The Drowned World written by James Graham Ballard (Shanghai, 1930 – Shepperton, 2009) is a peculiar piece of work combining science fiction with the concepts of Jungian psychology. So that from a narrative genre it becomes first an effective cognitive mean, later a tool of self-examination, succeeding then in revealing the overflowing power of archetypes: those primordial instincts that dominate the subconscious and can drag at the bottom or at the surface of emotional awareness. 

J. G. Ballard is considered one of the greatest scifi writers of the 1970s. In those years he transforms the genre, inspiring the new scifi movement of the New Wave and moving the narrative centre of scifi stories from the concept of “outer space” to that of “inner space”: namely from the exploration of the universe to the one of the self. This process gives rise to a new literary dimension characterised by a powerful and introspective narrative strength that have been inspiring generations of scifi writers and filmmakers there since.    

SciFi as a cognitive tool

Science fiction proves itself since its dawn as a powerful tool to explore the foundations of a complex social structure as the modern western society that keeps boldly and at times unconsciously defying itself and its limits. The genre criteria can indeed create deep sociological and anthropological reflection in an accessible way through the representation of dystopian social structures.

Notable are, beyond the the work of Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, the famous: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, 1895; 1984 by George Orwell, 1949); Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, 1953; Clock Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962); The Planet of Apes by Pierre Boulle (1963), among others. 

Scifi as self-examination mean  

Ballard develops scifi genre’s speculative potentials in direction of ontological and psychoanalytical research. It makes sense considering that Ballard studies medicine at King’s College of Cambridge aiming to become a psychiatrist. He does not finish the degree course as after reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, decides to become a writer. However, the passion for psychological analysis and the exploration of human mind abysses will never abandon him and it will become one of the main theme underpinning its writing. 

The research and exploration of this space is the focus of the “urban disaster” tetralogy, a series of four books about the world destruction by the four elements. Air in The Wind from Nowhere, 1962; water in The Drowned World, 1962). Fire in The Burning World, 1964; and Earth in The Crystal World, 1966. The first novel of the series, The Wind from Nowhere, is then excluded from the group because it is considered by Ballard just as “hackwork”. 

Water revealing the inner space

The Drowned World is instead considered by the writer as his first novel and it indeed explores his idea of inner space. It is not just a coincidence the choice of water as destructive element. Water is deemed in many religions and systems of beliefs a powerful medium: it is ancient, it flows from the beginning of time, it is the cradle of life and it becomes in Ballard’s novel the symbol of earth and human memory. 

Then the drowned world gets to be in the mind of the main characters not just an antagonist but a new reality able to connect the individuals to their most ancient memories. It assaults their awareness through the manifestation of recurring dreams so that they may undertake an “uterine odyssey” able to revel their biological and emotion past.

Inner space revealing archetypes 

“Every step we’ve taken in our evolution is a milestone inscribed with organic memories. From the enzymes controlling the carbon-dioxide cycle, to the organization of the brachial plexus and the nerve pathways of the pyramid cells of the mid-brain. Each is a record of a thousand decisions taken in a chemical crisis. Just as psychoanalysis reconstructs the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material, so we are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs.”

Jungian theory complexity based on the concepts of collective unconscious and archetypes is presented by Ballard’s the great talent as narrative element. We then learn about it together with the main characters as they discover the overwhelming power of the archetypes: those recurring symbols or motifs connects to inner behavioral schemes, that are unveiled by the drowned world.

Reading the The Drowned World 

Reading the book is like getting lost in something extraordinary and mysterious and learning to know it. This marks the peculiar appeal of the book. In fact, though the novel draws from the dystopian literary image, it is very original in presenting the characters as not entirely in contrast with the world they live in but instead as growing to love it and defend it. 

Ballard accompanies us along this path of awakening with a vivid writing picturing an apocalyptic scenario through a filter that highlights the emotional and spiritual evolutions deriving from its contemplation. If you love science fiction and psychology and have not read yet this book, it may be a great read. A very deep text, a dystopian plot that strikes for its profound spiritual acuity.