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Apollo Roulette: part 1

Tags: desert apollo


by Brian Baker

In this sequel to ‘Iterative Architecture: a Ballardian Text’, an ‘auto-displacement’ Ian Fleming/J.G. Ballard mashup, Brian Baker applies the method to Desert imagery in Ballard’s work.

Finally, Baker uncovers the hidden logic at play in the American ‘nuclear state’ – a deadly game of Apollo ROULETTE!

Tune into for Part 2: the final thrilling instalment of Brian Baker’s Apollo Roulette!

Double Zero Wheel. He clicked the cartridge into the chamber of the service revolver, carefully closed the cylinder, and placed the mouth of the barrel against his temple. What was it he had said to Markham? ‘I understand that double-O’s have a very short life expectancy.’ He wondered now how many of those deaths were suicides. Somehow the service revolver seemed right, for doing the decent thing. He had killed too many men with the Walther, and didn’t want to be a notch on his own gun.

The Gernsback Continuum. At the beginning of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), the narrator and his attorney are on the way to cover the ‘fabulous Mint 400’ in Las Vegas. The text famously begins: ‘We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas’ (3). Thompson is driving along the former Route 66, now known as Interstate 15. To the west of Barstow is Edwards Air Force Base. Edwards was the site of the X-plane testing program in the 1950s, which eventually gave way to the ‘spam in a can’ astronautics of the Friendship, Mercury and Apollo programs. The men of Edwards Air Force Base, ‘folk heroes of our time’ according to Lyndon Johnson,[1] inhabited a variant of frontier masculinity appropriate to Edwards’s desert setting, and was exploited in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and its screen adaptation.

Thompson, driving east of Edwards towards Barstow, experiences an hallucination, a fata morgana, a common desert phenomenon. Brought on by the desert light and psychotropic drugs, Thompson hallucinates what William Gibson, in ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, would call ‘semiotic ghosts’, ‘semiotic phantoms, bits of deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken on a life of their own’.[2] In this story, the narrator encounters a vision of ‘the air thick with ships: giant wing-liners, little darting silver things […], mile-long blimps, hovering dragonfly things that were gyrocopters [and] smooth silver shapes like beads of running mercury’ (8-9). He sees Tucson as ‘a dream Tucson thrown up out of the collective yearning of an era’ (9), ‘an idealized city that drew on Metropolis and Things to Come’ (8). Thompson sees not a fascist utopia, but bats; and not bats, but UFOs; and these UFOs are the semiotic phantoms of the American Space Program made manifest by a cocktail of narcotics and desert speed.

One, Two, Three. No, not yet. He lowered the gun and placed it gently on the glass-topped table by his right hand, where it settled with a hard double click. His hand went automatically to the shaker and poured the last of the vodka martini, but he already felt nauseated by the two glasses he had downed before. Dutch courage? He shuddered. He really was finished if he needed help to pull the trigger. Some of his fellow agents, he knew, had descended into a whiskey-sodden fugue before the inevitable end had come, a danger to themselves and to others and their deaths ultimately something of a mercy. When the instrument begins to feel, he thought, it’s past time for the Service to hone the edge of a new blade.

Algebras of chance. In Hello America, the roulette wheel becomes the means by which the deranged President Manson decides which of the ruined cities of America to target with the remaining stockpile of cruise missiles and ICBMs. In the words of President Manson, Ballard diagnoses the ‘American dream’ of migration and aspiration as a gamble, with Las Vegas the latter-day cradle of the modern USA. ‘Europe doesn’t exist for me any more, Wayne – except that I see that it is waking now like an old dog, smelling us here and trying to get its snout into this new America I’ve built. It was a gamble, Wayne, a gamble with my own life. I put everything on the one spin of the wheel each of us is given, a small stack of dreams and hopes’ (153). Manson’s is a materialist vision, lacking the transcendent: even hopes and dreams are but small chips in an unwinnable game.

Clouds. Doctor Bluffield stood at his office window and gazed across the piazza of the clinic, which opened towards the saucer-shaped water tower that blazed white in the southwestern sun. The clinic was a plate-glass spacecraft fallen among the green knolls of the science park. The sculpted gardens reflected the serenity of purpose of the bio-medical corporation under whose aegis the clinic operated. The clinic’s main building incorporated a heat-reflective skin which maintained a carefully-controlled temperate environment within. Outside, the heat was well over a hundred degrees, according to the monitor on Bluffield’s desk. In the piazza, by the fountain – an indulgence in this climate, as were the lawns – a man in a loose-fitting, white tracksuit was calmly proceeding though a T’ai Chi warm-down sequence,  like some kind of swaddled and articulated mannequin.

Fata Morgana. Vermillion Sands is a desert resort that is the location of a sequence of short stories that were collected in the 1971 volume Vermillion Sands.[3] In the fantastical desert space of the resort and its outlying desert villas, Lagoon West and Lizard Key, glider pilots carve cloud formations into mobile sculpture, flying ‘sand rays’ are hunted akin to the Albatross in Coleridge’s ‘The Ancient Mariner’, and the pathologies of the resort’s inhabitants – movie stars, poets, glitterati – are made manifest. In ‘The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista’, a psychotropic house, in which a film star murdered her husband, ‘recalls’ these emotions and causes the relationship of the new inhabitants to disintegrate. In a sense, ‘Stellavista’ is a ghost story, a haunted-house narrative. The emotional ‘ghosts’ are technological revenants; the house itself takes on the psychosis of its owner as a kind of pathological prosthesis, and itself becomes murderous. The pathology of the male narrator also becomes aligned with the trauma encoded in the house’s psychoactive circuits and the phantasmal ‘presence’ of the femme fatale/ murderess, Gloria Tremayne. 99 Stellavista is a classic Ballardian pathologised technology that threatens but ‘beckons more and more persuasively from the margins of the technological landscape’.[4]

Two Tribes. In the morning B hired an open-topped Corvette Sting Ray and put the hiking gear in the trunk, using the Swiss passport and a sheaf of soft dollar bills he had won at blackjack two nights before. It certainly wasn’t baccarat at the Royale, but the sharp spike of adrenalin, even dressed in casual clothes among these holidaying Midwesterners, so anxious to lose their roll, as they called it, was gratifying. It was even something of a relief. If it wasn’t the pleasures of the roulette wheel in the warmth of a Mediterranean evening, at least it wasn’t sitting alone with a loaded revolver at his right hand. The heat was oppressive on Highway 15 as it spooled north from the city limits. The resort shrank like a discarded postcard in the rear-view mirror, and like those other desert cities, Phoenix and Reno, seemed as unreal as a fata morgana once left behind. Runnels of sweat slicked his white linen shirt to his back, and he had to blink away salty droplets behind the incognito of his glasses. The desert called to him, but the still-rational remainder of his mind worried that the Corvette might not prove reliable. He didn’t like the idea of buzzards and coyotes picking at his bones. It reminded him too much of what he did for the Service.

Image: ‘Las Vegas Club’ by Troy Paiva.

Synchronoclasmique. ‘The secret affinity between gambling and the desert: the intensity of gambling reinforced by the presence of the desert all around the town. The air-conditioned freshness of the gaming rooms, as against the radiant heat outside. The challenge of all the artificial lights to the violence of the sun’s rays. Nights of gambling sunlit on all sides; the glittering darkness of these rooms in the middle of the desert. Gambling itself is a desert form, inhuman, uncultured, initiatory, a challenge to the natural order of value, a crazed activity on the fringes of exchange. But it too has a strict limit and stops abruptly; its boundaries are exact, its passion knows no confusion. Neither the desert nor gambling are open areas; their spaces are finite and concentric, increasing in intensity toward the interior, toward a central point, be it the spirit of gambling or the heat of the desert – a privileged, immemorial space, where things lose their shadow, where money loses its value, and where the extreme rarity of the traces of what signals to us there leads men to seek the instantaneity of wealth.’[5]

Three Days of the Condor. He awoke in the passenger seat of the Corvette, parked under some scrub out of sight of the highway. He had tried to limit his water intake in order to preserve his supplies for his hike to Groom Lake, and had taken the salt tablets, but still he felt drained by the sun. The relative coolness of the evening revived him slightly as he climbed out of the automobile and retrieved his gear from the trunk. Night was falling over the Range like a soft rain. A bar of gold light at the horizon faded as he looked up at the enormous sky, the constellations seemingly close enough to touch. He had heard that other lights, other shooting stars, had been seen in the Tikaboo valley and by motorists on Route 375, but he dismissed these reports as black propaganda. Since the demise of the Sky Flash program, British involvement in advanced aeronautics had been limited to client status, and the Service would dearly have liked to obtain hard information about what research was being pursued at NAFR. His trespass would not be the first by a British agent, and he often wondered what side he was meant to be on. This intrusion, however, had its own agenda.

Survival Kits. Throughout The Atrocity Exhibition (1969), a collection of experimental short-story ‘condensed novels’, there are references to a group of items (photographs, documents, physical objects) called a ‘kit’: there are eleven in total.[6] Kits are also found in ‘News from the Sun’ and ‘Myths of the Near Future’. In ‘News from the Sun’, the kit is a ‘shrine’ left for the doctor Franklin by Slade, the would-be astronaut whom Franklin refused to allow on the space program on psychological grounds.  The kit consists of: a fragment of lunar rock; a photograph of Marion Franklin in the shower; a faded reproduction of Dali’s Persistence of Memory; a set of leucotomes; an emergency brain donor card (1016). The function of such a kit is made much more explicit in ‘Myths of the Near Future’, where Sheppard suggests that the kit is a ‘machine, of a kind. A time-machine’ (1077). It consists of: ‘a framed reproduction of Magritte’s The March of Summer, a portable video-cassette projector, two tins of soup, a well-thumbed set of six Kamera Klassic magazines, a clutch of cassettes labelled Elaine/Shower Stall I-XXV, and a paperback selection of Marey’s Chronograms’ (1068).This ‘survival kit’ (‘of a special kind’) is quite typical in its references to Marey, Surrealist art, sexual experimentation or transgression, and visual technology. These are themselves condensed representations of key Ballardian icons and concerns: time, sex, vision.

The Four Horsemen. It had been simple enough to evade the guards in their pick-up, though the warnings about the use of deadly force on the ‘Restricted Area’ signs had given him some pause. Trespass was one thing, but shooting dead an American serviceman, even an armed one, was something else entirely. He kept tramping in the cool desert air, his body responding as of old to exertion and deprivation. He felt the straps of the backpack on his shoulders, but the discomfort was familiar and welcome. The first fingers of dawn light were haloing the horizon off to his left, and so he had perhaps an hour until he needed to find a hide, from the sun and from surveillance. He wasn’t far from Groom Lake now, but would wait until tonight to try to penetrate the area proper. Until then, he would manage his body’s needs, and his thoughts.

Signs of the mineral. ‘Why […] are the deserts so fascinating? It is because you are delivered from all depth there – a brilliant, mobile, superficial neutrality, a challenge to meaning and profundity, a challenge to nature and culture, an outer hyperspace, with no origin, no reference points.’[7]

Space/Time Crisis. As he walked down the main staircase, Bluffield could see the man in white framed in the large windows that let polarised light into the atrium of the clinic. The man was a rather troubling patient, but there was little enough to distinguish him from either his fellow patients or the clinicians. Bluffield left the building by the large plate-glass doors and immediately began to perspire. He stepped across the paving to where the man went through his warm-down exercises.

‘How are you with muscle strains, Professor?’ asked the man. ‘Do they come under your area of expertise?’

‘I’m afraid not,’ said Bluffield.

‘So you can mend complicated machines,’ said the man, indicating his forehead suggestively, ’but not simple ones?’

‘I don’t really consider myself an engineer,’ said Bluffield.

‘The metaphysical rather than the material?’ asked the man. ‘Well, never mind, I’ll persevere.’ He continued with his slow, graceful articulations.

‘Two o’clock,’ said Bluffield brusquely, somewhat nettled by the man’s self-possession. He resumed his walk across to the car park. The water tower cast a dark shadow in the morning light. The fronds of the palms, moving in the slight breeze, whispered some secret arboreal language to the desert air.

Image: Atomic fireball, Trinity test, White Sands, 1945.

Alamagordo. ‘The first atomic-bomb test against the backdrop of White Sands, the pale blue backcloth of the mountains and hundreds of miles of white sand – the blinding artificial light of the bomb against the blinding light of the ground.’[8]

Saturn V. His chest screamed as he ran in ballooning strides down the scree slope, a tiny avalanche of dust and gravel ploughing ahead of him. The hammering blades of the helicopter broke waves of pulverizing sound upon his head as he dashed sideways out of the searchlight beam, a jack-rabbit fleeing the hunter’s gun. He felt he was being flushed towards a trap, but exhaustion and terror dulled his reactions. Time became a chain of moments as he hopped from rock to rock, scuttled from brush to brush in a vain attempt to deceive his pursuers. He ran up a cleft in the rocks, a small island on the desert floor, hoping for some crevice into which he could push himself, some tunnel into which he could bolt. As he jumped down the other side, he saw several guards standing in the beams of their pick-ups, and he knew the chase was over. He stumbled towards them, heaving for air, and then fell to his knees. After a few seconds, he found a small, scratchy voice. ‘Where are you going to take me?’ he asked. A man in a dark suit came forward through the blinding beams of light, offering a hand to help him onto his feet. ‘We’re going to take you to our leader,’ he said, smiling.

A simultaneous structure. In the 1971 film The Andromeda Strain, directed by Robert Wise, a ‘crystalline’ alien virus lands in the American desert attached to a meteorite, and causes catastrophic effects on the human circulatory system, The focus of the narrative is to find a solution for this virus through scientific means: by understanding why a very young baby and an alcoholic old man did not fall victim to the virus that devastated a small desert town. A group of scientists descend 5 ‘biologically cleaner’ underground levels of a top-secret base until they arrive at a secure and sterile environment in which to study the alien life form. This base is located at Lake Mead, Nevada, south-east of Las Vegas and on the opposite point of the compass to the Groom Lake testing grounds. Its location places the base in a clear relation to both underground nuclear missile silos and secure Cold War ‘bunkers’ used to protect military chains of command in the event of a nuclear war.

Still from The Andromeda Strain (dir: Robert Wise, 1971).

The security of biological hygiene is short lived in The Andromeda Strain, however: the virus also corrodes the flexible seals that close off ‘secure’ spaces. It is not by human agency that the virus is rendered harmless: it mutates into a non-lethal form, and it is the failure to ‘destroy’ the virus by a nuclear detonation (that would have caused exponential mutation and growth and widespread dissemination of the virus) that is the major human achievement therein. The Andromeda Strain is a diagnostic text for Cold War science fiction in its discourses of hygiene and security, and its near-phobic coding of the alien as biological other. In Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964), the insane SAC General Jack D. Ripper’s paranoia migrates from Reds-under-the-bed rhetoric to phobias about his own body: he avoids fluoridated water (and sexual orgasm) as he is concerned to protect the integrity of his own ‘precious bodily fluids’ from contamination. This discourse informs The Andromeda Strain, as it does Ballard’s Hello America (1981), where the (again, insane) ‘President’ Charles Manson reveals to the protagonist Wayne his use of the remaining American nuclear stockpile after an environmental catastrophe has rendered the USA half desert, half jungle:

‘I had to take them out, Wayne, there was a threat of plague in the east. I used the old cruise missiles. Before his breakdown my partner renovated the warheads and guidance systems. They’re slow but reliable, like homing pigeons going back to a hot supper. Think of it as a necessary prophylactic measure.’[9]

The ‘plague’ is the threat of the eastern seaboard of North America being re-colonised from Europe: the discourses of infection and ‘cure’ are deployed to rationalise the destruction of a threat of invasion.

Six of One. The dark-suited man offered little in the way of conversation as they sped along Groom Lake Road in the pick-up, but his body language was unthreatening, even friendly. The other guards had gone about their business, leaving him alone with the suited man, although he had been asked, politely, to hand over the Walther. The police-band radio squawked occasionally on the dash, but there seemed little else going on in the Range. The sun was coming up behind and to the left of them, and the desert was emerging from the night in grey and blue and ochre. The pick-up slowed as it approached what seemed to be an abandoned desert diner, a dusty roadside shack with wooden porch and lettering on the roof, an old Burma-Shave sign out front, and long dark shadows painted across the blacktop. Parked at an angle to the porch was a clean, black government-issue Cadillac, the kind of car that Agency officers drove, not without a sense of irony, around Langley. As they pulled up in a volume of dust, he wondered who the driver could be.

Ballard’s short-story collection ‘Memories of the Space Age’ (1988), with Ernst’s ‘Europe After the Rain’ on the cover.

L’Amerique sidereal. The military-industrial complex, a phrase coined by President Eisenhower in a jeremiad delivered on his leaving office, is crucial to the post-war economy of Southern California. According to Dale Carter:

Simultaneously, by transferring over $17.5 billion to the southern and western United States between Fiscal years 1962 and 1969, the space agency’s budget made a proportionally greater contribution to what was ultimately the more painful mechanism, not only of the Rocket State’s growth but also of its eventual succession. The contribution itself had two distinct yet related dimensions. On the one hand, the more than $13 billion worth of prime contracts and subcontracts which initiated the rapid growth of the Cape Canaveral region and secured the prosperity of the Houston and Los Angeles industry and commerce during the 1960s indirectly helped elevate new generations of Florida real estate speculators, California construction firms, and other Sunbelt entrepreneurs and financiers: a new community  of interest born of the Vietnam war boom whose relative independence from the power elite’s east coast operational core would allow them to ride out the recessions of the early 1970s and underwrite the rise of the New Right during the rest of the decade.

On the other hand, vast prime contracts awarded to companies like Boeing and North American Rockwell by NASA during the 1960s directly fuelled corporate giants which, while more closely aligned with the Republican establishment or pro-military Democrats than with the New Right’s highest circles, were nevertheless integral to Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 (234-5)

The American ‘rocket state’, in which the space program (and especially Apollo) acts as the spectacle element in the economic system of the Cold War, is most in evidence in the prosperity of Southern California and Florida, both critical sites for Ballard’s short fictions.


Now: Zero. On an American roulette wheel, there are 36 numbers, 18 red and 18 black, from 1 to 36. There are also two green sections of the wheel: Zero (0) and Double Zero (00). Both pay the house.


Seven Days to Noon. Strangely, the dark-suited man used some kind of electronic card-reader and keypad to open the door of the diner, which led directly down a short flight of steps. He blinked in the bright overheads as he took in a modern institutional canteen, in brushed steel, white melamine and glass. Several men, Special Agents by the cut of their jackets, were collecting food at a self-service counter, while others sipped coffee, chatted or scanned documents at an archipelago of small tables. At one, a tall chestnut-haired woman in a midnight-blue trouser suit stood up and faced them, as the dark-suited man guided him by the elbow to her table. Now he knew he the driver was. ‘Felicity Vespertine,’ he said, smiling. ‘Why are you here?’ ‘B,’ she said warmly, clasping his hand firmly and pulling him toward her, kissing him on both cheeks. ‘Howard,’ she said to his companion, could you grab a couple of coffees for us before you go, and a sandwich? B here looks famished.’ ‘I think the word you’re looking for, Felicity,’ said B, ‘is finished.’

Macrocosmic Null-X. In Hello America, the young protagonist Wayne finds himself, towards the end of the narrative, in a mocked-up ‘War Room’ at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, in which the deranged President Manson spins a roulette wheel to determine which ‘infected’ North American city will be targeted by what remains of the Cold War nuclear arsenal. Reluctantly, Wayne throws:


Wayne watched the ball circle the illuminated bowl, safe and defused in its empty niche. No city was marked against it!

With relief he blurted: ‘Mr President, there’s nothing there, no city – ’

Manson laughed affably, the chuckle of a conjuror who has just deceived a small child.

‘Zero pays the house, Wayne.’ (215-6)

In his article ‘”Zero Pays the House”: The Las Vegas Novel and Atomic Roulette’, Ken Cooper suggests that Las Vegas and ‘the bomb’ are inextricably intertwined, not only by the city’s proximity to the Nevada testing grounds, but through metaphor: ‘everyone is a subject of the nuclear state; we are all in the same casino. So, to extend the metaphor, How do we get out of the casino when we’re tired of playing atomic roulette?’[10] The ‘game’ of MAD is a game of chance, but all outcomes are ultimately that of defeat. Wayne in Hello America, however, flees the city by ‘Sunlight Flier’, a fleet of crystalline human-powered aircraft that provide an irresistibly surrealist gloss on Ballard’s motif of flight as transcendence. The dream of Las Vegas inhabited by Wayne, that of a ‘past America [and] city of antique gamblers’ (236), is itself the final victim of the logic of the Cold War.

Vapours. Patient B had arrived at the clinic in Vermillion Sands some three months ago, after a long convalescence in Geneva. The Swiss clinicians had performed exemplary work on B’s physical injuries – on cursory examination, one would hardly notice the fractured tibia, cracked hip, two broken patellas and contusions around sternum and ribcage – but B’s physical condition was of less concern to Bluffield than the psychological. B was clearly a highly intelligent individual, but his strongly practical cast of mind caused him to disengage from Bluffield’s approaches, or even reject them outright. B had no interest in the problem, it seemed, no insight into his own psychological processes, and Bluffield had failed to interest his patient intellectually in the clinical models at work. B seemed content to live in a quotidian world of regular exercise and small-scale concerns. To explain that, Bluffield knew, there was no need for recourse to deep theoretical structures.

Helios. Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of the arts, but also of rationality and architecture, became increasingly identified with Helios, the sun god, in Hellenic times. Why is Apollo, the sun-deity, named for the NASA moon programme? Perhaps the reason is that Apollo is patron of the arts and of philosophy, of music (of the spheres) and science. Apollo is also an oracular god, implicitly a deity of what is to come. More troublingly, perhaps, Apollo was the centre of a cult of masculine youth. With goddesses Artemis/ Selene more properly identified with the moon, is the NASA Apollo program a conquering, or erasure, of the cosmologically feminine?

Tune into for Part 2: the final thrilling instalment of Brian Baker’s APOLLO ROULETTE!


[1] Dale Carter, The Final Frontier: The Rise and Fall of the American rocket State (London: Verso, 1988), p. 153
[2] William Gibson, ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, ed. Bruce Sterling (London: Paladin, 1988), pp.1-11 (p.7).
[3] J.G. Ballard, Vermillion Sands (1971) (London: Phoenix, 1992).
[4] J.G. Ballard, ‘Introduction’ to Crash (1973) (London: Vintage, 1995), unpaginated.
[5] Jean Baudrillard, America, (1986) (London: Verso, 2010), pp.137-8.
[6] J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) (London: Harper Perennial, 2006).
[7] Baudrillard, America, p.133.
[8] Baudrillard, America, p.4.
[9] JG Ballard, Hello America (1981) (London: Flamingo, 1993), ch.20, p.154.
[10] Ken Cooper, ‘”Zero Pays the House”: The Las Vegas Novel and Atomic Roulette’, Contemporary Literature 33:3, Fall 1992, 528-544(p.534)

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Apollo Roulette: part 1


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