Notes Reading Notes

Vermilion Sands

By J.G. Ballard, 1971

A collection of short stories written between 1956 and 1971 which share the setting and themes of Vermilion Sands, a surreal resort town that was built in the desert as a beach playground for glamorous elites, the habitué of experimental architects and creative visionaries. But the stories here are set after these days of splendor and spectacle have passed due to the ‘Recess,’ a ten year ‘world slump of boredom, lethargy and high summer,’ where Vermillion Sands is lapsing into a languid, decaying permanence as a refuge for fading celebrities, eccentric and damaged inheritors of wealth and the conceptual artists and schemers in their tow.

Most people would call Vermilion Sands a dystopia but it stands apart from Ballard’s tetraptych of 1960s catastrophe novels in the sense of his famous quote about exploring ‘the next five minutes’ of the future and the tension between sinister modernity and ecstatic optimism. It’s also more overtly surrealist than many of his other works in that it doesn’t just use surrealism, but is also about surrealism, being set in an artist colony replete with technology which can turn psychological and emotional states into the actual medium for art rather than being merely the subject of art.

While typical for Ballard, the structure of the stories in this collection would be risky and odd for most writers. Every story here has roughly the same form and draws from a common palette of motifs and psychodramatic arcs. There’s the first person narrator who is always a bored, yielding, middle class man, an artist, salesman, lawyer or dilettante providing services to the ultra-rich. There’s the enigmatic, alluring, powerful woman who enters the picture for the narrator to fixate on, her weird obsessions fomenting a seductive and destabilising social influence. There’s the central wreck or break with reality where order is broken down and transformed through an act of destruction or recombination. There’s the conceptual art object or art practice which sometimes incorporates surreal layers of technology and always ties back to the themes of decadence, decay and play as work/work as play. There’s the florid, adjectival streams of images and similes describing painted desert canyons, fossil lakes, statues buried by encroaching sand dunes and subtropical flowering garden shrubs defying the dryness and heat.

The art objects and art practices mentioned cover an interesting range:

  • Cloud sculpting with specially modified gliders
  • Mutated living plants which produce music
  • Dynamic metal sculptures which produce music
  • Plastic clothing which tailors itself to the body and emotions of the wearer
  • Poetry writing machines
  • Plastic architecture which morphs and adapts itself to the emotions and expressions of its occupants
  • Photosentive paint which overlays detail about emotional states on top of visual impressions

Each story working with a different arrangement of the same basic elements and the interchangeability of characters and plots leads to the themes of Vermilion Sands being uniquely strong and cohesive as a whole.

Adding to the surrealism and florid description, the worldbuilding and scene setting is carried along by numbing, driving repetition, particularly references to the colour cerise. There’s even one scene where artists are hired to paint a huge abstract desert backdrop for a film set, as a representation of the huge abstract desert backdrop to Vermilion Sands itself.

The strictly coded gender and sexual archetypes seem based on primal male fear of the feminine which has more in common with traditional fairytales than social or speculative fiction. This might come across as dated and implacable, though a more radical reading could potentially reveal an underlying critique of masculinity. In this idle world of leisure, there is no social identity connected to work. While the women depicted have attributes of Lamia, Sirens and Muses, the men are redundant, vulnerable, self-defeating and not needed.

The stories are often tragic with nightmarish outcomes but Ballard’s introduction frames this somewhat differently:

“So many of science fiction’s notional futures are zones of unrelieved grimness. … By contrast, Vermilion Sands is a place where I would be happy to live. … I wait optimistically for it to take concrete shape around me.”

Though the title itself hints at danger, the vermilion pigment being a brilliant red mercury compound that looks beautiful but is extremely toxic.