First, a short warning. Spoilers. All the spoilers. I don’t even care. Note the lurid photo above, trying to emulate this book and all its fault lines, saying, Danger, poorly constructed text ahead. Leave now!
It is sometime in the 22nd century. America has been abandoned, due to an oil crisis rendering it non-fuctional (South and Central America are okay though, as is the rest of the world – no word on Canada). A group of explorers set out from Plymouth by ship, tasked with investigating the uptick in radioactivity coming from the supposedly-empty continent. Among them is a stowaway, named Wayne, after John Wayne, the enigmatic Captain Steiner, an Ukrainian bureaucratic (don’t worry about him, he dies), and a foxy (but fragile) blond scientist called Anne Summers.
Little do they know that they will encounter:
1. The remnants of the native population. That is, the Americans. Called ‘Indians’ despite the fact that, according to the writer, the ‘Redskins’ had vanished long ago. Highly primitive social groupings. Afraid of lights in the sky. One tribe, the Executives, name their children after brands (the only words that survive are those on billboards). Name all their women ‘Xerox’ because ‘they make good copies.’
2. Vast desert interior, from the East Coast to the Rockies, apparently because the gulf stream was deliberately reversed by the Russians, in order to make Siberia a grainbowl for the surging American diaspora, and this disrupted American rainfall patterns. Cacti and creosote bushes in dunes in Times Square.
3. Giant holographic projections of Marilyn Monroe, that cowboy from Shane, and many others!
3. President Charles Manson of Las Vegas!
4. Forty-four man strong Army of robot presidents!
Further spoilers: President Charles Manson wants to nuke the remaining US cities (all empty) in order to keep back the ‘disease’ of returning immigrants. President Charles Manson lives in the Howard Hughes suite in Vegas, and is suitably afraid of germs.
How does Manson (not the original, but an equally insane copy) die (of course he dies!):
Manson knelt by his chair, stared in unfeigned horror at the semi-circle of Presidents shuffling into position around him, a reproving board of elders. There was an aloof Jefferson, a smiling but wan Dwight Eisenhower, a matter-of-fact Truman in a hurry to get everything over, a prim Wilson and even a sweating Nixon embarressed by their physical resemblance.
Raising the pistol, Manson backed away among the television screens, trying to draw their light on to himself. He looked down at his pallid, blood-flecked body, an adolescent puzzled to find himself in this senile flesh, caught after hours in the therapy room with his broken toys, yet still cunning enough to put on an ingratiating smile […] He turned hopefully to the Presidents, and then let out and angry cry and fired his pistol straight at the solemn figure of Washington.
As the two bullets carried away half his face, Washington flinched and staggered back. A third bullet caught his chest, but he shook himself in a dignified way and raised his antique pistol, calmly signalling to his fellow-Presidents. Together, they raised their rifles.
So, I don’t think I will bother analysing Hello America deeply. I had thought Ballard would be a more nuanced, engaging (and less sexist, less racist, less… execrable) writer than is evident here. And he probably is, but I’ll be shy of him for a while.
I’ll just leave you with this to sum up my feelings.