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The Drowned World – Andy plumbs the depths of the Jung and the Restless

August 9, 2010

Yes, I know the Jung and the Restless is not original. It gets nearly half a million hits on Google. You can fuck off now, smartarse.

Scifi is one of my guilty pleasures. As a kid I was mad for Doctor Who, Blake’s Seven, Battlestar Gallactica, The Tomorrow People, John Wyndham’s Triffids, John Christopher’s Tripods, and a bunch of other stuff that’s long forgotten. I went through a phase where I was a total wanker and scifi was beneath me. I may still be a total wanker but these days I’m back being a scifi geek. I still love Doctor Who, old and new, and China Mieville and Alastair Reynolds are two of my fave spinners of speculative fiction – a more encompassing label, since much of Mieville’s work shapeshifts from scifi to fantasy to horror to totally fucking bonkers.

Much of this stuff is purely escapist, though not all. Reynolds seems genuinely intrigued by how technology will affect the evolution of humanity and society. Mieville’s politics are obvious to those readers who are interested but they don’t exercise undue influence. Wyndham was interested in how humanity would react to cataclysmic events, and his conclusions weren’t optimistic.

I don’t imagine that J.G. Ballard would be flattered by the comparison, but Wyndham is one of the few scifi writers I have read who comes remotely close to exploring the terrain that Ballard entered in The Drowned World. Ballard, though, goes way, way, deeper… And arguably gets lost in the process.

The Drowned World is a book about climate change, written at a time when the words “climate change” had presumably not been used by anyone other than incredibly prescient (and almost certainly fictitious) meteorologists. Ballard’s climate change, though, is not brought about by humanity and cannot be controlled by it, either. Solar storms have stripped the planet of the atmosphere’s protective layers, the temperature has risen dramatically, the polar ice caps have melted, cities have flooded and the environment is looking a tad Jurassic Park (sans Sam Neill). Actually the period that’s referred to most often is the Triassic, but you get the gist. While his outlook isn’t necessarily as obviously pessimistic as Wyndham’s sometimes seems it’s certainly not upbeat, either; humanity’s remnants have been relegated to the polar regions and while as far as I can remember there’s no explicit acknowledgment that mankind is doomed it’s kind of what you expect to see in the fine print.

Another “as far as I can remember”: I don’t think the name “Jung” occurs once in the pages of The Drowned World. But if you know the vaguest thing about psychology (and I know very little, as the following discussion will doubtless reveal) Jung’s fingerprints are all over Ballard’s thinking. Which is interesting, because Jung was a fuckspank nutbag who made Freud look cosy and sane. And obviously Freud was neither of those things.

The Drowned World is a great scifi yarn and it works as that. But it is also a novel of ideas, and there’s one idea in particular that drives the characters and the action and, presumably, Ballard as well. The idea that our bodies (genes is another word I can’t remember Ballard using, but then he was writing in the early ’60s) retain “memories” of our evolutionary past, memories that can emerge in our dreams, memories that can influence our behaviour as our environment comes to resemble that past, seems to me obviously Jungian. My recollection is that Jung theorised that from generation to generation we pass down memories of our heritage, not just of our prehistoric humanity but beyond. Ballard’s novel suggests that if and when the globe begins to warm our psychology will prompt us to revert, to respond to stimuli far more basic than those we would recognise as human – that rather than fleeing the heat that will inevitably destroy us we will embrace it. This seems to me a pretty Jungian way of thinking. And therefore almost by definition wrong. Freud has very little street cred these days, and Jung, surely, has none.

And there’s the symbolic use of water. Quite by accident the two books I’ve blogged on in the past weeks have made symbolic use of water – in Fucking Martin, semen was the water of life; in The Drowned World, water represents amniotic fluid, suggesting that humanity is regressing towards its “birth”. On this point neither is convincing, though both are good reads.

The interesting, and for me perhaps slightly disturbing, thing is that I wonder whether you could make an argument for the scenario Ballard presents based on evolutionary psychology rather than Jung’s collective unconscious bollocks. Many of humanity’s failings – from violence to obesity to gossip – can be traced to our evolutionary heritage. Strip away the trappings that make us civilised, place us in an environment that makes certain behaviours more attractive than those to which we’ve become accustomed… I do wonder.

Mieville namechecks Ballard in his latest, Kraken, although weirdly he doesn’t namecheck Wyndham, who wrote a book called The Kraken Wakes – one of his many apocalyptic yarns. Ballard wrote a few of those, too, among them The Drowned World. Kraken is a seriously wacked slice of armageddon frenzy. Ballard would’ve sneered at comparisons to Wyndham, a writer who’s coming back into his own but who for years was dismissed as a hack; and while Ballard had plenty of seriously fucked-up things to say himself I suspect he’d have been bemused by Mieville’s most recent outing. I think I prefer Mieville and Wyndham, although The Drowned World is a very impressive read. And when it comes to “the end of the stinking world”, as armageddon was referred to, fleetingly, by a nondescript character in an episode of Doctor Who a few years back, I suppose there’s room for everybody.

Even Jung.

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