The Estrella de Mar is situated along a moribund stretch of the Gibraltar coast, where “a sluggish sea lapped at the chocolate sand of the deserted beaches.”
The coastal strip was a nondescript plain of market gardens, tractor depots and villa projects. I passed a half-completed Aquapark, its excavated lakes like lunar craters, and a disused nightclub on an artificial hill, the domed roof resembling a small observatory.
A nearby town is described as being “without centre or suburbs.” In fact, it “seemed to be little more than a dispersal ground for golf courses and swimming pools.” The few humans who can still be seen in this oddly depopulated environment are out lying across old reclining chairs, barely talking to one another; but this is what happens, Ballard jokes, “when continuous sunlight is shone on the British.”
Into this world of automated tennis machines and monogrammed hotel ice buckets comes an English travel writer whose brother may or may not have committed a crime a few days earlier. We follow this outsider from the minute he arrives. He drives his rental car past “white-walled retirement complexes marooned like icebergs among the golf courses.”
He soon parks, gets out, and goes for an afternoon hike, unsure of the culture he’s now surveilling:
I climbed a pathway of blue tiles to a grass knoll and looked down on an endless terrain of picture windows, patios and miniature pools. Together they had a curiously calming effect, as if these residential compounds – British, Dutch and German – were a series of psychological pens that soothed and domesticated these émigré populations.
Already thinking of a travel article, I noted the features of this silent world: the memory-erasing white architecture; the enforced leisure that fossilized the nervous system; the almost Africanized aspect, but a North Africa invented by someone who had never visited the Maghreb; the apparent absence of any social structure; the timelessness of a world beyond boredom, with no past, no future and a diminishing present. Perhaps this was what a leisure-dominated future would resemble? Nothing could ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools.
More to the point, however, and in a quotation which I’m having trouble locating, the novel briefly raises the question of whether it might be more appropriate to send not a travel writer but a psychologist to cover a new resort hotel – perhaps even a neuroscientist.
After all, this visitor would ask, taking notes for a kind of psycho-spatial analysis, what motivated the construction of such a place? Why would such a landscape – seemingly devoid of humans, animated only by pre-programmed swimming pool pumps – be constructed at all?
This globetrotting neuro-tourist then relays the research to Malcolm Gladwell or Jonah Lehrer, signing a contract for a brand new book. It becomes a bestseller. The Mind on Holiday, it might be called. Landscapes of Pleasurable Forgetting. The neuroscience of built space.
But it’s a serious question: could we learn more about, say, Dubai or Las Vegas – or Cancun – if we sent psychologists instead of travel writers?
Might there not be neurological reasons for the construction of certain buildings, or whole cities?
They check into vast air-conditioned lobbies, with no recognizable humans in sight. As dusk settles, they walk alone amidst well-fountained paths, surrounded by ferns, listening to Muzak on hidden speakers – and they produce uncannily accurate diagnoses of the psychological states of the architects and developers behind these non-places.
Then they turn their eyes on the other tourists…
So is this what travel literature right now is sorely missing: that we should be performing – and publishing – neuro-tourism?
(For a different kind of neuro-tourism, see io9).