BOOK REVIEW / Dead astronauts and albatrosses: Rushing to paradise - J G Ballard: Flamingo pounds 14.99

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Nobody can fault either the intensity or the conviction of J G Ballard's obsessions: nuclear test sites, dead albatrosses, empty swimming pools and abandoned cities. Submerged enemy aircraft filled with skeletons, dead astronauts orbiting the earth in beeping satellites, and motorists stranded on collapsed freeway off-ramps. For more than 30 years Ballard has mined and re-mined his subconscious with a sort of clinical exactitude. He has created original and perplexing new landscapes with such skill and consistency that even his strangest imaginings have come to seem familiar.

In Rushing to Paradise, a number of 'forward-thinking' individuals gather on the Pacific island of Saint Esprit in order to create the perfect society. Led by a rather grungy eco-feminist named Doctor Barbara, and banded together by 'animal rights sentimentality', Ballard's utopians want to create a new world order where people and nature can live together in perfect harmony. But nature, it turns out, has other plans.

The Age of Man is coming to an end, suggests Doctor Barbara. 'Science and Reason have had their day, their place is the museum. Perhaps the future belongs to magic, and it's we women who control the magic.' In any case, Doctor Barbara certainly controls the island's medical supplies, and after successively poisoning most of her male companions, she enlists her young protege, Neil, to impregnate both herself and her various female accomplices. Dad is out; Mum is in. Women are the real 'endangered species', Doctor Barbara argues. But not for long.

Ballard's castaways include a Hawaiian bodyguard named Kimo, a number of anarcho-hippie-types seeking free love and stolen canned goods, a beautiful airline stewardess, and an elderly Japanese gentleman named Professor Saito, who carries with him the cremated remains of Hiroshima's H-Bomb survivors in his luggage. Unfortunately, though, characterisation has never been one of Ballard's strong suits, and this motley crew never quite comes together. In fact, in many ways, Rushing to Paradise often recalls examples of Ballard's better stories and novels without achieving any of the same resonance - the nuclear iconography of 'Terminal Island,' for example, or the return of civilization's repressed in the remarkable High Rise. Here Ballard's various customary obsessions never gather any drive or momentum; they simply unravel in a clamour of half-formulated ideas.

In Rushing to Paradise, the satire feels awkward and the dialogue contrived. To judge by Ballard's recent work - The Kindness of Women, or his story collection War Fever - his stride has not weakened over the years, but in this particular novel it seems to have decidedly faltered.

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