From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the publication of a new J.G. Ballard book was a major literary event. The Terminal Beach, Vermilion Sands, Crash, and High-Rise offered nightmarish, frequently transgressive visions of contemporary society projected through an oblique science-fiction lens. Inspired by John Wyndam (author of the British sci-fi classic The Day of the Triffids) and William Burroughs, Ballard's concentrated and intensely lyrical fictions and haunting, apocalyptic imagery described the imminent decline of civilization and ultimate end of history.
But in recent years Ballard has seemed less essential. His riveting autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (later made into a film by Steven Spielberg) earned well-deserved critical and commercial success, but it rendered Ballard almost respectable, and cyberpunk writers eclipsed him as correspondents of the near future even as they borrowed his elegant nihilism. But Ballard's sensibilities remain as hard-edged as ever. As his new novel Cocaine Nights makes clear, he still has vital things to say about what tomorrow holds for humanity.
Set in an exclusive expatriate community on Spain's Costa del Sol, the novel focuses on travel writer Charles Prentice, who has come to Spain because his brother Frank has been charged with setting a fire that killed five people here. Although Frank has admitted to the crime, Charles doubts his brother's guilt, as do Frank's lawyer and even the police. Charles decides to investigate the circumstances of the fire for himself. He moves into his brother's apartment in Estrella de Mar, the resort where Frank managed a sports club. Charles' contempt for Estrella de Mar and what it represents soon gives way to curiosity--the brochures neglect to mention the barely concealed drug dealing, the amateur pornography ring, and the wave of petty crime plaguing the resort.
The first half of Cocaine Nights reads like a traditional mystery. Charles uncovers clues, interviews witnesses, establishes motives and opportunities. But rather than moving closer to a solution as the story progresses, Charles is further bewildered by what he observes. The novel veers from mystery into Ballard's trademark brand of disquieting speculative fiction as it becomes a study of life in Estrella de Mar. At the beginning of the novel, Frank tells his brother he should spend more time at the resort: "Everywhere will be like this soon." That prediction provides the anxiety that propels this novel.
As in his previous works (most notably Crash), Ballard posits that the near future will be dystopian, pervaded by exhaustion and ennui. Novelty and fetishism will entertain a civilization on the brink of self-annihilation. But in Cocaine Nights the inhabitants of Estrella de Mar have even lost the perverse imagination of the characters in Crash, and their illicit thrills--from drug use to murder--are scheduled like shuffleboard tournaments. Ultimately this proves to be the novel's most apocalyptic proposition.