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While not as well known as his Narnia books, Lewis’s “Space Trilogy” contained interesting messages about space exploration years before the Space Age began.

C.S. Lewis and his Space Trilogy, then and now

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“He was a man obsessed with the idea which is at this moment circulating all over our planet in obscure works of ‘scientifiction,’ in little Interplanetary Societies and Rocketry Clubs, and between the covers of monstrous magazines, ignored or mocked by the intellectuals, but ready, if ever the power is put into its hands, to open a new chapter of misery for the universe.”
Perelandra, C.S. Lewis

A story that begins with the hero committing an act of criminal trespass and ends with a multi-species festival of sexuality is not, at least superficially, a work that can be described as a Christian morality tale. It is also hard to reconcile orthodox Judeo-Christian monotheistic doctrine with the idea that the classic pagan gods like Venus and Mars were in some way angels of the Lord. Yet C.S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, managed to bring it off, he even mixed in a bit of the Arthurian matter of Britain and a reference to his friend JRR Tolkein’s mythic fiction. Published between 1938 and 1944 the three books that make up the story of Arthur Ransom are not his best know works, but after nearly half a century they are still well worth reading.

Lewis was opposed to space exploration. His attitude seems to have originated due to one of his students who strongly believed in space travel and was a member of the British Interplanetary Society.

The first one, Out of the Silent Planet, tells how Ransom, a Cambridge don on holiday, is kidnapped by the physicist Weston and his partner Devine, a sleazy businessman, and taken to Mars, supposedly as a human sacrifice. Once on Mars be escapes, hides in a Martian village, and learns to speak the local language. He learns that each planet has its own tutelary spirit—essentially an angel or archangel—called an Oyarsa, who rules under the authority of God. Earth, unfortunately, is the central battleground between good and evil and is ruled by a fallen angel, a dark Oyarsa. Ransom explains, “Our poor Earth turns out to be a kind of Ypres Salient in the Universe,” referring to an exceptionally bloody battle in World War I.

Perelandra, the name Lewis gives to Venus, is also the title of the second book in the series. Retelling the story of Adam and Eve, it is the most explicitly biblical of the three. Weston plays the role of the serpent sent to tempt the woman who is to become the mother of the world into rejecting God’s will. Ransom is sent by the Oyarsa to challenge the evil one and to save Venus from the fate of Earth.

The identification of angels with planets, and thus with the pagan gods for which they were named, is proof that Lewis was no puritan. He was the product of a typical English (though born in Northern Ireland, he was culturally a complete Englishman) education, dominated by the languages and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. He would have found it hard to look upon Olympian gods as simple abominations. Trying to reconcile his Christian faith with his intellectual training he once wrote, “Monotheism should not be regarded as the rival of polytheism, but rather as its maturity.” The Oyarsa in these novels do not ever pretend to a divine status, they explicitly acknowledge their subordination to Maledil, the Christian God.

On Mars Ransom imagines that “the distinction between history and mythology might be itself meaningless outside the Earth.” Astrology, the idea that the movements of celestial bodies had a direct influence on human destiny, was a major part of European and indeed worldwide intellectual life before the Enlightenment relegated it to the realm of the absurd. Yet once in space Lewis’s hero “found it night by night more difficult to disbelieve in the old astrology: almost he felt, wholly he imagined ‘sweet influence’ pouring in or even stabbing his surrendered body.”

Lewis spent most of his life as a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge. During World War II he became famous for his radio broadcasts promoting his robust, good-humored, and broadly orthodox vision of “Mere Christianity”. His studies and his religion were always intimately connected. The European literature of those times was throughly Christian and his ability to empathize with the men and women who wrote it age gave his scholarship and his fiction a rare and occasionally beautiful, distance from the “modernity” of the thirties forties and fifties.

Throughout the war he remained at Oxford, teaching lecturing and writing, in the shadow of the greatest and bloodiest war the world had ever seen. The Space trilogy, especially the final two books are literary product of their time. Similar in some ways to Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited or Orwell’s Animal Farm. These works exude a sense of tragic loss and political disillusionment.

Lewis’s rejection of space travel may have been based more on emotion than on ethics or religion.

After Perelandra he wrote what is, for our time, the most relevant book of the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, which has little to do with space travel, and everything to do with the conflict between good and evil. It is perhaps the most subtle of the stories. It combines a sordid tale of intra-university politics, Arthurian legend, and spiritual combat. Set in a small British University town, based loosely on Durham, in the North of England, one of the colleges finds itself seduced and then engulfed by the newly established National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E). This organization is secretly controlled by a pair of initiates, who plan to revive the wizard Merlin from his long, enchanted slumber and to use his powers for their own malevolent purposes. To find him they need the services of a ‘seer’; Jane Studdock, the wife of Mark Studdock, a shallow young sociologist. Mark is entrapped by promises of power, money, and above all membership in the secret, elite clique that controls the N.I.C.E. Ransom leads a small eccentric company of friends who, with the aid of the Oyarsa, take on and defeat them.

Lewis and space exploration

Lewis was opposed to space exploration. He saw it more as a substitute for religion and, for some people today, it is. Someone even invented a “space seder” of sorts where one of the questions asked is “What is the significance of DNA?” and where they read from the text of the Apollo 11 lunar landing transmissions ending with the words “The Eagle Has Landed”. Yet, one has to wonder what Lewis would have made of the fact that, soon after touchdown, Buzz Aldrin gave himself communion?

His attitude seems to have originated due to one of his students who strongly believed in space travel and was a member of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS). His ideas mirrored those of the Russian visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who wrote in 1911, “In all likelihood, the better part of humanity will never perish but will move from sun to sun as each one dies out in succession.” Certainly that was the message in Olaf Stapleton’s book The Last and First Men, which fascinated and horrified Lewis.

This horror was reflected in the speech that Weston gives to the Martians at the climax of the first book. He justifies his desire to conquer their world, saying, “Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower… I am prepared without flinching to plant the flag of man on the soil of Malacandra (Mars): to march step by step superseding where necessary the lower forms of life that we find, claiming planet after planet, system after system, till our posterity—whatever strange and as yet unguessed mentality they have assumed—dwell in the universe wherever the universe is habitable.” Give or take a definition of what constitutes a lower form of life, this constitutes a fair definition of what the advocates of space colonization felt in the 1930s. Given today’s state of knowledge, they mostly confine their aspirations to the Solar System.

In a solar system that is manifestly empty of complex life, and may indeed lack any sort of life, what would have been his objections? He many very well have still been against the whole thing on the basis that, “We have enough problems here on Earth.”

In a 1946 article in Space Chronicles, a publication of the BIS, Arthur C. Clarke claimed that Lewis’s “ideas had been culled from a perusal of the papers ‘Staggering Stories.’” Actually, the Oxford Don had always been quite open about his distaste for what he called “scientifiction”. The evidence shows that he was motivated to write the Space Trilogy after reading Stapleton. One also cannot ignore the echos of British imperial rhetoric in Weston’s speech. Lewis’s rejection of space travel may have been based more on emotion than on ethics or religion. He may have recognized this when he wrote of Clarke’s Prelude to Space, “I am so completely out of sympathy with the projects they anticipate that I am incapable of criticizing them as stories.”

Today building a “spacefaring civilization” is closer than ever. In March 2006 George W. Bush’s science advisor, John Marburger, spoke of bringing the solar system into “humanity’s economic sphere of influence.” There is every reason to believe that by the end of the 21st century a number of industries, from tourism to mining, energy, and specialized manufacturing, will thrive outside the Earth’s atmosphere. There is equally no reason to think that amongst the people who live and work off the Earth there will not be a proportion of them who will be men and women of faith.

From his Christian point of view, Lewis rejected the idea of fallen man, the inherently sinful human race, going out beyond our planet to conquer other intelligent species. He put his loyalty to God ahead of his loyalty to Man. However, in a solar system that is manifestly empty of complex life, and may indeed lack any sort of life, what would have been his objections? He many very well have still been against the whole thing on the basis that, “We have enough problems here on Earth.” Since he never believed that, in the absence of God, things could be fixed on this planet, was there any logical reason to stop space travel, or any other human activity, while waiting for the Messiah?

If he had lived until Christmas 1968 he might have been moved by the sights and sounds of three astronauts reading from the Book of Genesis as they circled the Moon. “We are approaching lunar sunrise and, for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send to you: ‘in the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth.’” And as they ended their transmission, “And from the crew of Apollo 8 we close with good night, good luck, Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”