At night, as he lay asleep on the floor of the ruined bunker, Traven heard the waves breaking along the shore of the lagoon, like the sounds of giant aircraft warming up at the ends of their runways.
The key moment in Ballard’s fragmented evocation of a man’s anguished exploration of an abandoned atomic test site, vainly searching for his dead wife and child, is when a scientist he comes across tells him: “This island is a state of mind.” Ballard’s modus operandi is right there. He uses the blasted landscape of Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands – concrete bunkers, submarine pens and blast pans filled with deformed test dummies – to convey the shattered mentality of mankind in the post-nuclear age (the ‘Pre-Third’ as it is called in the story). Ballard is often criticized for the weakness of his plots and characterisation but here it doesn’t matter. Traven may be a cypher but Ballard locates him in an unforgettable landscape, haunted and dreamlike, and in his dilemma makes a compelling diagnosis of the human condition in the aftermath of the bomb.
First published in New Worlds, March 1964, and collected in The Terminal Beach, Gollancz 1964. Also in The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard: Volume 1, Fourth Estate, 2014