Posts Tagged ‘Science fiction’

Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, IV

September 19, 2022

The Citadel of the Autarch
The Book of the New Sun, Book IV
Gene Wolfe
(ORB, 1994) [1983]
210 p.

In this fourth and final volume of The Book of the New Sun, our hero Severian continues his northward journey into the mountains, encounters and enters a war, returns the precious Claw of the Conciliator to its guardians, finds another Claw, or something like that, eats a brain, becomes the Autarch, and goes on an interstellar journey, or something like that.

For the most part, I found this the least successful of the four volumes. This was partly because certain elements of the plot seemed arbitrary, but mostly because some significant chunk of the book is involved in pulling together all of the loose threads that Wolfe has been spooling out through the gargantuan fabric of his story. This gathering up involves a number of “reveals”, and those are usually my least favourite part of any tale.

I will grant that Wolfe’s version of this device is more virtuosic than most, for his “reveals”, to the extent that I have understood them, which might not be very far, are such as to recontextualize much, or even all, of the preceding story, injecting new meaning into old scenes and altering our view of what the book has been about. I can understand that some readers might like that sort of thing, but I confess I dislike it.

Before beginning the book I’d read more than once that it was a book that improved on re-reading, and now I can see clearly why that might be true. It is, possibly, in a certain sense, a puzzle tale, but that’s not evident until one nears the end.

For me one of the more intriguing aspects of the tetralogy was the religious cosmology that it slowly unveiled. Severian came into possession of a relic, the Claw of the Conciliator, which apparently wielded in his hands miraculous powers, and the religious significance of the Conciliator seemed to be important to the story. And maybe it was. I found, however, that this fourth volume  muddied these waters, such that I no longer know if I’m supposed to know there was a Conciliator, or that there wasn’t one, or that Severian is somehow himself the Conciliator, or something else? I feel like the Claw turned to dust in my hands.

To be candid, I found the tail end of this volume to be frustratingly opaque. There’s a time travel element that was hinted at earlier but here comes to prominence, and I’m pretty sure I failed to grasp its implications. There are a bunch of denouement scenes as the story winds down, and I think I was supposed to see the point of them more than I did.

**

Having stumbled to the end of the tetralogy, let me conclude with a few brief remarks.

The world-building that Wolfe undertakes is, for me, the most impressive aspect of the books. The far, far future setting he imagines, which blends hyper-advanced technologies with a quasi-medieval social structure and a general sense of comprehensive decay, is superbly done. Like Tolkien, he is good at slowly revealing the true depth and breadth of his world through incidental details.

Several segments of the story were, for me, very successful. This was especially true of the third volume, which, as I said at the time, I thought the best. My very favourite scene was the one between Severian and Typhon, a marvellously dramatic encounter, fraught with tension and mystery, that took place atop a dizzyingly high mountain. Yet the point of that scene, within the structure of the story as a whole, eludes me. Indeed, the story seemed to carry on as though that scene had not occurred, which I found odd and frustrating.

The religious dimension of the book surprised and engrossed me, but, as I’ve already said, appeared to me to have been muddled in the end, or, perhaps, clarified in a way that I didn’t understand.

The books have a strong reputation, and have earned praise from fine writers and critics. Although my experience has been mixed, I leave open the possibility that they are better books than I was able to discover.

Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, III

August 22, 2022

The Sword of the Lictor
The Book of the New Sun, Book III
Gene Wolfe
(ORB, 1994) [1982]
205 p.

This third volume of The Book of the New Sun is a strong entry that continues the epic world-building of the previous volumes, introduces dramatic plot developments, and summons up several effective new characters who develop relationships with our hero, Severian.

As to the first point, although it is true that most of the main planks of the world of the novel have been laid, we continue to get intriguing elaboration of details. We learn, for instance, that the story takes place as an ice age threatens the civilization of which Severian is a part, and — I’m not sure why this surprised me so much! — that it takes place in the southern hemisphere. Some of the details we are offered are so perplexing, such as the casual observation that the moon is green, and then the even more disconcerting claim that the moon is “a sort of island hung in the sky, whose color derived from forests, now immemorially old, planted in the earliest days of the race of Man”, that I really don’t know what to make of them.

The science-fiction vibe of the novels is heightened in this volume by more details about interstellar travel and alien life forms, but at the same time the religious character of the novel is deepened. Severian continues to carry a relic called the Claw of the Conciliator, and it continues, to his considerable perplexity, to work wonders by a logic all its own. Of the Conciliator himself, also called the New Sun, a shadowy, possibly-historical figure who figures largely in the religious cosmogony of the story, we continue to learn. Severian remarks at one point, for instance:

“I found myself thinking how strange it would be if the New Sun, the Daystar himself, were to appear now as suddenly as he had appeared so long ago when he was called the Conciliator, appearing here because it was an inappropriate place and he had always preferred the least appropriate places”

which is rather suggestive. There is some evidence that the influence of the Claw — so called because it is a gem with an apparent claw-shaped defect at its heart — is affecting Severian’s own heart without his knowing it; it is, perhaps, the Claw’s influence that sends Severian into the mountains early in the novel, and we even learn, later, after yet another miraculous episode, a suggestion that Severian’s will is being conformed to the will of the Claw:

I came to understand that I should never reach any real knowledge of the tiny thing I held, and with that thought (for it was a thought) came a third state, one of happy obedience to I knew not what, an obedience without reflection because there was no longer anything to reflect upon, and without the least tincture of rebellion.

The Claw is something like the inverse, then, of Tolkien’s One Ring. It is gentle, and it leads its possessor, step by step, toward goodness. Or so it seems. The real nature of the relationship between Severian and the Claw, which in some real sense is the central relationship in the books so far, is still mysterious. Why has it come into Severian’s possession? Where is it taking him?

Two fine new characters appear in this novel, one a young boy, also named Severian, whom our Severian befriends for a time, and one a monstrous creature whom Severian encounters atop a dizzying mountain peak in what was, for me, the best scene in this series thus far.

On the other hand, several characters from previous volumes returned, and, because I didn’t think they were particularly well-developed earlier, and not particularly well-developed here, I found their segments of the book, including the climatic sequence, rather confusing and arbitrary. It is possible that I missed details earlier that would have helped. (People say that this series is one that improves on re-reading.)

Still a bit of a mixed bag, then, but, on balance, the best so far in my judgement. There are still a number of gigantic loose threads dangling, so I’m very curious to see what transpires in the fourth and final volume.

Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, II

July 28, 2022

The Claw of the Conciliator
The Book of the New Sun, Book II
Gene Wolfe
(Orb, 1994) [1982]
200 p.

The story of Severian, the obscure apprentice in the torturer’s guild who is destined for great things, continues in this second volume. Whereas the first volume had taken place almost entirely in the great, sprawling city of Nessus, this volume follows Severian as he journeys north toward the mountains, where he is to take up a position as town executioner.

In many respects, this stage of the story continues the strengths that I appreciated in the first: the story, though personal, takes place on a truly epic stage that is only gradually revealed. In the last volume it was primarily the sense of deep time, of ages and ages of past history, that impressed me. In this volume the world of the present expands: we become aware that the civilization in which Severian lives is not monolithic — the Autarch might sound like an absolute ruler, but his territories have borders, and a great war against another, still mysterious power rages in the mountains toward which Severian is traveling. It also becomes evident that the world in which Severian lives, despite its rustic, quasi-medieval feel, possesses certain kinds of technologies that are far in advance of anything we possess today, and that the past, and perhaps the present, history of his world includes interstellar travel and contact with alien worlds. So it is a science fiction book after all. Moreover, the hints in the first volume that his world is populated by different kinds of animals than our world, and that humanoid, but non-human, species also exist receives confirmation and elaboration in this volume, though it remains unclear how this has come about. As before, these aspects of the world are revealed mostly through oblique and incidental references.

Some of my concerns about the previous volume were allayed in this segment of the tale. The episodic and halting introduction of characters was justified to some extent in this volume when those same characters came back and assumed a larger role. My sense that there is a controlling hand at the tiller has strengthened in consequence, and that has been reassuring.

This sense of trust is necessary, because some of what happens in this book is peculiar, to put it mildly. I’m not an habitual reader of fantasy or sci-fi, so perhaps I’m more sensitive than most to these oddities, but this is a book in which a green, half-plant man from the future appears as a passing detail, in which we meet a group of glowing ape-men who live underground, in which a gigantic, bloated mermaid appears in a forest brook, and so forth. My appetite for such things is not ravenous, and the formalist in me hopes that they have been introduced for a reason that will pay off later. We will see.

The title of the book refers to a gem that came into Severian’s possession late in the first volume, and which he carries with him throughout this one, attempting to return it to the religious order from which he acquired it. Who the “Conciliator” may be is not clear, and why this jewel should be his “claw” is as yet obscure. We are told that “everyone who has ever lived has died, even the Conciliator”, but that he will one day “rise as the New Sun”. This same New Sun might, perhaps, have something to do with the solar body — there are hints that some kind of physical transformation is in the offing — but is also a person, who will, for instance, open paradise to those who “in their final moments, call upon him”. In another place we learn that the Conciliator has a way of reappearing even after he has been thought dead. He seems to be some sort of Christ figure — if not actually Christ, which is a possibility that I think remains open — who stands close to the center of the religious cosmology of the book, though, oddly, nobody seems to have definite ideas about him.

In any case, the Claw plays a role in the book somewhat analogous to the role of the One Ring in Middle Earth — closer, so far, to its role in The Hobbit than in The Lord of the Rings. I mean that it has a certain gee-whiz quality — the Claw has the power to heal and glows according to a situational logic all its own — but how it fits into the larger scheme of things is still opaque.

I finish this second volume in somewhat brighter spirits than I did the first, having firmer ground to expect a coherent tale out of all this, and intrigued by the many mysterious avenues Wolfe has opened up for exploration. The third volume, The Sword of the Lictor, awaits.

Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, I

June 30, 2022

The Shadow of the Torturer
The Book of the New Sun, Book I
Gene Wolfe
(Orb, 1994) [1981]
210 p.

Many societies, a significant fraction perhaps, have found it convenient to have torture available as a punitive or coercive measure, and to that end have maintained a certain number of people trained in the art, or the science, of causing pain. This, it turns out, is as true in the future as in the present or the past. The Book of the New Sun, set in the deep future, begins with the story of the apprenticeship of Severian, a young man being trained in the guild of torturers, whose expertise seems beyond doubt but whose commitment to his role, he finds, begins to falter.

What is most impressive about this first volume in the tetralogy, for me, is the sense of deep history that it develops for its story. Tolkien did this too, in The Lord of the Rings; we have a sense, developed partly by a web of allusions to matters never fully explained, of ages upon ages of past time, mostly forgotten but still woven into the fabric of the present moment.  Wolfe’s story differs from Tolkien’s insofar as his story is set in the future rather than the past, so that his story’s “deep past” includes, somewhere, our own time, and we see, here and there, how the world we know has been projected and refracted into the future. For example, there is not a great deal of science in this book — the future society Wolfe depicts looks, in many ways, far more primitive than our own — but relativity theory survives as a kind of lore, imperfectly understood but carrying a kernel of truth.

Part of the enjoyment of the book is trying to figure out just how far in the future it is set. As the book proceeds, and the circle of light by which we see this world expands, it becomes clearer that it is very deep in the future indeed. We get a passing reference to things that happened in “anteglacial days”, from which we infer that a future ice age has come and gone, but even this does not capture the scale, for the sun, we learn, is cooling, which places us many millions of years in the future. These sorts of details gave me a vertiginous feeling as I was reading, similar to what I have felt afloat on the ocean: sustained by a depth swarming with mysteries.

A distinctive characteristic of Wolfe’s future world is that it is permeated at all levels by religion. Much of society appears to be organized into guilds, which reminded me of the medieval guilds, and Severian’s guild of torturers is officially the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, a fine religiously-tinted name that confirms the impression. A character at one point speaks of “figures who wait beyond the void of death… blazing with glories dark or bright, wrapped in authority older than the universe”, which sounds to me like angelic powers, and we get passing references to “the theocenter” and other such phrases. In fact, much of the religion in the book seems derived from Christianity, although if there is anything like actual Christianity in this society I haven’t seen it yet. But I did see allusions to Gabriel (“His sword blazed in one hand, his great two-headed ax swung in the other, and across his back, suspended on the rainbow, hung the very battle horn of Heaven”), to the paschal candle, to “the Theoanthropos”, to a passage from the Book of Exodus, and to Christian devotions like the Angelus. In every case the impression was like that given by the reference to relativity theory: a sense that these things are shards left over from something that has been shattered, lost from its original context and adrift on currents of language and culture.

A strength of the novel, apart from its impressive world-building, is the way in which, by the technique of oblique allusion already described, it hints at the direction in which the story of our hero, Severian, is going. The tale begins with Severian wrapped in obscurity, a mere apprentice in a guild the existence of which is, we learn, actually doubted by some, and he himself having had almost no contact with the world outside his guild. But here and there we get hints that his trajectory aims at the very apex of this very hierarchical society. Not much upward mobility occurs in this novel, but I’m looking forward to seeing how this aspect of the story develops in subsequent volumes.

On the other hand, this first volume has problems of both structure and execution that caused it to falter as it proceeded. The first half of the book is devoted to carefully developing the character of Severian and describing, gradually, the strange world in which he lives. A lot of effort is invested in the relationships he has and the place where he is. But in the second half he goes on the road, and the story devolves, in my judgement, into a series of episodes bearing no particular narrative relationship to one another. The thread of the story grows dangerously thin through this series of encounters. They are not only episodes, but brief episodes, so that I hardly had adjusted to some new situation or character before it was gone. It might be that these episodes and characters will return later in the story, and that could revise my judgement.

I also feel, thus far, that there is a basic problem with the character of Severian. He is the hero of the tale, but he is also, objectively, a monstrous figure: a man who is expert in causing pain and death, and who does so without any particular qualms of conscience. To read the things he does, and to know that he does them in a spirit of conscientious diligence, as a craftsman might shape pottery, is an alienating experience. I am open to this moral numbness being an intentional and necessary part of the story Wolfe wants to tell, but it is affecting my investment in Severian and his fortunes.

A book called The Shadow of the Torturer is one that, absent some reason to adjust my priors, I am unlikely to pick up, but I am, on balance, happy to have embarked on this series. Praise has been lavished on it — each volume won some sort of science fiction or fantasy award when it was published, and that’s fair enough. Wolfe, on the other hand, has been called “the Melville of science fiction”, which, well, I guess could be true too, but in that case the phrase “of science fiction” appears, at this point, to be doing a lot of work.

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.