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Hello America

This title is currently out of print in the U.S.

Imagine the American continent abandoned, and then revisited for the first time a century later. European explorers rediscover the American dream, and the American nightmare. They seek the self-declared President, a man calling himself Charles Manson who is living in Howard Hughes old suite in Las Vegas.

The following is a review I wrote about Hello, America for my Aesthetics II class in graduate school. My teacher's written comments were "Based on your excellent review I must read this one!"

From his house in Shepperton, British author J.G. Ballard seems to have his fingers on the subconscious pulse of America. In a 1981 interview by Alan Burns of the book The Imagination on Trial: British and American writers discuss their working methods, Ballard stated "When I began as a science fiction writer, I felt that science fiction wasn't making the most of its own possibilities. It ahd become fantasy; its two main preoccupations were outer space and the far future, whereas in its best days it had always been a literature of commitment. I wanted to write a science fiction about the present day." In 1967 he predicted the 1980 rise of Ronald Regan to President. His 1981 novel Hello America touches upon many fascinations of 90s America: Charles Manson, military technology, the presidential office, and Las Vegas.

Ballard's America of 2130 is an abandoned ruin. An energy and oil crisis led to economic collapse and the vast American continent slid back to a primitive agricultural level. soon America began a reverse migration back to its ethnic departure points, two hundred years after the original westward journey. The Bering Straits were dammed to enable Europe an Asia to support the increased populations. The changes in oceanic currents flooded the western coast of America, turning them to jungles, and the central plains turned to vast desert creeping eastward. By 2030 the United States of America ceased to exist.

In 2130 a few radioactive clouds drift across the Atlantic and a scientific expedition is sent to investigate. John Wayne is a twenty-one year old stowawat aboard Survey Vessel 299, rechrisstened the SS Apollo by the crew at Wayne's suggestion. His obsessions have driven him to hide on board the ship: he dreams of blowing up the Bering Dam and reirrigating the desert. Also, was a scientist who vanished on a similar expedition twenty years earlier really his father as his mad mother told him?

Wayne's presence sparks something amongst the rest of the crew and he soon learns of their own subtle obsessions and desires. Steiner, the ship's captain, dreams of wandering the deserts alone. He reefs the Apollo as they land to prevent any chance of leaving. McNair, the engineer, wants to rebuild the crumbled industry. Expedition leader Gregor Orlowski entertains thoughts of political leadership. Paul Ricci and Anne Summers, the nuclear physicists, have quite different, but somehow equally glamorous motivations. Ricci is fleeing a potential scandal, an outlaw seeking the empty frontier. Summers, the only woman of the group, dreams of glamorous hotels and movie stars.

America turns out to not be as empty as originally assumed. Tribes of nomadic aboriginals, descended from those left behind, roam the deserted cities. Simple hunter-gatherers, they are banded together and named by the barest fragments of the past: the Executives, an NY tribe who wear old three-piece suits; the Gangsters from Chicago; the Divorcees, an all woman group. The natives speak about visions of giant spaceships over the cities, followed by earthquakes, slowly driving everyone away. Leaving McNair and the crew to try and repair the ship, the rest of the group journeys to Washington DC Steiner's desire to go off on and Orlowski's lust for the presidency become apparent. At this point another earthquake happens, centered on Boston, and the nuclear physicists determine it was in fact a nuclear detonation. Believing McNair and the others dead, and rapidly rebelling against Orlowski's leadership, the party decides to head in the "American direction," to head west.

In the desert things finally come apart. Orlowski takes sick and dies. Steiner distances himself increasingly as they move west. As Wayne prepares to shoot him in Boot Hill cemetery, visions appear in the sky: images of John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Gary Cooper. Steiner vanishes after shooting Ricci.

Saved from the desert by McNair, who escaped the Boston fallout thanks to a trio of steam-driven cars and assisting natives, the expedition reaches Las Vegas, finding it fully lit up and somewhat of a jungle. There they meet the President of the United States: President Charles Manson. Actually a psychotic refugee from Europe, Manson has recreated himself into a blend of the original Manson, Richard Nixon, and Howard Hughes. He has his own dreams for rebuilding America, and has recruited a teenage army from Mexico, most of whom have their own dreams of rebuilding an Aztec empire or avenging the injustices inflicted by colonizing missionaries. The visions seen by the aboriginals and Wayne were holographic projections of Manson's, designed to scare away the former and lead on the latter. Manson approves of Wayne's dream of blowing up the Bering Dam and takes Wayne into his confidence as Vice-President.

Wayne also comes across Dr. Fleming, the man his mother told him was his father. Fleming acknowledges the possibility, but Wayne feels men like Manson represent his true lineage. Fleming, however, breaks Wayne out of his reverie, pointing out the reality behind Manson's actions. After having helped Manson gain control of the abandoned cruise missiles, Fleming has spent his time building robot replicas of the past US presidents and developing solar-powered gliders. After the violent final confrontation with manson, Fleming's gliders allow him, Wayne, Summers, McNair and some of the aboriginals and teenage military to literally ride off into the sunset.

As with all of Ballard's writing, the bulk of the books is lush exposition. Some sections are written in the form of Wayne's journal. The littlest details and references create dense realistic imagery. However, as with most of his writing, Hello America isn't so much about the physical journey across the land as it is about the character's personal voyages within their own minds. Ballard is a fan of the mass media and champion of the imagination. These two elements, filtered through his interest in surrealism, are what he uses to create his worlds. Within the mass media, people compete for recognition, struggle to create the most memorable image. In Hello America, crowded heavily rationed Europe is the mass. The members of the expedition are all struggling for an identity. They want fame and fortune: the classic American dream. From his place in middle-class England, Ballard expresses his belief that all we have to fear in the future is boredom. We should be able to stave that off as long as he keeps writing.

Ballard's Futures Imperfect
j.g. ballard

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j.g. ballard