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Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Space Trilogy: Outstanding in Obscurity

"Everybody and their dog knows about Narnia and has probably read it. They also probably know about the likes of Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters. But if you ask them whether they realized that C. S. Lewis wrote science fiction, they'll look at you like you're from another planet."

This quote from TVTropes.org's page on C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy is a fitting description of one of that great author's more obscure works. The Space Trilogy is one of those book series that you would hardly believe existed, and if you did, you might scoff at. As is par for the course in Lewis' writings, it is a Christian allegory, blending the genres of science fiction and fantasy, resulting in a throwback to the genre of Planetary Romance. (I didn't even know that such a genre existed until after I began researching for this article). The result? A pretty fine set of literature.

The Space Trilogy, also known as The Cosmic Trilogy, consists of three books written between 1938 and 1945, detailing the misadventures of Dr. Elwin Ransom. A Cambridge philologist, Ransom begins the series in Out of the Silent Planet while on a walking tour of northern England, when he becomes entangled in a interstellar voyage after being kidnapped by sinister scientists Dick Devine and Professor Weston. The long and short of it is that he winds up on Mars, where he meets the friendly inhabitants and goes on an adventure. The second book, Perelandra, describes Ransom's voyage to Venus (the titular location, but in the constructed language of Old Solar), where he must ward off a demonically possessed Weston from corrupting this planet's version of Eve. The third and final book, That Hideous Strength, in addition to being longer than the previous two books, is also of an entirely different genre. Subtitled "A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups", this third book focuses on Mark Studdock and his wife Jane as they experience both sides of a battle between the literally diabolical N.I.C.E. and Ransom's seemingly passive partisans, respectively. Dick Devine returns in this book in a less prominent but still villainous role, now styled Lord Feverstone. Ransom's role is also less magnified, though he is the de facto leader of the good guys in this book.

Like I said, The Space Trilogy begins as a throwback to old school Planetary Romance and ends as a modernized fantasy story. Though my experience with science fiction with a Christian philosophy has been limited and sordid, C.S. Lewis, through his unique genre-blending and trope-defying ways, manages to pen a genuinely good series of books. The books originated when he was chatting with his good friend (and merciless critic} J.R.R. Tolkien. Noting the sharp decline of science fiction literature in their day, they made a sort of bet: Tolkien would write a time travel story, and Lewis would write a space travel story, which eventually became The Space Trilogy. Tolkien, the cad, never held up on his end of the bargain, apart from some half-finished scrap in The Lost Road and Other Writings or some such place.

To get to the point, what makes The Space Trilogy unique is demonstrated in two parts. First, it is decidedly more adult. For one thing, here's harsher swearing than you'll ever find in The Chronicles of Narnia, and the themes and theological allegories are much more overlapping and direct, though not more eloquently expressed, than Narnia ever was. Second, it is a very intelligent science fiction series, a description which I'm sure hasn't been applied to a story of that genre since Isaac Asimov was around. Just look at half-baked tripe like Across the Universe and you'll see what I mean. Then again, perhaps that's a little unfair, as I haven't read Ender's Game yet. However, I have read a lot of Star Wars books, and I know that nearly all of them were barely passable, and few were particularly memorable, that is, if they even count as sci-fi at all. The Space Trilogy, on the other hand, plays with the genre in Lewis' unique style, discussing standard sci-fi tropes such as Planet of Hats and Single Biome Planet. It's stuff like that that makes me admire this series to no end.

If for no other reason, C.S. Lewis writing a science fiction series is appealing because it gives us that esteemed author's direct insight into various philosophies typically and popularly aligned with science today, such as transcendentalism, humanism, and materialism. To say the least, Lewis had a very dim view of all of these ideologies, and deconstructed them thoroughly in The Space Trilogy, particularly in the first and third books. In Out of the Silent Planet, my personal favorite of the three, Lewis takes the character of Weston, a staunch humanist who wants to wipe out the native Hrossa and their neighbors to make room for humanity, and shows us a fundamentally flawed worldview. Lewis does this partially in the form of a hilarious sequence in which Ransom attempts to translate a speech given by Weston to the ruler of Malacandra (that is, Mars) into Old Solar. The result, due to being lost in translation, is so funny that I invite the reader to go over to Out of the Silent Planet's Wikipedia page and see its entry on Weston's speech.

Perelandra is something of the odd man out in The Space Trilogy. In between the whimsical, leisurely adventure story of Out of the Silent Planet and the hard-hitting, philosophical commentary of That Hideous Strength, we have a story which is largely a theological treatise. This treatise is in turn sandwiched in between the old Planetary Romance stuff and your not-so-standard epic battle between good and evil. In truth, I personally did not enjoy reading Perelandra as much as I did Out of the Silent Planet or even That Hideous Strength, but interestingly enough, it was Lewis' favorite thing to have written. (His least favorite was The Screwtape Letters, but that's another post.) A lot of it is complicated theological musing, and while that's all well in good in some cases, here the allegory was a bit too on the nose. This seems odd, as C.S. Lewis is the master of allegory, but even the best authors slip sometimes. Perelandra may be a bit more complicated than the others, but it is no less beautiful.

If Lewis attacked humanistic materialism in Out of the Silent Planet, he declared war on transcendentalism and its ilk in That Hideous Strength. The primary antagonists of this book, the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (the N.I.C.E.), is actually a front for demonic activity. Its members outside of the inner circle which Mark Studdock so desperately yearns for, however, are fringe scientists who range from dupes like Dr. Filostrato to Horace Jules, a dimwitted populist who in reality knows little about science. Interestingly, Wikipedia describes him as a pastiche of H.G. Wells, who apparently advocated for the active persecution of all religions in his book The Shape of Things to Come. Lewis' disdain for the elevation of science, pseudo or otherwise, in conjunction with the aforementioned philosophies, above faith is vividly and expertly demonstrated. Above all, however, these books possess wit as well as wisdom, the distinguishing hallmark of all of Lewis' works.
 
I was Facebook chatting with my dear friend Caleb yesterday, and we were discussing a petition on Change.org to get the Lewis estate to get on the road to making a film series about The Space Trilogy.  While I doubt that this petition will get much of anything done (I signed it anyway), it's still a cool idea. If The Space Trilogy were made as film series, we'd need producers and writers who loved the books as much as fans like Caleb and I do, plus a director who would be willing to honor the source material. As the old cliche goes (courtesy of the New  York Film Academy website), you can make a bad movie with a good screenplay, but you can't make a good movie with a bad screenplay. Who would direct? I honestly don't know. I'm not as big of a movie buff as Caleb, and even he doesn't know for sure. He suggested J.J. Abrams, but that's kind of a long shot. I do know, however, who I wouldn't want directing a Space Trilogy movie series. My nightmare director is M. Night Shyamalan. With Tim Burton as producer. I hope I don't give anybody bad dreams. I could, however, settle for a radio drama adaptation by Focus on the Family. They did outstandingly with Narnia and Screwtape. In the meantime, however, The Space Trilogy truly remains outstanding in obscurity.

Who do you readers think would make a good director for The Space Trilogy film series? Does that Change.org petition have a snowball's chance in Hades? If you've read The Space Trilogy, which of the books is your favorite? Leave a comment and let me know!

Image courtesy of narniafans.com