Lewis once remarked that reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes was for him a baptism of the imagination; reading the Space Trilogy has become for this reader a baptism into the spiritual dimensions of the universe, a transfiguration of mere ‘space’ as a dark, cold, inscrutable void into the ‘heavens’ which embody the variety of life God wills. Lewis’s God is a very ‘big’ God, who rules, in his own way, over the whole of his creation.
What have the three books of the Trilogy Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength for the writer?
First, Lewis excels at choreographing the complex writer’s tango of precept and prose. I have often read bloggers and published authors who encourage writers to have a message; on the other hand, I have read as many online aficionados who declare they do not sympathize with ‘message’ fiction, who suggest that the novel or short story is no place for injecting convictions, subtle or otherwise.
This writer asserts, having been around the block a few times, there is not a drop of ink spilled nor a letter-key pressed which does not suggest some credo however intentional the author is at ‘purging’ her story of any hint of said ‘message.’ However malformed or uninformed her philosophy, it subtly weaves or crudely stamps through the text. The claim to sterile objectivity in government agency, institution, or art is indefensible. The ‘real’ challenge is how well the ‘message’ integrates with its medium, in this case a science-fiction novel.
My second response is to encourage my reader to travel the masterfully realized universe of C.S. Lewis. He has succeeded in allying word and weltanschauung to great literary effect. Admittedly, the truer the notion does not a novel make; however, a true message in the hands of a master teller, painter, or philosopher, well that is ‘esse.’
Lewis’s trilogy presents an argument, embodies an apology, primarily in opposition to the coveting and usurping of extra-terrestrial bodies by human techno-evolutionists – a term here describing Gnostics who seek to become one in ’consciousness’ with the universe – who are eager to speed their conception of the evolutionary process by conscripting the ‘spirit,’ understood here as a force, to their side of the war, by disembodying themselves and other humans they control by becoming one with their created ‘god,’ thereby, according to Lewis, denigrating what it means to be truly human as Christ intended.
If it sounds complicated it is, but try this: Lewis’s protagonist fights sadistic evolutionist megalomaniacs who want not only to rule the world, but every world. Sound far-fetched? A little too white hat, black hat? It is and it isn’t. The antagonists in the trilogy are very civilized, affiliated with a university, operating under the moniker of N.I.C.E.; however, Lewis wants to show his reader the logical end of his antagonist’s doctrine. The evolutionary philosophy as described above is, suggests Lewis, untenable and self-destructive (Weston), cruel (Ms. Hardcastle), deceptively civil, and well organized (Withers, Feverstone, Frost & N.I.C.E.). In this writer’s limited knowledge of the topic, prominent figures in Lewis’s day, such as H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon & David Lindsay, actually believed this stuff and wrote Philosophical Sci-fi – that’s a genre! – To promote their ideas, and arguably their popularized notions have become the standard for some of our modernists today.
Consider Gene Roddenbury, the Star Trek series composer, who said:
“The question of consciousness has always intrigued me. It starts with the question, ‘Are we our bodies or are we our consciousness? What are we made up of?’ ” From personal conversations with Gene in 1990 at La Costa
“We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes.” As quoted in Can A Smart Person Believe in God? (2004) by Michael Guillen, Ch. 7: Hope Springs Eternal, p. 90
“I began to look upon the miseries of the human race and to think God was not as simple as my mother said. As nearly as I can concentrate on the question today, I believe I am God; certainly you are, I think we intelligent beings on this planet are all a piece of God, are becoming God. In some sort of cyclical non-time thing we have to become God, so that we can end up creating ourselves, so that we can be in the first place. …” As quoted in God & (1975) by Terrance A. Sweeney
“It isn’t all over; everything has not been invented; the human adventure is just beginning.” TV Showpeople, 1975 article by Susan Sackettand
“I think God is as much a basic ingredient in the universe as neutrons and positrons . . . God is, for lack of a better term, clout. This is the prime force, when we look around the universe.” As quoted in Teaching Toward the 24th Century: Star Trek as Social Curriculum by Karen Anijar
The purpose of this article is not to debate the techno-evolutionists like Gene Roddenbury, but to note that C.S. Lewis controverts their philosophy-turned-populist-ideology in an engrossing three-part tale following the adventures of philologist Dr. Elwin Ransom. There are parts – I am thinking of a debate between Weston and Ransom, both wounded in the middle of a Perelandrian Sea, riding fishes – where the balance tips too much in the weight of message, but all in all, over some thousand pages, the duels in the dialogue fly naturally along.
What makes Lewis, apart from the skill described above, so darned good?
There are three attributes of Lewis’s prose, in addition to that described above, that stand out in his Space Trilogy: natural, layered dialogue; vivid and illuminating descriptions of science fiction environments; and a magisterial, sweeping authority of voice.
C.S. Lewis, to understate the fact, was well read. After a short course with Terry Black, a retired college prof and once secretary to the C.S Lewis Society of Oxford, this writer discovered just how well read. As Terry exclaimed, “The man read everything!” And it is from that rich well Lewis drew much of his inspiration, and his fodder for fighting. In the Space Trilogy, Lewis is mindful of his contemporaries as represented in the works of H.G. Wells (The Time Machine), Olaf Stapledon (Star Maker), David Lindsay (Voyage to Arcturus), evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane, and possibly John Cowper Powys’s Morwyn. As a Christian apologist Lewis grapples with the philosophies underscoring these ‘modern’ works, while mustering the ancient thought of early Britain in the Arthurian histories. Lewis was vocationally versed in the Arthurian Histories, The Kings of England and on and on and on. The Pendragon and Merlin, as an example, make more than an appearance in That Hideous Strength.
My writer friends, I have only opened one closet in the manor of Lewis’s mind. The lesson is, apart from the obvious mandate to read and read widely, reading spaciously lends scope and authority to your work. Authority, and I think Lewis would agree, is more significantly a gift of grace through Christ. “He did not speak like the Pharisees or the elders of the law; He spoke with authority.” However, authority is a doubled edged sword, equal measures of the human and the divine. As the narrator in Out of the Silent Planet describes Ransom, “He prayed, and he felt his knife.” (p.87) And yes, I am drawing a metaphor.
The Space Trilogy is also a must read for those who seek a mentor in passages conceptually moving and vividly drawn. Here is an example that flipped this reader’s conception of space on its head:
He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now—now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more! p. 58 Out of the Silent Planet
Lewis draws his readers ineluctably into Ransom’s fantastic journey in many passages, such as this passage:
There were planets of unbelievable majesty, and constellations undreamed of: there were celestial sapphires, rubies, emeralds and pin-pricks of burning gold; far out on the left of the picture hung a comet, tiny and remote: and between all and behind all, far more emphatic and palpable than it showed on Earth, the undimensioned, enigmatic blackness.
And adjusting the focus to the foreground:
Many of the gullies which he crossed now carried streams, blue hissing streams, all hastening to the lower ground on his left. Like the lake they were warm, and the air was warm above them, so that as he climbed down and up the sides of the gullies he was continually changing temperatures. It was the contrast, as he crested the farther bank of one such small ravine, which first drew his attention to the growing chilliness of the forest; and as he looked about him he became certain that the light was failing too. He had not taken night into his calculations. He had no means of guessing what night might be on Malacandra. As he stood gazing into the deepening gloom a sigh of cold wind crept through the purple stems and set them all swaying, revealing once again the startling contrast between their size and their apparent flexibility and lightness. Hunger and weariness, long kept at bay by the mingled fear and wonder of his situation, smote him suddenly. p. 90 Silent
Out of the Silent Planet is full of such passages, but it is throughout Perelandra where Lewis really shines:
One of the great patches of floating stuff was sidling down a wave not more than a few hundred yards away. He eyed it eagerly, wondering whether he could climb on to one of these things for rest. He strongly suspected that they would prove mere mats of weed, or the topmost branches of submarine forests, incapable of supporting him. But while he thought this, the particular one on which his eyes were fixed crept up a wave and came between him and the sky. It was not flat. From its tawny surface a whole series of feathery and billowy shapes arose, very unequal in height; they looked darkish against the dim glow of the golden roof. Then they all tilted one way as the thing which carried them curled over the crown of the water and dipped out of sight. But here was another, not thirty yards away and bearing down on him. He struck out towards it, noticing as he did so how sore and feeble his arms were and feeling his first thrill of true fear. As he approached it he saw that it ended in a fringe of undoubtedly vegetable matter; it trailed, in fact, a dark red skirt of tubes and strings and bladders. He grabbed at them and found he was not yet near enough. He began swimming desperately, for the thing was gliding past him at some ten miles an hour. He grabbed again and got a handful of whip-like red strings, but they pulled out of his hand and almost cut him. Then he thrust himself right in among them, snatching wildly straight before him.
It is difficult selecting these passages to make a point without revealing spoiler after spoiler, but reading Perelandra is, from cover to cover, a sensual, spiritual delight.
Dialogue: It is morning in their bedroom. Jane and Mark are married, though their paths have gone in decidedly different directions, inspired by fundamentally opposing motivations. Jane is in the thralls of a crisis of identity and Mark, hook and sinker, has chomped on the bait of aspiring to the inner circle of a reputable college.
“You’re quite sure you’re all right?” he asked again.
“Quite,” said Jane, more shortly still.
Jane thought she was annoyed because her hair was not going up to her liking and because Mark was fussing. She also knew, of course, that she was deeply angry with herself for the collapse which had betrayed her last night, into being what she most detested—the fluttering, tearful “little woman” of sentimental fiction running for comfort to male arms. But she thought this anger was only in the back of her mind, and had no suspicion that it was pulsing through every vein and producing at that very moment the clumsiness in her fingers which made her hair seem intractable.
“Because,” continued Mark, “if you felt the least bit uncomfortable, I could put off going to see this man Wither.”
Jane said nothing.
“If I did go,” said Mark, “I’d certainly have to be away for the night; perhaps two.”
Jane closed her lips a little more firmly and still said nothing.
“Supposing I did,” said Mark, “you wouldn’t think of asking Myrtle over to stay?”
“No thank you,” said Jane emphatically; and then, “I’m quite accustomed to being alone.”
“I know,” said Mark in a rather defensive voice. “That’s the devil of the way things are in College at present. That’s one of the chief reasons I’m thinking of another job.”
Jane was still silent.
“Look here, old thing,” said Mark, suddenly sitting up and throwing his legs out of bed. “There’s no good beating about the bush. I don’t feel comfortable about going away while you’re in your present state——”
“What state?” said Jane, turning round and facing him for the first time.
“Well—I mean—just a bit nervy—as anyone may be temporarily.”
“Because I happened to be having a nightmare when you came home last night—or rather this morning—there’s no need to talk as if I was a neurasthenic.” This was not in the least what Jane had intended or expected to say.
“Now there’s no good going on like that . . .” began Mark.
“Like what?” said Jane loudly, and then, before he had time to reply, “If you’ve decided that I’m going mad you’d better get Brizeacre to come down and certify me.
If descriptive narrative and reflection carted the reader through strange and wonderful extra-terrestrial landscapes in the first two books, dialogue is the primary vehicle for the third. In That Hideous Strength suspense, character development, and plot are suspended, as in a stage play, in the dialogue, which makes for plenty of showing rather than telling, and a layered text.