I have a complicated relationship with C.S. Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia were significant reading in my formative years; and even though I don’t share his Christian belief, most of what I’ve heard from him presents Christianity in a way I can largely get behind. Lewis himself might not have been too keen on his beliefs being called liberal, but in some ways they were. I believe I’ve read that he thought non-Christians could get into Heaven as long as they behaved in a Christian manner, and had a definite soft spot for reconciling paganism with Christianity. On the other hand, his works often seem to contain an undercurrent of sexism and support of adherence to the Old Ways even if they don’t make any sense. His most famous bit of theology might be the Trilemma, proposing that if Jesus wasn’t really God, he must have been a lunatic or a liar. Even assuming that Jesus actually did claim to be God, which isn’t something Biblical scholars think is necessarily true, couldn’t he have held a sincere spiritual conviction without being certifiably crazy? Lewis’ Space Trilogy, which I just finished reading, was partially a response to and criticism of the idea that the perpetuation and advancement of humanity was the ultimate morality. Whether anyone of note actually held this idea, I couldn’t say, but Lewis certainly thought they did. There’s definitely a long-standing literary tradition of scientists meddling with forces beyond their control, from Faust to Frankenstein.
The protagonist of the first two books is a philologist named Elwin Ransom, based partially on Lewis’ friend J.R.R. Tolkien. In Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is kidnapped and taken to Mars by two fellow academics who think a powerful being there wants a human sacrifice. After escaping his captors, Ransom explores this world, which the natives call Malacandra. That Mars is presented as an old and dying world harkens back to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars series, although the inhabitants of Malacandra aren’t constantly at war like those of Barsoom. Ransom finally comes face to face with the Oyarsa, sort of an archangel ruling over the planet, who informs him that the other scholars were totally mistaken in thinking he wanted a sacrifice. Dr. Weston, the worse of the two kidnappers, makes an imperialist argument to the Oyarsa, claiming that human progress demands the subjugation of what he considers lesser races. The second book, Perelandra, has Ransom journeying to the titular planet, better known as Venus, which still exists as an Eden-like paradise. Weston also finds his way here, and acts in the role of tempter, although with Ransom’s help the first woman on Venus successfully resists him. Although Weston is said to be possessed by the Bent Oyarsa (Satan), his change from fantastic racist to someone who thinks humans are capable of becoming gods makes it seem like he’s more just a parody of philosophies Lewis doesn’t agree with than someone with believable motivations. Finally, That Hideous Strength takes place on Earth, and relegates Ransom to a supporting character, albeit an important one. The focus is more on Mark Studdock, a fellow at Bracton College; and his wife Jane, who is prone to psychic visions. An evil organization of scientists and politicians known as the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (usually just called N.I.C.E., making the joke more obvious) are working to take over Britain in the name of progress. They attempt to recruit Mark, partially in an attempt to get access to Jane’s clairvoyance; but she falls in with Ransom and his allies instead. Even though this is the only book in the series that doesn’t leave the planet (or, indeed, England), it still has some of the most bizarre ideas, including the disembodied head of an executed criminal through which a fallen angel communicates, and the return of Merlin. There are also references to Numinor as an alternate name for Atlantis, reflecting Tolkien’s own work (although he spelled it Numénor). The N.I.C.E.’s ability to manipulate just about anything to their own ends gives the story a rather eerie feel, although it’s not too surprising that internal squabbles help to bring them down. Overall, it was a good reading experience, even if I don’t agree with all of its morals.