Ballard's Representation of America Compared To Dick's
Dick’s work is interesting in that despite the fact that many of the stories were set either in the future or on some off-world colony, they paint an accurate picture of what it was like to live in America during the 50s and 60s. For example, a story such as “Foster, You’re Dead” (1955), despite being set in 1971, is a stunning portrayal of what life was like during the Cold War, where atomic devastation could rain down on you at any moment. The idea for the story came from the President suggesting that if people owned their own bomb shelters rather than having them provided by the government, then they would take better care of them, and so is therefore intimately tied in to the period. The protagonist is Mike Foster, a schoolboy whose parents have no shelter while everyone else’s does, and Dick expertly describes the anxiety of not knowing when the bombs are going to fall. It also describes how the children receive lessons in digging underground for survival, and how they practice running while holding their breaths in case of a gas attack:
“He hadn’t done well; the others were still red-faced and racing when he halted, expelled his air, and stood gasping frantically for breath.
“Foster,” the coach said angrily, “you’re dead. You know that? If this had been a gas attack...... You’ve got to do better, if you expect to survive.”
But he didn’t expect to survive.....” (Dick, The Father-Thing, p286).
It is easy to forget what life was like in parts of America during this period. Atom bomb tests were viewed by the public like baseball games, and at school, children practiced ducking under their desks for protection from the bombs. Dick described himself as feeling “furious” at the Presidential announcement, and the fact that the enemy are the Soviets as opposed to the Martians, proves that he was making a direct criticism of this idea.
However, in the same story Dick also manages to criticise 50s America’s love of consumption, and the nascent craft of advertising:
“You know, this game has one real advantage over selling people cars and TV sets. With something like this we have to buy. (....) They always said the way to sell something was to create anxiety in people. Create a sense of insecurity - tell them they smell bad or look funny. But this makes a joke out of deodorant and hair oil. You can’t escape this. If you don’t buy, they’ll kill you.” (Dick, The Father-Thing, p295).
Indeed Dick, like Ballard, was obsessed with the power of the media over ordinary people, and the appetite of his countrymen for new consumer items during this period. In another 50s story, “Sales Pitch” (1954), Dick describes a future world where not only are advertising billboards and street vendors everywhere, but advertising can also be beamed directly into people’s brains. Things come to a head, however, when a household-robot enters Ed Morris’ house, and sets about selling itself. It destroys furniture then rebuilds it, digs a hole in the floor then repairs it, and so on. And it refuses to leave when Morris orders it to:
“I’m not your fasrad to order around. Until you’ve purchased me at the regular list price, I’m responsible only to Self-Regulating Android Inc. Their instructions were to the contrary. I’m to remain with you until you buy me.”
“Suppose I never buy you?”
“I’ll continue to remain with you. Eventually you’ll buy me.”” (Dick, The Father-Thing, p233).
And as Morris’ wife points out, “They always said they wanted a product that sold itself.” (Dick, The Father-Thing, p232). And here Dick shows what life would be like if “they” got their way. (In Ballard’s story, “The Subliminal Man” (1967), a Dr Franklin discovers that thousands of huge advertising hoardings actually display subliminal messages so that without any conscious decision, people end up buying products they don’t need. On discovering this secret (a sign is sabotaged by a protester so that the messages ordering people to buy a new car can be seen), he tells his wife who replies, “Advertising is here to stay. We’ve no real freedom of choice anyway.” (Ballard, The Disaster Area, p75). The story ends with him giving up trying to persuade his wife of the signs’ sinister purpose........and then going to buy a new car. Both stories are profoundly cynical about advertising and the consumer society. That this should be so is unsurprising when one considers the authors’ joint interest in the subject, and the fact that both England and America have very highly developed mass media).
However, to return to Dick’s representation of America, after the Watergate scandal and the beginning of the Vietnam War, a sense of cynicism about authority and the Government swept the country, and Dick also captured this period of American history in two novels set in the future. In The Penultimate Truth (1965), Dick describes a post-Apocalyptic world where the entire populace lives in cramped bunkers underground. Everyday they have news reports beamed down to them about the latest nuclear attacks that are ravaging the surface etc. Eventually, however, one of the bunker inhabitants accidentally makes it to the surface, only to find an untouched world of pastoral beauty; lakes, forests, meadows. He discovers that the authorities have simply fabricated decades of newsreels so that they can live in sprawling villas, without the bother of the rest of the populace wandering around ruining their world.
A similar distrust of an intrinsically self-serving Government can be found in another novel of the same year, The Zap Gun. Here, the authorities abandon expensive weapons research and simply make useless items that look dangerous, instead. Both Super-powers co-operate in the deception, maintaining Cold War stability without actually spending money developing genuine weapons. This situation is stable until the Earth is invaded by aliens, and both Governments are then faced with the problem of making a genuine weapon that actually works.
However, as the sixties came to an end, and there were race-riots, killings on University campuses, and the flower-power movement reached its zenith, Dick’s work again reflected the shifting political realities of the time through his work. A drug-user for most of his life, Dick became immersed in the “counter-culture” and the drug scene in the late sixties/early seventies. Dick wrote about these times, the paranoia, the bungled scams and deals, in two of his later novels, A Scanner Darkly (1977), and Valis (1981). Many of the characters were based on people Dick actually knew. Jerry Fabin and his spraying himself with Raid to get rid of the aphids that he thought were crawling on his body was based on a former housemate, as was the maniacal Jim Barris who slips the hero an overdose of the drug, Death.
A Scanner Darkly is about an undercover drugs cop called Bob Arctor, who, in order to fit in with the drug users he is observing has to take the identity-splitting drug called Death. However, because of informers in the police service, Bob can not even reveal his true identity to the other cops, and is known simply as Agent Fred. Thus, as his brain fragments he forgets who he really is and starts to observe himself on hidden video screens, submitting reports, as Fred, on the suspicious behaviour of Bob. Eventually the drug rots his brain so much he is reduced to a state of child-like confusion and is moved to a rehabilitation clinic, a clinic that is also the main supplier of Death, using the brain-dead patients as cheap labour for the cultivation of the plant from which it is derived.
But it is the small events, late-night drug-fuelled conversations that Dick drew from his own experiences that expertly reflected the countercultural movement in California in the late sixties. For example, in one scene Bob and his friend discuss ways of smuggling dope:
“Well, see, you take a huge block of hash and carve it in the shape of a man. Then you hollow out a section and put a wind-up motor like a clockworks in it, and a little cassette tape (....) and it walks up to the customs man, who says to it, “Do you have anything to declare?” and the block of hash says, “No, I don’t”, and keeps on walking. Until it runs down on the other side of the border.”
“You could put a solar-type battery in it instead of a spring and it could keep walking for years. Forever. Imagine an Eskimo village, and a six-foot high block of hash......comes walking through the snow saying over and over, “No, I don’t.”
“They’d wonder what it meant by that.”
“There’d be legends.” (Dick, A Scanner Darkly, p179).
A similar portrayal of life in the drug scene in 60s California can be found in Valis. The main protagonist is a mentally disturbed drug user called Horselover Fat. Dick, who features as a character in the novel who is writing the novel, says:
“Fat worried about Stephanie. Stephanie worried about the price of hash. Moreso she worried about the price of cocaine. (.....) We used to argue that Stephanie couldn’t have existed before the Sixties. Dope had brought her into being, summoned her out of the very ground.” (Dick, Valis, p20).
The fact that Dick intended A Scanner Darkly to be published as a non-SF novel has already been discussed, but he also added in an Author’s Note:
“I am not a character in this novel: I am the novel. So, though, was our entire nation at this time. It was, this sitting around with our buddies and bullshitting while making tape recordings, the bad decision of the decade, the sixties, both in and out of the establishment.” (Dick, A Scanner Darkly, p254).
Ballard’s representations of America, as one would expect from an Englishman who has little first-hand experience of America, is very different, his perception of America being derived mostly from its representations in the Arts and media. He recognised this possibility when writing his inter-linking collection of stories, Vermilion Sands.
“I couldn't use an American location for Vermilion Sands. ......I was forced to invent a kind of international version of a decaying resort in a desert. Thank God I had to, because if I hadn’t.......... I would have slipped into all the conventional clichés of the American landscape. I invented something which was much truer to myself and also much closer to the surrealists (who were my main inspiration). In fact I had to invent my own America.” (Ballard in V/Search, 1984, p118).
Indeed, when writing his 1981 novel, Hello America, he said that "I got my input for Hello America from Kojak, and Vegas and The Rockford Files. I've never been to New York City or to the West Coast. I think one doesn't really need to travel - TV travels for you.” (Ballard in V/Search, 1984, pp34-35).
That said, Ballard has in fact been to America on a number of occasions. In 1953, while he was doing his pilot training in the RCAF in Saskatchewan, he made a number of trips to Detroit, Buffalo and Niagara Falls. However, it is obvious that his experience of America as a tourist would be much different to Dick’s, especially when one considers the years Dick spent “in the gutter” (as he put it). And on later visits to America, his experience as a feted “avant-garde” New Worlds writer in the seventies would have led to a different experience than Dick’s experiences as an SF writer in the 50s and 60s where his status was “little better than a janitor”.
Thus it is unsurprising that Ballard’s interest in America is primarily in its Arts and especially its media and popular culture (as that as how he “knows” America). As he says in his introduction to Hello America:
“The United States has given birth to most of our century’s dreams, and to a good many of its nightmares. No other country has created such a potent vision of itself, and exported that vision so successfully to the rest of the world. (.....) I often feel that the real “America” lies not in the streets......but in the imaginary America created by Hollywood and the media landscape.” (Ballard, “Introduction” in Hello America, p1).
The novel Hello America is set in the America of the late twenty-first century. This America is now almost deserted and occupied only by a few thousand “Indians” - American people who refused to leave the country at the end of the twentieth century when the oil ran out and the ecological balance of the world shifted. The Americans of the Twentieth century returned to their mother-countries, Poland, Ireland, Britain, Germany, and so on. In order to counteract the ecological chaos, the Russo-European nations built a dam across the Bering Straits which meant that vast parts of the African and Asian continents could be farmed, but resulted in America becoming a desert on the East coast, and a swampy forest in Nevada.
Ballard tells the story of an expedition party from the Russo-European nations who are sent to America to investigate strange radioactive emissions across the continent. He traces their journey across America, until they get to Las Vegas where they are introduced to President Manson, a man who arrived there some twenty years before and has started to rebuild America, starting with Las Vegas. He already has helicopters, cars, a power station, and the remaining nuclear arsenal working and ready for use. Some of the characters are happy to work with him, eager to see a new future in America, but they soon realise that Manson is mad, and Manson, when he realises he has lost (a military party arrives from Moscow), starts to use up his nuclear arsenal playing Roulette with the numbers of the wheel replaced with the names of American cities. Finally, he sets off the last ICBM to hit Las Vegas, then is shot while the other protagonists escape to rebuild their own vision of America.
In his “Introduction” Ballard says: “A curious feature of the United States is that this nation with the most advanced science and technology the world has ever seen...... amuses itself with a comic-book culture aimed for the most part at bored and violent teenagers. (.....) But what would happen if we took the United States at its face value and constructed an alternative America from all these images?”
And in Hello America, Ballard tries to see what such an America would be like; in some ways the novel is essentially a re-telling of past history. The Russo-European expedition dock at the abandoned Ellis Island as did their forebears, and many of them re-Anglicise their names - Anna Somer becomes Anne Summers; Gregor Orlowski becomes Gregory Orwell, and so on. They ground their ship on one of the spikes of the submerged Statue of Liberty (an old favourite as far as SF imagery is concerned), and they gradually get to meet the various “Indians” (who live in primitive tribe-like clans, each with its own distinct dress and culture, for example, the Executives from New York who wear battered pin-stripe suits; the Bureaucrats from Washington, and The Gays from San Francisco). The Indian’s names are brand-names of twentieth century consumer items such as Heinz, Big Mac, Texaco and Xerox (An Indian says, “All women called Xerox - they make good copies” (Ballard, Hello America, p64)).
And as the expedition makes its way across America to search for the radiation leaks, (from east to west like the original pioneers), there is the opposition between the real America and what the expedition knows of the past America; like Ballard, their conception of the country is based primarily on the media - old magazine articles, advertising and the like. The hero, Wayne, is shocked to see that the steam-driven cars a few “Indians” now use are so unlike the massive chrome Buicks that he dreamed of. The leader of the expedition sums up the feeling of this expedition: “I feel like Columbus. By rights the natives should appear now, bearing traditional gifts of hamburgers and comic-books” (Ballard, Hello America, p33).
Of course the power of the media and of celebrity is one of Ballard’s favourite themes, so it is unsurprising that iconic figures of American culture play a major part in the novel. Wayne’s father, an unbalanced scientist, is allowed by Manson to while away his days building robotic simulacra of the forty-four American Presidents, and has created a holographic projector that projects two thousand feet tall figures of Hollywood stars, JFK and Charles Manson to scare away the Indians.
“High above him, almost filling the cloudless, cobalt sky, was the enormous figure of a cowboy. Two huge spurred boots, each the height of a ten storey building, rested on the hills above the town.
Wayne gasped as another vast cowboy appeared beside him......
“Henry Fonda......” Dressed as Wyatt Earp in the old western Wayne had seen so many times, My Darling Clementine.” (Ballard, Hello America, pp97-98).
These figures are joined by Gary Cooper from High Noon and Alan Ladd from Shane. Later in the novel these moving holographic images are joined by other iconic American figures - Joe Louis, Mickey Mouse, a Coke bottle, Marilyn Monroe in her Seven Year Itch pose, King Kong, an American GI, and, as Las Vegas falls before the approaching European force:
“.....the murdered JFK slumped across the sky......then came a succession of dead gangsters, Baby Face Nelson, Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd riddled with bullets, Lee Harvey Oswald grimacing in the moments before death” (Ballard, Hello America, p189).
Ballard seems to be saying these criminals and their ilk are as much a part of American culture as Mickey Mouse. This idea is reinforced when one considers that these images appear as Las Vegas - a city almost built with Mafia money, is falling. And the fact that Ballard posits that the new America should have Las Vegas, the most recent, “comic-book” city in America, all neon and tacky gloss, as its capital rather than Washington, shows what Ballard regards as the core values of America that are built upon, in this new state.
So Ballard is questioning the essential morality at the core of American society (he says in the introduction to Hello America, “If we took the United States at its face value and constructed an alternative America from these images.....the simulacrum might well reveal something of the secret agenda that lies beneath the enticing surface of the American dream.” Thus a new America built upon the images that have become synonymous with it would have a President Manson as President, and a capital in Las Vegas. (It is also interesting that some of the first things Manson does is find the old nuclear arsenal and keep the neon signs of Las Vegas continually lit. The country is a desert but at least the “civilised” part of it has its surface gloss restored.
However, this cynical view is restricted more to what he believes America represents, rather than a patronising, Imperialistic view of Americans as somehow inherently culturally inferior. He once said: "I saw a filmscript of Crash by a very good English writer. This version was set in Los Angeles with American characters, an American landscape...... It was a genuine translation, not just of language but of everything. I didn't really like it. It was almost Disneyfied.”
The fact that he emphasises the fact that the writer was both “very good” and English, shows that he isn’t just saying that the Americans can’t create art of any depth, he is saying that the American landscape is so familiar to us from Hollywood and TV images that any representation of that landscape automatically has the feel of a film, no matter how disturbing the subject matter.
It is also interesting that Ballard’s representation of America, based as it is almost entirely on media images, has much in common with Dick’s. For example, in Hello America, Wayne’s father has created simulacra of the forty-four American Presidents, yet Dick too wrote stories involving simulacra of American Presidents, whether fictional ones (The Simulacra, “Novelty Act”) or Abraham Lincoln (We Can Build You). However, the symbolism of the Presidential robots is very different, and reflects the different interests of the writers. In We Can Build You, Dick has the Lincoln robot debating his favourite theme of “what is human” with a greedy human tycoon - with the human, not the machine, denying the existence of the soul. In Hello America, the Presidents are mindless automata that deliver famous pre-programmed speeches, and can be ordered to do anything “from behind the scenes.”
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