Last Updated September 5, 2023.
J. G. Ballard's short story "Dream Cargoes" is an interesting piece of quasi-science fiction. It takes place on an island that is the site of a chemical waste spill (in fact, the spill occurred back while the chemical contaminants were on board a ship, which ended up floundering and sinking at sea). The protagonist, known simply as Johnson, is a young Nassau native who imagines himself as captain of a ship ("the Prospero") that is abandoned by its desperate and despondent captain and crew. The narration style is very stream-of-consciousness, and the story comprises episodes that take place over a six-month period, sometimes in the absence of logical connections where the reader might like one. This structure contributes to the fanciful tone of the story. Select quotes are as follows:
Captain Galloway's temper, like his erratic seamanship and consumption of rum and tequila, increased steadily as he realized that the Mexican shipping agent had abandoned them to the seas. Almost certainly the agent had pocketed the monies allocated for reprocessing and found it more profitable to let the ancient freighter, now refused entry to Veracruz, sail up and down the Gulf of Mexico until her corroded keel sent her conveniently to the bottom. For two months they had cruised forlornly from one port to another, boarded by hostile maritime police and customs officers, public health officials, and journalists alerted to the possibility of a major ecological disaster."
This quote serves (in the absence of entirely reliable third-person narration disclosing Johnson's point of view) to explain the circumstance behind the wayward vessel. Specifically, it is deemed a hazard to the public and so is rejected at various ports. Galloway's astute appraisal of this situation will lead to his suicide.
The moment that Galloway, with a last disgusted curse, had stepped into the freighter's single lifeboat, he, Johnson, had become the captain of this doomed vessel. He had watched Galloway, the four Mexican crewmen, and the weary Portuguese engineer row off into the dusk, promising himself that he would sleep in the captain's cabin and take his meals at the captain's table. After five years at sea, working as cabin boy and deck hand on the lowest grade of chemical waste carrier, he had a command of his own, this antique freighter, even if the Prospero's course was the vertical one to the seabed of the Caribbean.
This quote demonstrates Johnson's idiosyncratic worldview. He is prone to being lost in his own world (a theme that will be enhanced toward the ending of the story). The reader does not see him arrive at the island, but rather he is awoken from within a stranded car by one Christine Chambers, an American biologist. After four months together, the scene is described as follows:
Hearing the sound of her inflatable as she neared the inlet of the lagoon, Johnson surveyed his domain with pride. He had found a metal card table buried in the sand and laid it with a selection of fruits he had picked for Christine that morning. To Johnson's untrained eye they seemed to be strange hybrids of pomegranate and pawpaw, cantaloupe and pineapple. There were giant tomatolike berries and clusters of purple grapes each the size of a baseball. Together they glowed through the overheated light like jewels set in the face of the sun.
This portion of the essay invites the reader into the fanciful dream-like world of the island. It is the climax before the onset of Johnson's illness. Christine is pregnant with their child (though she views it as somewhat of a science experiment insofar as the...
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contaminated Johnson is the child's father). By the end of the story, Johnson has lost touch with reality:
He stared at Christine, aware that the colors were separating themselves from her skin and hair. Superimposed images of herself, each divided from the others by a fraction of a second, blurred the air around her, an exotic plumage that sprang from her arms and shoulders. The staid reality that had trapped them all was beginning to dissolve. Time had stopped and Christine was ready to rise into the air . . . . He would teach Christine and the child to fly."
This example reveals how compromised Johnson's mental faculties are. Very few specifics are given as to his affliction, but it can be reasonably assumed that he fell victim to the contaminated by means of the fruit he ate. Johnson jumps from the deck of a US Navy vessel that comes to rescue Christine and himself.