Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Deep Time

Mythago Wood (1984) by Robert Holdstock: Transcendent fantasy novel about fantasy, legend, and myth. Englishman Stephen Huxley returns to his ancestral home of Oak Lodge after a year recuperating from wounds suffered in World War Two to discover his father dead and his brother, well, a bit bonkers. 

Huxley's brother Christian soon disappears into the encroaching Ryhope Wood, a relatively small stand of old-growth English forest, but only after explaining to Stephen that the woods are haunted by mythagos: avatars of English myths and legends given physical form by the woods and by the occasional interaction of the woods with a human mind.

Got that? The word 'mythago' is a portmanteau derived from 'myth' and 'imago.' Holdstock's concept, expanded upon at great and fascinating length throughout the novel, is intensely Jungian. The mythagos manifest and, in most cases, die after a time, to be reborn again and again. They vary sometimes depending on what version of a myth a human knows: Robin Hood, for instance, can change depending on what myth about him is relevant to the human. 

And the woods themselves are a pocket universe, much larger inside than out and well-defended against too much human incursion: most people are simply guided back out of the woods by labyrinthine, shifting pathways should they attempt to walk too far back into the Deep Time held within Ryhope Wood.

Holdstock soon gives Stephen a personal element to fuel his attempts to explore Ryhope Wood and discover the whereabouts of his brother. He'll also gain an ally, disfigured former RAF pilot Harry Keeton, whose plane crashed into a haunted woods in France similar to Ryhope. Together, they'll face the ancient myths and legends of England, and some more modern ones too, as they enter the maze. The deeper one goes, the longer the myths persist -- and the mythagos can be almost anything, from castles to walking corpses.

Mythago Wood is a marvelous meditation on the power and sources of myth, told as an entertaining and engaging work of fiction. Holdstock's greatest prose accomplishment lies in keeping everything clear while still poetically describing the events, creatures, and stories Stephen encounters. It all has the ring of real myth, whether it is or not. It's also a fantasy world that makes clear and reasoned sense. It's a triumph of fantasy. Highly recommended.

The Drowned World (1962) by J.G. Ballard: Deeply modernistic with its ideas of race memory and archetypal Edens hidden within human consciousness; deeply post-modern in its refusal to assert these systems as having any power to unite humanity in some universal whole.

J.G. Ballard's first novel is a John Wyndham global-disaster novel reimagined as a combination of Heart of Darkness and an extraordinarily odd journey into the disintegrating self. Dr. Kerans, a biologist attached to a biological survey team of the world government, is our protagonist. He first appears looking out onto the changed landscape of some European city whose name he's forgotten. 

No matter: the city has been drowned by the world-wide flood unleashed by terrible changes to the sun. The tiny remnant of organized humanity now lives at the poles, perhaps 5 million in number.

Kerans and the survey team catalogue the rapidly changing flora and fauna of the drowned metropolis. Species dead for millions of years seem to be returning, per the theory of Kerans and fellow biologist Bodkin that Earth is moving into a second Triassic Age. Giant alligators and iguanas and monitor lizards are everywhere, along with increasingly gigantic and exotic species of bats and insects and fish. All this in the 100 years or so since the seas started rising.

The book stays in the survey team's location, for the most part, bringing new characters and situations into a world in which a half-submerged Ritz hotel looms over the lagoon that drowns the cityscape. Kerans and several other characters suffer from lassitudinous dreams and visions -- of  a desire to head south into the super-heated tropics, and of an identity-destabilizing descent into some strange, returning group un-mind.

It's a hothouse book of mythic and psychological speculation, The Drowned World. Ballard's mastery of mood and mythically, psychological complex landscape description aren't much like anything he'd done in his short stories prior to this, which were more generally along the lines of Philip K. Dick as translated by a proper Englishman who's swallowed a thesaurus. Stunning, depressing, weirdly hopeful -- its images and questions stay with one after the novel's over. Highly recommended.

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