Burning Man gathering in the deserts of Nevada is by turns surreal and decadent. Artistic expression prized most, the concepts and presentations which result belie extravagance and dynamic creativity. Massive sculptures, mutant vehicles, pyrotechnics, electronic music—its for hippies and connoisseurs alike. Though more staid (i.e. European) and fantastical (i.e. science fictional), J.G. Ballard’s 1971 collection Vermilion Sands nevertheless takes a similar variety of perspectives to art in a desert community setting. Ballard likewise dynamically creative, I assume Burning Man is green with envy at the possibilities of his fictional scene.
Catering to a mosaic of people in the languid heat of the desert, Vermilion Sands is a resort town where tourists and poets, merchants and artists, actresses and retirees live in indolent leisure, clashes evolving on occasion from their circumstances and personality issues. Catalyzing the collection is the variety of arts individual to each of the stories. Sonic sculptures, cloud carving, photosensitive paint, emotionally-retentive domiciles, singing plants, living cloth, poetry machines—Ballard uses the possibilities of science fiction to describe fantastical scenes wherein art and humanity intersect in surreal fashion.
Elusively human, edgy in imagery, probing in mode—all of the trademark stylings of early Ballard are on display in Vermilion Sands. Loosely following an arc of artist ennui and the dark waters of the subconscious beneath, the stories describe people dislocated from their environment, yet innate to it for the sake of existence alone, their psyche the lone connection. “Prima Belladonna” is the story of a flower seller who agrees to an arrangement with a visiting vocalist in place of one of his singing plants. In “The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista,” Ballard examines a situation wherein emotions and shadows of memory remain after an owner has vacated their house, and the new tenant’s experience of them. Perhaps the most powerful story in the collection, “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” tells of a boat captain injured far from home, and the strange three-week convalescence he experiences at the home of a isolated artist. The artist desiring to capture his image in photosensitive paints as he reclines, the living paint slowly reveals scenes and pictures more innate to the artist’s life than his own.
The collection interestingly analogous to M. John Harrison’s A Storm of Wings for the abstract nature of the proceedings, stories such as “Venus Smiles” take a seemingly ordinary situation (a commission for plaza art), and spin it Weird with the vitality of a sonic sculpture. “Studio 5” separates humanity from language (and brings them back together again) by positing machine made poetry, and people’s reaction to it—those who accept it, and those who reject it, and on what grounds. (Stanislaw Lem’s “Trurl’s Electronic Bard” offers an interesting companion piece to “Studio 5”.) And “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” tells of a wounded pilot and the magnificent gliders he comes in contact with in the open desert near Vermilion Sands. Bringing vanity and courage into direct contact, the result as undeniable as a train wreck.
Cloth brought to life through biological processes, in “Say Goodbye to the Wind” the owner of a clothes shop selling the latest fashion attire meets a former teen star visiting Vermilion Sands, and learns precisely how deep the scars of memory can still operate. The scars of memory are likewise examined in the story closing the collection, “The Screen Game.” The scars due to loss rather than poor self-perception, an artist is unwittingly brought in to assist a film director bring his main actress back to on-screen life. Jewelled insects, zodiac placards, and bizarre tableauxs help stage the attempted comeback.
Psychological drama one expression that comes close to summing up a good portion of Ballard’s work, Vermilion Sands is no exception. But rather than meandering streams of conscious intended to comment on a mental state under duress (as perhaps most psychological dramas might be characterized), Ballard keeps his stories fully tangible. The brain’s wiring and fuses hidden from view, instead, the external triggers and motivators, signals and physical indicators are brought to life. The characters’ settings and situations readily apparent, Ballard lets their reactions and decisions indicate what is happening deeper in their minds, in turn giving the reader a substantive layer below plot to ruminate upon—story more vigorous and engaging for it.
Published between 1956 and 1970, the following are the eight stories collected in Vermilion Sands:
The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista
Cry Hope, Cry Fury!
The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D
Say Goodbye to the Wind
The Screen Game