SECOND THOUGHTS / Sculptors who carve the clouds: J G Ballard on the vision of the future that prompted 'Vermilion Sands' (Orion pounds 5.99)

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The Independent Culture
THE SHORT STORIES that make up this collection were written between 1956 and 1970, and once they were published in a single volume I never returned, regrettably, to this genial playground. By sealing one's imagination between hard covers one can close the door forever on a still vivid private world. I'm glad that I began my career by writing short stories, when I was free to chase any passing hare in a way that is no longer possible, and without over-committing myself to a single idea. Fiction today is dominated by career novelists locked into their publishers' contracts like the prematurely middle-aged encumbered by mortgages and pension plans. Irresponsibility, especially the agreeable variety displayed in Vermilion Sands, has a great many neglected virtues.

One of the stories in the collection, 'Prima Belladonna', was the first piece of fiction that I ever published, and I can still remember the thrill of receiving the cheque for pounds 8. At last I was a professional writer, and my wife and I celebrated by using the money to buy our baby son a new pram. Pushing it past the department stores in Chiswick High Street, a hundred ideas in my head, I felt that I had found the philosopher's stone.

Looking back, it seems curious that my first short story was set in an imaginary beach resort as far removed from the grey, shabby Britain of the 1950s as one could go without actually leaving the planet. By 1956 I had spent 10 years in England, but clearly had yet to put down any real roots.

Where is Vermilion Sands? Somewhere, I suppose, between Palm Springs and Ipanema Beach. The notion of a future entirely devoted to leisure is now commonplace, but it seemed less obvious in the Fifties, as Europe dragged itself wearily into the post-war world. I had just spent nearly a year in North America, and had seen American prosperity unrolling across the continent like the new interstate highways. Work, I guessed, would one day become the ultimate play, and play the ultimate work.

All this leisure, of course, raises its own set of moral dilemmas, which I look at in Vermilion Sands. To fill their timeless days, the inhabitants of my desert resort divert themselves with a number of playthings. There are computers that compose poetry, sand-yachts and sound-emitting sculptures, which seemed to be fantasies in the 1950s but have long since come to pass. I trust that my other inventions, like the houses sensitive to their owners' moods, and the sculptors who carve the clouds, will soon follow. One day in the near future, perhaps, in Arizona or the south of France, I will wake up and realise that the world I longed for all those decades ago has taken concrete shape around me.

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