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Apollo Roulette, Part 2

Author: • Feb 6th, 2012 •

Category: alternate worlds, America, conspiracy theory, deep time, features, hyperreality, Lead Story, nuclear war, space relics


by Brian Baker

In part 2 of ‘Apollo Roulette’, Brian Baker’s sequel to ‘Iterative Architecture: a Ballardian Text’, an ‘auto-displacement’ Ian Fleming/J.G. Ballard mashup, Baker continues to apply the method to desert imagery in Ballard’s work.

In this, the final thrilling instalment, Baker finally uncovers the deadly secret that powers the American ‘nuclear state’: an apocalyptic game of APOLLO ROULETTE!

Now read on for Part 2, or return to Part 1 and the supercharged moment when it all began!

Serenity. Patient B had been driving his Aston Martin convertible towards La Tzoumaz on a clear, sunny early summer’s day. According to the Swiss police reports appended to the file Bluffield had received from the Service, there were signs of a second automobile in the vicinity of the accident, but the Aston was the lone vehicle found at the crash site. The car had ricocheted from the stone balustrade and careered across the road, impacting against the wall of the mountain road almost head-on. The passenger in the car, Theresa B, his wife of some four days, was killed instantaneously. Despite impact fractures to knees, leg and hip, B escaped major trauma to vital organs, although blood loss was marked. B had remained conscious while Swiss paramedics and emergency rescue teams had reached the crash site an estimated 90 minutes after the incident, and was also conscious while being extricated from the crushed cabin of the Aston. He was airlifted to a private clinic in Geneva, while his wife’s remains were returned to her family in Marseille.

Viva Las Vegas. In Ballard’s ‘Myths of the Near Future’, Sheppard finds his resurrected wife Elaine in what was once ‘no more than a park-keeper’s hut, some bird-watcher’s weekend hide transformed by the light of its gathering identities into this miniature casino’ (1082). The impacted, ‘annealed’ images of itself project the hut into some kind of ideal state, just as Sheppard had encountered the elderly images of a roadside hamlet transfigured into younger, idealised versions of themselves earlier in the story. Sheppard mis-recognises the co-presence of multiple identities as Las Vegas neon, a profane city of light illuminating Cold War deserts.

When Eight Bells Toll. ‘You could have asked me, B, instead of sneaking around like a thief in the back yard,’ said Felicity as they drove in the Cadillac towards Groom Lake. ‘I think we’ve found our mail has gone unanswered lately,’ said B, trying not to sound affronted. ‘And in any case, my trespass is not exactly, well, official.’ Felicity looked over at her long-time friend and colleague, and saw a ragged, rather bruised man, and not from his recent ordeal. ‘We’d heard that you’d had an accident, or that you’d gone rogue,’ she said, frowning. ‘Licence revoked?’ ‘No, not exactly,’ he said, looking back at her ruefully, ‘but it’s more than what you’d call a holiday. I think they wanted me to take a little rest in a village they have set up on the coast, but I needed some answers first.’ As they drew up to the checkpoint, B asked, ‘Do we have clearance?’ ‘Not to worry,’ said Felicity. ‘Forget the Official Secrets Act. You’re in God’s Own Country now. Welcome to Wonderland.’

Fugue Time. Ballard’s paired stories ‘News from the Sun’ and ‘Memories of the Space Age’, plus ‘Myths of the Near Future’ have analogous structures.[1] The protagonist, a doctor, undergoing the effects of ‘space sickness’ connected to the NASA space program, searches for a ‘door in the universe’ out of time itself. The protagonist’s wife, emotionally or sexually involved with a provocative, perhaps unbalanced male antagonist, precedes her husband into the zone of transcendence (symbolically if not literally). In ‘Myths of the Near Future’, this is figured as a kind of resurrection. Mallory, in ‘Memories of the Space Age’, a flight-physician once attached to the Shuttle program, travels back to Florida to confront the meaning of the space sickness, and the former astronaut Hinton, whose murder of a fellow astronaut in orbit precipitates the time-crisis. Hinton now occupies the Cape Kennedy launching grounds. Mallory suffers from, and gradually starts to embrace increasing periods of ‘fugue time’, when he enters a kind of fugue and time coagulates, then solidifies around him. This is most iconic in the ‘block’ of water he suspends himself in when submerged in Gale Shepley’s swimming pool: ‘Once he immersed himself in the pool, delighted to be embedded in this huge block of condensed time’ (1059).

Artwork by Jeffrey K. Potter for ‘Myths of the Near Future’ (commissioned for Ballard’s short-story collection Memories of the Space Age).

In his musings about Gale’s pet cheetahs, or the tiger kept in a nearby cage (whose door he would like to open) there is something Edenic about Mallory’s appreciation of fugue-time: the lion can indeed lie down with the lamb in ‘condensed time’. As in ‘News from the Sun’ the space/ time-sickness is a doorway to transcendence, precipitated by the space program but superseding it. At the end of ‘News from the Sun’, the doctor Franklin (who had worked at a clinic treating astronauts and other who exhibited fugue symptoms, as he does himself) and the astronaut’s daughter Ursula Trippett speak a kind of infant ‘babble’ in fugue, an index of a return to human existence prior to the fall of language (Babel) or even the structuration of the subject. While an earlier story, ‘Mr F is Mr F’ narrates a male protagonist’s return (literally) to the womb, this is figured as vampiric, and the story ultimately descends itself into misogyny. In the ‘fugue time’ stories, the return to a uterine pre-subjectivity is cast as a polyvalent, multiple continuity with a revivified nature (where even the desert is restored by endlessly multiplying palm trees, reproduced perceptually in, and out of, time).

Level 9. As they entered facility 51, two technicians in white protective suits barred their way into the atrium. ‘Sorry,’ said Felicity. ‘I’m afraid they’ll give you the full decontamination treatment, as you’ve never been here before. We have some, ah, friends in this facility that might catch a cold. I’ll go through and see you downstairs later.’ She left him to be guided into a booth, where he undressed and threw his clothes into a chute to be incinerated. His body was inspected, enumerated, diagnosed. His skin, cleaned, depilated and abraded. His brain, scanned. His torso and vital organs monitored, his internal fluids filtered. His hair, cropped; his chin, chest and genitals shaved; his eyes, inspected by a senior ophthalmic surgeon; his mouth, investigated by an orthodontist; his anus, probed by a noted proctologist. At each cleansing, at each scan, he descended down a level, from red, to yellow, to purple, to grey, to white. As he cleared Scanning, dressed all in white, his body glowing, he felt altogether a new man.

The winged man. Flight is a recurring motif in Ballard’s oeuvre, and Gregory Stephenson notes this in relation to Crash:

The imagery by which the transcendent character of the experience of automobile collision […] conveyed in the novel is that of light and luminosity, of ascension or flight.[2]

This imagery is found throughout Ballard’s writing, most notably in the stories ‘News from the Sun’, ‘Memories of the Space Age’ and ‘Myths of the Near Future’, but can also be found in the novel The Unlimited Dream Company (written around the same time, and published in 1979, but set in Ballard’s own locale, Shepperton). There, the protagonist Blake crashes a light aircraft into the Thames at the beginning of the novel, but achieves a curious kind of resurrection. He brings with him fantastical powers to transform the suburb of London. At one point in the narrative, he attempts, Pied Piper-like, to draw the townsfolk into the air:

The sky was brightening as we rose through the cool air. I felt the townspeople lying serenely within me, sleeping passengers in this ascending gondola propelled by some profound upward dream. They were carrying me away towards the sun, eager to lose themselves in a communion of light’.[3]

This ascension ultimately fails, but in the contemporaneous stories, the flight imagery is indeed connected with an escape from time. They also have an evolutionary dynamic. In ‘Memories of the Space Age’, Hinton, the astronaut-murderer, is first seen flying WWI biplanes. As the narrative progresses, the aircraft ‘descend’ the evolutionary ladder in terms of powered flight: ‘as every day passed these veteran machines tended to be of increasingly older vintage’ (1041). Like Kerans in The Drowned World, whose consciousness descends back ‘down the spinal column’ as the novel goes on, evolution in Ballard’s texts is typed both in terms of a kind of de-evolutionary imperative for the human psyche (towards the liberation or transcendence offered by the ‘macrocosmic zero’) and in terms of the false ‘progress’ of evolutionary mis-steps. The NASA space program is itself figured as an ‘evolutionary crime’ in ‘News from the Sun’ (1019), one that ‘cracks the hour-glass of time’ and causes the fugues and ‘space sickness’.

By contrast, human-powered heavier-than-air craft are typed as benign: Gale Shepley, the murdered astronaut’s daughter, pilots one in ‘Memories of the Space Age’; Martinsen flies a ‘cat’s cradle of plastic film and piano wire’ (1063) in ‘Myths of the Near Future’; and in Hello America, the fleet of crystalline aircraft that appear above Las Vegas at the end of the narrative indicate most clearly the fragility of this image of flight as transcendence. The mythic, metaphorical imagery of flight always supersedes human attempts to traverse the heavens, from Kittihawk to Cape Kennedy. The image that encapsulates this is at the beginning of ‘Myths of the Near Future’, where Sheppard sits in the cockpit of a crash-landed Cessna on Cocoa Beach. After being rescued from the stranded craft, Sheppard realises that Martinsen has drawn a massive Aztec bird upon the sand, which grasps the Cessna symbolically in its talons. Soon after, the light aircraft is caught by the tide and broken into pieces.

Islands. Bluffield found it difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to penetrate the psychological armature patient B had erected. He would not talk about his wife, nor about the crash itself. In exchange for the run of the clinic and its park, B had agreed to keep a journal. Bluffield had hoped that the estranged form, the distance between writing and reading, might allow B to slip his armour, inadvertently perhaps. Any signs or clues would be an improvement on the impassive non-engagement Bluffield faced on a daily basis. Bluffield lit a cigarette and opened B’s journal. He found there technical drawings, calculations, a series of versions of da Vinci machines, worked through again and again, compulsively, exactingly. It provided little enough evidence of anything but the precision and determination B had demonstrated throughout his career. Bluffield was not surprised, but still, a little disappointed.

On his second read-through, Bluffield thought he had indeed found what he was looking for. On a page dominated by a drawing of an aero-screw, covered almost entirely by mathematical equations, a compulsive palimpsest, Bluffield read: ‘Report on the assassination of Theresa B by unknown forces.’ Bluffield looked for a continuation throughout the journal, but found nothing. The phrase itself was illuminating, revealing a high degree of paranoia; the seeming externalisation of guilt as outside agency; the ascribing of malign purpose in the word ‘assassination’; and once more, the desire to estrange and distance in the objective ‘report’. But was there a connection between the phrase and the drawings?

Double constellations. In his essay ‘The Solar Anus’, Georges Bataille conjures images of circularity which are bound up both with elemental (natural) forces and with sexuality, figured as an excessive dream in which a man lying in bed with his female lover inhabits some kind of cosmological pattern of arousal: ‘trees bristle the ground with a vast quantity of flowered shafts raised up to the sun. […] From the movement of the sea, uniform coitus of the earth with the moon, comes the polymorphous and organic coitus of the earth with the sun’.[4] The phallicism of masculine desire is arrayed against the liquidity of the feminine: ‘The sea, then, has played the role of the female organ that liquefies under the excitation of the penis’ (7). The essay encodes a growing excitation, with the sexual images becoming more extreme and violent, until the penultimate paragraph in which the narrator declares ‘I want to have my throat slashed while violating the girl to whom I will have been able to say: you are the night’ (9). Sexuality and violence (violation) are a crucial connection for Bataille, as a kind of overflow or excess (a key term) which countermand the imperatives of taboo that order and regulate work towards work and reason: ‘there is in nature and there subsists in man a movement which always exceeds the bounds, that can never be anything but partially reduced to order’.[5] This excess does not equate with transgression, however, for ‘transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it’ (63).

Poster for Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.

Transgression, paired with taboo, are organised into a social system that regulates expenditure and consumption. The sun, for Bataille, becomes what Fred Botting and Scott Wilson call ‘the supreme solar giver. Giving heat, light, life, the sun signifies the purest form of the gift, pouring out energy with no thought of return.’[6] This expenditure is the type and source of excess or overflow, and in ‘The Solar Anus’ is explicitly marked as violent: ‘The Sun exclusively love the Night and directs its luminous violence, its ignoble shaft, toward the earth, but finds it incapable of reaching the gaze or the night, even though the nocturnal territorial expanses head continuously toward the indecency of the solar ray’ (9). The Sun is the frustrated lover of the Night, the night which finds its own material image in the anus of the young woman. Defecation is (though the image of the volcano) opposed to, yet is analogous to the orgasmic expenditure of the sun’s ejaculation; love, screaming in the narrator’s throat, is ‘the filthy parody of the torrid and blinding sun’ (9). Parody, however, connects: ‘each thing is a parody of another’ (5). At the beginning of the essay, the narrator screams ‘I AM THE SUN’ (5), but the rest of the essay marks the inability of that sun/subject to achieve orgasm, remaining in a state of excitation. The Sun, the desiring male subject, desires the night, the anus of the young female lover, but ultimately the opposition between sun and anus, transcendent overflow and base materiality, collapses into the palindrome of the sun/anus: ‘the solar annulus is the intact anus of her body at eighteen years to which nothing sufficiently blinding can be compared except the sun, even though the anus is the night’ (9).

The Tenth Circle. Hand in hand, B and Felicity, dressed in identical environment suits of bright white cloth, wandered into the Garden, a habitat of gymnosperms, ferns and bryophytes, located on Level 9. Kneeling by the side of a pathway was a small man in a white labcoat, digging with a hand-trowel in the tilth. Hearing them, he stood up, brushed his hands together to remove the earth, and waited for them, both hands extended in welcome – or benediction. ‘How are our friends?’ asked Felicity. ‘All is well,’ replied the man, in English with a light French accent. ‘Introductions,’ smiled Felicity. ‘B, this is Doctor Lacombe, the Director of our Institute of Xenogamy here at the facility. Doctor, this is B, a visitor.’ ‘A visitor?’ repeated Lacombe. ‘Are we all not visitors here, at the centre of the Earth?’ Lacombe moved to B’s side, interlocked his arm, and began to walk them through the Garden. ‘I think you must have come a long way to find us, my dear B. What is it that you want?’ ‘Certainty,’ said B.

Apostles of the Prismatic Sun. In Ballard’s Crash, the terminal transgression occurs when the narrator ‘James Ballard’ sodomizes Vaughan, the renegade scientist. Ballard meets Vaughan for the last time in “the mezzanine lounge of the Oceanic Terminal […] this house of glass, of flight and possibility”.[7] They then both take LSD, and embark on a drive through London. The city is transformed into a tableau of light, and this vision is accompanied by both physical intimacy and images of transcendence:

Taking my eyes off the road, I clasped Vaughan’s hand in my own, trying to close my eyes to the fountain of light that poured through the windshield of the car from the vehicles approaching us. An armada of angelic creatures, each surrounded by an immense corona of light, was landing on the motorway either side of us. […] With my right hand I parted his buttocks, feeling for the hot vent of his anus. For several minutes, as the cabin walls glowed and shifted, as if trying to take up the deformed geometry of the crashed cars outside, I laid my penis at the mouth of his rectum. […] As I moved in and out of his rectum the light-borne vehicles soaring along the motorway drew the semen from my testicles. […] Sitting together, we were washed by the light flowing in every direction across the landscape (21: 199; 202).

The sun/anus is achieved through a consummation of the act of sodomy deferred in Bataille’s ‘The Solar Anus’, but this transcendence is only temporary. At the beginning of the next chapter, Ballard experiences a vision of a ‘retinal horde’, a veil of flies that returns him to the base material, the excremental: ‘Flies crawled across the oil-smeared windshield, vibrating against the glass. The chains of their bodies formed a blue veil between myself and the traffic moving along the motorway. I turned on the windshield wipers, but the blades swept through the flies without disturbing them. Vaughan lay back on the seat beside me, trousers around his knees. […] The flies covered Vaughan’s face, hovering around his mouth and nostrils as if waiting for the rancid liquors distilled from the body of a corpse’ (22: 204). Transcendence, visions of angels and of light, collapse back into the pit. The excremental vision is also found in Ballard’s The Drowned World (1963), where London, transformed into a post-catastrophic lagoon, is drained: ‘Veils of scum draped from the criss-crossing telegraph wires and tilting neon signs, and a thin coating of silt cloaked the faces of the buildings, turned the once limpid beauty of the underwater city into a drained and festering sewer’.[8] For Ballard, beneath the visions of light there always lurks the materiality of shit.

Ocean’s Eleven. ‘I want to know what is really happening’, said B. ‘Is this really happening?’ asked Lacombe. ‘Why, where do you think you are?’ ‘In Wonderland…’ said B, gazing at this primeval Garden folded deep within the Earth. ‘Dr Lacombe, will the visitors..?’ Lacombe smiled patiently. ‘Return your wife to you? Perhaps only if you do not look over your shoulder on the way back to the surface.’ Lacombe guided them through the Garden towards a portal, where he stopped, stood before B and took his hands. ‘I cannot tell you what you will find’, he said. ‘It may be the answer you seek. It may be a doorway into a very private hell. Do you wish to continue?’ B nodded slowly. ‘You are sure, I can see. Very well, my dear B. I envy you.’

News from the Sun. ‘[I]t seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time [….] And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.’[9]

Majestic Twelve. ‘Come with me,’ Felicity said as she punched the code into the portal lock. As the door ascended in its frame, they entered an enormous space, like an aircraft hanger the size of a landing field. He looked behind him to see control booths and a large screen; before them, lights receded into the darkness. As they began to halo and evanesce, he looked up into the darkness of the roof space. Stars constellated the darkness, and as he watched, they began to move and congregate, patterning onto whorls and galaxies and spiral arms. The lights expanded, moved downwards. Time cooled. Amber, cobalt and scarlet balls floated above the apron, sentient, glowing. He watched as a large presence, dark light, extruded from the vault, extended downwards, and pulsed halfway along the runway. He looked down and saw his hands sparkle, flaked with gold, flickering with crystalline images of themselves, a diamantine body occupying the same space as himself. His clean, pure body rang with celestial song. Felicity smiled, her head Madonna-like, eyes burning with divine fire. He watched in wonder as angels began to drift down from the stars, their beauty a thousand suns. He raised his arms and began to ascend into the air, his body encased in a celestial coronation armour. He embraced the secret and benign inhabitants of the air, their love a star that filled him with white.

Thirteen to Centaurus. In total, there were eleven manned Apollo missions ‘proper’. Apollo 7 to 10 were training and testing flights, two in Earth orbit, two in lunar orbit. Apollo 11, crewed by Neil Armstrong, ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Michael Collins, were the first Apollo mission to land on the surface of the moon, in July 1969. Apollo 12 was crewed by Pete Conrad, Alan Bean and Richard Gordon, who, at the charismatic Conrad’s instigation, wore identical Hawaiian shirts and bought identical sports cars when training. Apollo 12’s Saturn V was struck by lightning – twice – on takeoff, but the crew managed to avoid aborting the mission. Al Bean subsequently left NASA and now paints highly colourful painting of lunar landscapes, incorporating actual moondust and pieces of his mission patches. Apollo 14’s Commander, Alan Shepherd, the only one of the original ‘Mercury Seven’ astronauts (commemorated by Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff) to command an Apollo mission, took a golf club with him and played on the lunar surface.[10] Apollo 17 was the last lunar mission, in 1972. Apollo 18-20 were cancelled due to budgetary constraints. Apollo 13’s mission nearly ended in disaster. An explosion aboard the craft on the way to the moon meant that the landing was aborted, and the lunar module used as a ‘life raft’ to get the crew back to Earth.

However, these would not have been the first casualties of the Apollo program. Apollo 1 (as it was later designated) never launched. Its crew, Virgil (Gus) Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, were killed on the launch pad when a fire swept through the Command Module in a test situation. There are two plaques remaining on the launch pad where the disaster occurred. One reads: LAUNCH COMPLEX 34, Friday, 27 January 1967, 1831 Hours. Dedicated to the living memory of the crew of the Apollo 1: USAF. Lt. Colonel Virgil I. Grissom, USAF. Lt. Colonel Edward H. White, II, U.S.N. Lt. Commander Roger B Chaffee. They gave their lives in service to their country in the ongoing exploration of humankind’s final frontier. Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived.

The other reads: In memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice so others could reach for the stars, Ad astra per aspera, [a rough road leads to the stars] God speed to the crew of Apollo 1.

From the photographic series Astronaut Suicides by Neil Dacosta.

Storms. Doctor Bluffield set down the sheaf of case notes and walked to the large window of his office. As he stood and watched two nurses hurry across the afternoon furnace of the piazza, he realised the futility of his work with Patient B. B’s refusal to engage in discussion about the death of his wife, his refusal even to acknowledge it, indicated some deeper trauma. ‘He clearly feels a deep-seated guilt about the death of his wife,’ said Bluffield, ‘but I simply cannot reach him. Perhaps it is time to consider a more radical form of therapy.’ He turned and smiled at his female colleague, who was sitting in the Eames chair opposite his desk. ‘I know you’ve published on psycho-drama and role-play, Felicity. What is your clinical opinion about its possible effectiveness in patient B’s case?’

Coda: Apollo 13. He woke up in his room at the Stardust. It was dark. He fell off the bed, groped to the bathroom and turned on the light. In the mirror he saw a shaven man, stubbled skull, naked, eyes a scorched blue. A straight razor had been dropped in the sink. He closed his eyes and pressed his hands together. Clearly he would find no answers in Las Vegas, nor in the desert. He would have to go to the launching grounds at Canaveral. Perhaps, among the gantries and the detritus of the Apollo program, he would find peace, and find her again.

Now return to Part 1 and the supercharged moment when Brian Baker’s APOLLO ROULETTE all began!


[1] J.G. Ballard, ‘News from the Sun’, pp.1010-1036; ‘Memories of the Space Age’, pp.1037-1060; ‘Myths of the Near Future’, pp.1061-1084; The Complete Short Stories (London: Flamingo, 2001).
[2] Gregory Stephenson, Out of the Night and into the Dream: A Thematic Study of J.G. Ballard (New York, Westport CT & London: Greenwood Press, 1991), p.71.
[3] J.G. Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) (London: Triad/Panther, 1981), ch.27, p.161.
[4] Georges Bataille, ‘The Solar Anus’, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed Allan Stoekl, trans. Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie Jr (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1985), p.7.
[5] Bataille, Eroticism (1957) trans. Mary Dalwood (New York & London: Marion Boyars, 1987), p. 40.
[6] Fred Botting and Scott Wilson, Bataille (Houndsmills: Palgrave, 2001), p.96.
[7] J.G. Ballard, Crash (1973) (London: Vintage, 1995), ch.21, p.193.
[8] J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (1963) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), ch.10, p.119.
[9] Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971) (London: Flamingo, 1993), p.67; p.68.
[10] Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff  (1980) (London: Picador, 1990).

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