This time of year, I hear of many people’s plans to fly south for a period during the winter. In Canada, we call these people “snow birds.” Some squeeze a week-long trip to Mexico into their busy plans. Others spend half the year in Palm Springs or Arizona. As for me, over the past month, listening to C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy audiobooks has felt like a bit of a virtual vacation. These books captured my imagination and offered new perspectives in a way that I could compare to my experience of international travel.
To briefly summarize, without spoiling: the books take place on Mars, Venus, and Earth – in that order. Their main protagonist is Dr. Ransom, who is originally kidnapped by two academic colleagues and taken to Mars in their spaceship, against his will. Once there, he becomes acquainted with the intelligent species on the planet – both organic and angelic. It is these angelic beings who then bring him to Venus in the second novel, where he is given an important task. In the third novel, Dr. Ransom holds more of a background role, working behind the scenes of the other characters.
Though the trilogy takes place in sequence, in the same universe, with some of the same characters, the novels are also strikingly different from each other. Personally, I likened the first two to an exotic vacation, from which I felt sorry to return. While following Dr. Ransom’s travels on Mars and Venus, I found myself gaining new perspectives of my own world – just as I have gained insight about my own culture while immersing myself in other cultures on Earth. In contrast, the post-war English setting of the third book was a more specific context that did not easily connect with my own. Rather, this book had more to offer the reader in terms of its plot and characters.
On Mars, (Out of the Silent Planet) Lewis depicts an old world that had never fallen into sin: different intelligent species coexisted in a complimentary fashion, in trusting obedience to their angelic overseer. While their appearance, habitat and language awakened my imagination, it was their culture that I found most striking: they were content. They felt no need to increase their population, amass literature, or develop technology; they embraced the seasons of life, and trusted in divine providence.
On Venus, (Perelandra) Lewis depicts a newly created world, where its first woman inhabitant is completely innocent and ignorant. She lives completely in the moment, without perspective of time or space. Her home is a floating island that is always changing form, and her food grows bountifully on trees. The food satisfies, leaving no desire to gorge oneself; the land moves, offering no way to store possessions. When she encounters an evil tempter, Dr. Ransom realizes his purpose in being sent – to intervene on her behalf. While he struggles with the thought that his circumstances are predestined, he realizes that he still holds the freedom to choose his course; God’s will can take another route, if necessary. After considerable deliberation, he breaks out of his passive resignation, opting for physical intervention in place of intellectual argument. While doing so, he reflects on the proper application of hatred and the effect of evil on a person.
On Earth, (That Hideous Strength), Lewis chooses quite an un-exotic setting: a college town in post-war England. But, while this book lacks the exotic setting of its prequels, it offers much deeper characters and a more complicated plot. In fact, it is as long as the first two books, combined. At the outset, Lewis informs his readers that he is presenting his argument from The Abolition of Man in the form of a story: when academics abandon truth, all hell breaks loose. The The story’s conflict is instigated by the N.I.C.E., a government-sponsored research organization that plans to develop a new race of humans who can live eternally in a mechanized-disembodied state. They are opposed by Dr. Ransom and his companions, aided by a combination of mythological forces from the previous books as well as England’s past. The main two characters are a young couple who must choose a side, while working through the ordinary struggles of career and marriage.
As one might expect of Lewis, offers a “moral to the story” that was contemporary to his historical context. Having extensively studied the historical period in which these books were written, I cannot help but see connections between these novels and the events in England during the time of their writing. The first book was published in 1938, shortly before the imperialistic powers of the world would plunge headlong into World War II. This human vice, clearly depicted in the novel’s main antagonist, Dr. Weston, is sharply contrasted with the contentment of the Martian races. The second book was published in the midst of World War II, as Britain literally fought for its survival against the Nazi regime. An apologetic for their efforts can be found in Dr. Ransom’s own intervention against evil on Venus. The third book was published at the end of the Second World War – as the ugly effects of the Holocaust and Nazi plans to create a “master race” were being uncovered. Interestingly, the antagonists in the third novel are also trying to manipulate the evolution of the human race.
Overall, the books are imaginative without being technical, and intentionally philosophical without being religious. One might be disappointed if they approached this trilogy with hopes for “hard science fiction,” or “religious dogma.” Rather, like Narnia, these fictional works serve as allegories that carry ethical considerations. Similar to Lewis’s area of study, they might fit best into the category of mythology. By approaching the books with these expectations, I hope that you can enjoy them for what they are!
While originally found in the form of 24 CDs, the 30 hours of audio are now downloadable on Christianaudio.com