It’d be a bit much to expect J.G. Ballard to write something cheerful. So here we are in disaster-town again: a North America abandoned after peak oil and climate change joined forces to ruin the landscape and the economy both. The world is a fractured, largely socialist or communist environment (you know, trains running on time, bad soup, joyless sex in afternoons off from suitably pro-community factory jobs) which keeps people alive but only just.
That kind of world. Good job there’s a steam-powered excursion to North America on the cards, hoping to explore the abandoned continent and repopulate it.
There’s a mania to the writing which puts one in mind of Hunter S. Thompson, though I suppose that could also be attributed to the Las Vegas setting. No matter what happens in Vegas, the reader can write it off as normal. Robot Sinatras? Gunships called LOVE and HATE? Charles Manson? Android armies of presidential automatons? Why not, it all works.
The times in which Ballard wrote – this was published in 1981 – deeply inform the story. Oil crises and the threat of collapse obviously spurred the writing of the piece. There’s the usual Ballardian level of critique of both capitalism and the US, coupled with a pretty big dose of steampunk styling and disaster porn. There’s a bunch of genres thrown together here – the journey to the presidency, the western, sci-fi – and they don’t quite come together as successfully as in, say, High Rise but it is enjoyable in an excessive way.
This is a lesser title in the Ballard canon. It’s worth it for the USA! USA! enthusiasms, though.