This book suffers from two things. A perception that Ballard’s books are unremittingly apocalyptic and a title that would better have graced a Bradbury collection of short stories. There’s nothing to be done about the latter. As for the former, it is a misconception – the sort of label that gets fixed to an author and which sticks no matter what sort of work they write.
Of course, there is another label that has attached to Ballard which suits this book perfectly – surrealist. It is a master work of surreal imagination. And there is more than a hint of symbolist influence as well. This is not so much in the style, which is fairly straightforward, at times repetitive, but in the content.
The central character, Blake (a name that comes packed with visionary luggage), steals a small aircraft at Heathrow despite not being able to fly. He gets as far south as the Thames at Shepperton (just a few miles away) and crashes into the river. After the aircraft sinks, Blake finds himself on the river bank. And so begins a remarkable sojourn in the small town. The setting lends itself perfectly to the events that follow. Shepperton (where Ballard lived) is a typical small, riverside town in an extraordinary landscape. Surround by lakes, close to a huge airport and, of course, home to film studios. Against this backdrop, Blake begins to transform the community.
The inhabitants dream of flight and birds appear; they dream of swimming and the river fills with exotic piscine life. Blake becomes a pagan god and where he walks flowers bloom and trees grown. The whole of Shepperton is transformed and its inhabitants drawn into the transformation.
Mystical, earthy, exuberant, Blake casts his spell, transforming himself as well as the others until he reaches self-realisation. With the sick healed, the dead raised, and the town restored, Blake dissipates in a gentle glory.
Whilst this book contains Ballard’s signature themes of technology, sex, and alienation, along with familiar images, it is a life-affirming work shot through (appropriately enough) with prophetic flashes. And whilst society does break down, far from being catastrophic, it is both transformative and satisfying.