographic dream. (§18:121)
The title of the 18th chapter comes from this passage. Most of the chapter
deals with the description of the deserted but gleaming gambling capital,
haunted by the grotesque electronic ghosts of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and
Judy Garland (§18:124), patrolled by a small army of well-armed Hispanic
teenagers. Wayne and the survivors of the team are welcomed by the man who is
dreaming the electrographic dream, President Manson. An analysis of the
interrelationships between this character and Las Vegas can help us to interpret
the urban scenery in the second part of Hello America.
Manson is the maker and eminence of Las Vegas. His control over the city is
total: thanks to a system of TV cameras, he can see everything without leaving
the Hughes Suite in the Desert Inn Hotel.11 This weird character
plays with his deadly radio-controlled attack helicopters, called Love
and Hate, patronizes deserted casinos to bet silver dollars at the
roulette tables (§21:159), and declares himself to be the only legitimate heir
of Howard Hughes, the tycoon who embodies the great tradition of American
individualism and spirit of enterprise. The master of Las Vegas is no less proud
of his role as President of Hughes Enterprises than he is of his office as US
Manson’s overt plan is the resurrection of the US (§19:137, §21:160). He
wants to bring the ghostly land depicted in the first part of the novel back to
its original splendor. Like Steiner, Orlowsky, and Rizzo, Manson impersonates a
hero of American pop mythology, the tycoon immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald
in his novels and by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. Indeed, he has acted
the part of the tycoon so well that his individuality has dissolved into his new
With the help of Dr. Fleming, Manson has created a colossal projection of the
pop mythology he is dreaming of and living for. Every night monumental
holographic images are projected in the sky of Las Vegas, symbols emanating
directly from the core of the American Dream:13
It was an extraordinary light show.
For an hour the whole iconic past of pop Americana moved by in parade,
Superman and Donald Duck, Clark Gable and the incredible Hulk, a Coca Cola
bottle twenty storeys high, the starship Enterprise like an airborne
petroleum refinery, all silver pipes and cylinders, a dollar bill the size of
a football field and the colour of the purest Astroturf. Last of all came a
succession of Presidents, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, Eisenhower and Jack
Kennedy, immense dignified heads filling the night sky. (§20:145)
The holographic show occupies a somewhat central place in the structure of
the novel: it is equivalent to Kerans’ descent into the submerged planetarium.
The view of the procession of simulacra makes Wayne yield to Manson’s
obsessions. In New York and during the desert trip the boy has been just an
onlooker regarding the capitulation of Captain Steiner, Rizzo, and Orlowsky to
the American Dream; it is only after arriving in Las Vegas that he accepts (as
does Kerans in London) his initiation into the American Myth whose priest is
Manson, "recognizing in Wayne a younger version of himself"
(§19:137), appoints the young man to be vice-president and tells him about his
projects and fears:
"Bad news about the virus, Wayne, it
looks like there may be outbreaks soon in Miami and in Baltimore. Thanks god
the west coast has been clear of it so far..."
"The virus, sir?" I asked. "What
exactly is this disease?"
I wanted to pin him down, but his
eyes drifted away. "A virulent new strain, Wayne. It likes to come out on
an east wind. It’s been incubating for a hundred years, waiting to take over
those dead old cities." (§20:152)
Too late Wayne finds out that the so-called virus is the European expedition
heading for Las Vegas; too late Wayne understands that the virus is just a new
embodiment of the Red Menace of McCarthy’s propaganda, another product of the
old Puritan faith in America’s virtue, menaced by an old and corrupt Europe.14
Manson is just a psychopath, escaped from Spandau psychiatric hospital.15
(Ballard hints at this when he quotes John F. Kennedy’s famous words, Ich
bin ein Berliner—§22:168.) He has given himself the revealing name of
Charles "Satan" Manson (his connection with that famous mass-murder
is reinforced at §20:147, when Manson’s helicopters fly over Bel Air River).
When the oxygen mask is no longer enough, Manson gets ready to launch his
nuclear missiles, Cruises and Titans reloaded with the plutonium produced by the
plant on Lake Mead (§19:135).
Chapter 28, "The War Room," finally unveils the symbolic,
apocalyptical signification of Las Vegas. Manson’s city is the ultimate video-game,16
a projection of his obsessions, of his fetishistic adoration of American myths,
primarily that of the indominability of US military power.17 TV
voyeurism, military fetishism, mass-media imagery, and pure homicidal drive
converge upon the core of Manson’s world: the somber War Room in Caesar’s
Palace Casino, the telematic royal palace of this American Nero—a remake of
the War Room of the Pentagon and the "ultimate video-game played with real
missiles" (§28:206). Another regression takes place, but this is a
psychiatric one: Manson reverts to a childish status. Such a scene parallels Kerans’ race towards the reborn Sun, but with a rather negative connotation.
Manson’s mythical identity as last tycoon disappears, giving way to the
Looking at him, Wayne felt that after
his long journey Manson had at last become young again. He was no longer in
Las Vegas, and was going home in Spandau. He was the delinquent adolescent in
the occupational therapy class, playing an elaborate video game with his
gunships, eager to use up all the free plays in the world before the ICBM
signaled the ultimate tilt. (§30:222)
The ultimate video-game is "the ultimate city," the city in its
last historical embodiment. Las Vegas is that ultimate city—informatic,
telematic, and mass-mediaized—where the manipulation of signs, images, and
languages has replaced any other "material" activity. Such an endless
recycling of the images of the collective mass-unconscious is the source of
Manson’s electrographic dream.18 His manipulation of
mass-media simulacra resembles the bored zapping of a child jumping from one TV
channel to another, or a new kind of immaterial bricolage. The
holographic night parade (§20:145) is a good example of such recycling of
Ballard himself uses this method of imagery recycling. The jungle empire of
Hughes Enterprises is just scenery stolen from Apocalypse Now’s
Cambodia and transplanted into the heart of the United States, where the mass-media
bricoleur strives to revive "the purest dreams of all"
(§26:197), from Disney’s creatures to nuclear apocalypse. Simulacra bricolage
has replaced Bodkin’s archetypal aesthetics of Total Equivalents.
Manson is Las Vegas, Las Vegas is Manson. The final revelation of this
apocalyptical transfiguration comes with the declaration of the state of
emergency, as a reaction to the imminent arrival of a new European expedition.
Manson tries to use both his weapons and the simulacra against his enemies
(§26:196), in a frantic replication of the holographic show. Such an action
tells us that the state of emergency is a crazed projection of Manson’s state
of mind, of the besieged paranoia he’s been living in for years:
The whole Hughes/Manson operation had
moved with one step to the edge of chaos—nervous shooting in the street,
dangerous overflights by the gunships, which were now napalming the undefended
drive-in theatre while the anti-aircraft guns kept up their intermittent fire
at a blue and empty sky. And through all this the neon façades of the casinos
glowed like so many hallucinated Niagaras. (§25:190)
The word "projection" is probably too simple for characterizing
this scene of the novel. What we have here is a total interpenetration of
inside and outside. Las Vegas may be seen as a projection of Manson’s
obsession, but Manson is possessed by the myth of the gambling capital.
Such a reflexive relationship is virtually infinite. If we want to synthesize
this character-landscape relation in a formula, we could say that in Ballard’s
novels landscape turns gradually but inexorably into a character. We have to
admit that the time zone in The Drowned World is better characterized
than Kerans, who, through his sea-change, becomes the Triassic lagoon. The same
may be said for Manson.19
To summarize these considerations, we can say that urban landscape and
character both dissolve into mass-media imagery. What has been lost is the line
which once divided—and made comprehensible—the inside/outside semantic
polarity, a loss that seems to presage the abolition of the distinction between
subject and object.20
5. The Ultimate Occupational Therapy. Manson proposes the last game,
whose stakes are the targets of nuclear warhead missiles. Wayne has to play with
Manson, and he wins all the games, except the last. The target of the Titan
missile will be fixed by Manson:
"Zero pays the house, Wayne"....
"The house? Which one, Sir? The White
Manson chuckled again at this.
"In a way. This house, Wayne. Las Vegas. The house always wins, in the
The gambler cheats to win (Wayne discovers that the wheel was fixed,
§29:217), but thereby sentences himself and his electrographic dream to
death. His last action is as coherent as it is considerable. On the one hand, it
is the ultimate evidence of his mental disease, of his inability to deal with
the outside world. On the other hand, it is the peevish gesture of a spoiled
child who destroys his carefully built sand castle so that nobody else can play
Las Vegas is the ultimate telematic metropolis and Manson is its emblematic
citizen until the end. It is no accident that his army is made up of teenagers.21
The model citizen of Videogame City is the eternal teenager, who can contact the
world only through its image, through TV screens and computer networks. In the
age of the information industry and data networks, the accomplishment of
technical evolution, the process that Heidegger calls imposition [Gestell]
of technics—the possibility of a total control, a total representability of
the world22—is the playability of the world. The world becomes a
game. In this horizon of electronic simulation, any difference between true and
false, between real and fictional, between presence and representation, becomes
A consequence of this new status of the urban environment is the abolition of
time, another theme coming from The Drowned World. Las Vegas (as the
drowned London) is a Time Zone, where the linear movement of time is nullified
by re-presentation, by the never-ending reappearance of images. Manson, with his
obsessive wish to resuscitate the American past (of Hughes Enterprises, Dean
Martin shows, the Strategic Air Command), is able to stop time for a while, to
freeze it in a game that can be started again and again, in an endless
The cancellation of time is what Wayne hints at when he finally gives vent to
his rage: "Mr. Manson, it’s all been a fantasy! These dreams were dead a
hundred years ago! All we’ve done here is build the biggest Mickey Mouse watch
in the world" (§29:218). The manipulation of time is possible if you have
a watch that is just a toy, a Mickey Mouse watch that you can play with. Time
stops, is started, stopped again, started again, stopped, restarted, like a tape
recorder, a video recorder, or a software program. Only the player decides when
the game will be stopped and restarted. Only the player knows when it will end,
and the end of the game is what really matters. "As Manson lay back, he
seemed completely at peace for the first time, all tension gone from his puffy
face..." (§29:216): Manson’s satisfaction tells us that his homicidal
drive has reached its ultimate goal. The electrographic dream can close with its
happy ending— that is to say, with the death of both the dream and the
6. Utopic Transcendence at the Eleventh Hour. The finale of Hello
America will not, however, just involve the somber show of destructive power
that Manson has been dreaming of. Ballard does not close his novel with such a
pessimistic vision. America cannot be reduced to the "biggest Mickey Mouse
watch in the world"; it is not just the manic repetition of its mythology,
a gigantic Disneyland or Disneyworld. There is something that has not been
explained: the drowned Statue of Liberty in the Hudson. This female figure could
be the soul of America, as opposed to Manson’s electrographic dream.
To know something more about this soul, we have to concentrate on Manson’s
opponent, Dr.Fleming. That scientist is partially guilty because he helped
Manson to rebuild Las Vegas and armed him with the nuclear missiles. But he has
been in some way punished for his deeds: he is jailed in the Convention Center.
His expiation is accomplished through a sort of symbolic restoration of right
Fleming has built a series of robots resembling all American Presidents. He
assumes through this expiatory work a sort of moral authority, evinced in his
being the first to warn Wayne about Manson’s real identity:
Stop calling him "Mr. Manson."
You might like to know that Manson is not his real name. For reasons of his
own Charles adopted Manson when he was released from Spandau....Spandau was
the name of the American mental hospital in Berlin, and the alma mater of your
forty-fifth President... (§24:183)
The scientist is able to reveal Manson’s past and to reconstruct American
history. His robot Presidents are a resurrection of American past; but, unlike
Manson, Fleming steers his reconstruction activity with a historian’s
seriousness and precision.23
His role as historian seems to grant Fleming a legal authority. He sends his
robots to arrest Manson:
Manson...stared with unfeigned horror
at the semi-circle of Presidents shuffling into position around him, a
reproving board of elders. There was an aloof Jefferson, a smiling but wan
Dwight Eisenhower, a matter-of-fact Truman in a hurry to get everything over,
a prim Wilson and even a sweating Nixon embarrassed by their physical
These Presidents, led by Washington, shoot Manson. They are not toys, as the
psychopath hoped,24 but an execution squad that punishes the last
unworthy President. But the city he has built is going to die with him. Like
Kerans in The Drowned World, Wayne has to leave the city. Even the
possibility of a city seems to disappear, because "The old dreams were
dead, Manson and Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe belonged to the past America,
to that city of antique gamblers about to be vaporized" (§32:236).
In spite of this, at the end of the novel something appears that could be
viewed as an image of a city. The cloud of Fliers swarming toward Cali-fornia is
made up of flying machines that have nothing in common with Manson’s gunship
helicopters and missiles:
Part sunburst and part dragonfly, the
slender fuselage and transparent wings of this glass aeroplane were held
together by a cat’s cradle of steel so fine that only a few points of
condensing moisture in the humid air marked out the crystal surfaces of their
delicate geometry. (§23:176)
Riding these almost immaterial machines (a product of the soft technology of
the Garden City in "The Ultimate City"), Wayne and his companions can
finally accomplish their journey westward. Ballard seems to suggest that a new
community could be founded, that Wayne’s office could have a meaning:
Yet the dream remained, he would
enter the White House one day and sit in that office....It was the time for
new dreams, worthy of a real tomorrow, the dreams of the first of the
Presidents of the Sunlight Fliers. (§32:236)
A flying city, a City of the Sun, the New Jerusalem. Utopia—an ideal
formerly embodied by the Statue of Liberty—now swarms away from the
radioactive ruins of Las Vegas.
The title of the last chapter is "California Time." This temporal
reference seems to say that the computerized simultaneity of the video-game is
over. We are out of the Time Zone, and the train of events could start again,
maybe opening a new history. But we are not given a simple, consolatory happy
ending: when the Fliers gather to shelter themselves behind Devil’s Peak, the
bomb has not yet exploded; the electrographic dream still exists. What we have
is an open novel. The Sunlight Fliers insinuate a possibility of hope, but such
hope is as fragile, immaterial, and elusive as dreams.
7. By Way of a Conclusion. Hello America gives us two cities (Las
Vegas and The Sunlight Fliers), two characters (President Manson and Wayne), and
eventually two horizons: American history/myth and super-historical Utopia. Does
the destruction of Las Vegas/Manson indicate the ultimate victory of Utopia over
History? Is the execution of Manson, the Berliner, a dramatic
obliteration of history, and hence a sign of Ballard’s repudiation of this
historically oriented narrative and a return to the archetypal imagery of his
early fiction?25 Some critics could read this transcendence as a
radical annihilation of history in a trans-historical dimension.26
I have to say that this interpretation does not sound very satisfactory,
because a later work like The Empire of the Sun (1984) goes further down
in this descent into contemporary history, but belongs nonetheless to the Drowned
World-Hello America stratum. Many elements of Empire can be easily
catalogued using the ideas that have been analyzed in this essay. The
concentration camp is itself a time zone; Shanghai is a Dead City like
London, New York, and Las Vegas; the same apocalyptic value can be found in
Jimmy’s experiences as in Kerans’ and Wayne’s.
Ballard’s movement from a cosmic, super-historical horizon to a fully
historical one could be even seen as a sheer surrender to the inevitability of
historical consciousness; we could read Hello America as a political or
environmentalist apologue. In any event, a complete denial of the super-historical
side would be an impoverishment of Ballard’s vision; it could make us unable
to come to terms with certain subsequent novels of his—The Day of Creation
(1987), for example.27
What needs questioning is the idea of transcendence itself, as that category
derives from theology, where it does not tend to import the total
obliteration of what is transcended (contrary to what some readers of Ballard
tend to imply, oversimplifying this complex concept).28 For a really
comprehensive reading of Ballard’s novels, one should never forget the
idea of transcendence as an endless—albeit productive—dialectic. Hence, the
tension between the historical horizon (20th-century history, American legend,
Ballard’s own life story) and the trans-historical one (archetypal symbolism,
biological memory, transcendence through technology or inter- psychic space
exploration) is absolutely not to be resolved once and for all.29
From the point of view of the critic as "cartographer," such an
endless dialectic is a fundamental feature of Ballard’s literary land—a kind
of seismic fault in its "geological" strata. It cannot be closed, only
described and explored, as I have tried to do in dealing with the continuities
and differences between The Drowned World and Hello America.
1. The term "apocalyptic" has both its common meaning of
"catastrophic" and the one defined by N. Frye (141-46). The English
translation of the Greek word "apocalypsis" is "Revelation"—at
least in regard to the final book of the New Testament. An apocalyptic image,
then, is not just a catastrophic one, but also a sign of the truth.
2. The close reading of a single text is not satisfactory. This may seem
obviously true, but there are some implications that should be made explicit. A
single text cannot account for itself. What really matters is the textual work,
something that can be really understood only if we compare texts—thereby, as
it were, superimposing them on one another—looking for differences and
coincidences through the superimposition, trying to reconstruct the movement
from one text to another. Structures alone cannot tell us everything; they only
begin to tell us what literature is. (A deeper theoretical analysis of the
problem is to be found in J. Derrida’s essay "Force et Signification.")
3. This is the meaning of the handless clocks (or clocks with stopped hands)
whose description may be found at §4:63-67. It cannot in any case be denied
that these and other iconographic elements are a deliberate quotation of the
paintings of Salvator Dali and other surrealistic painters (e.g., Max Ernst).
The imagery of surrealist painters can be seen as a sort of epiphany of
archetypes in this first phase of Ballard’s treatment of symbols. In later
works, such as The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), surrealist imagery will be
a bridge between unconscious symbols and mass-media mythology. Laura Di Michele
has carried out a more extended analysis of surrealistic imagery in Ballard’s
works in her essay.
4. Such a lexical game would not be possible in Italian. Drown meaning
"to submerge" must be translated with verbs such as allagare,
inondare, sommergere; if drown means "die in water," only
the verb annegare can be used. These differences in semantic fields
should justify the change of the title in the Italian edition. Any literal
translation would be poorer than the English original.
5. For these connections between Joyce’s and Eliot’s imagery, see Giorgio
6. There he will suffer the sea-change foreshadowed by Strangman: "I
sometimes feel like Phlebas the Phoenician. Though that’s really your [i.e.
Kerans’] role, isn’t it?" (§10:116)
7. We should not miss a literary undertone that can be found also in this
extreme act of self-denial: Kerans last message, "All is well"
(§15:175), quotes the fifth movement of T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding:
"And all shall be well/ And all manner of things shall be well" (lines
8. The reduction of the river to a technical question is the penultimate
stage of the evolution of cities in Eliot’s poem: "Then only a problem
confronting the builder of bridges" (Dry Salvages, line 5). After
this "technical" phase, as Eliot says, "the brown god is almost
forgotten/By the dwellers in the cities" (lines 6-7, emphasis added). This
is not the proper place to question Eliot’s almost, which could hint at
a poetic survival of the symbolic identity of the river.
9. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1900), detailing the scandalous
adventure of a European who renounces Western Reason to become the god of
African natives, has been a privileged source of myth not only for American
cinematography (notably in Apocalypse Now) but for Ballard himself. The
plots of Ballard’s other novels can be seen as pivoted upon a similar act of
abdication. The Crystal World (1966) is a fine specimen of this trend.
10. Such a scene is obviously taken from "The Ultimate City":
"arc-lights blazed around the square....The façades of the buildings
around the square erupted into a cataract of neon" (64).
11. Manson’s eyes also control the desert: "we have a few robot
cameras on the other side of the Rockies, with trip-zooms that focus on
everything that moves" (§19:133). Manson’s power over the space (over
America) seems to coincide with his faculty of seeing.
12. Obviously this is no "personal" identification. Manson does not
become Howard Hughes, but Hughes’ mass-media myth, what we could as well call
Hughes’ simulacrum (see J. Baudrillard).
13. As for the semiological status of these images, see Baudrillard’s
notion of "the SF of this era of cybernetics and hyperreality" as
being "like a gigantic hologram in three dimensions, where fiction will
never again be a mirror held to the future, but rather a desperate rehallucinating of the past" (310). Though Baudrillard does not deal with Hello
America, he nonetheless considers Ballard as the foremost representative of
a new SF—whose best specimen is Crash (1973)—that is not tied to the operative
(images of unlimited growth based on industrial production) but instead relies
on the operational, on total operationality of images, on informatic
14. Here Ballard keenly exploits the old metaphors of evil as disease,
transforming moral purity in health. Manson’s obsession with hygiene (he often—Howard
Hughes- like—wears an oxygen mask to defend himself from pollution) is
connected with his military defense paranoia (being both pure homicidal drive
and fear of the outside world).
15. Another ironic historical reference: Spandau is the place where Rudolf
Hess, the last survivor of the Nuremberg Trials, was imprisoned. Also Manson’s
speech about "Fortress USA" is a remarkable recreation of Hitler’s
dream of "Festung Europa" (§21:162).
16. A first hint of the true nature of Hughes Enterprises can be found in the
description of the hunting massacre (§20:150): the butchering of wild animals
is a sort of three-dimensional video-game, and Manson’s frenzy is not so
different from that of a teenage video-game addict.
17. There are traces of Manson’s military fetishism throughout the novel,
but the passage at §21:162 is particularly interesting. Manson begins to ramble
about strategic weapons when Wayne tries to push him to cope with the external
world. The demented President tries to protect himself—or rather, his
obsessions—with the use of nuclear weapons. The refusal to deal with the
outside world is a clear sign of mental illness. Ballard hints at Manson’s
madness in many passages, using traces that can be interpreted using two
different codes, the political and the psychiatric. Wayne’s mistakes in
deciphering speeches and actions of the President are caused by improper use of
the first code; in this phase Wayne accepts his role as Vice-President and
Manson’s heir. The story comes to an end when Wayne is at last able to
understand correctly Manson’s deeds as symptoms (§30:222), replacing
"political" perceptiveness with medical semiotics; it is then that
Wayne realizes that he has been—like Manson—just another "Graduate of Spandau" (§24:179), another psychopath.
18. It is true that the night landscape of American cities is right now
the electrographic dream; Manson can be considered as an antiquarian of
mass civilization imagery. American urban landscape and pop imagery are
associated by a reeling interaction, and almost merge. This process is very
important for a non-SF novel such as Gore Vidal’s Duluth (1983); in the
SF field, the interconnection (or identification) of landscape and mass-media is
the core of William Gibson’s novels and short stories. 19. We have anyway to
remember that the alma mater he finally goes back to is not a Triassic
lagoon; it is the mental hospital of Spandau, a historical place, haunted by the
ghosts of war criminals. The roles acted by Manson are not pre-human:
Charles "Satan" Manson, Howard Hughes, and Richard Nixon are historical
characters or historical myths.
20. In these respects Ballard has arguably influenced subsequent SF, and
especially cyberpunk. That, however, is a subject for an essay in itself.
21. Paco is a faithful servant of Manson until the end. Here is his first
description of the leader of Manson’s army: "He was at least eighteen,
but he seemed far younger than Wayne" (§18:128, emphasis added).
22. See Heidegger’s "La questione..." Heidegger recognized the
technical possibility of an image of the Earth as marking a turning point in
humankind’s history, as we can see in this passage from his 1976 interview for
Der Spiegel: "Technics tears away and roots out Man from Earth more
and more. I don’t know if this scares you: in any event I have been terrified
when I have seen the photographs sent to Earth from the Moon. We don’t need
the atom bomb any more: mankind’s eradication is already here. We have only
purely technical conditions. We live today on what is no more an Earth"
(206). "No more an Earth"—that is to say, what is left of Earth in a
mass-media age: its image.
23. Fleming’s creatures have a textual purpose inasmuch as they quote
speeches of dead Presidents (§22:168); the scientist drills them in order to
reproduce those historical speeches exactly (§23:172). If the task of
historians is to be faithful to the past, Fleming performs it also with the
ironic hints at recent American history in Manson’s "trial": the
robot Presidents have been assembled in the Convention Center; "Vice-President"
Wayne replaces the dead President as did Truman and Lyndon Johnson; and Manson
resembles Nixon (§19:135), with respect to the matter of impeachment.
24. At first Manson is pleased by the view of the robots: "It’s a last
salute. I’m touched...really moved" (§30:225).
25. Flight has a very important role in Ballard’s imagery, as we can see in
The Unlimited Dream Company (1976), "The Ultimate City," and The
Empire of the Sun.
26. Such a death of history may well be the one optimistically heralded not
just by postmodernism, but by a certain American tradition. See, for instance,
George Slusser’s essay "History, Historicity, Story."
27. In this novel we meet again one of Ballard’s archetypal symbols, the
river, with a crudely realistic background of present-day Africa.
28. Mystical undertones in the works of Ballard have been exhaustively traced
by W. Warren Wagar. Wagar, however, seems to dissociate the idea of
transcendence from its religious roots—which, in my opinion, slightly
diminishes his otherwise compelling analysis. Besides, his optimistic
conclusions do not seem to stem logically from his reading of Ballard.
29. Such a position would probably go beyond Ballard’s intentions—or at
least beyond those expressed in his ironic "Response...". In any case, his
narrative does not seem to be so "innocent and naive."
Ballard, James. The Drowned World. 1962; London: Dent, 1983.
—————. Hello America. 1981; rpt. London: Granada, 1983.
—————. "A Response to the Invitation to
18:329, #55 (Nov. 1991).
—————. "The Ultimate City." Low Flying Aircraft.
By Ballard. 1976; rpt. London: Granada, 1978, 7-87.
Baudrillard, Jean, "Simulacra and
Science Fiction," SFS 18:309-20,
#55 (Nov. 1991).
Derrida, Jacques. "Force et
signification." L’écriture et la
différence. By Derrida. Paris, 1967. 9-49.
Di Michele, Laura. "J.G. Ballard: miti di un futuro anteriore." Pagetti, 225-47.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns. Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. NY:
Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, 1957.
Heidegger, Martin. "La questione della tecnica" ["Die Frage
nach der Technik"]. Saggi e discorsi [Vorträge und Aufsätze].
By Heidegger. Milan, 1979. 5-27.
—————. "Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten." Der
Spiegel 23:193-219, May 31, 1976.
Melchiori, Giorgio. "The Waste Land and Ulysses." The
Tightrope Walkers: Studies of Mannerism in Modern English Literature.
London, 1956. 87-106.
Pagetti, Carlo, ed. Cronache del futuro: Atti del convegno su fantascienza
e immaginario scientifico nel romanzo inglese contemporaneo. Bari, 1992.
Slusser, George. "History, Historicity,
Story." SFS 15:187-212, #45
Wagar, W. Warren. "J.G. Ballard and the Transvaluation
of Utopia." SFS 18: 53-70, #53 (March 1991).
Abstract. A recurring image in J.G. Ballard’s fiction is the Dead City.
The deluged London of The Drowned World (1962), the anonymous metropolis
in "The Ultimate City" (1976), and the desertified New York City and
the tropical Las Vegas of Hello America (1981) represent four specimens
of this apocalyptic symbol. A "stratigraphic"—i.e., comparative—analysis
of these urban landscapes reveals a profound change in Ballard’s attitude. The
first two works mentioned draw their deep structures from an archetypal and anthopological reading of the English literary tradition (T.S. Eliot, Joyce, and
Shakespeare). Hello America, by contrast, offers a visionary paraphrase
of American history and pop mythology. That novel distinguishes itself from the
earlier two titles in transcending the historical horizon, but not in a sense
that would make "transcendence" synonomous with "obliteration."