Friday, July 10, 2015

Adventure classics -- The woman of a thousand faces

“The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D”
by J. G. Ballard
Reclusive heiress Leonora Chanel fills her many houses with portraits of herself. Only one famous picture is missing – the one her unfaithful husband, a presumed suicide -- was painting just before his death. “What promised to be a significant exhibit at the coroner’s inquest, a mutilated easel portrait of Leonora on which he was working, was accidently destroyed before the hearing,” reports the narrator of J. G. Ballard’s 1967 surreal fantasy, “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D.” “Perhaps the painting revealed more of Leonora’s character than she chose to see.”

As obsessed with her own image as any aging movie queen, Leonora searches for immortality in art, a search that culminates in the strange medium of cloud sculpture.

Every evening, great clouds are born on the heated air rising from the ancient dried sea bed of the resort colony of Vermilion Springs. The wealthy, the jaded, the self-regarding colony members long as much as the visitors flocking to today’s Jurassic World for ever-new, ever-titillating spectacles to distract them from the meaninglessness of their lives. And among those who feed – or perhaps prey – on this insatiable desire, are cloud-sculptors, daredevils in gliders who “carve seahorses and unicorns, the portraits of presidents and film stars, lizards and exotic birds,” as Ballard writes. “As the crowd watched from their cars, a cool rain would fall on to the dusty roofs, weeping from the sculptured clouds as they sailed across the desert floor towards the sun.”

Among those cloud-sculptors is Nolan, one of Leonora Chanel’s flock of discarded lovers. He has already painted her cruelly ironic, all too lifelike portrait. Is it to satisfy her own vanity or to humiliate her lover that she now demands he sculpt her in the transient medium of a cloud?

“The Cloud-Sculptors” would be among the stories Ballard would collect a few years later in his anthology, Vermilion Sands. It is also the story science fiction writer Roger Zelazny placed at the beginning of his edited collection of Nebula Award-winning stories for 1967.

“Here are seven stories,” Zelazny writes in his introduction. “There is something special about each one of them, or they wouldn’t be here. They were all of them nominated for the Nebula Award. . .a thing which represents our collective opinion as to what is the very best work our area of literature produced. . . ”

Except that some of them weren’t nominated. Specifically the volume’s opening story, Ballard’s “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D.”

It makes me wonder why Nebula didn’t nominate the story, but “Zelazny does not offer either explanation or excuse for the inclusion of this story,” writes author/fan Steven H. Silver, “allowing Ballard’s words to provide their own justification.”

I double-checked the list of Nebula winners for 1967Surely it was in there somewhere. But there was, indeed, no record of “Cloud-Sculptors.” Still, I’m grateful to Zelazny for reintroducing me to this work, the perfect heated fever dream for a long summer afternoon before the breaking of a thunderstorm.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a July of science fiction with Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed,” which actually was a Nebula Award winner for its year, 1972.)

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