Hello America by J.G. Ballard (1981)

An odd look came into Manson’s eyes, a dead dream of all the empty highways and drained swimming-pools of America.

It’s a hundred years in the future, a hundred years since America was abandoned because of some vast environmental disaster which led to the desertification of the entire continent.

The novel opens as a steam-powered ship ‘from a tired and candle-lit Europe with its interminable rationing and subsistence living’ arrives on an expeditionary mission to explore the long-abandoned continent.

Sounds promising, doesn’t it, and in another author’s hands this scenario might have made for a gripping adventure story, but by the late 1970s something bad had happened to Ballard’s writing.

Almost all Ballard’s earlier works are carried by the brilliance of the idea – from The Drought to High Rise you are as dazzled by the basic premise as by the treatment, and read on to find out how the basic premise will unfold. But by 1981 it feels like his store of ideas was played out. By 1981 I felt I had read enough descriptions of abandoned resorts and empty cities and derelict hotels and drained swimming pools covered in shifting sand dunes to last me a lifetime.

The steamship which the explorers are arriving in is officially titled Survey Vessel 299 but the crew vote for a name change to SS Apollo in honour of the optimism which fuelled the long-defunct space programme. As it pulls into New York harbour, it is holed below the waterline by one of the spurs of the crown of the Statue of Liberty which is now lying along the bottom of the East River. I think we are meant to experience that frisson which the best science fiction can give you, a sense of the brilliantly unexpected and uncanny intersecting with the world we know, that secret thrill which well-done dystopian stories give us. Except that, for some reason, it’s an all-too-expected image, it feels all too inevitable.

Same goes for many of the other images: when we read about the millions of windows of the glass and steel skyscrapers of Manhattan staring at the sun, or the long canyons of Fifth Avenue et al buried under ten-feet-high drifts of sand, it all feels dreadfully familiar.

As if to compensate for the well-trodden subject matter and treatment, Ballard concentrates more on the characters than in previous books but, unfortunately, this tends to highlight his inability to create believable characters.

The best of the earlier novels and stories led with the weird scenario and the characters tended to be functions of the weird situation, mostly going mad in their own private and intriguing ways.

But this is a long book by Ballard’s standards, 236 pages in the Grafton edition, and so more weight is thrown onto the characters to carry it, to be plausible enough to maintain our interest. Unfortunately, Ballard is losing this game right from the start:

  • Wayne is the young stowaway who has come to find his father, a scientist who went missing on a previous expedition to abandoned America 20 years earlier, and who has spent years poring over yellowed old copies of Time and Life magazines, learning everything he could about the culture of Old America: is his name a joke reference to John Wayne?
  • McNair is the grizzled chief engineer of the ship, a descendant of refugees from America who settled in Scotland, who volunteered for the expedition excited at reviving the lost technologies of the abandoned continent
  • Captain Steiner is the imperturbable ship’s captain, an ex-Israeli with characteristically ‘mixed motives’, who is on ‘a private quest’
  • Dr Ricci is the ship’s doctor
  • Professor Anne Summers is the only female character, the leader of the scientific cohort of the expedition, beautiful but aloof – is her name a jokey reference to the ‘multinational retailer company specialising in sex toys and lingerie’?
  • Gregor Orlowski is the Russian political commissar in charge of the expedition

The characters all have the trademark Ballardian difficulty making out each other’s motives and, once they’ve landed and found their feet, almost immediately become  more absorbed in their own thoughts and obsessions. In the earlier novels this made the entire experience feel bewildering and strange, but now it makes them come across as dim, their puzzlement at each other forced and contrived.

What was Steiner playing at, this curious man with his intense, unsettling eyes, forever gazing at her?

Everyone was retreating into their own dreams… Already Wayne felt a sense of challenge – the five of them were effectively alone on this continent, free to behave in any way they wished. Their only loyalty was to their own dreams, and to the needs of their own nerve-endings…

It feels like the characters are going to follow the exact same narrative trajectory of pretty much every previous book Ballard wrote i.e. becoming self-absorbed and losing the ability to communicate with each other – but this time without the conviction or novelty.

During the next few days Wayne noticed that the expedition began to lose its momentum, or at least to change direction, its compass turning to some new internal bearing…

It feels like he’s applying the style or approach which made sense in his avant-garde psychodramas to a set-up which ought to be a straightforward adventure story. The classic Ballard moments when characters go into distracted fugue or fantasy states, when the story becomes about ‘inner space’ and not the real world, no longer have the same punch, no matter how many times he repeats the trope.

Under the guise of crossing America, as Wayne soon discovered, they were about to begin that far longer safari across the diameters of their own skulls.

You won’t remember them, but the 1970s saw a spate of Hollywood disaster movies which were astonishingly cheap and cheesy, humiliating able actors by placing them in silly catastrophe stories with pathetic special affects (Airport, the Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, The Swarm). Writers, directors and actors who had all made wonderful, innovative and exciting movies in the 1960s now seemed incapable of making anything except bloated, overblown and flatulent stinkers.

This novel feels the same. All the elements are here which made Ballard’s stories from the 1960s so thrilling, but they’ve been spun out to inordinate length, hampered by cardboard characters, and distracted by a litany of over-familiar effects.

When, a few days after they’ve been in New York, Wayne comes across the physicist Dr Ricci in a private room where he’s dressed up in a gangster suit, cradling a tommy gun and surrounded by dollar bills which he’s looted from somewhere, ‘ a dream of gangsters in his dark eyes’, you feel this isn’t how any real physicist would behave – this is how a Ballard character behaves in a typical Ballard fantasy.

At moments like this you realise that Ballard had stopped being an innovative writer and was becoming a parody of himself.

The disaster explained

Chapter Seven gives a detailed description of how it all went wrong. Basically, the oil ran out. In this version of the future the last barrel of oil was pumped in 1999. From then on a paltry amount of electricity was generated from renewable sources, but the age of cars was over, and of heavy industry. Electricity was rationed, food production (powered by oil, fertilised by oil-based fertilisers) collapsed. The first emigrants left. Crucially (and typically for Ballard) there was a profound psychological collapse. Americans stopped believing in the future.

The socialist states of Europe and the Communist bloc had a tradition of central planning which met the emergency more efficiently. Also, living standards and expectations were already pretty low in the USSR and much of Europe so a downward adjustment was manageable by lots of the population.

But the thing which really triggered catastrophe in America was the epic engineering achievement by the Soviet Union of damming the Bering Straits. This had the positive effect of drawing warm Gulf Stream type oceans over north Europe into the Arctic, and thus bringing huge new areas of Siberia into food production; but as the resulting freezing water was pushed over the Bering dams into the Pacific they froze Japan into a block of ice and diverted the temperate Humboldt current away from the American Pacific seaboard, the gap being filled by hot water flowing north from the equator.

Thus unprecedentedly hot ocean streams now impacted on both the East and West coasts of America and it was this which racked the temperature up a couple of degrees and resulted in the massive desertification of America. Hence the sand dunes filling abandoned New York, and stretching away inland as far as our explorers can see.

Accounts of future disasters are always oddly heartening to read, and this chapter is no exception. It’s obviously inspired by the very real oil price hikes and energy crisis of the early 1970s and the resulting morbid popularity in the 1970s of all kinds of doomy, end-of-the-world scenarios, in popular culture but also among the educated commentariat.

However, the much vaunted energy crisis of the 1970s turned out to be a chimera: new reserves of oil continued to be discovered, and it is currently predicted there will be plenty of oil into the 2050s. In fact for the first time in nearly 50 years, America is the world’s largest producer of oil:

As to the book’s fundamental premise that all of America is turned into a desert as flat and lifeless as the Sahara, this has more to do with Ballard’s personal obsession with deserts and dunes washing over abandoned cities and clogging once-busy roads than it does with any sober examination of the facts around global warming.

Plot summary

Not only has America become a wasteland but Russia has taken over much of the rest of the world. Hence the presence of Gregor Orlowski as Russian political commissar in charge of the expedition. Partly the expedition has been prompted because rising levels of radiation have been detected emanating from the deserted continent: is a reactor failing, a nuclear weapons dump degrading? Orlowski hopes to identify the problem, report it to his superiors, then set sail back for Europe with a clutch of antiquities which will bring him a fortune.

They go ashore in New York. The city is buried by ten-foot sand dunes created when the Appalachian Mountains were destroyed. The exotic foliage growing out of skyscrapers and the gilla lizards eyeing them from windowsills come straight from imaginarium of The Drowned World. The long-abandoned showrooms with their mannequins sitting round tables piled with plastic food are almost word-for-word copies of the same scenes in The Ultimate City.

They head south

The five core characters – Captain Steiner, Commissar Orlowski, Wayne the stowaway, creepy Dr Ricci, and the token woman Dr Summers – set off on an expedition south along the coast. McNair is left behind to supervise repairs to the SS Apollo (which I am surprised can be repaired given that it was holed below the waterline and had heeled down onto the sunken Statue of Liberty; given that there is no dry dock, no heavy equipment, and no power source of any kind. Still, plausibility isn’t the point of this book which is more of a soaring fantasy).

Everywhere is desert with no discernible rivers or even streams. Thus they have to locate water tanks on the top of apartment buildings or hotels and siphon it into their distilling apparatus which they fuel with wood from chopped-up furniture. This is a laborious process and doesn’t produce enough water.

Just outside Trenton, New Jersey, they encounter a strange sight – a small group of ‘aborigines’ i.e. three men and a woman wearing desert cloaks and Arab burnouses and riding camels. They are nervy but friendly enough, speak English, and identify themselves as Heinz, GM, Pepsodent and Xerox – i.e. named after long-defunct consumer brand names. The woman is named Xerox because all women are named Xerox: ‘they make good copies’.

These ‘natives’ share roast rattlesnake with Wayne and Steiner and tell them about the other ‘tribes’ of America, being the Executives from New York, the Governors from Washington, the Gangsters from Chicago, the Gays from San Francisco, and the Divorcees, a women-only tribe of tough ladies with blue-rinse hairdos.

This satire on contemporary American society is so crude it shifts the book onto a different register, making it feel more than ever like a cartoon.

The natives tell our guys they see bright lights in the sky, flying silver objects, great explosions like the ones which appear to have devastated Cincinnatti and Cleveland.

Washington DC

Our heroes move on and finally arrive at Washington DC. This is the opportunity for an orgy of sci-fi Schadenfreude and crude satire. The sand has covered the Mall and the legs of that huge statue of Abraham Lincoln, the huge freeways and concourses are all empty and abandoned – spooky sci-fi feeling. But it’s accompanied by satire about mid-70s America, because the characters refer to a fictional ‘Nixon Memorial, and to the ‘Jerry Brown Islamic Centre’ (Brown was a notable liberal in the 1970s) and to the three terms of President Teddy Kennedy (brother of the assassinated JFK and for decades afterward a figurehead of liberals).

It’s like Ballard’s jokey reference to the fictional ‘OPEC tower’ in New York. This kind of heavy satire on what was then contemporary American society feels terribly dated in a way which the earlier novels, by avoiding this sort of thing, manage not to.

The characters roam about the abandoned city, increasingly succumbing to their own personal obsessions and dreams, as Ballard characters typically do. Wayne and Commissar Orlowski are having a stupid argument in the Oval Office about which one of them can sit in the President’s old chair when Summers runs in to interrupt them with the news that there’s been a massive explosion in Boston, her and Ricci’s scientific equipment has picked it up. Not only that but they left radiation detectors (the main aim of the expedition being to locate the source of the increasing radiation) atop the Pan Am building in New York and these are now showing radiation levels which are lethal. Summers and Ricci fear that McNair and the rest of the crew must be dead by now.

They wait impatiently for the radio message they’d scheduled for 7pm that evening, but when McNair comes on air it’s clear that it’s a recorded message scheduled to be played by a tape machine, which sounds bright and cheerful and doesn’t refer to fleeing the radiation cloud which must have enveloped them. Summers and Ricci conclude that McNair et al must be dead by now, and with them went the expedition’s hopes of a) rendezvousing with the ship b) ever getting back to Europe.

Our five characters hold a team meeting at which some are for pressing on south to the location of the scheduled rendezvous with the SS Apollo but the casting vote falls to Wayne and he, by now, is dominated by dreams and fantasies about America, about is hidden promise, about reviving this sleeping goliath and so he casts the deciding vote that they head in the traditional American direction – West! They barter some of their horses for the natives’ camels and set off.

Wayne’s diary and deterioration

The text switches to a verbatim transcription of Wayne’s diary, describing how they head West for weeks, trekking across the vast desert and becoming ever more dehydrated, ill and malnourished.

Orlowski picks up an infection from bad water, becomes delirious and dies. Ricci recedes deeper and deeper into his gangster fantasies. Captain Steiner keeps disappearing off on his own, following his own ‘ambiguous motives. Anne Summers discovers make-up and spends increasing amounts of time at the end of each day’s slow march across the desert, holed up in the derelict room of whichever motel they’ve taken shelter in for the night, applying heavy make-up. His diary gives the impression he is keeping the expedition together but the people who find them, later, report that Wayne had liberally applied make-up to himself – clearly he’d been deteriorating as quickly as the others. In fact all the members of the dying expedition were covered in swathes of make-up which seemed like tribal masks.

On 21 September they arrive at Dodge City, famous for its Wild West legends, and crawl up to a Wild West theme park. Here several things happen. Delirious, Wayne realises that Ricci has stolen the last of the water. Lying against the wall of a theme park Western saloon clutching a rifle, Wayne sees Ricci coming up the hill towards him, wearing full Wild West cowboy outfit complete with gun in a holster, obviously hoping to re-enact the gunfight at the OK Corral or some such.

He realised that the whole secret logic of their journey across America had been leading them to this absurd and childish confrontation in a theme park frontier street, in a make-believe world already overtaken by a second arid West far wilder than anything those vacationing suburbanites of the late twentieth century could ever have imagined. (Chapter 14, Wayne’s Diary: Part One)

Wayne’s account of events becomes blurred and confused, but we later learn that at the last minute the confrontation is avoided because Captain Steiner, from some hidden location, shoots Ricci through the head. The expedition’s not going well, is it?

Wayne sets off looking for Summers and spends hours blundering round the theme park till he comes to the Boot Hill cemetery and slumps exhausted. He sees the Captain walking across the car park towards him and, seized with resentment, shakily raises his rifle to shoot him.

But at that moment an immensely weird thing happens: vast cowboy figures appear in the sky. Thousands of feet tall the images of first John Wayne then Henry Fonda then Alan Ladd appear in the sky towering over Wayne and he passes out.

Rescue by McNair and the steam-cars

Hours pass. He wakes up to see something flying in the sky overhead. It is a propeller-powered glider, a kind of microlight. To his amazement he realises, as it swoops low, that it is being steered by none other than McNair, the ship’s engineer they’d assumed had perished in New York. He lands and comes to help Wayne at the same moment as three enormous steam-powered motor cars come roaring into the car park, driven by Heinz, GM, Pepsodent and Xerox.

They gives Wayne water and food and nurse him back to health as McNair explains that, back in New York he and the crew had felt the Boston nuclear bomb, then gone up to the roof of the Pan Am building and read the radiation meters, and decided to leave town quickly. Almost all the crew escaped except two who were off ransacking New York shops and couldn’t be contacted.

McNair had discovered the three steam-cars – hand-built for America’s last President, President Brown, but then abandoned – in a Brooklyn warehouse and had been tinkering with them in between repairing the SS Apollo. Now he and the crew jumped into them and high-tailed it south. They came across Heinz, GM, Pepsodent and Xerox who confirmed they’d seen Wayne et al and took them with them onto Washington. Here the ship’s crew opted to stay, near the sea, treating the natives who, they discovered, are suffering from leukaemia and a range of radiation-caused illnesses, and can search for batteries and radio equipment to rig up and make calls back to base in Moscow to send a rescue ship.

McNair, Heinz, GM, Pepsodent and Xerox opt to head West in search of our guys. McNair had discovered the microlight, The Gossamer Albatross (‘a delicate pedal-driven glider, now a dusty relic but once a poem to challenge the sun’) on display in the abandoned Smithsonian Museum, fixed it up (like so many of the characters fix so many old machines, in this frictionless dream of a story) and has flown ahead of the steam-cars as they head West, till he saw a tell-tale of wreckage and dead camels (the camels they set off with had died one by one; as they left each town behind the increasingly deranged Dr Ricci had set fire to it) and eventually traced what was left of the expedition to this Wild West theme park.

Ballard tells us that the steam cars are pulling a truck which is full of coal. OK. But what about the water? The whole point of Wayne and team nearly dying is they couldn’t find any water. Wouldn’t a steam-driven car need water, a lot of water? It was paying close attention to details like this which made his early, disaster novels so harrowing. Maybe writing the wild fantasy of The Unlimited Dream Company liberated Ballard, but he no longer lets facts and plausibility get in the way of the increasingly ridiculous fantasy.

California is an Amazonian rainforest

So they now carry on pounding West in the three noisy exciting steam-cars, slowly climbing into the foothills of the Rockies, higher and higher until they encounter something they’d forgotten about – snow!

After some frolicking and snowball fights they carry on, crossing the Rockies and descending the other side to discover that California has become a vast extension of the Amazon rainforest. The hot ocean currents which now run from South America up the Pacific Coast and have helped desertify most of the country have, on the contrary, led to heavy tropical rainfall on the west side of the Rockies, turning it into a tropical jungle. Through it wander descendants of the animals set free from various zoos including elephants and giraffes, leopards and cheetahs. Which lets Ballard’s imagination run riot and allows him to write sentences like:

The giraffe paused among the pools of water in Fremont Street, raised its delicate muzzle to the rain-washed air and gazed at the glittering facade of the Golden Nugget. (Chapter 21, Crash Landing)

Las Vegas is ablaze with light

But the main thing that happens is that they head for Las Vegas because from up in the microlite McNair has seen it all lit up with lights. I was puzzled by the geography of this because I thought Las Vegas is east of the Rockies, but… anyway, they drive into Las Vegas to find all the lights fully functioning, the casinos and hotels all lit up but nobody at all around. They park up and hear sound from the Sahara Hotel. They push through the heavy theatre doors into the auditorium and discover a packed audience applauding like crazy as Frank Sinatra sings My Way on stage. Then Ol Blue Eyes introduces Dean Martin who saunters on, and little Judy Garland runs onstage too. Entranced, Wayne blunders up onstage and bumps into Sinatra who falls over knocking Dean Martin off the stage into the orchestra pit where the band goes berserk, poking themselves in the eye with their instruments

As the music trailed away into a painful see-saw the spotlights swerved across the auditorium. Waiters dashed about like maniacs, one of the blue rinses poked out her right eye, the huge Texan in the plaid jacket stood up, jammed his cigar down his throat with one hand and knocked his head off with the other. When Dean Martin splashed the last drops of whiskey into his face the audience applauded so vigorously that their hands came off. Judy Garland’s winsome skipping had become a St Vitus-like blur, she moved to the edge of the stage and fell into the woodwind section, where the musicians were calmly stabbing themselves in the face. (Chapter 18, The Electrographic Dream)

They are robots.

President Manson

Wayne, McNair and the ‘natives’ are just processing this surreal vision when they are arrested by a small group of Chicano teenagers carrying guns. These teenage toughs (including a girl, Ursula) drive them in real, petrol-fuelled cars (a Buick, a Pontiac and a Dodge) down the light-filled Strip to a huge hotel, the Desert Inn, last refuge of the mad millionaire Howard Hughes. In they go and up in the lift to the penthouse where they are introduced to ‘President Manson’. Now presumably this is one more ‘joke’, satire or piece of satire at America’s expense, because Manson was of course the name of the psychopath who ran the gang which murdered Sharon Tate on 9 August 1969.

Anyway it’s not the same guy, obviously. This flabby white man, naked except for a towel, lies on a medical couch in front of a rack of TVs with a disinfecting aerosol can in his hand in front of a battery of TV screens. He is intended to be a strange and eerie figure.

The man’s strong forehead, fleshy nose and jowls reminded him immediately of the former President Nixon, now sitting out a century’s exile in the old Hughes suite in Las Vegas. The resemblance was uncanny, as if the man in front of the television screens was a skilful actor who had made a career out of impersonating Presidents, and found that he could imitate Nixon more convincingly than any other. He had caught the long stares and suddenly lowered eyes, the mixture of idealism and corruption, the deep melancholy and lack of confidence coupled at the same time with a powerful inner conviction. (Chapter 19, The Hughes Suite)

Now we discover that Manson’s people, about 100 in number, are running a nuclear fission reactor at Lake Mead. The lights are all on at Las Vegas because the reactor generates so much power it needs to be burned off somehow. This makes the TV cameras and sets go. Not only that but he has TV monitors in cities across the country. And it was his people who projected the 1,000 feet tall holograms of Hollywood cowboys over Wayne’s head in the Dodge City theme park. ‘Manson’s team had been moving from city to city, putting on these laser shows to warn the Indians away.’

Manson himself made the long trek across America from East to West a generation ago, one of the men who helped him was a professor who helped revive the nuclear technology at the Lake Mead reactor and so restore Las Vegas (and who spent his time building the life-sized replicas of Sinatra and Martin who our heroes saw earlier). But Manson is convinced he picked up some virulent virus or bacterium. Manson has big plans which include a) moving on from Lake Mead to reactivate some of America’s other 300 nuclear plants b) destroying the cities of eastern America in order to kill off the virus he’s convinced he’s got, to stop the spread of this ‘plague’. He’s clearly psychopathic.

This impression is rammed home when Manson takes Wayne on a random three-day trip to his outpost at the Beverley Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. Partly this is to allow Ballard to poke fun at all the self-important movie people who used to inhabit it and are now as dead as the sand b) it leads into a stomach-churning scene where Manson takes control of the helicopter gunship they’ve flown there in and machine guns all the wild tropical animals he can see, including a bull elephant and any number of pink flamingos. Perhaps this is some last after-flicker of anti-Vietnam war satire, but it just felt unpleasant.

Nonetheless, Manson has played successfully on Wayne’s own feverish dreams of single-handedly making America great again. Manson jokily suggests that maybe Wayne can be the 46th President. Yes. He gives a speech at one of the meetings Manson chairs with some of his young helpers in which he proposes advertising for more young people to come from Mexico (where the present helpers originated), jokily saying they’ll get an old Coca Cola and burger factory working to attract them, then get them restoring old tech – more helicopters, cars, and then the nukes. He and Manson share an uneasy ambition to get the nukes revitalised, though for differing reasons…

Wayne is woken in the night by alarms and shouting. Paco and the other helpers are running around, the TV screens are flickering. Apparently a rescue ship from Europe has docked in Miami. Should Wayne throw in his lot with President Manson and his nuclear arsenal and his dreams of reviving America… or stay true to his background and help the rescue ship?

Dr Fleming

Wayne is out flying in the microlight when a combat helicopter deliberately flies close – Manson’s Chicano friends resent his influence with the President – ripping the delicate frame to bits and Wayne tumbles down into the jungle.

When he regains control he is surrounded by Presidents. Robot replicas of all 44 Presidents of the United States who all march forward giving their most famous speeches simultaneously till he screams. At which point a short, bearded, twinkly eyed professor in a white coat emerges from between them. This allows Ballard to write this sentence:

Sidestepping through the Kennedys, he smiled reassuringly at Wayne.

Which, like so many of the sentences and scenes in the book, you sense was written more for Ballard’s entertainment than ours. You can almost hear him chortling at his surrealist brilliance.

Anyway this caricature prof declares that he is Dr William Fleming (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor), he was part of the expedition which came to America twenty years ago and was also dying in the desert when Manson saved them and took them in. Fleming is the brains behind restoring all the old tech, getting the nuclear plant running again, and all the lights in Las Vegas, and restoring the cars and all the other things Manson’s young technicians are now working on. This is all so wildly improbable it’s not worth troubling your mind about. On the other hand, it gives Ballard permission to write descriptions of Fleming’s extensive robot workshops which sound like a novelistic version of the 1973 movie Westworld complete with Ballard’s by-now trademark extreme obviousness.

One section, at the rear of the auditorium, resembled the studio of a demented sculptor. Here the faces and hands were cut and modelled from sheets of flesh-tinted plastic, then moulded on to the metal armatures of the arms and heads. Dozens of familiar figures stood around, a pantheon of popular Americana gathered dust. Huckleberry Finn and Humphrey Bogart, Lindbergh and Walt Disney, Jim Bowie and Joe Di Maggio, lay stiffly across each other on the floor like drunks. Bing Crosby stood golf club in hand, throat exposed to reveal his voice synthesiser. Muhammed Ali posed in boxer shorts, the stumps of his wrists trailing veins of green and yellow wires. Marilyn Monroe smiled at them as they hurried past, her breasts on the floor at her feet, open chest displaying the ball-joints and pneumatic bladders that filled the empty spaces of her heart. And last of all there were the Presidents, a jumble of arms, legs and faces lying on the work-benches as if about to be assembled into one nightmare monster of the White House. (Chapter 23, The Sunlight Flier)

Fleming also happens the very man that Wayne’s mother, in one of her rare sober spells, told him was his father.

But once, during a brief moment of lucidity while recovering from an overdose of Seconal, his mother fixed Wayne with a calm eye and told him that his father had been Dr William Fleming, Professor of Computer Sciences at the American University, who had vanished during an ill-fated expedition to the United States twenty years earlier. (Chapter 2, Collision Course)

Way back at the start of the book we were told part of Wayne’s motivation in coming to America was to find the father who left when he was small. Well, here he is and Wayne immediately dismisses any thought that this funny little man is his dad. Which is a bit of an anticlimax.

Fleming is mad. He explains his plans. He is converting his 44 robot Presidents into a production line. They are creating an air force of microlights out of a special kind of laser glass which was developed at the end of the Oil Age in the 1990s, a type of high tensile glass which incorporates miniature lasers which super-heat the air below them, thus creating the thermals on which they can fly. If this sounds like nonsense, it’s because it is. Fleming’s plan is to create an air force of these glass microlights and then escape to the sun!

He also tells him the truth about Manson. Manson was originally incarcerated in Spandau Prison in Berlin, which was turned, after the end of the Oil Age, into a lunatic asylum. Before Manson broke out, blagged his way onto a ship to America, survived crossing the great desert and changed his name, adopting Manson as a new name. He is, in fact, genuinely insane.

Las Vegas under attack

Fleming keeps Wayne prisoner for a week in the Vegas Convention Centre, occasionally expanding on his mad plan. Helicopter flights overhead become more regular and urgent. Then they hear guns, missiles. Then the ceiling of the Convention Centre shatters and in the confusion Wayne escapes.

Outside the city is a warzone with areas round Manson’s hotel surrounded by sandbags. Making an escape in a car, Wayne bumps into a fleet of cars coming the other way carrying Anne Summers and a badly injured McNair. She tells him that 1. a rescue fleet has landed, three ships carrying some 500 soldiers and six aircraft, a smaller expedition coming up from Phoenix, and both have joined forces with Mexican and Indian mercenaries; and that 2. Manson has gone quite mad and has his ginger on the button of eight missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. ‘Wayne, we have to do something!’

There is a prolonged description of the battle for Las Vegas, dominated by the radio controlled helicopter gunships Manson has had built for him, but also by the last fling of the 1,000 feet high holograms which he tries to intimidate the invaders, images of John Wayne as marine, which morph into other Hollywood figures, before finally settling into the nightmare image of the actual Charles Manson, the black-eyed psychopath.

Slowly the lights go out across the ruined town as the smoke from napalm floats across the Strip and Wayne makes his way through the wrecked cars toward a final showdown with President Manson in Caesar’s Palace which has been converted into a war room, complete with map of the world.

Nuclear roulette

Manson is sitting naked in a chair by a roulette table with the map of America louring over them. As the roulette wheel turns it highlights the names of American cities, lights come on by each city, and the illuminated names flicker across Manson’s naked body. It is meant to be a macabre image of twisted madness. Manson rolls a big marble ball into the roulette wheel and the name it stops at will be nuked. Minneapolis. Manson programs the missile and Wayne watches remote control cameras record its firing sequence and then blasting into the sky on its journey to obliterate the mid-West city.

This makes no sense because Manson can see, on other cameras, the expeditionary force working its way through the jungle from the coast, cutting through with machetes and tanks. It will be at Vegas in a few hours. There seemed a total absence of logic in why Manson was blasting mid-West cities and not his enemies near at hand.

Wayne joins in the macabre game and they let off six cruise missiles at six abandoned American cities, but then Manson reveals there is one left, one Titan. Wayne rolls. It lands on zero. Manson reveals zero means Las Vegas. It will launch in three hours time, go up vertically, then descend on Las Vegas and cleanse it of its germs.

Wayne makes to attack Manson but Paco, his faithful bodyguard, clouts him round the head. When he comes to, he has been handcuffed to the ornate doorhandles of the War Room.

The military expeditions arrive

Over the next hour the military expeditions arrive in a lightless abandoned Las Vegas. They think the war is over and Manson fled. Wayne is astonished to see – on the array of Manson’s TV monitors – a small plane land and an obvious leader of the troops emerge, none other than Captain Steiner. Ballard gives half a page explaining what happened to him after he abandoned the expedition at Dodge City, was picked up by Mexicans, then volunteered to help the invading forces, felt guilty about abandoning them etc etc. It doesn’t matter, it’s all twaddle by this stage.

Then Manson makes a broadcast over the loudspeakers hidden around the city to the effect that a nuclear bomb is about to go off and cleanse them all. As the soldiers, Captain Steiner, injured old McNair, plucky Anne Summers all start panicking up the street marches a cohort of men in tight formation though with a bewildering variety of uniforms.

It is the robot Presidents. Directed by Dr Fleming they storm Caesar’s Palace, burst through the locked doors of the War Rom, surround Manson in an android firing squad and riddle his body with bullets.

Freed, Wayne stumbles out into the main strip and is reunited with Summers, McNair and hugged by Captain Steiner. They are all wondering what to do, it’s less than an hour till the nuke explodes over them, Manson told Wayne that there were no recall codes, and they can’t get far enough away in just an hour…

But oh yes they can. Emerging from the wrecked Convention Centre come the glass microlights steered by the survivors of Manson’s Chicano army. Many have room for two, three or six passengers. All the soldiers climb in, Steiner, McNair, Summers and then, last of all, the man who was briefly 46th president of America.

The glass microlights rise up into the air and chunter off at speed towards the Rockies. Looking back Wayne sees a vapour trail rise suddenly from the jungle south of Vegas. That’s the Titan rocket launching from its silo. But he and the others are safely behind the shield of the mountains when the missile descends and evaporates Las Vegas for ever.

Clustering together, like fireflies warming themselves in their own light, the squadron of Fliers hovered above the jungle canopy, safe behind the protective bulk of the mountain. Wayne embraced Ursula’s shoulders, reassuring the suddenly panicky young woman. Already his confidence was returning. As he waited for the flash that would signal the death of Manson’s empire, Wayne briefly mourned the end of his own short Presidency. Yet the dream remained, he would enter the White House one day and sit in that office he had cleaned, without realising it at the time, in preparation for himself. He would arrive at his inauguration in one of these crystal aeroplanes, be the first President to be sworn in on the wing. The old dreams were dead, Manson and Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe belonged to a past America, to that city of antique gamblers about to be vaporised fifty miles away. It was time for new dreams, worthy of a real tomorrow, the dreams of the first of the Presidents of the Sunlight Fliers. (Chapter 32, California Time)

Thoughts

Some Ballardians are cross that the academy doesn’t take him seriously as a writer, doesn’t acknowledge him as a great contemporary writer, doesn’t teach him on courses about ‘literature.’

Remind anyone who ever makes that argument about this book: it is is slack-minded, half-arsed garbage.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (1942)

It sums itself up as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert. (p.7)

This volume consists of the long (100-page) essay about suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus, which argues against despair and in favour of life – accompanied by five much shorter essays each exemplifying Camus’s healthy lust for living.

It’s worth remembering how young Camus was when he wrote these texts. Born in November 1913, he was just 23 when he wrote Summer in Algiers, 26 when France fell to the Germans in June 1940, the year he wrote The Stop in Oran, and so on. A young man just beginning a career in writing and still very much entranced by the pleasures of the flesh, sunbathing, swimming, eyeing up beautiful women (a constant theme in his works).

The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus’s preface sums it up. Written in 1940, in the ruins of the defeat of France, the text affirms that even in a Godless universe and a world awash with nihilism, there remain the means to defy and surmount that nihilism. If life is meaningless, the teenager is tempted ask, what on earth is the point of going on living? Why not commit suicide? That is the subject of the essay: it is an essay about suicide – about confronting suicide as the apparently ‘logical’ consequence of realising that we live in an Absurd world.

Camus’s answer is, that we shouldn’t commit suicide because it is more human and more noble and more in tune with a tragic universe – to rebel, to revolt against this fate. To face down the obvious absurdity of human existence and to enjoy the wild beauty of the world while we can.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Essayist not philosopher

Camus takes quite a long time to finally getting round to saying this. In reading Camus I am influenced by the comment of Jean-Paul Sartre in a 1945 interview where he pointed out that Camus is not an existentialist, and not a philosopher – he is much more a descendant of France’s 17th century moralists. He is a moralist, an essayist (as the essays later in this volume testify) and, unlike the philosopher, the essayist isn’t under any compulsion to produce a coherent sequence of argument. He can be quite content with an entertaining flow of ideas.

Camus certainly plays with philosophical ideas and references a bunch of big philosophical names – early on there’s half a paragraph each about Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger and Husserl – but this very brevity shows that he picks and chooses quotes to suit him, rather like Hazlitt or any of the impressionist Victorian essayists yanking in flowery quotes here or there to support their flow – and in order to create a rather meandering flow rather than a logical sequence of argument.

Camus himself explains that he is not ‘examining’ the philosophy of a Heidegger or Jaspers – he is ‘borrowing a theme’ (p.40), he is making ‘a sketchy reconnaissance in the origins of the absurd’ (p.20). He is not addressing their philosophical arguments – he is bringing out their common ‘climate’.

Thus Camus is much more about impressionistic psychology than repeatable arguments, a point he makes repeatedly himself:

The method defined here acknowledges the feeling that all true knowledge is impossible. Solely appearances can be enumerated and the climate make itself felt…

If it would be presumptuous to try to deal with their philosophies, it is possible and sufficient in any case to bring out the climate that is common to them…

Certain men, starting from a critique of rationalism, have admitted the absurd climate…

Never, perhaps, have minds been so different. And yet we recognize as identical the spiritual landscapes in which they get under way. Likewise, despite such dissimilar zones of knowledge, the cry that terminates their itinerary rings out in the same way. It is evident that the thinkers we have just recalled have a common climate. To say that that climate is deadly scarcely amounts to playing on words. Living under that stifling sky forces one to get away or to stay…

Climate. Zone. Landscape. Stifling sky. This is not an argument – it is impressionistic prose poetry.

This hell of the present is his [the Absurd Man’s] Kingdom at last. All problems recover their sharp edge. Abstract evidence retreats before the poetry of forms and colors. Spiritual conflicts become embodied and return to the abject and magnificent shelter of man’ s heart. (p.52)

This poetic meandering results in the sometimes obscure nature of the text. Camus has a reputation for being clear and lucid, but this book is often surprisingly turgid and difficult to understand.

If thought discovered in the shimmering mirrors of phenomena eternal relations capable of summing them up and summing themselves up in a single principle, then would be seen an intellectual joy of which the myth of the blessed would be but a ridiculous imitation. (p.23)

I understand what he’s saying: if any of us could discover a really unified theory underlying the world of phenomena how happy we, and mankind, would be. But you can see how this is not anything like philosophy: it is more a description of what philosophy feels like.

When Karl Jaspers, revealing the impossibility of constituting the world as a unity, exclaims: “This limitation leads me to myself, where I can no longer withdraw behind an objective point of view that I am merely representing, where neither I myself nor the existence of others can any longer become an object for me,” he is evoking after many others those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. After many others, yes indeed, but how eager they were to get out of them! At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself. (p.16)

Most of the book is like this. It is not a continuous philosophical argument, it is a series of psychological insights. He uses the Jaspers quote to create a poetic scenario using (aptly for the man of Africa) the image of a desert, and going on to describe how we ‘must’ stay out there, in the waterless desert of absurd knowledge, in order to study its peculiar features. (Camus uses the metaphor of the desert of human thought seven times in the book – but I don’t find human thought a desert; I find it a bounteous and infinite garden.)

When he says the thinking mind is ‘an inhuman show’ in which a dialogue takes place, you realise this is philosophy envisioned as theatre and from this point I became alert to the other metaphors of theatre and actors scattered through the text. Camus was, after all, himself a successful playwright and a section of the essay is titled Drama.

The irrational, the human nostalgia, and the absurd that is born of their encounter – these are the three characters in the drama that must necessarily end with all the logic of which an existence is capable. (p.32)

By thus sweeping over centuries and minds, by miming man as he can be and as he is, the actor has much in common with that other absurd individual, the traveler. (p.75)

It is a vision obscured, rather than clarified, by the author’s habit of imposing histrionic metaphors wherever they’ll fit. Absurdity, hope and death in the final sentence have specific meanings: absurdity is the lucid knowledge of the pointlessness of existence i.e the absence of any God or external values; hope is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world; and death is the resort some people take from absurd knowledge, either getting themselves killed for a cause or doing away with themselves.

This tripartite categorisation does make a sort of sense. What makes a lot less sense is to talk about how ‘tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show’ or ‘the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance’.

There is generally a discernible flow to the argument, but Camus’s writerly fondness for metaphors, similes, paradox, abrupt reversals and the counter-intuitive too often obscures rather than clarifies his meaning. This is what I mean when I say that he is not a lucid writer. He uses the word ‘lucid’ no fewer than 43 times in the text, and the continual chiming of this word may begin to unconsciously make you think he is lucid. But he isn’t. Sometimes his style descends into almost pure poetry, emotive, descriptive, incantatory.

‘Prayer,’ says Alain, ‘is when night descends over thought. ‘But the mind must meet the night,’ reply the mystics and the existentials. Yes, indeed, but not that night that is born under closed eyelids and through the mere will of man – dark, impenetrable night that the mind calls up in order to plunge into it. If it must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid -polar night, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. (p.62)

Here is no argument, just rhetoric, poetry, a particular type of melodramatic and harrowing poetry. Some of it teeters on gibberish.

Perhaps we shall be able to overtake that elusive feeling of absurdity in the different but closely related worlds of intelligence, of the art of living, or of art itself. The climate of absurdity is in the
beginning. The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it. (p.18)

The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it.

Every time I reread this sentence, it moves further away from me. Even when I think I understand it, it doesn’t really contribute to any logical argument – it is designed to create a similar climate or attitude in the mind of the reader. It is, thus, a form of attitudinising i.e. creating a mood through poetic means – for example, the way the ‘implacable visage’ is a melodramatic way of describing the Absurd, which is itself a melodramatic concept.

The text is designed to convert you to its histrionic (and theatrical) worldview. It is a pose. Every page is made up of this often hard-to-follow attitudinising.

It is barely possible to speak of the experience of others’ deaths. It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces us. That melancholy convention cannot be persuasive. The horror comes in reality from the mathematical aspect of the event. If time frightens us, this is because it works out the problem and the solution comes afterward. All the pretty speeches about the soul will have their contrary convincingly proved, at least for a time. From this inert body on which a slap makes no mark the soul has disappeared. This elementary and definitive aspect of the adventure constitutes the absurd feeling. Under the fatal lighting of that destiny, its uselessness becomes evident. (p.21)

‘Under the fatal lighting of that destiny…’

The cumulative effect is to make you stop trying to elucidate what too often turn out to be spurious meanings.

Men who live on hope do not thrive in this universe where kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage. (p.68)

Even before I begin to make the effort to decode what he’s saying, I know in advance it will not be worth the effort. Trying to understand a book about quantum physics or about evolutionary cladistics or memorising the different Chinese dynasties – that’s the kind of thing that’s worth making an effort for, because the knowledge is real and will last. But trying to decide whether this is a universe where ‘kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage’ strikes me as being a waste of time.

In the rebel’s universe, death exalts injustice. It is the supreme abuse. (p.85)

What? Here he is describing music.

That game the mind plays with itself according to set and measured laws takes place in the sonorous compass that belongs to us and beyond which the vibrations nevertheless meet in an inhuman universe. (p.91)

An impressive display of rhetorical fireworks. But useful? Applicable? Enlightening? Memorable?

Quotable quotes

All this, the emphasis on rhetoric over logic, helps explain why it is much easier to quote Camus’s many catchy formulations in isolation than it is to remember any kind of reasoned argument.

An act like this [suicide] is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. (p.12)

Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. (p.12)

Looked at from one point of view, the text is a kind of impenetrably turgid grey sea from which emerge occasional shiny wave crests, glinting in the sunlight.

In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. (p.13)

It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. (p.16)

At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman. (p.20)

A man is more a man through the things he keeps to himself than through those he says. (p.80)

Seen this way, Camus certainly does fit Sartre’s description of a traditional moralist, whose text is just the glue which joins together the periodic sententiae or moral statements about life, these jewels being meant to be taken away and meditated on.

To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason. (p.38)

Great t-shirt material.

The Absurd

A bit like Sartre circling round and round his central concept of ‘freedom’, Camus circles round and round his central concept of the Absurd. The word occurs 316 times in the text, again and again on every page.

Put simply, the absurd is the mismatch between man’s deep need for a meaning/purpose/rational order in the world, and the world’s all-too-obvious lack of any meaning/purpose or order – the world’s complete indifference to human wishes. Again and again Camus defines and redefines and approaches and reapproaches and formulates and poeticises the same fundamental idea.

  • At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. (p.17)
  • That denseness and strangeness of the world is the absurd. (p.20)
  • The revolt of the flesh is the absurd. (p.20)
  • This discomfort in the face of man’ s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this ‘nausea’, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd. Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd. (p.21)
  • What is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. (p.27)
  • The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.32)
  • The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation. (p.33)
  • The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together. (p.34)
  • The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits. (p.49)
  • [The absurd is] that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together. (p.50)
  • [The absurd is] my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle (p.51)

The basic idea is disarmingly simple. It is the way he repeats it with infinite variations, under the lights of numerous metaphors and similes, included in sentences which evoke emotional, intellectual and existential extremity, suffering, endurance, and so on, which make it more a poetics of living than philosophy.

The absurd mind cannot so much expect ethical rules at the end of its reasoning as, rather, illustrations and the breath of human lives. (p.65)

I’m not sure how you’d measure this but it seemed to me that, as the book progresses, the references to absurdity become steadily vaguer and more poetical and meaningless.

  • Being deprived of hope is not despairing. The flames of earth are surely worth celestial perfumes. (p.85)
  • All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. (p.87)
  • For the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. (p.87)
  • In the time of the absurd reasoning, creation follows indifference and discovery. (p.88)
  • The absurd work illustrates thought’s renouncing of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. (p.90)
  • The most destitute men often end up by accepting illusion. That approval prompted by the need for peace inwardly parallels the existential consent. There are thus gods of light and idols of mud. But it is essential to find the middle path leading to the faces of man. (p.94)

This impressionistic approach, this lack of a coherent logic, this mosaic of quotes from Great Thinkers or abstruse analyses of Great Writers, grandiose examinations of the Stage or the mentality of The Conqueror, interspersed with descriptions of everyday life – how, for example, a sense of the futility of life hits you as you look in the mirror to shave – this may account for Camus’s wider popularity than Sartre’s. His very patchiness, the way he’s less logical and consistent, more given to sudden flashes of insight which can be put on a t-shirt.

Thus even if a lot of Sisyphus is turgid and obscure, with much of it showing off or perverse paradox-making for its own sake, there are many other bits which suddenly leap out with great clarity and make you think ‘Yes’.

Sisyphus

It takes Camus a long time to get to the punchline which is that we must face the absurdity of the world and overcome it. We must be like Sisyphus who, in the Greek myth is being punished in hell by being made to roll a rock to the top of the mountain only for it to be dashed to the bottom again. Over and again.

That is how we must live. But we must do it with a smiling heart, happy in the knowledge that we do it because we will it. We want to live.

Teenage heroism

And it is not irrelevant to the book’s popularity, or the popularity of watered-down ‘existentialism’ that it helped promote, that throughout the book the person who holds this notion of the absurd, who doesn’t give in to false consolations or to the siren call of suicide, who faces the meaningless world without flinching – is considered a hero.

It is a heroic pose to be one man undaunted against an uncaring universe, walking a ‘difficult path’.

There is a profoundly adolescent appeal not only in the fascination with suicide but in the rather laughable descriptions of the bold, brave heroism required to outface the absurd, ‘fearlessly’ and stoically living with his bleak knowledge. Refusing consolation and false comfort, committing oneself to live under ‘this stifling sky’ in these ‘waterless deserts’, living a life of ‘virile silence’ and ‘solitary courage’. Sounds like a film noir hero, sounds like Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire. Down these mean streets the ‘absurd man’ must go because, after all –

  • Sisyphus is the absurd hero

The essay is divided into three parts, the second of which is titled The Absurd Man. It’s heroic posturing is quite funny if read through the eyes of Tony Hancock or Sid James.

  • Not to believe in the profound meaning of things belongs to the absurd man. (p.69)
  • There always comes a time when one must choose between contemplation and action. This is called becoming a man. (p.81)
  • There is thus a metaphysical honour in enduring the world’s absurdity. (p.86)

Around page 70, while taking a break on the internet, I stumbled over several comic strips devoted to taking the mickey out of Camus and Sartre. From that point onwards found it hard to keep a straight face while reading it. This is all so old, so 80-years-old, so much another time. It was passé in the 1960s, now it is ancient history. Old enough to have been satirised and parodied for generations.

Existential Comics – Camus

There is also something specifically comical in the way a writer decides, at the summary of his masterwork about the meaning of life in a godless universe and so on, that the highest possible calling for the Absurd Man is to be… a writer! The section titled Absurd Creation is not much about music or art, but mostly about other writers. It is rather bathetic that a writer decides,after much cogitation, that being a writer is the pinnacle of the kind of lucid courage required to face The Absurd!

Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile. It calls for a daily effort, self-mastery, a precise estimate of the limits of truth, measure, and strength. (p.104)

So – as the Existentialist Comic puts it – these bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays all agree that the true Resistance to the Nazis and the true heroes of their time must, logically, according to their ‘lucid’ and ‘precise’ philosophy — be bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays.

Guys just like them, who can therefore congratulate each other on their ‘self-mastery’, their ‘revolt’, their  dignity and their strength. How to be a Hemingway hero without even stubbing out your Gauloise!

But perhaps the great work of art has less importance in itself than in the ordeal it demands of a man and the opportunity it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his
naked reality. (p.104)

‘Ordeal’. ‘Overcoming his phantoms.’ Outfacing ‘naked reality’. Braving the deserts of ‘lucid thought’. Mingling ‘intelligence and passion’. Summoning ‘diligence, doggedness and lucidity’ (p.106). Facing up to this ‘difficult wisdom’ (p.106). ‘Unceasing struggle’.

Wow. Never before or since has sitting at a typewriter smoking a fag been so heroic!

Brief discussion

When I was an over-intellectual 17 year-old these thoughts and Camus’ attitude helped to reassure me and calm me down from my own nihilistic panic. My family didn’t understand me, my friendships were superficial, I had no job, no wife, no children and little experience of the real world of work and effort. Looking back I can see why I was subject to panic attacks.

But now I’m a fifty-year-old family man with deep commitments, children to care for, bills to be paid and meals to be cooked – I find it impossible to recapture the mood of teenage hysteria which permeates all Camus’s books.

I go to the gym and watch, on the bank of TV screens, pop videos showing half-naked young men and women partying in the city or frisking on beaches, under waterfalls, in tropical islands around the world. My kids jet off to exotic destinations I could only dream of back in the 1970s. They text, Instagram and Facebook with friends in America, Spain, the Middle East, even China. The world just no longer is the limited world of one-town boredom and dull routine that Camus describes. Rather than a crushed, defeated, broken, humiliated culture as was the Nazi world of 1940 or the post-war ruins of the 1940s – my kids live in a vibrant, shiny world alive with music, movies, clothes, festivals, travel round the world and futuristic technology: they think life is great.

Looking back, Camus’s writings are really a kind of prose poetry which repeats pretty much the same idea from a thousand angles, expressed in countless metaphors and images, laced with wit and paradox in the typical French tradition, but essentially static.

A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations. (p.25)

The ‘appetite for conquest’, the ‘poisoned peace’, ‘fatal renunciations’?

You either enjoy this kind of poetry or you don’t. I can feel my way into it as I feel my way into the harsh world of the Icelandic sagas or the sweet humour of Chaucer’s poetry or the gargoyle world of early Dickens or the bumptious jingoism of Kipling. Those writers, also, have their truths and their insights, create internally consistent imaginative universes, generate quotable quotes which I may or may not apply to myself or others or the world in general.

But whereas I carry Chaucer and Kipling out into the world, remembering their best lines and beauty to enrich and colour my life, when I closed The Myth of Sisyphus I could remember almost nothing of it. — Some people find life absurd and it drives a tiny minority to suicide but it’s best, on balance, to face up to the meaninglessness of a godless universe and to create your own values and purpose within it.

The absurd man catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.

Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. (p.61)

The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man. (p.62)

OK. I get it. Most people nowadays do that anyway, and don’t need a laboriously over-written, obscure and attitudinising text to help them.

Why is absurdity negative?

My son’s just got an ‘A’ in his Philosophy A-level. He didn’t study Camus (who is, after all, not a philosopher) though he did spend a lot of time on Martin Heidegger, the grand-daddy of 20th century existentialists.

I explained Camus’s notion of the Absurd to him i.e. the mismatch between the human wish (it’s always translated as nostalgia; maybe it means ‘longing’ as well) for order and meaning in the world and the lack of any such order – and the way it is always presented by Camus as a challenge, a trial, an ordeal, a desert under a hostile sky that only the strongest can face up to and confront, and my son said – ‘Why?’

He understood the idea of the mismatch, he got the absurdity of looking for meaning in a ‘godless universe’. OK. But… why does it have to be negative? Why does this mismatch have to have a value? Why can’t it just be… a mismatch, and up to each of us to make of it what we will, to give it a value? Where does all the horror and anguish come from? The absurd can be funny. In fact all of us know that absurdity often is funny in everyday life. The horror and the anguish which Camus describes aren’t logically entailed in the concept of a mismatch. They are a value imposed on the situation.

My son suggests that the entire climate, to use Camus’s word, of Sartrean existentialism and Camusian Absurdity, the rhetoric of anguish and despair and futility (in Sartre) and being an alien, an outsider in arid deserts under a stricken sky (in Camus) reflects the grim situation of 1930s and 40s France – the political chaos of the 1930s, the crushing humiliation of defeat by the Nazis in 1940, and the even worse humiliation of liberation by the hated Anglo-Saxons in 1944.

Very few people at the time followed the ‘logic’ of the existentialists’ arguments (where a ‘logic’ could be discerned) but everyone grasped the way their negativity crystallised into words and ideas the vast, continent-wide, wartime destruction and the collapse of all established social values, the loss of so many friends and family, hecatombs of corpses, which really did spread an atmosphere of anguish and despair through an entire generation.

There was no existentialism in Britain because we never underwent this national humiliation and collapse of values.

The last few pages of the book describe the Greek myth of Sisyphus and the text gives way to an orgy of rhetoric and poetic prose. Sisyphus is condemned in Hades to roll his rock up a hill and then watch it be tumbled back to the bottom, and forced to go back down and start rolling it up again – for all eternity. And yet Camus sees him as a positive figure, the epitome of the Absurd Man who sees the futility of life but sets himself to live it, regardless. All this is expressed with rhetoric not reason.

All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. (p.110)

In its way, and taking into account its very different context, this stirring rhetoric is as full of moral uplift as a speech by Churchill.


Credit

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1955, and as a Penguin paperback in 1975. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 75p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle of France

Algerian war of independence

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