Study Questions for J.G. Ballard's "The Terminal Beach" [1964]

As Masri notes, Ballard's story does not present us with a conventional plot. As a proponent of the New Wave through which British SF writers like Ballard and American writers like Ursula K. Le Guin promoted depth of characterization, literary style, and experimental plot structures, Ballard writes a story that both enacts a psychological study of his protagonist and engages in social criticism. As you consider the following issues, try to consider how Traven's personal struggles parallel the larger geopolitical issues raised by the story.

  1. Considering the abandoned island of Eniwetok, Traven thinks that the Atomic Energy Commission had "unconscious motives...for leaving it as it was: if primitive man felt the need to assimilate events in the external world to his own psyche, twentieth century man had reversed this process" (923). What exactly does this mean? How does this early thought by Traven explain his own motive for going to the island?
  2. How do Traven's descriptions of the ruins on the island [referencing Assyria and Babylon--924] evoke our comments on science fiction's address to the past and the future?
  3. What role does the death of his wife and six year old son play in the story? Is their death somehow related to the story's social critique?
  4. After Osborne, the scientist, arrives, he questions Traven about his purpose in being on the island and asks if Traven is suffering from a "guilt complex" like someone named "Eatherly" (931). Claude Eatherly piloted a weather plane that supported the mission to bomb Hiroshima and later attempted suicide at least twice. In what ways could Traven's guilt be connected to Eatherly's?
  5. The woman pilot who brings Osborne to the island helps Traven by giving him the "correct list of legends for the chromosome charts" (932) and even warns him that Osborne has alerted the Navy to Traven's presence, telling him to hide. Why does Ballard have this character show sympathy for Traven? How is her behavior toward him contrasted to that of the other characters?
  6. What is the impact of the behavior of the sailors who come looking for Traven on the social critique in the story? What is Ballard getting at through them?
  7. What, ultimately, is the basis of Ballard's social critique?