Tuesday, December 21, 2010

That Hideous Strength

I love C.S. Lewis. I hate to be a stereotype and I hate to do what everyone else does, but I love him. I've read more of his books than any other author, and I even visited the pub at which he and "The Inklings" met in Oxford. (So much for not being a Christian stereotype.) I recently read an article on CNN about why he is still so popular. I don't know about "shrewd career moves," but I think he's the most brilliant modern writer I've ever read, Christian or secular. His ideas are unique and creative in a way that most of us copy-cats can only dream of. But I'll stop drooling and get to my point, to review one of his lesser known books, That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy Tale for Grown-Ups.

One of the things I love about Lewis is that he not only wrote academic, philosophical and spiritual essays, he wrote children's books and fairy tales - you know, books for the rest of us.

Mike is of the sort who owns books like Thinking With Concepts (blech) and loves to paddle about in abstract thoughts. I need examples. I need hard, cold concrete examples to lay my cheek on before I can really understand or accept someone's thoughts. Lewis was so kind as to write to both of us, my brilliant husband and his thick wife.

That Hideous Strength is an example of this, a speculative fiction book that is the living out of Lewis' thoughts in his book The Abolition of Man. I've begun to read The Abolition of Man three times and gotten bored and stopped...and it's only about 60 pages. But in That Hideous Strength, he couches the ideas in flesh and characters and cottages. That I get.

That Hideous Strength is the third and final book of Lewis' Space Trilogy, which is why most people haven't read it, saying, "Oh, I don't like sci-fi, icky-poo. That's for nerds." I used to say this myself, being a properly trained English major, taught to despise all things sci-fi as lower forms of literature. I wish I'd never been taught such rubbish, as I now believe "speculative fiction" (as Mike snootily calls it) is some of the best fiction I've ever read (e.g. Brave New World by Huxley, who died on the same day as Lewis, just so you know.)

Speculative fiction is not all about aliens and nerds who wear high pants and speak Vulcan and wizards with flowing white hair. Though, come to think of it, there are both aliens and a flowing-hair wizard in this book. But speculative fiction allows us to extrapolate current trends in thought to their possible and perhaps inevitable conclusions. It allows us to say, "Hey, if we keep living like this and thinking like this, look where we might end up - being so fat that we lose all bone mass and live on a spaceship where Sigourney Weaver tells us to eat breakfast, 'in a cup!' and where a lonely robot has to clean up our trash with only Hello, Dolly to keep him company. We better change!" In that way, it is of more value than so much modern "book-club" literature whose sole purpose is to pet and worry our wounds, not to warn or exhort.

One of the many themes of That Hideous Strength is that of the dangers of science. Not science per se, but the dangers of having our scientific powers develop faster than our moral character. If the trends of the scientific community of the 1940s were allowed to run their course unhindered what would happen? Bad things, as it turns out. Disembodied-heads-kept-artificially-alive bad. Although at the micro level, the issues today are different - vivisection and sterilization of the unfit are rather out of style these days - the macro issues are still the same: What role do morality and spirituality play in science? What restrictions ought to be placed on science? Who gets to decide? The answers to these questions can still guide us in today's micro issues: How should we approch stem-cell research? What should the government fund or not fund? Do people have a "right to die" and who decides?

All those fun questions, plus an Arthurian myth and white-haired wizard thrown in for good measure! (I'm a sucker for Arthur.)

But this book is not for everyone. In fact, the three books of the trilogy seem like they were written for three separate types of people, which is perhaps why they haven't caught on like gangbusters. The first, Out of the Silent Planet, seems at first to be your basic sci-fi plot: A philologist (Yay for philology!) is kidnapped and taken to Mars to be a human sacrifice. But, as always, Lewis is more creative than just that, and you learn all sorts of surprising truths about angels, aliens, and demons that force you to rethink your perspective on the planet and what we call the spiritual.

The second, Perelandra, is one-part hippy trip through the planet of love with the goddess of love, Venus, and one part epic struggle against an evil foe, much like Gandalf's fight against the Balrog. (Goodness gracious, Mike has made a nerd out of me. Since I'm a total goner anyway, I might as well mention that the philologist in the epic struggle is loosely based on Lewis' good friend, Tolkien, creator of Gandalf.)

The last book is different alltogether from the fantastical settings of Mars and Venus. It takes place exclusively in a small college in England, which happens to sit atop ancient Merlin's grave. The first part of the book would probably bore a pure sci-fi reader to death, with its long characterization of the main characters - a "modern" man and wife trying to get ahead in the progressive set of a university town. The latter parts would probably scare off your typical book-club reader, what with the disembodied heads and wizards and all.

But what Lewis manages to do, and what I love him for, is show that all these worlds are the same. The world of aliens, the world of academia, the world of folklore, and the world of the commonplace are all the same world - just not quite how we thought they would be. Our souls can rejoice that in a way the fairy tales we so wanted to believe in as a child really are true, while on the other hand our souls recoil that the ugliest evil that has ever been written in those awful book-club books does exist as well.

It is the mingling and reconciling of the magical, the dull, the wonderful, the awful, our brighest hopes and our deepest fears that make this book (and so many of Lewis' writings) like a wound and balm to the soul all at once.

If you love mythology and philosophy, you will love this book. If you are easily bored, you may hate this book. If you love to read but say, "Eww, sci-fi is for nerds. Icky-poo, I don't like it," then get over it. Just read it. But start with the first book.


barleygreen said...

Oh! This is my favorite trilogy. Now that I am older, I should read them again.

Anonymous said...

That Hideous Srength is my favorite of the trilogy-the Out of the Silent Planet, second and Perelandra a very far third.
Because of this book we had to buy an unbridged dictonary 6 inches thick. NV