Thursday, June 04, 2015

Book Review: C. S. Lewis' "Space Trilogy"

I've loved C. S. Lewis' writings ever since I picked up The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Book 1 of The Chronicles of Narnia) as a child. For many years the fourth installment of that series, The Silver Chair (an under-appreciated work) was one of my favorite books. Later on, as I began to read his nonfiction and allegorical works, I found that his voice continued to speak powerfully to me. His Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, and Great Divorce all rank extremely high on my all-time books list. Lewis, at least in the way his works speak to me, has four main strengths: (1) he is a brilliant theologian, and a winsome one (two traits that rarely go together in theologians; he can work some marginal theological views into his books, and he does it so beautifully that even those who disagree with him fall in love with the book anyway); (2) he is a very good writer in terms of style, with a simple, fluid manner that always seems to be able to combine accessibility with the expression of ineffable ideas--almost an impossible task for a writer; (3) he is a good writer in terms of his imagination and plot construction (and note, this is different than just being a good stylist--there are a lot of great stylistic writers who seemingly can't produce a compelling story, regardless of their critical acclaim); and (4) he is a mystic whose perception of spiritual realities can stand shoulder to shoulder with many of the greatest mystics of the Christian tradition. For all these reasons, I love C. S. Lewis.

But until this year, I had never read his Space Trilogy. Aside from his early minor work, The Pilgrim's Regress, this was the first major fictional work he ever embarked on, publishing the first book in 1938. This was still the early years of science fiction, when the customary trends of the genre had not yet been established in their now-familiar forms. As such, the Space Trilogy is going to be unlike any science fiction you've ever read. It's not so much about outer space, really, as it is about the relationship between heaven and earth (and the other planets). As such, it's now often published under the title of "The Cosmic Trilogy." And, as with all of Lewis' fiction, it is fiction with a point. Here, the overriding messages have to do with the nature of fallen humanity, the meaning of male and female, and the place of the human race in the broader scope of God's creation.

Out of the Silent Planet (Book 1) - This is the shortest of the three books, and it's also the one I liked best (I might be in the minority here; many other reviewers seem to prefer the other two). It tells about the journey of Dr. Ransom, an English philologist who is abducted by two renegade scientists and taken aboard a spacecraft to Mars (known to the natives as Malacandra). Once there, Ransom joins a village of sentient, otter-like beings before eventually traveling across Mars to the place where the ruling spirit of the planet dwells--an angelic being who governs and protects Malacandra and the three sentient races therein. This book was a wonderful read for me, because it ran against the grain of so much contemporary science fiction. There were almost no action sequences, no laser-gun battles or alien empires. There was none of the habit of today's science fiction of imagining alien worlds to be facsimiles of our own moral degeneracy. Rather, it was the opposite. Malacandra is a world of beings who never rebelled against God, and the contrast of their simple goodness, over against the sensibilities of even a morally good human being like Ransom, is eye-opening. This book also appealed to me because it reads more like an anthropological travel memoir than a science fiction book, and I've always loved the study of other cultures. The pace of the book is slow, but definitely worth savoring.

Perelandra (Book 2) - In this installment, Ransom is transported to Venus (Perelandra) by the cosmic beings that oversee the planets, in order to stop his old nemesis from corrupting the newborn sentient life on that world. C. S. Lewis' imaginative power is on full display here. Having never been tied down to ideas of other planets that he would have seen in the cardboard sets of Hollywood studios had he written this twenty years later, he was free to make Venus a wild world of oceans and floating islands of exotic flora and fauna. His portrayal of this world is descriptively powerful, so much so that the planet itself acts as one of the main themes and characters of the story. This book brings up one of the messages that will be especially prominent in the last installment; namely, the meaning of the sexes (a message seriously worth pondering in our day). But it also harkens back to the first book, portraying a contrast between our fallen nature and this new, unfallen, morally pure world. The story revolves around Ransom's conversations with that new world's "Eve," and his attempts to prevent his old nemesis, now possessed by a Satanic agent, from corrupting her with moralistic rationalizations. The interplay of ideas in their dialogue is fascinating, and Lewis uses it to reveal many of the dangers of secular ideology--of couching moral arguments in fine-sounding and reasonable expressions without admitting that we are immediately off-base by making our ethics so anthropocentric. This book is a good read, but don't expect it to ever become a movie--aside from the Edenic nudity, there's also a long, grisly fight-to-the-death scene between two skinny, pale, middle-aged academics that works well in print but would definitely make this an R-rated film.

That Hideous Strength (Book 3) - This book is the favorite of many who read this series. It isn't mine. It's everything that makes C. S. Lewis awesome (see the four points in the introduction above), all wrapped up in a very weird package. Here we see the conclusion of the cosmic dimension of this story--the angelic superpowers who oversee the planets are landing a D-Day beachhead against the institutionalized, human-seducing power of our own rebel angelic governor (Satan, though never named as such in the book). Lewis spends a good deal of time breaking down the secular mythologies of how we view gender, academics, and the social sciences, and the book is worth reading for that alone. Particularly regarding gender--Lewis has some things to say about obedience within the practice of marriage that are not quite kosher to say anymore, but might just be worth thinking about, since they form the majority position of the Christian tradition, and are probably too quickly dismissed as mere patriarchalism. My favorite section of the book comes near the end, when Lewis describes the entrance of the planetary cosmic powers into an English country house. He is able to put into words ideas and sensations that you probably never knew existed. I've not yet met a writer who can describe the sense of the numinous so well as Lewis can. Also, if you like Arthurian legends coming back to life, disembodied heads possessed by demonic powers, bears and tigers eating people, and 1984-style social institutions getting a grisly (and occasionally hilarious) comeuppance, then this is the book for you.

All in all, the Space Trilogy isn't going to be enshrined in my personal pantheon of C. S. Lewis' great works. But it's a good read, and it's a morally challenging series on a lot of levels.

(Picture, inset: "The Searcher," a statue of C. S. Lewis looking in a wardrobe; Belfast, Northern Ireland; by Ross Wilson. Photo by Genvessel, accessed through the Wikimedia Commons.)