Mike’s Prattle

Miscellaneous

Books Received; J. G. Ballard – Vermilion Sands; Ted Chiang – Stories of Your Life and Others

Posted by Mike on January 2, 2007

  • Alastair Reynolds – Galactic North

I actually read the Vermilion Sands stories after encountering one in Nebula Award Stories Volume 3. I’d just received Ballard’s collected stories, two fat, imposing paperbacks, so just reading these stories felt like a good way to test the waters. They are: “Prima Belladonna,” “Mobile” (rev. “Venus Smiles”), “Studio 5, The Stars,” “The Singing Statues,” “The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista,” “The Screen Game,” “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” “The Cloud Sculptures of Coral D” and “Say Goodbye to the Wind” and were probably in a slightly different order in the Vermilion Sands collection.

My first encounter with Ballard was through his two earliest novels, “A Wind from Nowhere” and “The Drowned World,” his first two disaster novels of the elements, the first Air, the second Water. While I admired Ballard’s prose, setting and descriptive prowess, I found both books rather bleak and thus a bit hard to read. The Vermilion Sands stories have all of Ballard’s strengths set in a unique milieu. Vermilion Sands is something of a resort for the rich and famous, although you’re introduced to the milieu in its decline. As most of the stories were written in the 60s, the stories definitely have something of that flavor, although it seems obvious that the stories of Vermilion Sands are set in some undefined future. While discussions of the people who live in Vermilion Sands speak of decadent actresses past their prime, usually legendary figures who have met some sort of tragedy, the technology of the milieu is futuristic, including clothes and houses that are alive and musical statues that resonate to people. It makes the entire atmosphere totally unique, a future that isn’t a future, so to speak. The language speaks of the place like a seaside resort, but it seems that it’s more a desert resort, for instance “rays” (akin to manta rays) are visible from everywhere, but float in the air rather than the sea. The stories are generally about a disaffected protagonist who comes into contact with one of the town’s longtimers and finds themselves transformed in a way. The stories are more character studies than plot-driven and one reads the language for the sublimity of emotion. Overall there seems nothing like it elsewhere, although by the final story, you can understand why Ballard never returned to the milieu again (or did he?), so much of it breathes in between the spaces.

In comparison, Ted Chiang’s only collection seems much more plot or concept-based, in fact his concepts are so excellent you could see different writers plotting books and series out of them. Chiang is somewhat infamous for writing very little while raking in the awards when he does and there’s at least one story here that is quite deserving. That happens to be the title story, a first contact story that works its magic through the protagonist’s attempt to learn the language of the aliens the humans call hexapods. This language eventually changes the translator’s viewpoint of time a fact brought home by a parallel thread that develops the character’s viewpoint beautifully. I thought I’d like “72 Letters” more than I did given its central conceit of a science evolved from the tenets of kabbalism, but found that the Victorian milieu delivered without much of a sense of humor made the story difficult to read at times, despite the fascinating view of this science. The collection’s only original, a pseudo-documentary about a technology that removes the ability to tell if someone is physically attractive or not, was also beautifully done, exploring the ramifications of such a technology about as perfectly as one could with the length. Overall, a nice little collection and I have to agree with the late Octavia Butler that Mr. Chiang doesn’t write nearly enough.

Christmas and New Years were great, but never long enough as usual. More later if I get a chance…

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