J. G. Ballard and The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D
New Age, New Wave, New Deal — the names never seem to hold up more than a few years. When the New Wave in science fiction became an old wave, it kept its name. That’s too bad, really, because it makes a genuine change in science fiction seem a little silly. Art Noveau suffers from the same illogic, but since the phrase is French, no one notices.
I was there when the New Wave happened but I won’t try to define the movement. It can’t really be done, although Wikipedia does as good a job as anyone will. It was an exceedingly amorphous movement, full of wonderful writing and unbearable crap — pretty much like most movements.
For me as a reader, long before I became a writer, the New Wave just meant that there were wonderful stories available from Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and J. G. Ballard. And in the weird department, Ballard made Ellison and Zelazny look like insurance salesmen.
I’m going to try to untangle Ballard’s The Cloud–Sculptors of Coral D down a few paragraphs, but first let me tell you a couple of things.
I bought Ballard’s complete short stories when it became available, probably ten years ago, but I hadn’t read a single story from it until recently. I remember his work with awe and wonder, but that doesn’t mean memories of joy. His stories crawl around like worms in my subconscious, so I didn’t read them again, even though I normally re-read everything.
I was thinking about those stories one day in 2017, especially the one called Deep End which is steeped in hopelessness about the human condition. A short story popped out of my head and fell onto paper. Since Ballard inspired it, it is grim. If you are interested in a dip into the black pool, click here.
Then, a few weeks ago, I found myself being challenged by Joachim Boaz. He recently reviewed Thirteen to Centaurus by Ballard. It’s one of Ballard’s works that I had not read, so I decided to do so before I read Boaz’s review.
But before starting that, I decided to re-read something I remembered fondly (but faintly) in order to repair some of the trauma induced by Deep End.
I normally avoid spoilers, but not this time. I could lay out the events of The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D completely, and it would be like a skeleton compared to a man. The plot is nothing. The words are everything.
Here is what happens. Four men come together in a strange landscape, clearly one which remains after a cataclysm. One is a pilot with a broken leg, one is a dwarf, one is an artist, one is a playboy. Together they become purveyors of a transitory performance art. They sculpt statues out of clouds, flying in gliders, and carving with silver iodide.
Every one of these men is a cripple in one sense or another. The pilot with his broken leg, through whose eyes we see events, is the least crippled of them.
Enter Leonora Chanel, heiress, flawed beauty, and murderess. She surrounds herself with portraits of herself, and she is the most crippled of them all. She hires the men to sculpt her face in the sky, but at another location. When they arrive, the main character says to her . . .
Clouds . . . those are tigers, tigers with wings. We are manicurists of the air, not dragon-tamers.
. . . and we immediately know that not all of the sculptors will survive.
I will leave the rest of the how and why unreported in case you read the story. What we have here is a group of damaged men, in a damaged world, under the spell of a powerful la belle dame sans merci. It could be Burma after WWII, or any of a hundred other places, in any of a dozen movies or novels out of the fifties.
What makes it science fiction, and moving, is not the plot but the descriptions. And what makes the descriptions memorable is as much what is left out as what is said.
Vermillion sands. Towers of coral rising up from the shattered bed of a dead sea. Sonic statues which wail eerily at just the right moment. Gliders, “brilliant painted toys, revolving like lazing birds above Coral D”. Leonora’s jeweled eyes, a phrase repeated almost too often before we find out what it actually means. “Memories, caravels without sails, crossing the shadowy deserts of her burnt-out eyes.” The dwarf, “with a child’s overlit eyes”.
It is all clearly an allegory, but Ballard gives us very few clues as to what it is an allegory of. One character says, “We had entered an inflamed landscape,” and that is a good short description of Coral D and of Ballard as a writer.
The people, actions, and motives are as surreal as the landscape. It seems like a cop-out to say this, but Coral D, like most of Ballard, has to be read. It can’t be conveyed. And when you finish reading, you may still feel frustrated and confused.
But you won’t forget it.
Now, from the sublime to the absurd.
When I was ten years old, while other kids were reading Spiderman, I was reading Scrooge McDuck. My hyper-religious parents would not allow non-Disney comic books in the house.
In one episode, Scrooge had another get-rich(er) scheme. He outfitted biplanes with bulldozer blades, flew around herding clouds into cubical shapes over farmers’ fields, and seeded them with silver iodide — all for profit. I don’t remember too much more detail, and I have been unable to find a copy anywhere, but I do remember one picture of the rain falling to the exact middle of a wooden fence, since Scrooge McDuck would not let one drop of his rain fall on a field which had not been paid for.
You would have a hard time finding two works more superficially similar and essentially different than McDuck and Coral D. It boggles the mind. Did Ballard read McDuck in his youth and get a picture lodged in his subconscious? Or was Carl Barks, who wrote and drew Scrooge McDuck, secretly a fan of weird science fiction?
Either alternative is too strange to contemplate.