Short Story Review: J. G. Ballard’s “The Cage of Sand” (1962)

The following review is the 12th installment of my series searching for “SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.” Some stories I’ll review in this series might not fit. And that is okay. I relish the act of literary archaeology.

As always, feel free to join the conversation.

Previously: Charles W. Runyon’s “First Man in a Satellite” in Super-Science Fiction (December 1958), ed. W. W. Scott (December 1958). You can read it online here.

Up Next: Anthony Boucher’s “Star Bride” in Thrilling Wonder Stories, ed. Samuel Mines (December 1951). You can read it online here.

4.5/5 (Very Good)

J. G. Ballard’s “The Cage of Sand” (1962) first appeared in New Worlds Science Fiction (June 1962), ed. John Carnell. You can read it online here.

Amidst the wreckage of Cape Canaveral, with its “old launch-gantries and landing ramps [..] like derelict pieces of giant sculpture” (140), three souls attempt to find meaning in the buried hotels and relics of a rapidly disappearing past.

Adrift, We Cast About

The Cape and its histories, battered by encroaching dunes of transported Martian sand and the forces of the Atlantic, serves as a sacral landscape for the few denizens of the decrepit wastes. Paul Bridgeman, Travis, and Louise are artifacts of a past era. Travis ruminates, as the wardens cordon off and narrow in, “They’re quietly sealing off the past, Louise and I and you with it” (150).

Caught up in a ritualized movement, Louise Woodward and Travis conceive of the Cape as the point, an “abandoned Mecca” (143), to behold the dead astronauts in their capsules in Earth’s orbit. Their passage forms “a lost zodiacal emblem, a constellation detached from the celestial sphere” (154). Louise gazes skyward tracing the voyage of Roger, her dead husband: “the death she visualized for him was of a different order than the mortal kind” (147). Travis, a failed astronaut, still maintains the regime and mentality of heroic spacer. His hopeless fight against the wardens who seek to remove them and interactions with Louise serve as an act of reverence before the sands of time erase knowledge of past sacrifice.

Far more ambivalent than Louise or Travis, the architect Paul Bridgman is possessed by his failure to build the first Martian city. He spends his self-isolation listening to old memo-tapes, found in submerged chalets and motels, of the fleeing survivors of an imported Martian virus that destroyed all vegetation.

The Decline and Fall of the Astronaut Cult

Ballard presents America’s fixation with space and astronauts as an explosive manifestation of commercial kitsch and loss soon to be forgotten. The three survive off of the canned food buried in the trash of the “amusement arcades and cheap bars” that reduced the space flights to “the level of monster sideshows at a carnival” (141). But Bridgman’s vision of Martian architecture cannot easily be cast off. He holds his dream, while lost, like a memento of the furor that momentarily possessed all. And perhaps the constellations of dead astronauts will reconfigure and fall to Earth.

“The Cage of Sand” transpires in the same wrecked landscape and entropic sadness as Ballard’s “The Dead Astronaut” (1968), the story partially responsible for spurring this project. It is hard not to see the later as recycling some of the core ideas, details, and images from the former. Like another favorite author of mine, Barry N. Malzberg, Ballard’s obsessive reworking/refining has the effect of producing striking visions from a lego set of pieces. This is a gorgeous story. The landscape, the symbols, the quiet interactions…

While I have focused on other themes, I wonder if Ballard’s final lines invert Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Man Who Lost the Sea” (1959). In Sturgeon’s vision, man finally makes it (in the act of dying). In Ballard’s, humanity finally returns to Earth (in death). A topic for the comment section!

Despite their similarities, I recommend both “The Cage of Sand” and “The Dead Astronaut.”

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31 thoughts on “Short Story Review: J. G. Ballard’s “The Cage of Sand” (1962)

    • I remember reading it — years ago. Thanks for the reminder.

      I think it’s a demonstration of the power of Ballard’s story that we can both say that it is brilliant but focus on somewhat different elements in our review. There is great complexity amongst the shifting sands of Ballard’s vision….

      You wrote:
      “This is a brilliant story about “unattained ambition” – both from the protagonist as society as a whole – and about the trauma of personal loss. It’s rather heavy on symbolism (the 7 dead astronauts, the Canaveral “cage of sand” both as a mental prison and a real prison) and as such clearly constructed, yet it works perfectly: ”

      I loved how each of the main characters explore a different type of trauma of personal loss. Louise, the loss of her husband and memories of her experience as the top of society when space travel was all that… (I should have mentioned that bit in my review). Bridgman, the failure to implement his vision, but also, the nagging terror of losing the vision itself to the entropic dust. And of course Travis, possessed by his rituals of reverence and personal failure to join his fellow astronauts.

      Have you read Ballard’s “The Dead Astronaut” (1958)? It’s a riff off of this story but takes a far more manic and macabre approach. Highly recommended. There’s a link to my review above.

  1. I adore this Ballard story. it’s one of my favorites, even though — or maybe, because — the science fictional “idea” here (they shipped the oceans to Mars, IIRC, and brought back Martian sand, right?) is complete pants.

    The writing is just great — metaphors and images piled incessantly on top of one another. Bridgman’s conception of his Martian city reminds me of the crystal, clockwork city that Doctor Manhattan raises up on Mars in Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN comic later in the 1980s.

    By the way, later in the 1970s and ’80s there are quite a few more Ballard stories set in the landscape of a variously ruined Cape Canaveral/Kennedy . It almost became a substitute for Vermilion Sands.

    • I won’t lie, I wrote something snarky in the margin when I got to Ballard’s explanation of the presence of Martian sand and chunks of Martian buildings. While in no way knowledgeable about “science” in any form, I even thought it was a forced moment of silliness. I understand the metaphor he tries to develop. The alien on Earth. The three the only vehicles of the Martian virus. The locale of former glory filled with the detritus of exploration. I love the metaphor but the inane science needed to explain why large quantities of ballast are needed deadened it a bit.

      Mark: “It almost became a substitute for Vermilion Sands.”
      He even uses the word vermilion in the first sentence of the story! What are the others? I read and reviewed “The Death of the Astronaut” (1968), I have a few more Ballard stories that fit the theme on my list but I don’t know too many specifics about them. I think I like “The Death of the Astronaut” more — it had a manic intensity and felt more danse macabre. But so many of the elements and even individual metaphors are the same.

      What are your thoughts about my suggestion that Ballard deliberately references Sturgeon? “I wonder if Ballard’s final lines invert Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Man Who Lost the Sea” (1959). In Sturgeon’s vision, man finally makes it (in the act of dying). In Ballard’s, humanity finally returns to Earth (in death). A topic for the comment section!”

      • JB: What are the others?

        Off the top of my head (while looking at the isfdb), ‘Memories of the Space Age’ and ‘Myths of the Future,’ which are both novella-length from 1982, and ‘News From the Sun,’ a novella from 1981.

        Ballard’s short stories, ‘The Man Who Walked On the Moon,’ from 1985 and ‘The Message from Mars, from 1992,’ also have NASA and the U.S. space program as central background, though one is set at Copacabana Beach in Brazil, and the other at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

        JB: I think I like “The Death of the Astronaut” more.

        “The Dead Astronaut” is the better story, yeah.

        JB: But so many of the elements and even individual metaphors are the same.

        Come on, man. That’s like complaining that Charlie Parker always played bebop licks.

        JB: I wonder if Ballard’s final lines invert Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Man Who Lost the Sea”

        It’s possible, I suppose. Though Ballard was always his own man from the very beginning, there’s a very early story, “Passport to Eternity,” where he’s deliberately trying to deploy 1950s GALAXY tropes in a way he never did again, and its first line riffs on the first sentence of Orwell’s 1984.

        • Yeah, I think I have in addition to those “The Death Module” (variant title: “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown”) (1967), “A Question of Re-entry” (1963) (although not sure how much of the latter is critical — we shall see), and the one-page relaying of a sequence from an early computer game “How Dr Christopher Evans Landed on the Moon” (1969).

          “Come on, man. That’s like complaining that Charlie Parker always played bebop licks.”

          If you read what I wrote in the review you’ll see that I used a lego set parallel. From the different similar pieces, distinct visions can be constructed. And I think that is what’s happening here. Most of the pieces are similar but “The Death of the Astronaut” deploys them in a more refined way. I like your jazz analogy — I might use it to defend critiques of Malzberg’s occasionally repetitiveness that often come up.

  2. You might like Damien Broderick’s “Under the Moons of Venus”, published at Subterranean Press here:

    Why read a story from 2010? Well, this story is one of a set Broderick did pastiching (in a serious, not parodic, way) great SF writers. And despite the Burroughsian title, this is (as becomes clear, really, from the first sentence) an homage to J. G. Ballard. AND, as a bonus — the last line explicitly echoes “The Man Who Lost the Sea” — I hadn’t thought of this, but maybe that was partly a nod to “The Cage of Sand”.

    • Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Damien Broderick is a complete unknown to me. I’ve heard his name, tweeted his birthday, but I haven’t read any of his fiction. Are any of his pre-1980s short stories worth tracking down? And if so, which ones did you enjoy? (they don’t have to be on the theme).

      • I like Broderick’s very early story “The Sea’s Furthest End”, which he revisited a couple of times in later years with revisions. But it does show signs of the youth of its writer. (He was 20 when it appeared.)

        His next great short fiction is, I think, “The Ballad of Bowsprit Bear’s Stead”, which appeared, alas, in 1980. He wrote some outstanding short fiction in the 21st Century (a couple of which stories I anthologized.) There were some fine ’70s novels.

        Caveat — Damien is someone I consider a friend (I even wrote an introduction to one of his collections), so if you wish you can take my judgements with a grain of salt.

        • No need for the caveat. I am always eager to explore new authors from the decades I enjoy the most (thus, I probably will be tracking down his earlier work). 1980 is fine! I don’t have a magical cut-off point although I gravitate towards the early 80s and before. Let’s just say pre-1987 (the year I was born) — hah.

  3. I hadn’t read this one for over ten years and couldn’t remember it or anything about it. As you state in your rating, it’s very good, but not even nearly perfect. It’s brilliant, but I’ve read better pieces by Ballard. It’s rich and perhaps too dense in imagery to appreciate it’s themes. I like the surreal tone though, that’s sets the mood perfectly for the plot of the survivors clinging to a lost age in which their dreams were never fulfilled.

    • I like how you phrased that — “survivors clinging to a lost age in which their dreams were never fulfilled.” I have more Ballard astronaut stories planned. Stay tuned!

    • I’m always happy to inspire more Ballard. His prose can get a bit flowery his work is always redolent with gorgeous scenes and ideas.

      Your references I never grok (that phrase makes me cringe — oh Heinlein)… “Frisson of Babbitt”? I know what “frisson” means but what Babbitt?

      • Surely “Babbit” is a reference to Sinclair Lewis’ novel, and in the context of Heinlein that might also indicate another Lewis novel, Arrowsmith, which Heinlein famously acknowledged as arguably “Science Fiction” in the sense that it involves scientific discovery.

  4. There’s a lot of the great Ballard imagery here, but I think some of it is undercut by overexplaining. The Martian virus seems a stretch. I was fine with the Martian sand though — scientifically silly but important to the story. I definitely think the last line works as an echo of the last line of Sturgeon’s story, and I suspect it was intentional.

    Still, while a good story it seems in a way more a rehearsal for the greater later stories like “The Terminal Beach”.

    • I agree. As I mentioned to Mark above, “The Dead Astronauts” is the better story. If I remember correctly (and from I said in my review), it’s a far more focused vision in the exact same location with similar imagery and use of the constellation of pods filled with dead astronauts returning to Earth. However, rather than a Martian virus or Martian sand, Ballard utilizes a radiation zone around Cape Canaveral. The denizens of the wastes then known that they will soon die from radiation poisoning. The entire story takes on a far more manic and macabre dance of death feel.

  5. This story reminded me of “The Voices of Time”: decay, dissolution, entropy…plus a protagonist who listens to recordings, and the theme of existential solitude. I had not thought about “The Man Who Lost The Sea,” which I coincidentally read a few weeks ago. I see some resonance there: sand and abandonment. But Sturgeon’s story seems more sentimental and nice to me. In both “The Voices of Time” and “The Cage of Sand” the “scientific” conceits are less important to me than the mood and provocative imagery. This is only my second story by Ballard and I’m eager to read more (I’ve made a note of some of the stories mentioned above). I sketch as a hobby and coincidentally I’ve done several astronauts and some skull astronauts in my journals. I guess I have something in common with JB, with his astronaut fixation.

  6. I certainly agree with your taking the “We made it!” line at the end of the story as an inversion (a pointedly satirical one) of Sturgeon’s “The Man Who Lost the Sea.” I mentioned this some years ago in another forum and David Pringle pointed out that Ballard almost certainly saw the Sturgeon story well before writing “The Cage of Sand,” since it appeared in that year’s Judith Merril “year’s best” anthology along with Ballard’s own “The Sound-Sweep,” and Ballard almost certainly would have received a contributor’s copy of the book. And Ballard named the falling-out-of-orbit astronaut Merril!

    • Hello John,

      I did a bit of searching after your comment to see if anyone else has made the connection between Ballard and Sturgeon. And they have! Umberto Rossi’s “A Little Something About Dead Astronauts” (2009) in Science Fiction Studies.

      I will not read the entire article as I plan on reading and discussing each of Ballard’s stories mentioned and sometimes I slip into writer’s block if I see someone has done something I plan on doing already. I am generally a voracious reader of reviews but avoid analytical essays until after I write about the topic.

      I was wondering if the Merril name was specific…. I know Ballard frequently used the names of friends, etc. in his stories.

      • Yes, Umberto learned of the connection from the exchange between David Pringle and me on the late jgb yahoo group. I scanned him a copy of “The Man Who Lost the Sea.” Haven’t read his article, though.

        • I will give it a read after I work through the Ballard stories that are covered in his article (and fit this project).

          I always wonder if my random thoughts on my site will be picked up by some scholar… perhaps more likely than the medieval history I actually got published in my academic past. hah.

  7. Cool connections re: Ballard/Sturgeon. Seems like that connection is really there. Here’s another thought– I couldn’t help but think that the ending of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora, in which he uses the sea to illustrate the hostility of space travel to human exploration was a recasting of Sturgeon.

  8. I interpret the final lines “We made it!” as an ironic declaration that Merrill’s crash landing on “Earth” is (symbolically) a landing on Mars – or at least, a transplanted Mars (the Martian sands effectively Martianizing Earth).

    Great story, though; I agree with other folks who commented on Ballard’s writing style: terrific.

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