The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard
J.G. Ballard is best known for his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984), along with his early novels like The Drowned World (1962), The Crystal World (1964), The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974), and High-Rise (1975). But many consider his best work to be his huge catalog of short stories, many of which were pivotal in the New Wave SF movement in the late 60s/early 70s. Ballard’s style may have been suited to the short form, as it plays to his strengths (hallucinatory imagery, bizarre concepts, powerful descriptions) and avoid his weaknesses (lack of empathetic characters, weak plots, unrealistic motivations). He has published many short story collections, but the publishing gods have seen fit to be kind and provide readers with a single volume, The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard, which contains 98 stories (1,200 pages) from throughout his career. Not only is this available in hard copy and Kindle, it is also available for a single credit on Audible, providing 65 hours of thoughtful listening pleasure, read by 5-6 excellent veteran narrators. However, to provide a balanced overview, I will review some of his most famous collections separately.
The Terminal Beach (1964) was published as a paperback in the US from Berkeley Books, and as a hardcover from Gollancz in the UK. The contents of the two collections are very different, and my review will cover the UK version. These are stories in the UK edition:
“The Terminal Beach” (1964), “A Question of Re-entry” (1962), “The Drowned Giant” (1964), “End-Game” (1962), “The Illuminated Man” (1964), “The Reptile Enclosure” (1962), “The Delta at Sunset” (1964), “Deep End” (1961), “The Volcano Dances” (1964), “Billennium” (1961), “The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon” (1964), “The Lost Leonardo” (1964)
Ballard’s stories generally feature solitary characters in strange, doomed situations. There is often a feeling of entropy, melancholy, hopelessness, and (sometimes) transformation and revelation. The language is formal, lush, hallucinatory, and detached. Frequently the world is succumbing to some form of environmental disaster, like rising seas, crystallization, overpopulation, etc. He is also deeply interested in ‘inner space,’ modernization, obsession with technology, and alienation with the environment. His characters usually seem resigned to their fates and contemplate them with intellectual detachment. Sounds unappealing, you say? No fun, perhaps? And yet if you open yourself to his stories and images, you will find yourself drawn into his inner space, and the worlds he creates have a strange and hypnotic beauty. These are the standout stories:
“The Terminal Beach:” Perhaps the most quintessential Ballard short story. A disturbed man named Traven has lost his wife and son in a car accident and smuggles himself onto Entiowok Island, the site of an abandoned nuclear testing site. The island is covered with concrete bunkers, disturbing test dummies, and decay. There are some biologists conducting tests there, but when Traven encounters them he is not happy at encountering other people — instead, his rapidly deteriorating mental state mirrors the state of the island with its empty monuments to the nuclear age. He escapes them and takes refuge in the bunkers, aimlessly exploring the bizarre and inscrutable symbols of man’s modern alienation with himself and submission to the imminent possibility of atomic destruction.
“A Question of Re-Entry:” Here we have another classic Ballardian tale of exploration of ‘inner space’ in the form of a symbolic journey up a river a la Heart of Darkness to encounter a Colonel Kurtz character who has set himself up as a god to a local tribe of Indians. His means of control turns out to relate to an artificial satellite that revolves through the sky, mystifying the Indians who worship its movements. The title of the story refers in part to a crashed space capsule and the mission to recover its astronaut, but can also refer to the choice of whether to re-enter civilization or remain among the primitive peoples.
“The Illuminated Man:” This is a longer story that eventually was expanded into the novel The Crystal World. It details the strange crystallization of the forest in central Africa, a process that seems to stop time and transform plants, animals and minerals into beautiful crystals. Ballard includes some pseudo-scientific explanations of why the process occurs, but the story is stronger when it focuses on the process itself, and people’s varied reactions to it. Ballard leaves it very open to interpretation, but the loving descriptions of crystal houses and plants and eventually people are guaranteed to haunt your imagination and memory.
“The Drowned Giant:” This story is deceptively simple and fable-like, in a Borges vein. A giant’s body washes ashore one day, and a series of scientists, curious onlookers, and profiteers come and take what they want. Initially people are amazed and intrigued by the body, but as it starts to decompose, their wonder gives way to indifference, and then finally the body is carved up and sold to museums and other institutions. In the end, the memory of the giant fades, and even the preserved parts are misidentified by museums as belonging to a whale. Perhaps Ballard is suggesting that we take what is wondrous in the world and make it prosaic. Or maybe something else entirely?
“The Delta at Sunset:” Here is another story that has the typical Ballardian elements: scientists in remote and primitive locations, a protagonist who is suffering from some type of malaise, a jaded love triangle in which the principals don’t even seem that upset, mysterious worms that appear and multiply, references to the prehistoric past, visions of antiquity that nobody else sees, and finally the main character states something to the effect that “As a paleontologist, he was searching for a past in which life made sense. He had never really liked other people, and didn’t particularly like himself either.” Let’s hope these sentiments don’t represent the author himself.
Overall, I think The Terminal Beach is a perfect introduction to J.G. Ballard’s most recurrent themes, images, and storylines. A number of these stories also appear in his collection The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, but that collection has stories from his earlier, more conventional SF period, along with his weirder, more experimental period, as seen in Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, so in terms of consistent quality, I would recommend The Terminal Beach or Vermilion Sands, which is set in a remote desert community of artists, former film stars, and wealthy eccentrics.
Stuart, I think you’re right — Ballard’s shorter work really is the best vehicle for his pet themes and tropes.
Yes, some writers are just better at shorter lengths. I’m thinking about tackling Harlan Ellison soon, since he has so many well-regarded short stories. And he’s a very brash and outspoken person in the SF community, so pretty hard to ignore.