fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsVermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard speculative fiction book reviewsVermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands (1971) was first published as a U.S. paperback by Berkley in 1971, and was then published by Cape in the U.K. as a hardback in 1973. It contained the following stories:

“Prima Belladonna” (1956), “The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista ” (1962), “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” (1966), “Venus Smiles” (1957), “Studio 5, The Stars” (1961), “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” (1967), “Say Goodbye to the Wind” (1970), “The Screen Game” (1962), “The Singing Statues” (1962)

Sometimes you encounter a book that is intelligent, brilliantly-written, wryly-humorous, hypnotic, and almost completely resistant to description without reducing it to triviality. The stories here showcase artists of different mediums, faded film stars now dwelling in obscurity, and wealthy eccentrics, all of whom retreat from the larger world into the faded desert community of Vermilion Sands in the American Southwest. The blurb on some of the editions describes it best:

Vermilion Sands is a fully automated desert-resort designed to fulfill the most exotic whims of the idle rich, but now languishes in uneasy decay, populated only by forgotten movie queens, solitary impresarios and the remittance men of the artistic and literary world. It is a lair for beachcombers, hangers-on and malignant obsessions — a place where sensitive pigments paint portraits of their mistresses in a grotesque parody of art; where prima donna plants are programmed to sing operatic arias; where dial-a-poem computers have replaced poets; where psychosensitive houses are driven to murder by their owners’ neuroses; and where love and lust, in the hands of jewel-eyed Jezebels, pall before the stronger pull of evil. 

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe themes in the stories are wide-ranging and feature the most bizarre artistic forms, including delicate operatic singing orchids (“Prima Belladonna”), psychotropic houses that retain the emotions of their owners (“The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista”), paintings that paint themselves (“Cry Hope, Cry Fury!”), a growing metallic sculpture that produces music that drives people to distraction (“Venus Smiles”), automated poetry machines that cause a crisis when they are all vandalized and a publishing deadline looms (“Studio 5, The Stars”), a former pilot who finds a new life as a cloud-sculptor (“The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D”), living fashion that reflects and enhances the emotions of the wearer (“Say Goodbye to the Wind”), a doomed film production where the actors and crew cannot be bothered to film (“The Screen Game”), and a sonic sculpture commissioned by a reclusive film star (“The Sound Sculptures”).

The collection is internally consistent in tone, with a wonderfully languid and ironic view of the strange and sometimes comical lives of the residents of Vermilion Sands. It might be more accurate to call it artistic fantasy than SF, but labels really don’t do it justice. Instead, I suggest you should read it for yourself. You will not be disappointed.

Overall, Vermilion Sands contains J.G. Ballard’s most virtuoso and light-hearted writing. Unlike much of his darker, melancholy works about lonely astronauts, despondent scientists, and troubled adventurers, there is a sense of playfulness and moments of outright humor. It is also the most unique depiction of fantastical future art forms I have ever encountered, and combined with the decadent and desolate desert backdrop of this strange community with its sand yachts and living houses, it promises to be an unforgettable reading experience.