CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
Why C.S. Lewis wrote his science fiction trilogy
, December 25, 2010
The recent release of The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" (reviewed in this issue) - the third in a series of films based on C.S. Lewis's seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia - demonstrates that Lewis's popularity remains undiminished almost half a century after his death.
The Narnia books are probably Lewis's best-known works of imaginative fiction. Less well-known, however, but also of great literary merit, is a science fiction trilogy C.S. Lewis wrote some years previously: Out of the Silent Planet
, 1938; Voyage to Venus
), 1943; and That Hideous Strength
As with his later Chronicles of Narnia
, Lewis used his Cosmic Trilogy as a means to convey Christian scriptural truths, in the guise of creative fiction, to a sceptical generation that had no time for religion.
As a young man, Lewis had been an atheist. He converted to Christianity in 1931 when he was in his early thirties. Sometimes described as the apostle to the sceptics, he was remorselessly logical in his reasoning and a formidable debater. He produced a stream of popular books on Christian theology, such as The Problem of Pain
(1940), The Screwtape Letters
(1942), The Abolition of Man
(1947), Mere Christianity
, (1952), The Four Loves
(1960) and The World's Last Night
In addition to being a brilliant teacher of medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford (and later Cambridge), he developed a gift for writing the most remarkable imaginative fiction.
The educated readership for which Lewis wrote was not unlike that of our present generation. It was generally rationalistic, atheistic and highly sceptical about claims that there was any sort of spiritual reality beyond what we can perceive through our five senses or quantify scientifically.
One thing that Lewis had in common with his intended audience, however, was a love of science fiction. Like many of his generation, he was steeped in the futuristic fantasies of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and John Wyndham.
Discussing his motives for writing the Cosmic Trilogy, C.S. Lewis once wrote: "I like the whole inter-planetary idea as a mythology
and simply wish to conquer for my own (Christian) point of view what has hitherto been used by the opposite side."
By the "opposite side" Lewis was referring specifically to atheists and sceptics who devalued religious belief and sought answers to the meaning of life from science alone.
The specific targets of Lewis's works were two authors who he believed were responsible for promoting a perniciously nihilistic world view. One of them was the militant atheist and communist-sympathising Cambridge geneticist and evolutionary biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, particularly through his book, Possible Worlds and Other Essays
(1927). The other was British philosopher and agnostic Olaf Stapledon, through his futuristic science-fiction story, Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future
These popular authors - who were by no means alone in espousing these views - envisaged science prolonging human life almost indefinitely and thereby enabling the human race to perpetuate itself by conquering and colonising other worlds in outer space.
David C. Downing in his study, Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C.S. Lewis's Ransom Trilogy
(University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), wrote: "A remark by one of his pupils made Lewis appreciate the impact of these books and the corrosive effect they had on Christian faith. He realised how many thousands of people of his generation consoled themselves with the assurance that science had surpassed outworn Christianity by offering the supposed certainty of one day being able to defeat death itself."
Lewis subsequently hastened to add that he was attacking only the misuse of science, not scientific knowledge itself. He said that his Cosmic Trilogy was more an attack on "something which might be called 'scientism' - a certain outlook on the world which is usually connected with the popularisation of the sciences, though it is much less common among real scientists than among their readers. It is, in a word, the belief that the supreme moral end is the perpetuation of our own species, and this is to be pursued even if, in the process of being fitted for survival, our species has to be stripped of all those things for which we value it - of pity, of happiness, and of freedom."
All three of Lewis's science fiction works are worthwhile reading. Here we have space to discuss only the first one.Out of the Silent Planet
tells the story of a Cambridge academic, Dr Elwin Ransom, who, while on a walking holiday of England, is kidnapped by two evil scientists, Professor Weston and Dick Devine. Ransom is sedated and dragged aboard a spaceship and taken to Mars by his captors.
To cut a long story short - and without revealing the ending for those who have not read the book - Ransom, on landing on Mars, manages to escape his captors and gets to encounter the planet's inhabitants.
I remember first reading these stories when I was in my twenties, and I was impressed by how skilfully Lewis carried his unwitting science-fiction readers along with him by the momentum of his narrative.
The first two-thirds of Out of the Silent Planet
is a conventional, though excellently written and even at times poetic, thriller. But then, suddenly, the real point of the story comes into sharp focus as it subtly reveals to the reader the scriptural truth about the plight of our fallen world.
This is the dramatic moment when the kidnapped earth man Dr Ransom comes to learn, first, about the history of the solar system - or the Field of Arbol, as it is more poetically known in other worlds - and, second, something unexpected about the curious plight of his home planet.
Ransom has learned that Mars is governed by a superior spiritual intelligence, known as an eldil
. Although it is never formally identified as such, it is clear that the eldil
is meant to be the planet's ruling angel, or archangel.
Ransom is shown a remarkable depiction of the history of the solar system - not written down in any intelligible language, but sculptured in stone by the Martian inhabitants. As he gazes on the sculpture, he observes that, riding each planet is a curious winged, wavy figure, pictured as a winged flame, representing each planet's eldil
or ruling angel - each planet, that is, except one: Ransom's own planet.
His eye is drawn to the ball which represents Earth. C.S. Lewis writes: "When he saw it, his whole mind stood still for a moment. The ball was there, but where the flame-like figure should have been, a deep depression of irregular shape had been cut as if to erase it."
Ransom is brought before Mars's ruling eldil
, or ruling angel, and learns why Earth has the curious name Thulcandra, the Silent Planet. The eldil
tells Ransom: "Thulcandra is the world we do not know. It alone is outside the heaven, and no message comes from it. ...
"It was not always so. Once we knew the Oyarsa [the ruling angel] of your world - he was brighter and greater than I - and then we did not call it Thulcandra. It is the longest of all stories and the bitterest. He became bent. That was before any life came on your world. ...
"It was in his mind to spoil other worlds besides his own. ... We did not leave him so at large for long. There was great war, and we drove him back out of the heavens and bound him in the air of his own world. ... There doubtless he lies to this hour, and we know no more of that planet: it is silent."
A Christian reader will quickly grasp what Lewis is driving at. Earth's own ruling angel rebelled against God and became Satan, prompting the Fall. The consequence of this has been Earth's isolation from the rest of heaven, and the "silence" of our homeworld.
A year after the publication of Out of the Silent Planet
came the Second World War. During the precarious years when Churchill's Britain valiantly resisted the new Dark Age that Hitler was trying to impose on enslaved Europe, C.S. Lewis delivered a series of famous BBC radio talks (later collected and published under the title Mere Christianity
In one of his talks, he used vivid imagery of a world cut off from God, but made it even more explicit than in his Cosmic Trilogy.
He told his wartime audience: "Enemy-occupied territory - that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery."John Ballantyne is editor of News Weekly.