The Silent Planet of CS Lewis

I had the opportunity to reread CS Lewis’s OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET and to see with adult and Christian eyes what first I read in my long-vanished and atheist youth.

If time permits in days to come I may do the same for and PERELANDRA and THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, but for now I discuss only the first book in the celebrated Space Trilogy.

Allow me to report that all three works are well worth rereading, and to argue that they are not merely good science fiction, but merit the top awards and accolades our beloved genre can bestow.

I have pondered patiently the argument often made that these works are not science fiction, and, fresh from immersion in them, I can now dismiss such arguments with profound yet deserved umbrage. To say that Lewis’s works are not science fiction because they are Christian is the same as to say HG Wells’ works are not science fiction because they are Socialist.

This article is written for those who have already read Lewis’s Space Trilogy. Spoilers abound.

Let me in the paragraphs below mention what makes a science fiction work great rather than mediocre; then remind the reader of some of the scenes and delights of Mr Lewis’ inventive universe; perhaps with a meandering mention of the philosophical concerns or deeper questions Lewis lightly touches upon; in order to show that these are not merely good books, not merely good science fiction, but great.

But before any of this, let me mention the difference between reading a book as graybeard versus as a beardless boy.

The main difference is one of context. When I first read these books, I had not yet read either H.G. Wells’ FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, nor Arthur C Clarke’s CHILDHOOD’S END, and so did not see the connection between the three books. As an adult, I see parallels suggesting that Lewis in OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET is writing a thematic rebuttal to Wells, and Clarke writes a rebuttal to Lewis.

A second contextual difference is that, as a youth, I was interested primarily in the sense of wonder of the science fiction elements of the story. Where CS Lewis touches on deeper concerns, I was too shallow then to follow the thought. Having been profoundly impressed by Lewis’ nonfiction essays, particularly THE ABOLITION OF MAN, my adult self sees when Lewis touches on a point, or the point, in his science fictional drama on a recurring theme from his nonfiction.

The final and most obvious contextual difference I notice now, writing in 2012 when America has just placed the Curiosity robot rover on the surface of Mars, is the assumption about how a Mars voyage could be made, particularly as a two-man expedition in an inventor’s privately created bathysphere-shaped vehicle.

The assumption makes the book seem like an historical novel, which it did not seem to me when I first read it. The gulf of time between the reader and the writer did not exist, or, if it did, my youthful self was unaware of it.

OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET was written in the years between the First and Second World War, before the Manhattan project, before jet aircraft, before the V-2 rocket, and before the military-industrial complex and the idea of space travel as a public works project. If the inventor in a book written in those years was not the head of a government department of science, and not the head of a major corporation, but instead made his space flying vehicle in a shed behind his house, keep in mind the only real historical example of that day and age were men like the Wright Brothers, who did indeed make their flying machine in a shed behind the bicycle shop, and that their invention was only 35 years old at the time Mr Lewis wrote his book. That is roughly the same amount of time when the book was written and I read it in the early 1970’s.

The idea of a tinkerer with a private workshop, a la Thomas Edison, inventing a space drive seems to us now as quaint and absurd a conceit as climbing a plateau in South America and finding dinosaurs. Quaint it might be, but it is no more absurd than, in real life, Bill Gates cobbling together a personal computer in his garage, or, in science fiction, Professor Cavor constructing a space-travelling sphere of antigravity alloy in his woodshed. FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is not “Hard” SF of the fashion that Jules Verne or John W Campbell Jr preferred, but science fiction it certainly is, and it would be absurd to argue otherwise.

This introduces the question of whether C.S. Lewis was writing a real work of science fiction or merely some fantasy that happened to be set in space as phantasmagorical and unrealistic as THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry or DOCTOR DOLITTLE IN THE MOON by Hugh Lofting.

Without dwelling on a tedious argument as to what counts as real science fiction, I will start from the assumption that any definition of science fiction is worthless if it rules out the most famous works of HG Wells, one of the three authors who can make a claim to have invented the genre (the other two being Jules Verne and the unfairly overlooked Olaf Stapledon).

Science fiction is the genre which introduces its sense of the fantastic through wonders made plausible by reference to the scientific world view. In other words, science fiction has a setting, props, or characters of extraterrestrial or futuristic origins rather than magical or supernatural. A yarn set on Mars is science fiction, set in Oz is a fantasy; jetpack is science fiction, flying carpet is fantasy; a monster is fantasy, but a Morlock is science fiction.

Lowgrade science fiction, space opera (my own genre) or sciffy (like STAR WARS) use the props and settings but not the essential feature of the science fiction genre: The essential feature of science fiction is speculation from what is known to be scientifically plausible to what is implausible, to treat the unrealistic element in the tale realistically, so that the reader is taken as if by surprise: “Ah! Well, of course that is what it would be like!”

I use HG Wells as the example because he set the standard of the genre: when the evil scientist Gryphon in THE INVISIBLE MAN throws off his coat, hat, dark glasses and face-bandages to turn invisible, rather than, like Bilbo in THE HOBBIT or Brandemart in ORLANDO FURIOSO using a magic ring, the unwarned (and unjaded) reader’s reaction is one of surprise, almost recognition, when he realizes that a process which turns flesh and blood transparent would not turn clothing transparent. Bilbo is a fantasy character whereas Gryphon is a science fiction character precisely because Bilbo does not need to take off his clothes when invisible, nor wrap his face in bandages when visible.

Bilbo never once worries about leaving footprints in the snow when invisible, because this is precisely the kind of realistic detail which breaks the mood of fantasy and sets the mood of science fiction. If my magic ring turns my necktie invisible, what happens when I tuck the corner of the table cloth into my necktie and then put on the magic ring? Does everything I am touching turn invisible, including the chair in which I sit? Why not the carpet on which I stand? To ask such a question in a fantasy tale would break the mood and shatter the dream logic on which fantasy depends. To fail to ask such a question in a science fiction story is to fail to appeal to the science fiction reader’s particular taste for treating unrealistic things realistically: because this is the one thing this genre has which none others do.

A werewolf story becomes science fictional (at least in mood) if the author bothers to mention the difference in weight between a man and a wolf, and he tells you what happens to the extra mass during the metamorphosis. The difference between science fiction and fantasy is not that fantasy has fantastic elements and science fiction has realistic ones. We have metamorphosis and invisibility and monsters and mind reading in science fiction just as much as in fantasy. The difference is that science fiction, in order to lend that extra atmosphere of verisimilitude, worries about the footprints of the invisible man; and our monsters are from outer space.

In OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, the scientist Weston invents a space-traveling sphere whose motive power is never told to the main character Ransom, nor to the reader, but merely said to rely on “exploiting the less observed properties of solar radiation.” This is no more fantastical than the gravity-opaque alloy of professor Cavor in HG Wells’ FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, and considerably less fantastical than the “back-rays” which propel the crystal-hulled space-traveling torpedo of David Lindsay in VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS. In each case, the author was eager to carry his protagonists to an alien sphere, and did not dwell on the stage machinery of how to get there.

In none of the books is the vessel given a name. (Note that Jules Verne names the space gun Impey Barbacane uses to shoot a manned shell to the Moon, as well as naming the airship of Robur and the submersible of Nemo. Perhaps it is a rule that in “harder” SF stories the vehicles are characters in the stories, and merit names.)

The case against C.S. Lewis as a science fiction writer, if I understand it (and I confess I have never heard it articulated convincingly) on two points: the first is that the Christian religion is unambiguously a correct picture of the universe in his Space Trilogy; the second is that his description of space flight is absurd.

Let us address this second point first, as it is the stronger point. C.S. Lewis makes an inexcusable gaffe, which no science fiction writer worth the name, even writing in 1938, should have made, when he asserts that the space-traveling sphere of Weston exerts a miniature gravity field, weaker than Earth’s but still sufficient to pull objects to the deck and impart a clear vertical orientation.

From the description of crewmen sitting at chairs and eating from tables and washing up in the galley, the author is clearly describing gravity of at least lunar strength, perhaps between a fifth to a tenth of Earth’s gravity. But the ship is not the size of Earth’s moon. The center of the ship is not a chunk of neutronium nor an artificial gravity generator, but a hold where gear is stored. The men wear heavy weights to hold them to the floor. Perhaps Lewis was thinking of the lead belts of deep sea divers. But zero-gravity is not buoyancy. In reality, in a space capsule, such belts would do nothing, except increase one’s inertia.

This gaffe is so egregious that until I reread it, I had not truly believed Lewis had made it. My memory of the book was that sphere contained the propulsive machinery, which somehow used the gravitic properties of solar radiation to produce artificial gravity inside the sphere and to produce thrust. But no. My childish mind had merely filled in details the author never mentions. Lewis does not say Weston’s machine filters gravitons out of solar radiation; he only says some “less observed” properties are involved. My memory had tricked me. Nope, it was just a mistake, and an offputting one, like going to a movie where a space captain uses ‘parsecs’ as a measure of time, not distance.

Lewis makes a similar gaffe when describing the close approach and landing of the space sphere. If the ship is under continual acceleration, the sensation of gravity would exist but only in the direction of motion; if not under acceleration, the ship is in free fall. Instead, Lewis makes an elementary, embarrassing error when he described the sphere approaching Mars and therefore the Martian gravity pulling the crew and their gear toward the one side of the sphere, which slowly becomes the “down” direction, but meanwhile the gravity pulling their bodies and gear toward the center of the sphere continues to operate, causing a confusion of the inner ear and of hand-eye coordination, so no one knows if he is holding a cup at lip level, or above, or below. The scene is imaginative, but based on a gross error of high school physics. Objects in free fall experience no gravity, as anyone who has ever survived a falling elevator can tell you, or parachuted from an aeroplane. A man suspended between gravity sources, for example at right angles to each other, would be pulled toward the point of the vector sum, not be confused between two different sources of downwardness. That is, he would not feel that both the deck and the bulkhead were downward, he would just feel the deck was tilted at a forty-five degree angle.

And, like HG Wells, CS Lewis has his intrepid explorers unscrew the wingnuts holding the ship’s manhole cover, and then take a deep breath of the (fortunately) breathable atmosphere. It is also fortunately at the same pressure as the ship, or else the manhole would have either exploded outward like a cork from a pop gun, or been as impossible to move as the lid of an hermetically sealed jar. Airlocks are apparently a postwar invention in science fiction. (Or even later. I am reminded of the similar scene from GALAXY QUEST where Engineer Kwan dismounts from the airlockless shuttlecraft and tests the alien atmosphere by sniffing it.) Of course, Lewis deserves more credit than Wells, because he establishes that this is the explorer’s second voyage to the world.

That said, in the same chapter which describes the flight through space, Lewis does the very opposite of a science gaffe. The pith of what science fiction writers do when they work their craft correctly is to describe imaginatively something which is a reasonable yet remarkable extrapolation of men in the extraordinary situation of the tale, and to do so vividly. Here he does it twice.

The first is his description of outer space as lit by a sun. It is one of those things obvious only in hindsight, because we on Earth are used to seeing the stars only at night, to assume that above the atmosphere, where the stars are, it is night. It is not: night is a local condition, a cone of shadow projected from the earth and extending no further than the orbit of the moon. In space, it is always noon (at least until you pass beyond Saturn or thereabouts).

But what Lewis does in addition is he makes the sunlight in space refreshing, reinvigorating, golden, almost spiritual, so that space is not merely ‘outer space’ but is ‘Deep Heaven’ crowded with a complex throng of unseen and perhaps angelic beings. In real life, Earth’s atmosphere blocks forms of solar radiation dangerous to man; but the speculation that the atmosphere blocks beneficent rays as well was a perfectly valid science fictional speculation at the time.

At least, it is science fiction speculation no more outrageous than, say, the idea in SCANNERS LIVE IN VAIN by Cordwainer Smith that space contains a radiation intensely painful to the human nervous system, or the idea in FIRST MEN IN THE MOON that travel through space induces a mystical sense of eternity and infinity – which is, no doubt, precisely where Lewis got the inspiration for the description of the golden and beatific light of Deep Heaven. Lewis is presenting something in mood and theme akin to a medieval and mythical view of celestial spaces, deliberately at odds with the stark inhumanity of HG Wells.

The second bit of science fictional craftsmanship is the description of the upper decks of the space sphere: namely, each bulkhead where the crewman stands seems perpendicular to the deck, but the far bulkhead on the opposite side of the cabin slants away. If he crosses to that bulkhead, it will seem perpendicular close at hand, but the one left behind now seems to slant away. And the overhead is larger than the deck, making the whole cabin wedge shaped. This is the kind of clear and clever visual imagination of what it would really be like to live, in this case on a tiny wordlet, which many science fiction writers fail to mention. Other writers who set their stories inside O’Neill colonies, or Dyson Spheres or Ringworlds do not do as well in visualizing and helping the reader to visualize the unearthly environment.

I will not dwell on the description of the Martian life, intelligent and animal and vegetable, which Lewis lovingly and painstakingly describes, except to say that his surface of Mars, or Malacandra as the natives name it, is more vivid and memorable than HG Wells’ description of the Lunar features inside and outside the Moon, and considerably more accurate given the scientific knowledge of the day.

(Wells has the Moon coated with diurnal atmosphere, and covered with fungi that sprouts and blooms and dies once each fortnight. He places a liquid ocean inside the hollow volume of the Moon, and does not explain how the vast lunar sphere, if hollow, fails to collapse under its own weight.)

Lewis knew enough to know that the surface of Mars was uninhabitable, frozen with subarctic temperatures, and that if there were canals on Mars, to be visible on Earth they would have to be canyons of immense width, and, if as straight as Percival Lowell described, artificial. He places the atmosphere and ecology, fed by hot springs to give it Earthlike temperatures, within these canals. And he makes the deadliness of the outer surface above the canals the wounds of an ancient and superscientific or supernatural war between Malacandra and our world, Thulcandra, which gives the whole conceit a grandeur and mythic weight any writer should envy.

A science fiction writer of ordinary imagination might, as Lewis did, give his Martians the great stature, thin legs and wide, birdlike chests to be expected of a world of less than earthly gravity; but it takes a particular cleverness of the science fictional imagination to describe the waves of water as being taller and thinner than Earthly eyes expect, or the dizzying narrowness of hills and mountains, and then to express these unearthly imaginings as hauntingly beautiful despite their strangeness.

The Earthman’s landing on Mars is strikingly memorable, because Ransom, at first, cannot comprehend the Martian landscape, or tell land from water. It then takes a science fiction writer of more than ordinary philosophical understanding to realize, as Lewis did, that a man dropped on an alien planet for the first time would not be able to distinguish what the colored shapes and textures around him represented, whether water or cloud or mountain or oddity of unknown treelike growth. Surely an earthly forest, seen from afar, would be mistaken for a strangely-textured sponge, or a cloud catching the sunlight at the wrong angle be seen as an odd mountain on the horizon made of gold and ivory, when first beheld by a man from Mars.

Lewis then uses a conceit so original for its time that many a science fiction writer after him copied it without hesitation. The idea is that a truly advanced race would live in Edenic simplicity, and be mistaken by blundering explorers at first for savages, the irony being that the explorers themselves are savages. I have seen this conceit done a number of times, but one of the more famous is the episode of STAR TREK episode “Errand of Mercy” where the Organians, who seem at first to live at a medieval level of technology, are actually energy beings of immeasurably vast powers, almost godlike.

It is perfectly valid science fictional speculation asking what would happen if a world, unlike Earth, was peopled by races as intelligent as man, but not as immoral as man, or, to use a theological term, not fallen.

An even cleverer speculation appears only in the postscript, where the protagonist mentions that the three intelligent races of Mars do not keep pets: they have no emotional need to treat dogs and cats and horses almost like people, because the oddness and humor and fellowship we seek outside our species and find in pets, they find in the other two intelligent species.

All this, and many more examples besides, show that CS Lewis handles the material of science fiction adequately with his peers in the science fiction field. I next assert that his writing is superior and for three reasons: first, his use of the English language shows more craft and skill.

His writing is simply better and more evocative of mood and visual images than writers like Arthur C Clarke or Isaac Asimov. I would compare the evocative look and detail of the Martians described by CS Lewis, for example, the Martians from Robert Heinlein, except that there is nothing aside from a few provocative adverbs to hint at their appearance.

HG Wells does a better job, but upon rereading, I note that he does not actually describe what it looks like. Allow me to quote at length in order to make my point:

A big greyish rounded bulk, the size, perhaps, of a bear, was rising slowly and painfully out of the cylinder. As it bulged up and caught the light, it glistened like wet leather.Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively. A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air. Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth–above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes–were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty.

Nightmarish, certainly. But what does it look like? A brain with tentacles? A squid? A man with a big head? Does it have four limbs or more? A bipedal stance?

And, unlike Lewis, we know nothing of their psychology, society, or anything of the Wellsian Martians. The noble Hrossa of Malacandra have a quite different voice and manner than, say the solemn Sorn or the wry Pfifltriggi. In contrast, the Martians of Robert Heinlein are asexual and patient as Ents. None has a personality. The Martians of HG Wells are merely monsters.

In the postscript mentioned above, the narrator describes the haunting scene of seeing Jupiter rising like the evening star, and hearing the deep and solemn choir of the Martians ringing out to it, in words unknown, and hailing it as the throne of the heavens. Because, after all, despite the temptation to write science fiction in the clipped and angular style of Earnest Hemmingway or a wireless newspaper report, we are supposed to evoke emotion through the craft and beauty of language, and to be, if only in a small way, poets. The scenes should be remembered, and be more than memorable. They should be haunting.

Second, Lewis is simply a better writer than HG Wells when it comes to conveying personality, humor, or a convincing vividness. I feel I have met Ransom. I can tell you more of the personality and person of Weston than I can of Cavor, and much more about Devine than Bedford.

Third, Lewis touches upon deeper issues, philosophical and theological, which only the most ambitious art aspires to. Lewis moves like an expert swimmer in these profound depths. If you have ever read a science fiction author trying to be profound when he has nothing deep to say, such as, say, Robert Heinlein in HAVE SPACE SUIT WILL TRAVEL holding that genocide of whole species who show a warlike nature is morally licit, you get the impression of men treading water and grasping at straws.

Compare this to the theophany at the climax of OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET. In this scene, the planetary intelligence of Mars, having heard the typical cant of manifest destiny and eugenic Darwinism so popular among intellectuals between the wars, saying that higher species of men should wipe out the lower, coming from the mouth of Weston, says that Weston’s moral code, like all allegedly modern moral codes, is merely a corruption of the general and universal moral maxims all men know by intuition.

Again, allow me to quote at length:

“Tell him,” said Weston when he had been made to understand this, “that I don’t pretend to be a metaphysician. I have not come here to chop logic. If he cannot understand – as apparently you can’t either – anything so fundamental as a man’s loyalty to humanity, I can’t make him understand it.”

But Ransom was unable to translate this and the voice of Oyarsa continued:

“I see now how the lord of the silent world has bent you. There are laws that all hnau (rational creatures) know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little, blind Oyarsa in your brain. And now you can do nothing but obey it, though if we ask you why it is a law you can give no other reason for it than for all the other and greater laws which it drives you to disobey. Do you know why he has done this?”

Weston replies that he is a modern man, and does not believe that old talk of morality and rubbish. The Oyarsa continues:

“I will tell you. He has left you this one because a bent hnau can do more evil than a broken one. He has only bent you; but this Thin One who sits on the ground he has broken, for he has left him nothing but greed. He is now only a talking animal and in my world he could do no more evil than an animal. If he were mine I would unmake his body, for the hnau in it is already dead. But if you were mine I would try to cure you.

As I child, I would not have noticed how quickly and adroitly CS Lewis touches on and uses these two central concerns that he dwells in his brilliant non-fiction essays, especially THE ABOLITION OF MAN.

As an adult, I notice that the whole scene where Ransom is translating into the true and honest speech of the Malacandrans the cant and jargon of the modern intellectual, and showing (with subtle satire on Lewis’ part) that it is either meaningless, or it is diabolical: merely fancy words to cover up the true nature of the criminal intent.

The second man, the Thin One, mentioned above is Devine, who is not a scientist but a businessman. Lewis was copying closely his model from FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, and Devine is his Bedford, a businessman, the way Weston is his Cavor, a scientist. Like the Spaniards in the New World, Devine’s interest is the gold the natives possess in abundance. He serves no real purpose in the plot, but he does exist to make exactly this point, which is a point characteristic of Christian writers. The great are more prone to great harm; Lucifer was not the least of the angels in heaven, but the brightest.

As for the general background of the solar system setting, it is actually quite elegant, even brilliant. Every world has a superior being or Eldil associated with it or assigned to it. Unbeknownst to Earthlings, except as legend, the ruling planetary intelligence of Earth flew into rebellion against his peers, and these superior beings in retaliation isolated and besieged the world. No messages cross Deep Heaven to or from the Earth, which is called Thulcandra, the Silent Planet. The beings have communion with other worlds, and know who and what dwells there, both mortal and immortal, physical and not: but not of Earth.

The resonance with the tale of the Fall of Lucifer is, of course, deliberate, but one misses the whole point of how eerie the concept is if one fails to see it through science fiction eyes, and therefore to see it afresh. The paradox of why we have not been visited by superior beings or extraterrestrial races if such races are commonplace in the cosmos has an easy, if creepy, explanation. Earth is a cross between a quarantined leper colony and a dark-faced fortress beleaguered by foes, and we are as ignorant of the dark yet superhuman forces secretly ruling our world as Neo was ignorant of the Matrix before he swallowed the red pill.

The second argument that Lewis is not an SF writer is that Christianity is incompatible with the scientific worldview needed as a backdrop for science fiction. This is again an argument I have never heard well articulated, and until I hear it well articulated, I doubt it worthy of attention. The idea of portraying the themes and symbols of Christianity in a science fiction background is certainly as original as HG Wells portraying the universe as hopeless and horrible, or Robert Heinlein portraying the universe as a backdrop for orgies and genocides.

The whole point of science fiction is that the conceit that we actually know what the universe is actually like is conceited. All science fiction contains a hint of that dizzying truth that truth is stranger than we imagine. And nothing could be stranger for a science fiction reader to find that the lore he learned at his mother’s knee and despised in college and forgot among his worldly cares is not only dazzling truth, but the merest corner of an unimaginable glory that opens depth upon depth into a deepest heaven.

Or is it the morality of Christianity that is said to be unscientific? That is the kind of argument we have not heard since the 1930’s, when the advocates of Eugenics were shamed into silence by the visible manifestations of the horrors they preached. Science fiction as a whole is certainly not wedded to the type of grotesque and infantile moral code advocated by people who excuse hedonism, cruelty, abortion, human experimentation, mass murder and other gross degradations of human dignity in the name of science.

Nor can morality be left out of science fiction altogether. All good science fiction stories have a moral mood and atmosphere, a metaphysical background as well as a counterfactual physics.

For example, HG Wells in FIRST MEN IN THE MOON took the assumption of Darwinism and applied it to the insectoid denizens of the Moon: they are bred and conditioned to their tasks and stored in a drugged stupor until needed. This is the first, and still one of the most chilling and fascinating portrayals of an inhuman hivelike society so popular in dystopian science fiction. Wells is an adroit enough writer to show both the good and bad side of the moon-sized termite mound, for his Selenites have neither war nor commercial competition, and are so shocked when they discover from Cavor that mankind indulges in these unimaginable evils, in order to quarantine the Earth, they kill him. The Grand Lunar never pays for this crime, nor is it clear that the sympathies of the author or reader are not meant to be with him.

The parallel scene in OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET has the Oyarsa of Mars command the Earthlings to return to Earth, a remarkably dangerous journey given that the planets are no longer in conjunction, and the superbeing programs (or ordains) the space vessel to evaporate in a flash of energy within ninety days, whether the men have reached ground or not. The superior being has power enough, the least of his servants could do so, to destroy any additional space vessels leaving the atmosphere of Earth. Ransom makes it out of the vessel after landing just in time, like Lot escaping Sodom as it burns.

In order to prevent Bedford from making any sequel voyages into space, HG Wells, in a fashion I can only describe as ghoulish, has a small boy discover the space sphere after Bedford lands on Earth and crawls away from it, and stepping innocently or mischievously inside, the nameless boy accidentally closes the antigravity shutters, and is thrown into space to die of starvation or strangulation, weeping and screaming, weightless as in an endless fall down a bottomless pit, with no body for his searching parents to discover. Bedford never tells the parents, or the police, the fate of the missing boy. The moral atmosphere thus portrayed is one of utterly appalling inhumanity, almost akin to a horror story: two men voyage to the Moon and one of them is captured, cross examined, and killed by bugs. The other returns to earth and looses his space machine when it accidentally kills a child. I submit that if this is a proper moral and metaphysical backdrop for a science fiction story, the awe and wonder and fundamentally positive view portrayed in Lewis’ writings are just as good a backdrop, and, for anyone aside from disaffected adolescents, considerably more edifying.

CHILDHOOD’S END is written as a rebuttal to Lewis, as if to prove that the scientific progress of the human race could lead to spiritual development. I do not propose that this was any conscious intent of Arthur C Clark: I merely point out that the two books treat with the same theme from opposite directions. In CHILDHOOD’S END space aliens of immense superiority, who just so happen to look like cartoon devils, arrive on earth, impose a benevolent tyranny to prevent wars and cruelty to animals, in hopes that the next generation of men will be a more evolved species, have psychic powers, be too intelligent for men to understand.

And so it proves: mankind withers under the psychologically inescapable burden of realizing that all religions are false and that their children are nonhuman; they cease to reproduce, and politely step aside into Darwinian extinction to allow the Homo Superiors elbow room. (Magneto would have been pleased with their graciousness.) The superchildren then dissolve the Earth into nothingness, and achieve a oneness with a Cosmic Overmind which is as near to the Gnostic myths of a return to the Pleorma as science fiction can imagine. The pure intellectuals, or, to be blunt, invisible angels into which the children of men evolve go flittering away among the stars and dance on the head of a pin. There is no doctrine of the resurrection of the body in Arthur C Clarke’s book.

Those who argue that the eldil and Oyarsa of CS Lewis are nothing but angels and archangels, and, as such, put his writing outside the scope of science fiction, I will only nod toward the writing of Olaf Stapledon, who has not angels but God Almighty as a character in his book STARMAKER, and toward the Organians of STAR TREK and the Cosmic Overmind of CHILDHOOD’S END, or countless other beings made of energy or pure thought who people the worlds of science fiction in countless swarms, to make that assertion absurd.

The whole point of Lewis’ depiction of the Eldil is to find a being of greater power than man, made of no substance he recognizes, which does not clearly fit into the category of either myth or science, categories Lewis in writings both fiction and nonfiction wonders may be arbitrary (or at least earthly rather than universal). Lewis treats with the angels in the same way science fiction authors treat anything: as a speculation. He wonders what the superior beings would look like if encountered in outer space, or, rather, in Deep Heaven.

In other words, I would turn the same argument on its head: the fact that in a science fiction story by CS Lewis he puts Angels on Mars no more disinherits the book from the classification of science fiction than numberless other authors putting Men on Mars.

In sum, CS Lewis is not merely a good science fiction writer, as his speculations and imaginations of voyages through space and life on other worlds show. He demonstrates a poetical command of the language, an ability to provoke hauntingly striking images and ideas, an ability to portray personality and humor, and he shows a concern for deeper themes than typical for the genre: and this makes him not merely a good craftsman at his craft, but great.

 

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