Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, June 1, 2012

1964: The Terminal Beach (Ballard, J.G.)

Ponderous scenarios and poignant inklings (4/5)

The only other Ballard collection I've been exposed to is Vermilion Sands (1971), which is a collection of stories taking place in a future Palm Springs, of sorts. With Ballard's typical luscious prose and imagination, the stories unravel beautifully with the spiced blend of art and technology.

It's difficult to compare that collection with this one. Terminal Beach isn't an all-inclusive collection with an obvious central theme, but some nuances in each story bring to the surface a fixation on the metamorphosis between the live organic body into the realm of the stagnant dead. The two extremes are not the focus of the collection's subject matter, rather it is the mid-point which is explored: the actual metamorphosis.

It's just not gorgeous prose which captivates the reader, nor is it the wondrous science fiction scaffolding found throughout Terminal Beach, but it's the wow-factor found in some of the passages which really make you think: "The only real landscapes are the internal ones, or the external projections of them." (The Delta at Sunset, 121) and "Each of us is little more than the meagre residue of the infinite unrealized possibilities of our lives." (The Terminal Beach, 153). This isn't a collection to rush through--it's one to slowly absorb, deconstruct, and reflect upon.


A Question of Re-entry (1963) - 4/5 - An Amazonian tribe harbors a recluse foreigner, Ryker, who is a contact for a downriver trader, Pereire. Aboard the trader's vessel is a UN space agency representative in search of a crashed capsule from five years prior. Ryker has a fondness for clocks and holds an abusive sway over the idling local tribe. Admitting no knowledge of the crash, Pereire docks next to the village so Connolly can reconnoiter about. 32 pages

The Drowned Giant (1964) - 5/5 - Upon a shore after an evening squall, the body of a giant is spied in the shallow waters. The word spreads and onlookers gather to gape and, later, ascend the massive humanoid carcass. Over time, limbs are amputated, graffiti is inflicted, and the general corruption of the corpse is reflected in the corrupted morality of the crowd. The keepsake parts such as bones and phallus are gaudily put on public and private display as the giant corpse lays sentinel on the beach. 11 pages

End-Game (1963) - 4/5 - Constantin is pronounced guilty as a trial he says is flawed. His sentence is death; however, he will not know the time or method of his death, only the place and the face of the executioner, Malek. Together in a villa, Malek acts as Constantin's supervisor during his remote incarceration. As the two play chess Constantin dissects Malek's psyche and they debate the points of the trial and the intentions of the Department of Justice, all the while his execution looms. 23 pages

The Illuminated Man (1964) - 4/5 - In the Everglades, he city of Maynard has been evacuated and the entire state of Florida soon follows. What's left behind is an expanding forest of crystalization, a hotspot for the unnatural conversion of all things to iridescent crystal form. One man has strayed from his expedition and finds himself alone under the faceted canopy, where boats, alligators, and people have all been crystallized. The only remedy: keep running. 31 pages

The Reptile Enclosure (1963) - 4/5 - A couple gaze at the crowded beach where the sea of flesh and analog radios underline the spanning ocean and towering sky. Conversing without aim, the couple bask behind the expanse of sunbathers. The husband eyes a familiar face among the crowd, someone with curious theories as to the nature of the recent satellites launches, one of which is occurring as the mass stands to linger at the shoreline, eying the bland azure sky. 12 pages

The Delta at Sunset (1964) - 4/5 - At dusk, Gifford sits in his tent in spectacle of the whithering landscape of snakes which amass at the same time everyday. An infected foot wound has left him bed-ridden as his wife and assistant tour the excavation site of an Indian temple. Without word from the doctor or the scout sent after him, Gifford experiences the ebb and surge of delirium as he suspects his wife of adultery in the neighboring tent. 17 pages

The Terminal Beach (1964) - 3/5 - Deliriously visiting an old nuclear testing island, a man seeks his wife and son who he lost in an automobile accident. Haunted by their spectral figures, he traverses the island inspecting the remains of concrete cuboids, camera towers, and the derelict airbase. Gathering canned food and mementos of vicarious echoes, the man is stricken with beri-beri yet is unwilling to accept the aid of researchers or airmen, finding comfort in his deliriousness. 22 pages

Deep End (1961) - 4/5 - Earth's oceans have been sapped of its oxygen, an element essential for terraforming colonized planets. With the earth nearly depopulated, only the stubborn elders still survive. Yet, the 22-year old Holliday choses to eke out his existence on the old seabed of the Atlantic Ocean, one of the only inhabitable places left. Nearby is Lake Atlantic, a sliver of its once great expanse, which contains a shard of biological history which Holliday invests his motivation into. 13 pages

The Volcano Dances (1964) - 2/5 - Sitting ponderously upon the slope of a volcanic crater sits a village. The raging molten earth sends plumes of gas and dust into the air. Further downslope is a man biding his time, an audience of one for a show yet be started, yet to be named. He pays the witch doctor one dollar per dance, not knowning if his gyrations are hindering or helping the angry release of the historic soup of liquid earth beneath his feet. 6 pages

Billennium (1961) - 5/5 - The four square meters of alloted living space in the city seems to suit everyone well. The entire population has amassed in the cities which flow with endless shoulder-to-shoulder traffic. Ward and Rossiter decide to rent a double but miraculously discover an empty fifteen square foot behind one wall. They invite two friends to stay in this cavernous room, but the openness of it spurs them to invite more people. Twenty billion people all need somewhere to live. 16 pages

The Gioconda of the Twilight Moon (1964) - 2/5 - Wrapped in bandages and swathed in memories, a man revisits his childhood home as he convalesces from an eye injury. During this time, his wife cares for him but he is largely left to himself as he discovers his mind's third eye. He mentally visits the shallows of the shore and the caves of the coast, all while watched by a green-cloaked observer. His wife's interruptions cause him distress. 10 pages

The Lost Leonardo (1964) - 5/5 - The disappearance of Leonardo's Crucifixion from the Louvre has stumped curators, collectors, and investigators alike. Upon further research, Georg de Stael has found other stolen yet recovered crucifixion paintings from the last two hundred years. The area of concern in each painting is the alteration of the figure of Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew. Georg's theory needs to be tested and the auction in Madeleine may draw the culprit out. 20 pages

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