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Book Review: Hello America by J G Ballard

Got to confess I’m not a fan of sci-fi novels. Movies, maybe – but novels . . . Along with westerns, chick-lit and Fantasy/Magic Realism it’s a genre that does nothing for me. With Sci-fi (and fantasy) it’s imperative the writer creates a world to believe in. Why go to all that trouble? For me a novel succeeds or fails primarily in one area only: character. The best drama for my money always occurs not in faraway galaxies but in and around the kitchen sink. But that’s just me.

So it was with some trepidation I picked up Hello America. Ordinarily I rather like Ballard: Crash, Super Cannes, High Rise, Millennium People etc. I’m always intrigued by the gated communities he creates and the intense sense of ennui that exists behind the intercoms whether its Chelsea Harbour or Estrella del Mar. But sci-fi? Hmm . . .

Like the Beatles, Ballard’s career can be separated into two distinct phases: sci-fi and post sci-fi. So, this was my first Ballard novel from his earlier, sci-fi period. Well, I’ve run out of Ballard novels, so decided to trek through the back catalogue. It was, I knew, a strategy fraught with risk. JG occupies a pedestal upon which I’d rather like to keep him.

Hello America has a typically Ballardian premise: a century after a catastrophic energy crisis the United States has become a vast, unpopulated desert. And like that apocalyptic scene at the end of The Planet of The Apes, the statue of Liberty, that icon of Americana – its dreams and power, lies broken. At some point unbridled capitalism must have reached its natural conclusion i.e. death and destruction.

The American bubble has indeed burst – spectacularly so. The land of opportunity in this Ballardian dystopia is an arid desert, untapped and unchartered as if it was 1492 once more. Writing in 1981, and ever the sage, Ballard was foreshadowing much of the debates about consumption current in 2021. What happens when the wells finally run dry?

When an exploratory ship from Europe arrives at New York it is only natural that it’s port of embarkation should have been Plymouth, England. The book’s hero Wayne is a stowaway anxious to realise his fantasy of the America of popular culture – that ultra-confident economic and cultural powerhouse that once upon a time bestrode the world. Sailing with nuclear scientists and engineers, this is a team that might just possess the wherewithal to kickstart an entire continent.

Sighted from the harbour, America seems at first glance to be a land of gold. As the pilgrims soon discover it’s one of many illusions: the gold is in fact sand. One hundred years after its population emigrated back to Europe, Africa and Asia, the US is an empty wilderness. But it’s a wasteland waiting to be re-discovered, re-invigorated.

Cue the author’s intimate knowledge of US geography – the interstates, deserts, cities and other topographical features figure prominently throughout the novel as Wayne treks from coast to coast. Indeed, the book is a veritable feast of American iconography. On this epic journey of discovery, Ballard’s hero uncovers Americana from Buicks to popcorn from Sinatra to Monroe.

In Las Vegas he meets the self-declared President Manson – also a visionary explorer who has started his own plans to colonise the country. Wayne is flattered to be offered the office of vice presidency from a man named after the psychopath Charles Manson . . . Soon he himself is sucked into Manson’s vision. With its depiction of flight and the sudden emergence of lush, green jungles and exotic animals there’s more than a few echoes of The Unlimited Dream Company here. And in Wayne, the book has a hero every bit as idealistic as Blake.

Then it all becomes a little . . . chaotic. Unable to keep tabs on it all, my simple head began to ache. That’s the problem with sci-fi. The last third of the novel is all plot. Lots of things happen – some of them technical as Manson becomes hell-bent not on reinvigoration but destruction. Anyway, it all involves nuclear warheads and stuff. At this stage of the game, I was hanging in there for dear life, the end could not come quick enough.

On a different note altogether, it was intriguing to hear Wayne, as heir apparent to the unstable Manson, consider the possibilities of actually becoming the 45th President of the United States and how, upon attaining office, he would strive to ‘make America great again.’ Is the estate of Ballard owed some royalties here perchance?

Overall, Hello America confirmed what I have always suspected: I really, really don’t do sci-fi, not even if it’s been created by the sage of Shepperton. If, however, your sense of propriety is not offended by the idea of 44 former US robot presidents a la Westworld - Washington, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and the rest - marauding through the pages of this novel, you might just dig it. Me? I’ll pass.