Included in the American edition of J. G. Ballard’s War Fever, “Dream Cargoes” summarizes some of the staple ingredients of Ballard’s writing while also prefiguring the ecological themes of his novel Rushing to Paradise (1994). The story focuses on Johnson, a “deck hand on the lowest grade of chemical waste carrier,” who unexpectedly achieves his first command. Tricked by Captain Galloway into joining the crew of the Prospero, Johnson decides to remain when the others abandon ship. The drunken, intemperate Galloway has been bribed into transporting unspecified but highly toxic “organic by-products.” Prohibited from weighing anchor, the freighter drifts forlornly until entering the path of a hurricane. As the chemicals spill into the sea, the ship fatally holed, Galloway and his men take the remaining lifeboat. Johnson, however, elects to stay behind and become “master of his own fate.” This opening description recalls Ballard’s debt to Joseph Conrad, in this instance to both “Youth: A Narrative” and The Shadow-line. However, whereas in “Youth” it is the narrator who leads the crew to safety, Johnson’s refusal to leave not only introduces a different narrative trajectory but also resists a more conventional romantic heroism. Instead, the allusions to Prospero and the hurricane indicate that this story is to also become a rewriting of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Running the ship to ground on a forgotten atoll, once used by the U.S. Military as a garbage dump, Johnson sleeps until he is disturbed by Christine, a marine biologist. While Johnson has slept, the leaking chemicals have begun to affect the local environment, changing a spoiled wilderness into a profusion of new, giant, and hybrid plant forms. Christine’s hope is to uncover the secret of what has happened before the U.S. Navy “scorch[es] the island with flame-throwers.” After four months, the island has been transformed into a “botanical mad-house,” Johnson has become immensely strong, and Christine is carrying their child after “one brief act of love, over so quickly that he was scarcely sure it had ever occurred.” Whereas Christine, who divides her time between the island and the mainland, remains dedicated to her scientific investigation, Johnson has become oversensitive toward the island and its exotic wildlife.
By the following week, Johnson has begun to hallucinate and to lose all sense of passing time: “He stared at Christine, aware that the colours were separating themselves from her skin and hair. Superimposed images of herself, each divided from the others by a fraction of a second, blurred the air around her, an exotic plumage that sprang from her arms and shoulders. The staid reality that had trapped them all was beginning to dissolve.” While recalling the hallucinogenic imagery of his novel The Crystal World (1967), the story also recounts one of his major themes: the recovery of nonlinear time from an imposed chronological order. Johnson’s behavior, though, proves too much for Christine. While he pictures her as an angelic, Ariel figure, Christine radios a passing U.S. naval cutter, effectively the Caliban to Johnson’s Prospero. Christine’s commitment to rationality, her treatment of nature as an object of study, means that she cannot align herself with Johnson’s almost mystical insight in which he has come to believe “that he was responsible for the transformation.” However, as the cutter prepares to take Christine and Johnson back to the mainland, Johnson leaps overboard, hoping that he can “climb the trees and release the birds” in their mutual “escape from time.” Whereas the narrator of Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” has to abandon his double in order to take his place within human society, Ballard’s protagonist refuses the profanity of public time and, instead, rejoins the sanctity of his own private vision.
Ballard, J. G. The Complete Short Stories. London: Flamingo, 2001.
Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story
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