Posts Tagged ‘C.S. Lewis’

Does this qualify as an actual confession? I was visiting my parents over the Christmas break and one evening my father was watching a documentary about the life and work of C.S. Lewis, the popular theologian and Oxbridge don best known today, probably, as the writer of the Narnia books. The presenter of the show made a passing reference to Lewis’ adult SF output of the 1930s and 1940s. Naturally, my father looked to me. ‘Have you read those?’ he asked. ‘Er, no,’ I was obliged to admit. Needless to say, when I’d polished off the book I was entrenched in at the time, my next stop was the Kindle store to pick up a copy of Lewis’ Space Trilogy. (To be perfectly honest, I think The Cosmic Trilogy is a slightly more evocative title, but it’s not the one on the cover. Hmmph.)

space trilogy

While the plots of the three volumes certainly link into one another very firmly, this is still a fairly episodic series of books (does that make any sense? Trust me on this). The first book, Out of the Silent Planet, opens with Ransom, a philologist on a walking holiday who stumbles across strange goings-on in a remote house. He is basically kidnapped by two caddish types, a scientist and a businessman, and when he recovers his senses finds himself aboard a secret, privately-built spacecraft, en route to another planet. Exactly where is kept from him, as his captors have intentions for him they refuse to reveal.

Eventually the spacecraft touches down on the strange world of Malacandra, where Ransom gives his persecutors the slip and gets to know the various inhabitants: the huge, philosophical Sorns, the poetic, lutrine Hrossa, and the squat, industrious Pfifltriggi. But there are still further inhabitants, disembodied intelligences known to the locals as Eldila. Up to this point, the book has read rather like a particularly refined and genteel planetary romance – not too dissimilar to similar works by the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Michael Moorcock – but the moment Ransom discovers the Eldila serve Maleldil the Young, the son of the Old One who made the universe, the jig starts to grind to a halt and it becomes very clear what Lewis is getting at.

Malacandra is such a haven of peace and unity because it is still under the rule of a benevolent, angelic being called an Oyarsa. The generally rotten and corrupt nature of life on Earth is all due to the local Oyarsa having gone bad and corrupted the human race. I would call this a fairly unsophisticated subtext, but for the fact that it isn’t really subtext at all: it’s what the story is fundamentally about.

Still, alongside all the Christian allegory the book has some interesting ideas: about what Lewis clearly perceived as the false distinctions people make between different types of life (animal, human, and supra-human) and experience (‘normal’, religious/supernatural, and scientific). Rather atypically for what is still, after all, an SF book, the book isn’t afraid to come out and argue that the human race shouldn’t be leaving its home planet, shouldn’t fight to extend its longevity, and so on. (This sort of submission to the greater truths of the universe becomes a sort of theme of the trilogy.)

In the end not very much happens and Ransom finds himself back on Earth with some remarkable tales to tell. The book is quite brief, but full of interesting ideas, and Malacandra is vividly described. It’s also easily the most SF-y of the three books.

Perelandra is much more of a slog, and opens with (we are invited to infer) Lewis himself trekking through the wartime blackout to meet Ransom. Great things are afoot, and – having learned the language of the angels on Malacandra – he is being sent off to the planet Perelandra on a mission of great importance.

Perelandra is a subtropical paradise, a waterworld where much of the life exists on floating islands of vegetation. On his arrival Ransom finds it even more idyllic than Malacandra was, but it transpires this is because it is a young world. The local analogues of Adam and Eve – no, really – are still existing in a state of grace, living in obedience to the higher powers. But not long after Ransom turns up, another spacecraft makes a landing, this one also hailing from Earth. The forces of darkness have sent their own emissary, introducing a new serpent into this extraterrestrial Eden, and it’s up to Ransom to prevent the Fall from happening again.

Once again, that isn’t subtext, it’s the actual plot of the book. There is subtlety in Perelandra, but it is very upfront about its nature as a piece of, if not Christian writing, then writing with strong and entirely positive Christian themes. There is, again, implicit and explicit criticism of life on Earth, where the word of God has been disobeyed – Lewis starts talking about God and angels quite openly about halfway through, and the story very quickly turns into not much more than a vehicle for him to express his theological ideas.

I suspect even most committed Christians would find Perelandra quite heavy going, but the quality of Lewis’ writing was high enough to keep me reading, even if I was broadly sceptical about his premises in general and some of the turns of the plot in particular – Ransom does turn out to be portentously-named, as I’d suspected all along, while the real subtext of the climax of the book, which seems to be that sometimes you’ve just got to abandon reasoned argument and batter someone’s head in, struck me as rather unsound.

Hey ho. Ransom gets back to Earth for the final (and much longer) volume, That Hideous Strength, although he has more of a supporting role in this book. It is really the story of a young couple, Mark and Jane Studdock. He is an ambitious young don at a small university, she is a housewife; their marriage is unhappy. Jane has odd dreams she can’t make sense of, but Mark is much more concerned with university politics. This involves him attempting to inveigle his way into the good books of an institute known as the NICE, which wants to reorganise Britain and the world along more efficient, rational lines.

Needless to say, the NICE is really an instrument of the forces of darkness, and quite horrific experiments are going on in secret at its HQ. It essentially represents a baleful, soulless Technocracy (Lewis even refers to it as such), intent on reducing the human race to a state of materialistic submission. (I can’t help thinking, having read this book, that C.S. Lewis would have made a great GM for a game of Mage: The Ascension, although I suspect everyone would have been obliged to play Celestial Choristers.) The NICE is populated by a gallery of hissable grotesques, including a proto-Rosa Klebb villainess and a vague Sir Humphrey type.

Set against them is a small company of decent, proper types, including Ransom – not referred to by name until well into the book – and, eventually, Jane. The actual story is an extraordinary mash-up of black comedy, thriller elements, conversion literature, horror, and full-on fantasy – the mythology is far from exclusively Christian, making heavy use of Arthurian imagery, but also Greek mythology, too. A distant cousin of one of Olaf Stapledon’s Fourth Men appears (Lewis himself acknowledges the similarity in his preface), but perhaps most interesting for many people will be references to Atlantis, which Lewis calls Numinor. Yes, that’s a reference to Tolkien’s imaginarium, and much of the book feels like an expanded-upon version of Saruman’s corruption of the Shire at the end of The Lord of the Rings (kids, go and read the book). There’s the same sense of insensate gears and wheels and human pettiness crushing everything that’s natural and decent and right in the world.

Lewis is such a good writer that you do find yourself giving his ideas headspace, even some of the really dubious ones. He does come across as a bit of a reactionary, to be honest, but on the other hand there is such a sense of decency and morality about this book that it’s very difficult to actually dislike (although I suspect someone like Philip Pullman could probably manage it quite easily). This even extends to the prefaces and afterwords – Tolkien is fulsome in his praise for Lewis, and Lewis returns the favour to quite the same extent, even adding a few commendatory words with respect to Olaf Stapledon (although I suspect he would have strongly objected to the conception of God Stapledon lays out in his extraordinary Star-Maker).

The Christian themes are less dominant in That Hideous Strength, though still strongly present, and the nature of the story means that this Earth-bound instalment is probably the most readable of the three, even if it is longer than the first two combined. The ending is somewhat abrupt and unexpectedly low-key: a cosmic battle may have been fought, with incomprehensible forces descending from Deep Heaven to lay waste the enemies of humanity, but equally important is the fact that a marriage seems to have been saved and two young people have found their way back into the light. I suspect this was very far from being accidental.

Are these books still worth reading today? Well, that depends on why you read them, I suspect. As examples of mid-20th century SF, I suspect not, because well-written as they are, they are only ever really secondarily SF: Lewis’ theological concerns always take precedence, occasionally wearyingly so. If you want to enjoy fiction by a great Christian thinker and apologist, on the other hand, you’ll probably find them much more engaging, although they are still (obviously) very dated in terms of their style and setting. I enjoyed them quite a lot (well, the middle part less so), but I would still say they were religious fantasy much more than actual science fiction.


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