Silent, Green, Hideous

Someone who rejoices in the name Dirigible Trance asks the question how C.S. Lewis, specifically his “Planetary Trilogy” in my judgment meets the six criteria I propose for judging the literary value of the work.

The conceit of these books is that only Earth is a fallen world: it is a Christian world-view portrayed using the tropes of science fiction. 

In OUT FROM THE SILENT PLANET, we discover Mars (Malacandra) still exists in its pristine perfection, and still converse with angels ( here portrayed as outer-space beings who look like threads of energy). In the first book, Ransom, a linguist, is kidnapped by Weston, and flown in a sphere made of cavorite (not really, but it might as well be) to Mars. He escapes his captors, and wanders among the natives, who terrify him until he realizes that they are without guile and without sin. The planetary intelligence of Mars, the archangel Malacandra, interviews Weston, who utters the imperialistic and colonial ambitions that are portrayed with such favor, for example, in THINGS TO COME. The folly of Weston’s pose is made clear.

In the sequel, PERELANDRA Ransom is transported to Venus by angels, and discovers an Edenic world of unearthly beauty, and meets the Eve of this world, the Green Lady. The author excels at his descriptive powers here. Both the planet and the queen of the planet are among the most memorable in science fiction. She is tempted of the devil, the scientist Weston possessed by the Thuclandra the Eldil of Earth, and after some futile debate, Ransom murders him. The theology and legality of this homicide are dubious, but the irony is that a man from an unfallen world, one not corrupted by Thulcandra, would not have been able to accomplish it.  

The final book, and the best one, in my opinion, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH recounts the corruption of postwar England by the National Institute of Controlled Experiment, the NICE. Here the author puts in fictional form the criticism he voice in his essay ABOLITION OF MAN, namely, that the scientific conquest of nature, at its last step, when it conquers man and the mind of mind, is a defeat, not a triumph. The author portrays the destruction of two modern thinkers, Frost and Wither, a materialist and an existentialist, by a means whose justice I would wish could operate in the real world: they are simply both forced into a reality where their theories about human nature are carried out.  The events (I cannot call it a plot) concern a search for Merlin the Magician, the corruption of a young envious man by the black hats, the enlightenment of his wife by the white hats, the imposition of tyranny on a small town, and a miracle that imposes on the villains the curse of Babel.

Here is my assessment of the literary merits of OUT FROM THE SILENT PLANET, PERELENDRA, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH.

1. Timeless: The first book SILENT PLANET I take to be more a critique of H.G. Wellsian science fiction than of anything touching a more timeless theme. The Prime Directive of STAR TREK, and the gentle non-colonialism of the Ekumen of Ursula K. LeGuin’s LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS (and other novels) have sufficiently dethroned the Kipling-like conceit of Manifest Destiny To The Stars which once figured so prominently in the genre. Indeed, if anything, we may have swung too far in the feminine direction on this point, and so a few stories of colonization and conquest may be just what the current generation needs. There is an argument to be made in favor of spreading civilization.

The middle book, PERELANDRA is about the general nature of selfishness and corruption. As an essay on theology, it will remain an interesting and instructive parable for so long as Christendom endures.

The final book, HIDEOUS STRENGTH, like Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR, will be pertinent to the reader for so long as the risk of a tyranny that uses science as an excuse for its enormities shall last, and this shall be for so long as science retains a luster of respectful deference in the minds of the public. I myself have seen, in my lifetime, so sharp a drop in the respect offered experts, and so sharp a rise in the skepticism that great politics disguised as science, that this warning might one day pass away. It has not yet: the theme strikes frighteningly close to home, even decades after it was written.

2. Re-readable: Here I can only speak for myself. I have reread these books with increasing pleasures over the years. Certain events and images live permanently in my memory, so that when I see something in the real world that promotes sterility, I think, “Ah! Here are the practices of Sulva.” When I was a reader who disagreed with the message, I rereading them for their artistic merit alone. One need not be a Christian to appreciate these books. On the other hand, while there may be subtleties in the message that bear repeated pondering, it is not as complex and artful as Dante, whose very structure merits endless contemplation. The books themselves are not subtle or intricate, but are written on a popular level for popular taste.

3. Pertinent to the Conversation of Science Fiction: On this third requirement, once we scale it down to the SF level, rather than the Great Books of all western civilization, this trilogy emerges as a classic. No one can really call himself well read in science fiction unless he has read C.S. Lewis rebut H.G. Wells. I doubt you will really understand the writings of James Marrow or Philip Pullman, unless you understand the writings of Lewis, whom these gentlemen have taken up their pens to refute.  

On the artistic scale:

1. Lyrical: C.S. Lewis has an ear for turns of phrase that, when he does it right, it is really done right. His language is not as fine as that of J.R.R. Tolkien, but even that I should be making the comparison at all is a compliment to Mr. Lewis. He is far above the average for science fiction, which is written usually in a curt, journalistic style. The books are not worth being read merely for their language alone: but the language is superior to many, even most, genre writing.

2. Natural: The Green Lady of Venus and Merlin the Magician emerge as extremely memorable, realistic, and striking characters, a feat particularly impressive considering the alien nature of the subjects: a man from the past and a lady from another world. Aside from these two triumphs of character-drawing, I’d have to say Characterization is serviceable, if a little weak, for Lewis. Weston, Frost, and Wither, are merely sock-puppets meant to utter the position of the Bad Guys. Mark Studdock has only one descriptive quality: he is tempted by the lure of joining the In Crowd. Jane is also a one-note character: the childless feminist. Ransom is a cipher: his character changes in the last book from our mild mannered linguist to the august Pendragon. Had he stopped to talk about linguistics, or any personal interest of his own, or had some other side to his personality, it would have been more natural. The rest of the people, good guys or bad, have less personality than the bear, Mr. Bultitude.

3. Wise: C.S. Lewis has insight into the human condition a great deal deeper than other writers, almost embarrassingly so. I confess that there are novels, even ones I enjoy perfectly well, where the human-shaped puppets move through forced and unrealistic situations, uttering the most banal and childish of observations, I feel bad for the author, even if he is successful, because I fear he is unwise a as man. That fear does not afflict me when I read Lewis. While ranking below G.K. Chesterton, I would place Lewis at least equal to Evelyn Waugh in his human insight.  

I could also address a Science Fictional Scale, mentioned in my last post, but I will not. These books are only by courtesy called science fiction: they are an experiment at retelling the matter of fantasy and legend by means of science fictional props and settings.

To my surprise, I originally intended to give these books an average rating, but, having looked at each of the six criteria in isolation with the others, I am surprised to see the various strengths of the books.

None of them are anywhere near being rating with the Great Books of Western Literature, but they are at least the equal in merit to GONE WITH THE WIND or BRIDESHEAD REVISITED.