“Dream Cargoes” is a variation of an age-old genre, the “Robinsonade,” which takes its name from Daniel Defoe’s novel The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719). Used by many writers in the centuries since, the Robinsonade recounts the experiences of an individual or small group of individuals marooned on an isolated island. Such a device not only allows an author to present his or her characters in an extreme situation but also provides a convenient means of focusing the action of the work. Ballard has turned repeatedly to this device in such novels as Concrete Island (1974) and Rushing to Paradise.
Ballard supports his theme with several literary allusions, the most obvious involving the name of the beached freighter. In English playwright William Shakespeare’s work The Tempest (1613), the nobleman Prospero has been robbed of his throne and set adrift with his daughter Miranda. The two are eventually marooned on an island where Miranda grows up seeing practically no one but her father. Overwhelmed with delight when she finally confronts a band of fellow men and women, she utters the famous line: “O brave new world/ That has such people in’t!” (English writer Aldous Huxley took the title of his 1932 novel Brave New World from this line, and Ballard’s story can be read as an ironic response to Huxley’s nightmarish vision of the future.)
Although Ballard is sometimes criticized for his clinical and detached language, “Dream Cargoes” is filled with vivid descriptive passages whose luxuriance approximates that of the vegetation they describe. Ballard also structures his story in a manner approximating his main character’s own experience. During one of his visionary episodes, Johnson “sees” Chambers as a blurred series of superimposed images and colors. The story itself unfolds as a series of brief scenes, many of which open with Johnson awakening from sleep. The reader’s initial confusion mirrors Johnson’s own, and the superimposition of one scene on the next gives us a sense of Johnson’s expanding yet fragmented consciousness, his vision of a “brave new world.”