This is Ballard on fine form and with tongue firmly in cheek. The book tells of a boat that sails from Plymouth across the Atlantic, making landfall on the east coast of America. But this is not the past. It is a hundred years hence, long after the USA was abandoned in the wake of a fuel crisis. Refugees had poured back to Europe and Africa and the land, abandoned and prey to geo-engineering, has become desert.
The expedition fights its way through the sand dunes of Manhattan and across the great desert until they discover the vast tropical forests that have grown up around Las Vegas. And that’s not all they discover. For living in the abandoned Howard Hughes suite they find a megalomaniac self-styled President Manson, firing off nuclear weapons to sterilise the creeping diseases that threaten his fastness.
The novel is a cornucopia of Ballardian imagery, liberally mixed with the iconography of America. Ballard never made any secret of his admiration for the USA. He loved the energy that made it great; he was equally aware that this same energy made it supremely destructive. He revelled in the paradox. And rather than trying to resolve this conundrum with a moral tale, he simply presents it in all its surreal and decaying glory. Although the ending is similar to his previous novel, both upbeat and mystical, this shies away from the more personal note of his Shepperton odyssey.
Ballard’s strength is not in his style. His writing is fairly straightforward, subsumed to the content. It is his vision that resonates and captivates. This canvas is, perhaps, gaudier than some he had painted, but that is entirely appropriate for the subject. Yet there is a great deal of subtlety there as well; in the shifting relationship of the various peoples, native or otherwise; in the descent into internal landscapes that mirror the outer world in such a way that it is never easy to know which is which; in the almost throwaway use of ideas that later and lesser authors have taken up and turned into genres dying even as they define them.