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.
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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