The Shining City in Shambles
A Review and Analysis of Hello America by J. G. Ballard
The central sections of this review contain plot spoilers, but the Introduction and Conclusion can be read without fear of exposure to major plot details.
Science fiction has a very long tradition of societal critique. Although the genre modes with the most currency in the popular culture – space opera and high fantasy – are overwhelmingly asocial, the tradition of social exploration in SF goes back to Shelley by way of Atwood, Huxley, Orwell, and Wells. The dystopian/utopian subgenre is all about raising the reader’s awareness of society’s present state, so as to bring about greater justice, or at the very least avoid a future darker than our present day.
I have been well aware of the above writers for many years, as these are the ones most commonly talked about vis a vis SF utopias and dystopias. Two years ago, I happened upon a book on the Folio Society website by J. G. Ballard called The Drowned World. After a bit of research, I discovered I had unknowingly already been exposed to one of his works in movie form, The Empire of the Sun, and I promptly picked up some of his most interesting-seeming novels – Kingdom Come, High-Rise, The Unlimited Dream Company, and Hello America among them.
My reading list being what it is, all of these titles remained in the category of “many years out,” and until 2017, my first Ballard novel was slated for 2020. However, the recent political events in my country prompted me to search out literature that examines the American condition, and this caused me to move Hello America into an early 2017 slot.
The novel’s action is set in the early twenty-second century, a time in which climate change has rendered the majority of the North American continent uninhabitable. A group of European explorers, descendants of US refugees, return to America a century after their ancestors left, and begin a cross-continental expedition, whose challenges and discoveries call into question some American values, while exulting others.
Hello America was published in 1981, but my Liveright edition includes an introduction written by Ballard in 1994. He writes, “[a] curious feature of the United States is that this nation with the most advanced science and technology the world has ever seen, which has landed men on the moon and created the super-computers that may one day replace us, amuses itself with a comic-book culture aimed for the most part at bored and violent teenagers. … Nonetheless, as the reader will find, Hello America is strongly on the side of the U.S.A., and a celebration of its optimism and self-confidence, qualities that we Europeans conspicuously lack.”
Hello America accurately depicts the best and worst of American culture through its dystopian lens, and the depth of that analysis far exceeded my expectations.
The Forty-Fifth President
By the middle of the twenty-first century, the United States of America has been abandoned. The Russians dam the Bering Strait, and climate change advances rapidly across the North American continent, turning everything east of the Rockies into a parched desert and the West coast into a tropical rainforest. By the early twenty-second century, America is merely an idea, an antiquated memory in the minds of American descendants living throughout Europe.
North America itself remains ignored – until scientists begin picking up atmospheric radiation spikes, and trace them back there. Worried that old nuclear reactors, or worse, weaponry, is malfunctioning, The American University at Dublin sends a team to investigate the continent.
Our narrator for the expedition is Wayne, a gregarious, idealistic, early-twenties stowaway, who dreams of rebuilding American society, restarting the American industrial engine, and, quite shocking to the ears of a reader in 2017, he articulates this desire most succinctly, as that of “making America great again” (158).
His ambitions are at first held in check by the political hierarchy of the scientific expedition. He is kept aboard the ship when they first arrive in New York, but after the ship is beached (due to an accidental run-in with the underwater torch of the Statue of Liberty), he is given more and more responsibilities. Eventually, he finds himself guardian of the water distillation equipment on a horseback expedition from New York City to Washington D.C.
Most of the ship’s crew loot the dead cities for profitable memorabilia, but Wayne has loftier goals. Once in D.C., he seeks out the Washington Monument, the National Mall, and most tellingly, he cleans out the Oval Office, wipes the graffiti off its walls, and digs the Lincoln Memorial out of the hills of sand that have surrounded it.
As the expedition soon learns, America is not completely abandoned. Some people have remained, and roam the desert in tribes. Most of these are shades of various socio-economic groups we would find recognizable – executives, professors, bureaucrats, astronauts – all reduced to a few hundred illiterate nomads done up in the costumes of their ancestors.
Another nuclear strike occurs in Boston, driving the expedition further West, through the vast desert, and toward the Rockies, where they discover the source of the nuclear detonations. In a lit-up Las Vegas, covered now in jungle vegetation, a man calling himself Charles Manson, a member of a prior European expedition (all of whom were presumed dead) has set up a small enclave of civilization and declared himself the forty-fifth president of the United States.
From the onset, Wayne is wary of President Manson, who speaks of a “plague” arriving on the East Coast from Europe, one which can only be contained by dropping nuclear missiles on the affected cities. His citizens are disaffected teenagers, who seem interested in allowing him to rule mostly because he lets them play with guns and helicopters, and smoke pot in their free time. While this does not instill Wayne with confidence, he goes along with Manson’s plans upon being offered the vice-presidency. Wayne hangs his dream of leading America to a brighter future upon Manson’s hook, and that job means managing Manson’s very dangerous and erratic impulses.
Elitism and Xenophobia
‘We need people with the highest skills—computer specialists, systems analysts, architects, agronomists. For the first time in history we’ll be recruiting an entire nation using the personnel selection techniques perfected by Exxon, IBM, and DuPont. … We’ll take only the best because America needs only the best…’
Only Anne had objected, frowning with some surprise at this impassioned speech. ‘But, Wayne, that’s an incredibly elitist viewpoint. What about those tired, huddled masses, yearning to breathe free…?” (162)
As a nation focused intensely on individual achievement, individual responsibility, and individual liberty, we have often found it difficult to correctly balance these very noble imperatives with the necessity of caring for society’s weakest and most vulnerable members. Quite ironically, we often forget about creating equality of opportunity for the disadvantaged, a goal which tends to get lost in the glare given off by the needs and wants of our best and brightest. That individualism often gives these best and brightest inflated egos does nothing to help the matter.
However, as Anne rightfully points out, the necessity of creating that equality is written into our DNA as a nation. We cannot shrug the value off when it becomes inconvenient, as much as we, and Wayne, might like to.
As Wayne’s role as vice-president proceeds, he discovers a second survivor of Manson’s expedition, a Dr. Fleming, who has been holed up in the Las Vegas Convention Center and is constructing animatronic robots of all forty-four American presidents. It is Fleming who reveals the real reason for the East Coast nuclear strikes.
‘But Dr Fleming,’ Wayne insisted, ‘[President Manson] was forced to destroy those cities. The plant and animal life in the New World have lost their resistance to Old World bacteria.’
‘Is that what Charles told you? … Yes, there’s certainly a deadly plague on the way now—it’s very virulent, and there’s no known antidote.’
‘You know about it?’
‘Of course. It’s the most threatening disease of all. It’s called “other people.”’ (183)
The “disease” President Manson is so worried about is not a disease at all, but a thin veil of an excuse for building a wall of radioactivity between Europe and the Rockies.
At our worst, we Americans can lead ourselves to believe that our strength comes from the ability to control a zone of land and keep others out, rather than our ability to stitch together a complex social fabric out of pluralistic consensus-formation – e pluribus unum. We have repeated xenophobia throughout our history, at times targeting races, most blatantly and exploitatively with African Americans, but also with immigrants from Italy and Ireland. Religion has also been also a vector, with Catholicism in the past and Islam today.
At the novel’s conclusion, Wayne stands up to President Manson and declares that neither of them, the self-proclaimed leaders, are the real Americans. The real Americans, he says, are the tribal people he met on his journey. Those tribal people – executives, professors, bureaucrats, astronauts and the like – are the real America. The real America exists in the hearts of people who recognize and respect liberty and democracy, and no president, no matter how corrupt, and despite all his executive power, can usurp that.
Imperfect Executive; Imperfect Execution
While there is much about the novel’s substructure that is exactingly critical and eerily prescient, some elements of its surface structure feel haphazardly, or simply poorly constructed.
Wayne is a fine protagonist, but the other members of the expedition, including the captain, and Anne, the nuclear physicist, are scarcely developed. After a fleeting succession of point of view shifts near the novel’s opening, Wayne remains the point of view character exclusively, and the other characters fall away. Even members of the executive tribe, who play prominent roles in the plot, feel thinly developed.
The exception to this is President Manson, but his own character is problematic. Wayne and other characters do a much better job of describing his insanity than the narrative shows it. Descriptions of Manson’s behavior and especially his speech are oddly sedate when compared to the stark and apprehensive way that Wayne and the others react to him. He has one moment of grimly stoic insanity, in which he orders his military commander Paco to murder dozens of jungle animals for the sole reason that he feels Paco needs experience killing things – but the majority of his dialogue and behavioral descriptions clash starkly with this portrayal.
The novel betrays a latent racism in all of Manson’s teenage army-followers being Mexicans – this choice emblematizes the bigoted notion that Hispanics are by disposition lazy and stupid. I could also see an argument for sexism in that the novel’s characters are overwhelmingly male, and while Anne is a nuclear physicist, the narrative does her no favors in terms of agency.
While not a perfect novel by any means, Hello America remains a poignant novel. Americans looking to delve into the American psyche and disposition (which I imagine many will wish to do after November 8, 2016), will find reflected in this bizarre, alien image of an America in ruins, a lot of truth about who we are as a people, and a reminder, needed every so strongly now, about the virtues our culture is capable of bringing to the fore, if we only have the courage to raise them up.
As for the ongoing discussion of how to mend our country’s perilous political divide and “make America great again,” Ballard provides us with the best foundation for prosperous dialogue that I have seen in the last three months:
‘I believe in [President Manson], sir,’ [Wayne] added, making a point of his loyalty. ‘He wants to make America great again.’
‘And so do you, Wayne. And so do I. Though with everyone agreed as to the ends, we could afford rather more discussion as to the means… Or, for that matter, what exactly we signify by the term “America”. It’s an emotive symbol, Wayne, went out of fashion in the 1980s and 1990s, somehow lost its appeal…’ (172)
Dystopias serve as warnings, signal lights that illuminate elements of our culture that are in danger of going extinct, or of metastasizing into our own destruction. I can only read the above quote filled with the conviction that I must keep the emotive symbol of “America” alive and well within myself, and work toward its values in everything I do.
Hello, America, indeed.