Lewis’ Space Trilogy

Lewis’ Space Trilogy July 30, 2015

I recently reread C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandraand That Hideous Strength. Not that long ago, IO9 asked why they are not compared with Dune. The truth is that, while both series feature religion prominently, Lewis’ writing seems that little bit too heavy-handed in its Christian religiosity – even though it also features Greek gods and Merlin. But perhaps that is just me being overly sensitive, as I think of Lewis as someone who writes about theology, and does so in a manner that is at times more conservative than I am comfortable with. So is my impression of his science fiction just because of my own background? Do his stories strike other readers with other backgrounds in the same way? I also found Lewis’ trilogy to be rather sexist in places.

But having said that, the story that spans Lewis’ trilogy is engaging nevertheless, and even theologically interesting.

Which do you like better, Lewis’ series or Herbert’s? Why? What do you think of the treatment of religion in each?

David Miller quoted the series recently on his blog, and Ken Schenck also made an allusion. And of related interest, Danut Manastireanu shared a link to a Romanian journal which had an issue dedicated to C. S. Lewis.

Lewis draws heavily on the Classical Greek and Roman tradition, and not just Christianity. And there is, of course, more generally a major overlap between the area that I work on, religion in science fiction, and the study of Classics and sci-fi. And so I was delighted to learn of the new book Classical Traditions in Science Fiction. Liz Gloyn mentioned it in a piece she wrote for Strange Horizons.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I read the space trilogy much earlier in life than I read Dune. I haven’t reread the space trilogy in years and years, so my estimation might change if they were fresher in my mind, but I prefer Herbert.

    The main thing I liked about the space trilogy was the toying with the idea of a planet that was set up with a similar eschatological crisis to Genesis 3 but didn’t play out that way. Even to this day, I sometimes reflect on the theological ramifications of that.

    But, in my opinion, the space trilogy is more telling a religious (and specifically Christian) story through the medium of science fiction, and Dune is telling a science fiction story involving spirituality as a key world-building ingredient, but alongside other ingredients such as a deep socio-political and economic factors. It just seems like a more complex, mature, and coherent work, whereas the space trilogy seemed more eclectically random, probably because the worlds exist to communicate an idea moreso than existing for their own sake.

    It might be like comparing the Narnia series to the Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings tells a messianic story and elements like prophecy and spirituality play a big part. And the Narnia series is a fine series. But one definitely gets the feeling that Narnia is trying to teach you about Christianity and the Lord of the Rings is trying to tell a fantasy story.

  • I enjoyed “Out of the silent planet” and “Perelandra” as a teenager. But I got bogged down in “That hideous strength” and never finished reading it.

    • James Pate

      I think a lot of people have that story!

    • histrogeek

      It’s worth the slog though it does have some parts that should have been chopped. Part of the problem is that it takes so long to get to how it’s connected to the other two and it’s so very different in tone. And the Arthurian parts are jarring to say the least.

      • That’s about where I got bogged down (looking for the connection).

        But it is too long ago, so I probably won’t give it another try.

        • histrogeek

          Ransom is organizing resistance and only appears in the last half. The head of NICE is Devine from Out of the Silent Planet, though he now has a lordship (so it’s impossible to realize who he is at first). Given how different THS is from the other two, I don’t know why Lewis made it so hard to see at least some of the connections.

  • histrogeek

    Lewis always had a problem with the idea of “different world, different rules.” Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra allowed him to vaguely explore the idea, but he really isn’t as good at it as Tolkein or Herbert. The most obvious is the fact that both the Space Trilogy and Narnia explicitly use the “Son of God” as a key figure, not God, not an avatar of God, not a messenger of God, not an incarnation of God, explicitly a “Son.” It makes the Space Trilogy so obviously Christian in origin and intent, it’s hard to see them as anything other than a Christian allegory, even if That Hideous Strength explores important themes about morality in the modern world. (To me though, the speech in THS about women’s proper roles really wrecked whatever power the book had.)
    Despite Tolkein’s devout Catholicism, you can read Lord of the Rings and not realize the author’s specific religion. If you didn’t know, you might assume some kind of neo-paganism. With Herbert, you would probably assume some 1960’s era spirituality (with the emphasis on consciousness expansion through drug use, a loose “back-to-nature” sense, and suspicion of technology).

    • Nick G

      Tolkien writes, in the preface to Lord of the Rings:

      I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and have always done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, real or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author

      Difficult not to see that as a bit of a hit at Lewis, despite their friendship!

  • David Evans

    I don’t see the Lewis trilogy as in competition with Dune at all. Dune is a work of modern science fiction. Lewis is working in a pre-scientific worldview – the worldview expounded in his splendid The Discarded Image – which includes non-Christian as well as Christian elements. I loved the trilogy, but I often had to remind myself that it really isn’t SF as we know it. And what we see as sexism, especially in That Hideous Strength, is not the woman-hating variety we see so much of these days. He just thinks that women and men have different places in the Great Chain of Being which extends far beyond either of them.

    • histrogeek

      It’s true that the sexism in THS is of a more traditionalist bent, one where it’s more assumed than actively supported. In fact even Lewis seems to have confused himself about a justification for it. It’s the same in his other writings on the proper role of women. It’s painful not just for its obvious sexism but because the logic behind it is so horridly tortured and Lewis either doesn’t realize it or doesn’t care.
      THS was my first real exposure to Lewis’ apologetics for sexism. I had seen the sexism in the Narnia books, but that was easy enough to blow off (for me) as the assumptions of an earlier age. THS came with an explanation, albeit a really weak one, rather than an assumption and women’s equality was loosely lumped as part and parcel of the far more evil modernism going on in the plot.

      • “Rebecca”

        Sorry to jump in, but would you at all mind giving a bit of a summary on what the sexist parts of THS are? I keep hearing people talking about it and a while back I searched for reviews for an explanation, but the only one I found sounded kind of unhinged and didn’t explain what exactly happens. I can’t stomach the Space Trilogy so I haven’t read the book but I’m grimly curious…

        • histrogeek

          OK, it’s been a long time since I read it, and I don’t have a copy but here is what I recall.
          First, and less obvious, the head of security for the bad guys is a woman. Lewis makes kind of a big deal about this and the fact that she hires women as part of her security force. She’s kind of the ball-breaker stereotype, which I don’t think was especially common in 1945. She’s nasty, but it’s hard to say that Lewis specifically chose to make her evil because she’s a woman in an unconventional role. The argument can certainly be made, but it’s not quite a slam dunk.

          The really big one, the one that many years later I still recall, is about midway through the book. Jane, the main heroine, has just escaped from the bad guys (after being tortured by the aformentioned head of security). She meets up with the good guys and the director (Ransom) launches into a lecture on the state of modern marriage. The gist of it is that modern marriage suffers from too much equality, which separates the couple. (Jane’s husband is working for the bad guys up to his neck.) It’s all pretty confused as I recall because on the one hand he seems to thing equality is a good thing overall, but not in the context of marriage. Also there are some odd lines throughout about marriages where there are no children (“barren marriage beds,” I believe, is used more than once).

          It’s an especially weird thing because here is Jane, a psychic who plays a HUGE role in the defeat of the bad guys, and she is supposed to be submissive (in some vague, ill-defined way) to Mark, a social climber obsessed with career advancement and getting in with the in-crowd, so much that he is planting false articles in papers on behalf of the bad guys. The sort-of explanation is that her goodness should have led Mark away from his path. In way it sort of does, once he’s isolated from her and realizes the empty life he’s led.

          So yeah, definitely sexist but in a tradition-because-it’s-tradition way, rather than an aggressively woman-are-evil way.

          • “Rebecca”

            Thanks for the explanation! Lewis, what were you thinking…?

          • arcseconds

            There’s also the problematic depiction of Susan in The Last Battle, and an unfortunate digression he makes somewhere about being stuck with a woman talking about things that don’t interest Lewis, but are stereotypically feminine (e.g. shopping and jewelery), and he rabbits on for a bit about how terrified he is of the vacuous world she lives in.

            Unfortunately, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that Lewis is kinda, well, misogynist, and in a way that goes beyond a bit of old-fashionedness and gender role affirmation. He apparently thinks that women are prone to being caught up in a superficial world of makeup and dresses, which he both despises and fears.

          • “Rebecca”

            Ugh that part rubs me the wrong way so badly. Clearly it’s shallow and stupid to like parties and boys, as opposed to sitting in a pub writing fairy stories and drinking. /sarcasm

          • arcseconds

            haha, that’s good, take the fight to him 🙂

            I was thinking of saying something about some stereotypical male activity, like watching the rugger or something, but I’ve no idea whether Lewis was into that. It would certainly be consistent for a bookish oxbridge don cum amateur theologian to pooh-pooh that as well as being superficial and a distraction from God or whatever.

            I suspect most theologians have a bias towards thinking what God really wants is for everyone to sit in armchairs, contemplating the infinite 🙂

            (And fortunately it’s easy to pretend that sitting on a bar stool contemplating the bottom off one’s glass is much the same thing)

            I’m not all that well read on Lewis, so maybe he does complain about rugby somewhere, I dunno, but I would be surprised if it actively frightened him, the thought of men getting wound up in a world of running around a chilly paddock chasing a pigskin.

  • David Evans

    I’m going to have to read that new book. It looks fascinating. I’ve clearly missed many classical borrowings in my SF reading.

  • Shiphrah99

    I much prefer Dune. The space trilogy, like the Narnia books, is awfully thin on plot and characterization IMO, needing to be fleshed out. I liked it when I was a kid, but upon rereading, it’s lacking. As Phil says upthread, the trilogy is a religious thesis that uses a SF milieu, whereas Dune is SF that has a religious theme. And Dune is certainly dense with plot and characterization.

  • I liked Out of the Silent Planet a lot years ago when I read it. But it seemed the other two books of the trilogy, especially That Hideous Strength, got lost in cumbersome slow-moving prose.

    Dune was great, but in Dune Messiah when Paul Atreides becomes a war lord guilty of millions of deaths, it really turned me off.

    In my opinion the Hyperion Trilogy by Dan Simmons is much better, especially the first and third books. Very creative.

  • arcseconds

    I read both when I was a teenager, and for some reason the space trilogy has stuck with me, and Dune I’ve almost completely forgotten. So I guess I like Lewis better!

    But I think presenting a fantasy where something like traditional Christianity is ‘true’ ends up being problematic. We’re just too close to Christianity for this to be anything other than apologetics of a somewhat gross sort, or a insult (or at least, something that would be interpreted as an insult by a great number of believers).

    Also, I’m not sure the apologetics aren’t also an insult. We’re not living in a world where Aslan rides in and topples ISIS, nor do we appear to be living in one where one can commune with angelic beings once one has left Earth’s orbit. So a religious person today is in a very different position from someone in Narnia or on Malacandra. So either it ends up suggesting that they are in fact in such a world (which would be a deception) or it ends up being a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and neither seem like spiritually helpful options.

    Basically, I suspect this sort of religious fiction ends up suffering from some of the major problems of Left Behind, even if it’s a nicer version of Christianity that’s being presented.

    (Having said that, I suppose it might be possible to write a story where a God like the one in Left Behind exists, but ends up being exposed as a demon, a super-powerful alien, or possibly just extremely mistaken (vid. the Buddhist take on Brahma). The suggestion could be made at the end of the book that some higher being still may exist. )

    As to why i don’t remember Dune, I’m not really sure, but i seem to dimly recall not really liking any of the characters, which is always a big impediment to me.

    • Nick G

      I suppose it might be possible to write a story where a God like the one in Left Behind exists, but ends up being exposed as a demon, a super-powerful alien, or possibly just extremely mistaken

      Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is quite close to this. I won’t say more for fear of including spoilers, but I recommend it.

  • Matthew Richardson

    I enjoyed Out of the Silent Planet. I thought it was a fun sci-fi story that wasn’t *too* heavy-handed in its religious symbolism. Although I found That Hideous Strength to be a difficult read, I also enjoyed it for its dystopian themes (plus Merlin was awesome). Perelandra, however, I found almost unreadable. It seemed to me to be little more than an apologetic for some of the more absurd interpretations of the Eden narrative.

    I don’t think that any of these novels compare to Herbert’s Dune books. Dune is a novel that has only become more relevant with time – I don’t feel that Lewis’s trilogy has the same staying power.


  • Tony Prost

    I thought That Hideous Strength was the best of the three.

  • Bethany

    I read the Space Trilogy back in grad school. Like several other commenters, I recall enjoying Out of the Silent Planet. What I remember most about That Hideous Strength was That Hideous Sexism which pretty much killed the book for me. (Plus, IIRC, some of the themes like “we shouldn’t experiment on prisoners” and “nature and natural things are actually good” struck me as probably being a lot more relevant when the book was written than they are now.) I don’t actually remember anything about Perelandra at all, which shows how memorable it wasn’t, but I recall not being very impressed at the time.

    I’ve never read Dune. Should I read Dune?

    • arcseconds

      I think Out of the Silent Planet is definitely the best of the three. It’s a pretty decent science-fiction story, of the golden-agey sort back when Mars had canals and was populated with all sorts of weird beasties and super-intelligent Martians with ancient wisdom. Lewis’s take on this theme is actually one of the best.

      Plus the exploration of the idea that we’re simply trapped by evil on Earth and everyone else is living in harmony was interesting. And it’s the least outrightly apologetic for a form of Christianity which hasn’t actually fallen as far from the traditionalist tree as one might think.

      EDIT: forgot to mention that Out of the Silent Planet could almost have been written by an atheist. Not that I mind especially, but see above about the dangers of depicting a universe where something like traditional Christian metaphysics are obviously true.

      I quite enjoyed Perelandra (I read it first, I think), but I’m not sure I could stomach it now. The floating islands of seaweed were pretty cool. One bit that does stick in my mind though is that Devine basically does the nudge-nudge-wink-wink-say-no-more! thing when he discovers that Ransom’s been hanging out with a young naked woman and suggests (I can’t remember the exact words) that Ransom is getting a bit too other-worldly when he finds that Ransom hasn’t taken advantage of the situation. Ransom’s reply was “well, that’s a bit like saying someone’s other-worldly when they behold the Niagara falls and don’t immediately think of making it into cups of tea!”.

      I think he bit off a bit more than he could chew with That Hideous Strength. Social commentary set in the here and now is more difficult to do, I think, particularly if one is inclined to be preachy. Mixing in high fantasy into a science fiction trilogy is a risky move, the end times is a difficult topic, and naturally it ends up being quite different in tone from the other books in the series.

      Speaking of interstellar harmony, have you read Julian May’s Galactic Milieu books?

      (and how’s the bible reading going?)

      • Bethany

        Alas, I pretty much stopped when I (a) got stressed out at work (not that I’m not usually stressed at work, but apparently this was somehow different stress at work) and (b) started playing Minecraft, and haven’t taken it up again. I really need to get started again: I suspect I’ll find it much easier to keep going once I get over the hump of just starting up again and then through the rest of 2 Kings.

    • Nick G

      I’d say Dune itself is worth a read, particularly for the ecological theme, but the series goes rapidly downhill from there. And Dune is definitely sexist, and has what I’d call fascistic undertones: the hero (Paul Atreides aka Mu’ad Dib) is the product of a long process of eugenic breeding for a kind of Übermensch with paranormal powers which no woman can develop – although the breeding programme itself is run by the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood.

  • ccws

    I’ve read most of the Dune books more than once – my original trilogy is falling apart – but I’ve never been able to get into Lewis.

    My first encounter with Lewis was when half my dorm in college was reading Narnia and his frankly religious stuff (particularly “Mere Christianity” and “The Screwtape Letters”) and crowing over it at a time when I’d more or less lost my religion because I’d been burned by the campus “Me & JC Happy Club,” and that totally turned me off.

    I’ve picked up something of his occasionally over the years since then, but it gives me this weird vibe, as if the strangeness of the author were leaking through (and let’s face it, Jack Lewis was a pretty strange character), so I don’t pursue it.