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The Terminal Beach by JG Ballard
(Phoenix, 6.99, 221 pages, paperback; first published 1964, this edition 31 March 2001.)

'All day they had moved steadily upstream, occasionally pausing to raise the propeller and cut away the knots of weed, and by 2 o'clock had covered some seventy five miles...Now and then the channel would widen into a flat expanse of what appeared to be stationary water, the slow oily swells which disturbed its surface transforming it into a sluggish mirror of the distant, enigmatic sky, the islands of rotten balsa logs refracted by the layers of haze like the drifting archipelagoes of a dream. Then the channel would narrow again and the cooling jungle darkness enveloped the launch.'

The opening of the first story ('A Question of Re-entry') in this Ballard collection moves straight into Heart of Darkness territory. cover scanMany of the following stories pursue a similar theme which bears more than just an arboreal resemblance to Conrad's novella, as they slide into the unknown on a journey that is more spiritual than physical, a journey where the struggles of the unconscious mind are projected into the environment that surrounds - and often imprisons - the characters. The blockhouses of 'Terminal Beach', the gulls and grottoes of 'The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon', the snakes of 'The Delta At Sunset', all allow the inner world of the characters to bleed through into the external world until the two cannot be told apart. Ballard's characters are often not aware of this, or at best are only partly so, blindly groping (literally so, in 'The Gioconda') to try and impose the meaning which can allow them to understand the world and so understand themselves. 'Above him, along the crests of the dunes, the tall palms leaned into the dim air like the symbols of a cryptic alphabet. The landscape of the island was covered by strange ciphers.' ('Terminal Beach'.)

Ballard often piles the pressure on his characters by ensuring that the environment in which they attempt to understand themselves is one which they cannot escape. A political prisoner plays out game after game of chess with the man he knows will be his executioner in 'End-Game'. In 'Delta at Sunset' an archaeologist is crippled by a leg wound and forced to remain in the camp, looking out over a lake, while his wife and his assistant explore the nearby city and, he suspects, each other.

Stories in this collection address more traditional sf preoccupations ('The Reptile Enclosure'), disturbing surrealism that reminds me of Robert Aickman's dark explorations of the subconscious ('The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon'), and all points in between. It's in the most traditional sf elements of the stories that the book is at its weakest - the premise underlying 'The Reptile Enclosure' and the scientific explanation in 'The Illuminated Man' sound awkward and strained: 'Just as a supersaturated solution will discharge itself into a crystalline mass, so the supersaturation of matter in a continuum of deleted time leads to its appearance in a parallel spatial matrix.' These clunky 'as you know, Bob' passages are at odds with the usual controlled fluency of Ballard's prose, and it is a relief when 'The Illuminated Man' moves away from unconvincing attempts at explanation into exploration of the vivid, haunting world: 'By day fantastic birds flew through the petrified forest, and jewelled alligators glittered like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline rivers. By night the illuminated man raced among the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels, his head like a spectral crown...' Two years later Ballard was to expand this short story into the novel 'The Crystal World'.

The best stories in this collection are those that most depart from attempts at scientific explanation and which instead explore Ballard's preoccupations, such as the debris that civilisation has abandoned, and the externalisation of the mental into the physical. Nowhere is this more evident than in the title story of the collection, which along with 'The Drowned Giant' are the strongest stories in the book. In 'Terminal Beach' Traven, a man still grieving for his dead wife and son, has smuggled himself on to an abandoned island once used for the testing of nuclear weapons. He makes his home amidst the decaying observation towers (all familiar Ballardian territory), explores the maze-like space between the uncountable concrete blockhouses, sees visions of his wife and son, and gradually begins to lose himself amidst the detritus and structures of the nuclear age, lose himself mentally as well as physically, the inner structures and symbolism of his mind becoming one with that of the island.

He encounters two visiting scientists who are there to conduct biological research in a disused submarine pen, and the reaction of one of the scientists neatly sums up where Ballard's concerns lie, not with the external world of science, but with the internal world of the mind:

'"Doctor," he said, "Your laboratory is at the wrong end of this island."
Tartly Osborne replied: "I'm aware of that, Traven. There are rarer fish swimming in your head than in any submarine pen'.

The concern with the symbols and images of the thermonuclear age probably carry less resonance now than when Ballard wrote the story, as familiarity - even with the possibility of the extinction of the species - has bred contempt. Many of the new readers of this book will have grown up in a nuclear world, where the images of the abandoned island will carry less weight than they do for Ballard, who remembered a time before Fat Man and Little Boy, and for whom that whole period - his experiences in a Japanese prison camp, and an ending to war which only released a new, different war - was so formative. Regardless of this, 'Terminal Beach' is a haunting, disturbing story.

The opening story, 'A Question of Re-entry', follows its Conradian opening with more of the same. The boat journey up the Amazon is in pursuit of information about a lost space capsule; the UN officer in charge of the search is being taken to meet a Kurz-figure, a Westerner who has gone native, and who holds an Indian tribe around him through the sheer force of his personality - and something more. Although often intense, Ballard is seldom humourless, as the irony of the title's pun eventually reveals. 'Billennium', superficially an exploration of some of the consequences of overpopulation, is more concerned with Ballard's amusing and cynical portrayal of human nature, a story which may well have been prompted by his experiences in the confined spaces of a Japanese prison camp.

'The Drowned Giant' is a poignant, under-played fable reminiscent of some of Borges' gentle stories. The body of a giant is washed up on the coast. A scientist - whose name we never learn - is asked by his sceptical colleagues to examine this phenomenon. At first the crowds that gather are wary, fascinated, respectful of the colossal corpse lying on the beach. But as the process of decomposition gradually sets in, so does a parallel decay in the behaviour of those who come to see the giant. The wonder, this unparalleled marvel becomes an object of abuse, of exploitation, and eventually of no consequence.

The stories in this collection were first published in 1964 but their republication by Phoenix is a welcome one. A few of Ballard's concerns have dated (a near obsession with satellites orbiting the earth, that returns in a number of the stories) but others remain fresh and challenging in their examination of the individual in a technological world. In 'Terminal Beach' Traven observes where the weapons tests had fused the sand in layers, forming strata which marked out the geology of the nuclear age: 'Typically the island inverted the geologist's maxim, "The key to the past lies in the present". Here, the key to the present lay in the future.'

Ballard is too complex a writer to be summed up by a simple manifesto, but the last line of Traven's observation provides a useful path through the blockhouses of Terminal Beach.

Review by Iain Rowan.

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© Iain Rowan 16 June 2001