Science Fiction Studies

#62 = Volume 21, Part 1 = March 1994

Umberto Rossi

Images from the Disaster Area: An Apocalyptic Reading of Urban Landscapes in Ballard’s The Drowned World and Hello America*

Edited by RMP

[An earlier version of this essay, in Italian, appeared under the title "La città morta: vedute urbane in The Drowned World e Hello America di J.G. Ballard" in Cronache del Futuro, ed. Carlo Pagetti (Bari, Italy: Adriatica Editrice, 1992), 279-310.]

J.G. Ballard has dealt at least twice with the apocalyptic1 image of the Dead City. This somewhat disturbing landscape is the background of his novels The Drowned World and Hello America. The two mark different points on the axis of time—namely, 1962 and 1979, respectively—cutting a segment on the line of Ballard’s evolution as a writer, but also defining a period of literary history during which many significant events took place, both inside and outside SF. Between 1962 and 1979 Ballard wrote important works such as The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, and The Crystal World; SF literature "came of age" thanks to P.K. Dick, K.W. Jeter, Thomas Disch, Ursula Le Guin, and Brian Aldiss; and, as for North American literature, the postmodernist wave reached its zenith.

If the task of historians of SF and genre theorists is to trace the evolutionary lines of SF history, such a goal cannot be achieved without the kind of previous identification of landmarks that the critics as "cartographers" carry out. The topography of literature is based on those critics’ analyses of individual works considered as landmarks. The comparison or superimposition of texts which may be far off in time, but presumably belong to the same continuous stratum of themes, images, and thought, can be of relevant interest. Such a comparative stratigraphy will be adumbrated in this essay, through the superimposition of The Drowned World and Hello America.2 The aim of the essay is the analysis of urban landscapes in both texts, in the search for the traces of a change in Ballard’s attitude towards the image of the Dead City. Such a change suggests deeper mutations in Ballard’s vision and use of symbols and time.

1. The Recession of Evolutionary Time. The drowned world is the human world, overflowed by water and jungle owing to a sudden and dramatic meteorological change. Ballard hurls us immediately into the asphyxiating atmosphere of the dead city transfigured into jungle:

Soon it would be too hot. Looking out from the hotel balcony shortly after eight o’clock, Kerans watched the sun rise behind the dense groves of giant gymnosperms crowding over the roofs of the abandoned department stores four hundred yards away on the east side of the lagoon. (§1:7)

After more than a hundred pages we discover that the city is London. The reason for this anonymity of the place lies not just in a symbolic value of the city, but in a coherent semiotic structure, a fourfold system of mutilations configuring the image of the city and shaping it throughout the novel.

The first symbolic mutilation is depopulation. London has been bereft of its inhabitants, who escaped as the temperature rose to a tropical level. The city was once the preeminently human space; now it is a watery desert (this is the very title of the Italian edition of the novel, Deserto d’acqua).

The following three symbolic mutilations derive from the first one. The city has been abandoned and forgotten. It is nameless: "had it once been Berlin, Paris or London?, Kerans asked himself" (§1:9).

The city has been invaded by equatorial jungle, its buildings shelter iguanas, monkeys, and tropical insects. The waters and this exotic fauna represent the gradual but inescapable surrender of the city to the wilderness, to an un-human or pre-human state: "the cities had been beleaguered citadels, hemmed in by enormous dykes and disintegrated by panic and despair, reluctant Venices to their marriage with the sea" (§2:21). The human world, symbolized by the city, is drowned because it surrendered to the organic, living, non-human element, losing the natural vs. artificial opposition embodied by those walls (dykes) which were the last defense of European cities. Walls enclosed and defined, creating urban spaces by cutting across the original continuum of prehuman space; when they fell down (or were overwhelmed), the cities underwent the ultimate mutilation: they were dispossessed of time.

The tree-covered buildings emerging from its rim seemed millions of years old, thrown up out of the earth’s magma by some vast natural cataclysm, embalmed in the gigantic intervals of time that had elapsed during their subsidence. (§4:47)

The city seems older than it actually is, but this is just a derivative effect of a deeper and intellectually more intriguing change engineered by Ballard. The human, historical time of the city, whose rhythm was stressed by clocks,3 has been definitively lost. Colonel Riggs’ stubborn attempts to reactivate all the clocks on churches or buildings in the city must be seen as a sort of symbolic reanimation-therapy for the city itself. Strangman’s crew sanctions the timeless status of the city with a christening ritual:

On another occasion he sent two of his men over in a skiff to the lagoon; on one of the largest buildings on the opposite bank they painted in letters thirty feet high: TIME ZONE. (§9:97)

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 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 dreams. (§9:108)

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 sun. (§15:175)

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 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 US history.

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 afternoon sun.

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 River.

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 metropolis:

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 President.

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 mythical identity.12

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.

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 teenager hooligan:

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 simulacra.

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 House?"

Manson chuckled again at this. "In a way. This house, Wayne. Las Vegas. The house always wins, in the end." (§29:216)

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 with it.

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 obsolete.

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 iteration.

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 dreamer.

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 and legality.

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 resemblance. (§30:226)

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 Melchiori’s essay.

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 42-3).

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 economics.

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 Respond." SFS 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 (July 1988).

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." (UR/ RMP)

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