I recently re-read the Space Trilogy (aka Cosmic Trilogy) by C. S. Lewis, consisting of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.
My rather vague memories of my last reading some years back consisted mainly of the following.
- Out of the Silent Planet is notable for its coherent sci-fi account of a world in which there are multiple intelligent alien species, all ruled by the Christian God, and yet Jesus still incarnated as a human on Earth, not any of the other intelligent species on other planets.
- Perelandra is a deep exploration of the temptation of Eve (though in the book it’s a parallel situation Lewis specifically distinguishes from Eve’s temptation on Earth). What I found most notable was how much groundwork the tempter has to lay before the idea of disobedience is even a concept she can conceive enough to discuss and consider it.
- That Hideous Strength — Beyond the rather brilliant concept of ‘macrobes’ (a humanist/scientific term for newly-theorized organisms that are, in the end, just demons), I mainly remember this as containing some of the downright creepiest scenes I’ve ever read. I hate horror and some of the final scenes were honestly too much for me back when I read them. It’s extremely skillful—Lewis’s insight into the nature of evil is on masterful display as those who have given themselves over to pride, anti-truth, lust for power, etc. experience their endgame—but this is a subject where the mastery makes it even harder to take. I was determined (and curious) to revisit those half-remembered scenes on this re-read, but I was definitely reading the book like a kid watching a scary movie between his fingers.
Some highlights on this read-through:
- Out of the Silent Planet — I was impressed with how thoroughly Lewis “humanized” (person-ized?) the aliens, to the extent that the human antagonists start feeling alien—certainly monstrous—when they come back on the scene. Also sets up a solid start to what you might call the hyper-objectivity the eldila and oyeresu (analogous to or maybe synonymous with ruling angelic powers) carry with them. Every time they appear, there’s a strong sense of a deeper reality that casts an unflinching light on the humans’ perceptions and narratives, and fundamentally and inescapably reframes the situation.
- Perelandra — One thing that stood out this time was the way Lewis highlights the strange reality that individual callings matter. I was deeply struck by the scene(s) where Ransom wrestles with the absurdity of the fact that he, just a regular guy, has been chosen to battle the tempter in this new Eden. On the one hand it feels inevitable to him that he must win by some kind of divine intervention, because how could something this big actually depend on his puny efforts? On the other hand, he has to face with mounting dread the reality that maybe he is the divine intervention, and if he doesn’t step up and win the struggle, it won’t be won. It’s a stark reality to sit with, and reminded me sharply of an article I love called Shut Up and Do The Impossible.
- That Hideous Strength — The scary scenes at the end are still highly disturbing, but didn’t hit me quite as hard this time around. What surprised me, though, was how much creepier I found the whole book. The insidious (and ultimately demonic) organization NICE is so freaking unsettling. Maybe at this point in my life I’m more attuned to the subtler threats of toxic bureaucracy and organizational maneuvering. It’s amazing how incisive Lewis is in this portrayal. Every single person in NICE, each in their own distinct way, continuously offloads responsibility while fighting for status and undercutting everyone around them, including their allies. Logres, the small band of people resisting NICE, is exactly the opposite. The members are just as distinct, but they’re each willing in their own ways to question their own motives, trust one another’s, and take on sacrificial risks. It was particularly striking how NICE members are perpetually keeping things vague and subtextual, while their make things more specific. It’s a masterful study of authority handled rightly and wrongly. Authority is a subject near to my heart, but I’ll have to write about that one another time.