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That Hideous Suprise…

Over the months of December and January, I tackled C. S. Lewis’ celebrated space trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.  Lewis is on my short list of writers.  I may have read more by him than perhaps any other single author.  In fact, now that I think about it, I have read more Lewis.

Mere Christianity
The Great Divorce
The Space Trilogy (3 books)
The Chronicles of Narnia (2 of them)

I like Lewis, a lot.  So, my reaction to reading the Space Trilogy was a little bit of a surprise.

How shall I say it?  “Meh.”

Hey, it’s still Lewis and the writing is great.  The story in the last two books were particularly intriguing.  The characters are all fairly well developed and the reader has an emotional investment in them.  Lewis builds a great mythology that is the saving grace of the story (more about that later).  His descriptions are vivid and the plots were engaging.  As always, Lewis opens up my ideas of God and gives me a fresh way to consider His nature and movement in my life.  What is not to love?

I didn’t love them.  I liked them, but I probably won’t read them again.

Normally, this is pretty standard with books I read.  Most of the books I read are pretty good.  I file them away and move on.  Some are very good.  These I place in the prominent places of my life so I can see them and remember them and possibly read them again.  Some are very bad.  I hide these from sight and pretend I didn’t read them.  Up until this trilogy, I had never read a Lewis book that wasn’t in the very good section.  I think the Great Divorce and Mere Christianity should be required reading for every Christian.  They are that good.  And the Chronicles of Narnia series works on almost every level.

So what happened, Jack?

Two things.

First, Lewis has a propensity to throw everything but the kitchen sink into his novels.  Maybe a better way to say this is that at times, Lewis can be kind of…well, corny.  This is something that Tolkien chastised him for in Narnia, but in Narnia one has a better chance to get away with it.  Do you remember when the Pevensie children are making their way to  the Narnians and Father Christmas shows up in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?  Seriously, Clive, Santa Claus?  But it works because you are in Narnia and the grown-up in me forgives Lewis for his excess because the grown-up is having such a great time in Narnia.

Lewis is going to do the same kinds of things in the Space Trilogy.  Consider That Hideous Strength.  The name of the antagonist group is the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments.  We will refer to them for the rest of the book as the NICE group.  Nice…nice and corny.  And, oh by the way, they are in cahoots to bring Merlin back from the dead…Merlin the magician.

The beauty of this is that Lewis almost pulls it off.  It kind of works, even the Merlin bit*.  But this isn’t Narnia.  This is 1940’s Britain and the whole thing feels a little contrived.  Maybe I am being a little too critical, but I think you need more aesthetic distance for the reader to fully immerse themselves into the world.  Lewis tries admirably and does a better job than practically anyone else has done or could have done.

Second, the scientific limitations of the time place a very heavy burden on the timelessness of the story.  Lewis places his trilogy out in the field of Arbol, perhaps better known to you and I as our own solar system.  In the first book, we travel to Mars (Malacandra) in a rocket to find it teeming with life.  In the second book, we travel to Venus (Perelandra) to find a primeval island planet where life is about to take root and the eternal choice of good and evil is about to made.  Back in the 40s, we didn’t really know what was on those planets.  Now science has given us a pretty good idea about what is and what is not on our planetary neighbors (though I would argue that they know much less about it than they think they do), and so Lewis feels a little like another H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, quaint and fun, but not timeless.

To mitigate that, Lewis builds a great mythology around the eldila and Maleldil.  This differentiates Lewis from Wells and Verne and gives his stories a certain gravitas that the others lack.  It is the mythology of the universe that Lewis creates which is at once the best  and most interesting part of the stories and also, the piece that causes me to long for much more than what is presented.  You need mythology to help explain the unexplainable in the universe.  A great mythology gives the story a moral center, and it is only from within the confines of this mythology that the actions of protaganists and antagonists make any sense.  Without it, the reader has trouble finding his way.

But this great mythology is also an achilles heel.  Ultimately, this is what gives the Space Trilogy an ‘almost timeless’ feeling, if a book can be described as such.   Lewis is at the threshold, but he doesn’t seem to get it all the way through the door.  While the mythology is great, the setting and the characters seem to struggle to be at home in it.  I can hear Tolkien reading the manuscript and handing it back to Lewis saying, “You are not finished yet.”  I left the trilogy thinking that it was great, but it could have been more. 

It begs the question, can truly timeless science fiction be written and set in the human past without losing the subsequent generations of readers?  The more successful science fiction literature usually has to get out of the solar system, at least, if not get out of our timeline completely, to work.  You have to go Narnia, Middle Earth, or even Tattooine to make it work forever.

All this is not to say that you shouldn’t read the books.  They are pretty good.  You should read them.  I was just expecting a little more, I guess, since it was C. S. Lewis.  It seems that even the mighty Lewis is not immune some of the vagarities of science fiction writing.  I still give him an “A” for trying.  Most other writers wouldn’t have dared to do that.  And to his great credit, Lewis almost pulls it off.

* Merlin works when one considers him part of the mythology rather than a pawn between the two warring factions.  Lewis actually does a very good job of placing Merlin within the “deeper magic” of the universe.  As such, while my first reaction to Merlin’s appearance was “what?”, upon further reflection, this is not as corny as it initially sounds.