It seems that the notion of The American Dream is one that keeps cropping up in my reviews recently, most notably with La La Land and Straight Outta Compton, so it feels natural, if strangely coincidental, that I now look at a book that seems to take that dream and turn it into a kind of twisted nightmare.
While J.G. Ballard is well-known for his dystopian science fiction visions from the likes of High-Rise and Crash, Hello America was not one I was familiar with when its blurb and cover caught my eye, but from the off its clear that it bears certain resemblances to the story of Lang in the tower block.
Here our hero is Wayne, a young stowaway from a back to basics Europe of the 2100’s, who has snuck aboard a vessel sailing for an evacuated USA. It’s 100 years since North America was abandoned in the face of an energy crisis as oil ran dry and the once most powerful nation on Earth was laid to waste by climactic devastation.
Arriving in this New World wasteland Wayne and the members of the expedition head off from a derelict New York to Washington DC and beyond.
The journey and the relatively mysterious lead male protagonist are certainly familiar from High-Rise, though Wayne feels far more sympathetic than Lang and the eventual arrival of the equivalent to Royal reveals a far less sympathetic antagonist. Along with this the general sense of growing disaster as the story goes on is similar to High-Rise but on a far grander physical scale.
What sets it apart is a sense of optimism, particularly in the first half, where Wayne’s vision of ‘The American Dream’ is infectious and really sucked me into the adventure, much as it does some of his fellow travellers, and the way Ballard paints the landscape of the ‘Great American Desert’ is masterful and hugely visual.
The first half of the book builds the tension to breaking point with what feels like a climax in the depth of the desert before Ballard throws a marvellous curve ball that almost resets things but goes on in eventually more disturbing and absurd ways as Wayne’s dream becomes a real American Nightmare – to say much more would be too much of a spoiler.
The fact that Wayne dreams of being 45th president of the USA is particularly pertinent given recent real world events, but that’s just a ‘happy’ coincidence, but there is clearly a political message at the heart of Ballard’s writing coming as this did at a time when a former film star had recently entered The White House.
As well as the politics there is an ecological message which is writ large and obvious throughout though has lost none of its necessity and power since the book was released in the early 1980s and some slightly heavy-handed consumerist points add another layer.
All of this does make Hello America‘s purpose a little unfocused but it is certainly trying to say something and, generally, succeeding.
Where it doesn’t succeed quite so well is in the second half of the story that almost becomes too absurd to take seriously, though it just about holds things together as it reaches a hugely tense and surprisingly cinematic climax – I’m amazed no one has twisted this into a big budget blast-a-thon blockbuster.
This makes Hello America a book that, while easier to read than High-Rise, less physically controversial than Crash and a little unfocused, is none the less enjoyable and bridges hard sci-fi ideals with readable adventure in a very satisfying fashion.