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Some Dance to Forget

Vermilion Sands

By J. G. Ballard 

20 Dec, 2022

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1971’s Vermilion Sands is a collection of short stories by J. G. Ballard. All share the same setting: vacation resort Vermilion Sands.

Vermilion Sands’ precise location is unclear. Perhaps it is somewhere in the American desert or perhaps it is not too far from Mediterranean. Equally unclear is when the action takes place, except that it is a time that features mutant women and flying stingrays. Wherever and whenever it is, the idle rich flock to Vermilion Sands. Close on their heels come those who would profit off the rich.

I don’t know which cover I will go with for this review. All Vermilion Sands covers seem to be terrible. Not Joanna-Russ-cover terrible but pretty bad.

The unexpected standout story in this collection might be Studio 5, The Stars, whose subject matter is eerily reminiscent of the AI crisis that has recently been hitting the art world.

Now that technical mastery is simply a question of pushing a button, selecting metre, rhyme, assonance on a dial, there’s no need for sacrifice, no ideal to invent to make the sacrifice worthwhile— 

Interesting bit of trivia: when I searched for this book online, the second book suggested to me was Edward Bryant’s Cinnabar. Readers may recall that I compared that book to Vermilion Sands (but without having actually read the Ballard at that time). Bryant cites Sands as his inspiration in his essay The Road to Cinnabar. I should also mention Lee Killough’s Aventine. Killough, in her introduction, credits Ballard as her inspiration. I only need two more collections inspired by Vermilion Sands to reach the canonical five I would need for a Tor essay. But I digress.

The stories are … let’s go with variations on a theme” rather than repetitious.” The insatiable desires of the wealthy drive the narratives. Each story features a different artistic medium. Women exist to be temptresses or victims or temptress victims (romance, needless to say, is not likely to end well). There is an ambience of post-war decadence; the old order having been upended, people are free to follow their whims, even if self-destructive.

In someone else’s hands, these stories might have been depressing musings on the meaninglessness of life. While there is a certain melancholy (particularly whenever someone dies, as various characters do), the characters seem to enjoy their lives. Embrace glorious irresponsibility and don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will be along soon enough.

I am not a hardcore Ballard fan, though I do have a number of Ballard books on my shelves. The two books of his that I reread are later works: The Day of Creation1 and his non-SF Empire of the Sun2. Vermilion Sands makes me wonder if it’s time for a Ballard reread. Had I but world enough and time …

Vermilion Sands is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo). I did not find it at Barnes & Noble.

Now for a glimpse at the stories in the collection.

The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” • [Vermilion Sands] • (1967) • short story 

An egotistical rich woman hires cloud-sculptors to emblazon her visage on the sky.

Prima Belladonna” • [Vermilion Sands] • (1956) • short story 

A mutant woman’s determination to win at all costs nearly dooms her.

The Screen Game • [Vermilion Sands] • (1963) • novelette

Attempted artistic therapy delivers fatal results… but not for the patient.

The Singing Statues” • [Vermilion Sands] • (1962) • short story

An attempt at artistic fraud, committed at the expense of a weirdly alluring but disfigured rich woman, produces unexpected results.

Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” • [Vermilion Sands] • (1967) • short story 

Selected as artist’s model by an obsessed rich woman, the protagonist slowly comprehends that the artist isn’t painting her model (exactly); she’s painting the ghost of a man long gone. Some ghosts return.

Venus Smiles” • [Vermilion Sands] • (1957) • short story 

A statue proves menacing; a solution to its threat is merely temporary.

Say Goodbye to the Wind” • [Vermilion Sands] • (1970) • short story

A shop owner who sells living clothes sells a widow a new wardrobe and in so doing very nearly loses his life.

Studio 5, The Stars • [Vermilion Sands] • (1961) • novelette

Innovative technology transforms poetry from a genre that people collect but do not read to a genre that people produce without actually working to create it.

The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista” • [Vermilion Sands] • (1962) • short story 

Homes incorporating psychotropic materials provide a novel living experience … but one should be very careful before moving in. Prior residents’ thoughts have already shaped the home.

1: I happened to read Ballard’s The Day of Creation at close to the same time I was reading GRR Martin’s Fevre Dream and Brunner’s The Great Steamboat Race. All three books chronicle boat trips on rivers. 

2: Spielberg adapted Empire of the Sun into a movie, which I have not seen. Spielberg doesn’t trust his audience to pick up what he sees in a story and does, I think, a ham-handed job of adaptation. I don’t want my memory of the book tarnished by viewing the movie.