Posts Tagged ‘Fantasy’

Lewis: Space Trilogy

September 25, 2019

On my first attempt on Lewis’ Space Trilogy, over twenty years ago, I mostly disliked it — disliked it enough, at least, that I abandoned (space)ship after the second volume. When I mentioned this to a friend a few years ago I was told (to vary the metaphor) that I had left the wedding just as the best wine was being served. So I thought that I would give the series — the entire series — another try, and I have finally made good on that decision.

***

Out of the Silent Planet
C.S. Lewis
(Scribner, 1996) [1938]
158 p.

Lewis wears his debt to the science fiction of H.G. Wells on his sleeve. Out of the Silent Planet will remind Wellsians of The Time Machine and especially The First Men in the Moon on account of its speculations about other rational species and varieties of social organization conjoined to a marked lack of interest in the niceties of rocketry and thermodynamics.

The premise, if anyone should be ignorant of it, is that Ransom, an English academic, is kidnapped and taken via makeshift spacecraft by two mad companions to Mars — which, as we soon learn, is called Malacandra by all rational creatures save ourselves. The story follows Ransom as he lands on Malacandra, escapes from his captors, and lives for many months among the native species, learning their ways.

The book is partly an imaginative exploration of several of the themes of his great non-fiction book The Discarded Image — that is, an exploration of pre-modern astronomy and cosmology. We learn from Ransom, for instance, that our modern conception of interplanetary space as “undimensioned, enigmatic blackness” is inept, the ancients’ name for it — “the heavens” — being much more suitable. The book is also, more thoroughly and specifically, an attempt to think through Christian and Platonic ideas about embodiment, rationality, morality, and the hierarchy of being(s). It attempts, in fact, to take many of the elements of medieval cosmology and adapt them to the new world-picture given us by modern astronomy. The Christian doctrine of the Fall, for instance, plays a central role: Earth is the silent planet, whose creatures and presiding spirits have been “bent” and fallen out of contact with the other rational beings who inhabit the solar system.

In addition to Ransom, the book introduces us to two other characters, Weston and Devine, who reappear in subsequent volumes and are, in their own villainous ways, central characters in the trilogy.

It’s a good book, better than I remembered. I think that my younger self was put off by the somewhat corny and unconvincing handling of the scientific elements of the story — this has always been an obstacle to my enjoyment of science fiction — and he, my younger self, was also probably not astute enough to appreciate Lewis’ larger and more learned interests and concerns.

**

Perelandra
C.S. Lewis
(Scribner, 1996) [1943]
192 p.

It was Perelandra that crashed my spacecraft on my first attempt on these books. My memory of exactly what went wrong was, I would have admitted, hazy, but if pressed I’d have pointed first to that garish sequence in which Ransom, now spirited away to Venus, witnessed a herd of pastel-coloured beasts, long-legged and flimsy, like a cross between a Star Wars Walker and one of Dr Seuss’ more whimsical creations, galloping across a field of lily pads. This was just too much for my sober imagination.

All of which would have been quite amusing, because, as I now discover, there is nothing like this in the book. Where these lurid imaginings came from I cannot now say.

I had this much right: Ransom goes to Venus. He is summoned, and knows not why. Eventually he learns that his arch-nemesis, Professor Weston, is also there, intent on colonizing the planet, destroying whatever native life he finds there, bringing evil and sin to a world where it does not yet exist, and Ransom infers that his task is to prevent it.

Misapprehensions being corrected, I find that there is actually much to like about the book, which is clearly deep in conversation with Lewis’ beloved Paradise Lost. His Venus is Edenic, an unfallen world, complete with its own Adam and Eve, and some of the images he uses are echoes of Milton’s own. It has often been said that it is easy, for us, to imagine and describe evil, but to do the same for goodness, to make goodness alluring and involving, is strangely elusive and difficult. Lewis here does his best to climb that endless mountain.

A great strength of the book is Lewis’ portrait of Venus, the watery planet. He gives us vast floating islands like lily pads (there they are!) which flex as waves pass beneath them, and stunning mountains, and cataracts, and, in one memorable sequence, intricate networks of caves. Of course, the fact that he calls his planet Venus, rather than, say, Planet X35, is complicated by what we now know of Venus, but, that aside, it is an impressive attempt at cosmic world-building.

Perelandra is also a very theological and philosophical novel. The Space Trilogy is much concerned with bringing Christian theology to bear on matters typical of science fiction — other worlds, alien creatures — and Perelandra is focused closely on the nature of original innocence, and how temptation might appear to it, and what sin actually is, and also on how the Christian story, seen from an Earthly perspective, might fit into a larger cosmic story which is, nonetheless, still ultimately the Christian story.

Lewis was a more than competent theologian and had a keen philosophical mind, so this is quite excellent on the whole. It does, however, make the novel quite wordy and discursive. I didn’t always mind this — the long peroration with which the book ends is a fine example of Lewis’ high rhetoric on a high theme — but overall I found it delayed and disrupted the action of the story. The book also, I think, has a problem of narrative structure, with too little to happen and the reader often at sea (as it were) about the direction in which the narrative wind is blowing.

**

That Hideous Strength
C.S. Lewis
(Scribner, 2003) [1945]
384 p.

That Hideous Strength returns to Earth, to England, where the cosmic conflict anticipated in Perelandra is beginning to play out. Lewis sub-titled this volume “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”, and it is true that the science fiction elements of the previous volumes are here largely set aside in favour of something more wondrous strange.

We are introduced to the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), a suitably Orwellian name for a quasi-government agency with loads of money, lots of political clout, and high ambitions to transform society along progressive lines using propaganda, scientific methods, and — this being a fairy tale — magic. In the novel’s early stages they are attempting to recruit a promising young sociologist, Mark Studdock, and it is primarily through his eyes that we, as readers, come to know about the inner workings of the N.I.C.E.

Meanwhile Mark’s wife, Jane, is being pulled in quite another direction: she has begun to experience peculiar, disquieting dreams and, in an effort to get to the bottom of them, is quietly and providentially drawn into the orbit of Ransom, around whom a small group of people has formed who are determined to resist the advance of the N.I.C.E.

Having read the previous volumes, we are not surprised to learn that the N.I.C.E. is, in fact, the instrument by which the bent presiding spirit of Earth (aka Lucifer) intends to advance an inhuman ideology and political programme designed, ultimately, to erase from humanity the imago Dei by a thorough reconstruction of human nature and society, and that Ransom, a friend and servant of the unfallen planetary intelligences — the eldila — is the keystone in the counterplot. The story plays out as an escalating conflict between the two sides.

To a large extent the book continues the dialogue between Christianity and secularism that was begun in the earlier volumes, but here Lewis adds an unexpected third partner to the dance: the Arthurian tradition, which plays a key role both theme-wise and plot-wise. I’m not quite convinced that this is entirely successful, on the whole; unless I missed it, there was nothing in the earlier books about Arthur, and its introduction feels a little ad hoc. (This despite Lewis’ attempt, late in the book, to frame the Arthurian elements as simply a manifestation of England’s true self, the natural form which her native genius takes.) On its own merits, I rather enjoyed the Arthuriana, but artistically it’s a tad awkward — though perhaps no more awkward than having a fairy tale conclude a science fiction adventure.

Readers familiar with Lewis’ other writings are likely to notice how ideas in That Hideous Strength remind them of Lewis’ other books, so much so that I began to think of the novel as a kind of Lewisian ouvre in miniature. Essays like “The Inner Ring” and “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” are obvious points of reference, and I also picked up ideas which are familiar from The Discarded Image, The Abolition of Man, and even The Chronicles of Narnia.

Naturally, it’s quite gratifying to read a novel in which progressive causes are bad. Lewis had a life-long aversion to social planning and scientific, “rational” disruptions of traditional ways of life, and, as a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature, shared none of modernity’s characteristic fascination with the newfangled.

In the end I found That Hideous Strength, like the trilogy as a whole, to be a quite fascinating attempt to combine things not normally treated together in fiction: theology and science, technology and magic, Arthur and Wells, sociology and sophiology. It makes one think about the intellectual and spiritual currents which contend against one another in our times, just as they did in Lewis’, and to consider, like Mark and Jane are forced to do, where one’s allegiance lies. The ambitious — indeed, cosmic — scale of the storytelling is attractive, and, I think, a necessary preparation for the story that the final volume wants to tell.

*

I cannot help noting that there is today, in the UK, an organization called N.I.C.E.! I guess not everybody reads.

**

I’m so pleased to have finally read this trilogy in its entirety, after so many years of intending to do so. Lewis is an unimpeachable stylist, always graceful and civilized, always a pleasure to read. The trilogy is better than I had judged on first acquaintance, even if it is not likely to rank among my favourite of Lewis’ writings. This is what is called “praising with faint damnation”.

***

For an envoi, we must listen to the song “Out of the Silent Planet” by King’s X. They made an entire album called Out of the Silent Planet, but this song comes from what I think is their best record, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska. It must be played loudly.

L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time

May 23, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time
Madeleine L’Engle
(Square Fish, 2007) [1962]
256 p.

I have several friends for whom A Wrinkle in Time was a childhood favourite, one of those books that made a big impression at an impressionable age and lingered long in the memory. Somehow I missed reading it myself until now, when, partly because my memory was jogged by the release of the recent film version, and partly because I’ve been wondering whether our eldest might enjoy it, it burbled to the top of the pot.

The story is about Meg, a girl whose scientist father went on a mysterious work-related journey several years before and never returned. She lives at home with her mother and three brothers, including young Charles Wallace, an articulate four-year old who clearly has unusual intellectual gifts — and maybe other gifts too. We are not surprised to learn, as the story unfolds, that the adventure on which Meg and young Charles Wallace embark, together with a neighbour boy Calvin, is a quest to rescue their father and bring him home.

The nature of this quest takes the story into the realms of science fiction and even fantasy, involving, as it does, visits to alien worlds, all under the chaperonage of a trio of mysterious beings capable of making spacetime “wrinkle up” in such a way as to make intergalactic time travel as easy as kiss my hand.

There is a good deal to like about the book. It has, mostly, I found, through the character of Charles Wallace, a sense of mysterious possibility floating above or behind the specifics of the story. There are some intriguing ideas in L’Engle’s portrayal of other worlds and their inhabitants, if you like that sort of thing (and, in full disclosure, I must admit that I don’t really). There is one particularly arresting visual image of social conformity on an alien world. The concluding chapter of the story, in which it reaches its crisis and resolution, was for me quite moving and effective.

On the other hand, I don’t quite understand why the book has such a strong reputation. The story is slight, and felt to me almost perfunctory. (In fairness, I should note that the book is but the opening gambit of a tetralogy.) Charles Wallace notwithstanding, my overall sense of the prose was that it was thin and lacking personality. The three “Mrs” characters, who are supposed to be the principal bearers of mystery and the otherworldly, just didn’t work for me. Galadriel they are not.

The book has been praised as a superior example of “Christian fiction”, especially, I think, in evangelical circles, where categories like “Christian fiction” are fashionable. It’s not a wholly unwarranted designation. Jesus is mentioned (alongside a catalogue of other great figures, like Michelangelo and Gandhi — a sufficiently ambiguous context that the book has actually been banned in some jurisdictions for syncretic tendencies). Scripture is quoted a few times, by one of the “Mrs” characters who is forever quoting this or that famous saying. At a deeper level, the book’s climactic sequence is at least arguably rooted in the Gospel, and Meg’s main character arc is one in which the virtue she stands most in need of is not courage or justice, but love. It is far from feeling like a self-consciously Christian work of fiction, but more like a work of fiction that exists within and draws upon a living Christian inheritance. That inheritance is less sumptuous now than it was when L’Engle wrote the book, and it’s little surprise that the makers of the recent film version (reportedly) excised all of the Christian references. They may be mild, but evidently not mild enough for some tastes.