The Space Trilogy: A Five-Minute Guide
C.S. Lewis wrote more than Narnia, you know.
Over a decade before the publication of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in 1950, C.S. Lewis published his first major work of fiction: Out of the Silent Planet.
Like almost all of the British author's work, Silent Planet was heavily influenced by Lewis' mid-life conversion to Christianity. Following the escapades of the language-loving philologist Elwin Ransom, Silent Planet introduces a world where Earth is under the occupation of an invisible demonic army - a force Ransom learns about only after traveling on the world's first spaceship to the planet of Malacandra, AKA Mars. As one of the first major works in Christian science-fiction/fantasy, Silent Planet and its sequels Perelandra and That Hideous Strength paved the way for books such as The Chronicles of Narnia, Stephen Lawhead's Song of Albion, and Ted Dekker's Circle. That legacy alone would make The Space Trilogy an intriguing read. Yet the trilogy also stands out as an example of a science-fiction series that began before and then continued throughout the greatest crisis of the 20th century: The Second World War.
So if you're looking to expand your science-fiction resume but need a little guidance, you've come to the right place.
The Duty of the Humanities
In a move that's perhaps a bit of a pat-on-the-back for a professor of literature like Lewis, the main hero of The Space Trilogy is not a typical science-fiction protagonist. Instead, Elwin Ransom is a professor of language, and a sincere believer in objective truth and morality. A middle-aged scholar in a relatively obscure field, Ransom stands in sharp contrast with the trilogy's two main villains: Dr. Weston and Mr. Devine, a world-renowned scientist and a powerful business magnate respectively.
While a standoff between these figures might seem a bit odd today, within the context of Lewis' time it makes a great deal of sense. In 1938, with advances in biology, psychology, and chemistry in full-swing, many believed that science would soon solve the greatest problems of humanity. By this time, both the Jews and Roma were enduring heavy persecution in Nazi Germany. Yet one need not look to Hitler's regime to find the inspiration for Lewis' villains. The United States, still wallowing in the sins of the Jim Crow era, was thoroughly engrossed in its favorite new evil in 1938: Eugenics. A decades-old field well-respected in the scientific community, eugenics targeted Black American communities as well as criminal populations with practices such as forced sterilization and "shock" therapy. We can hear a deep-seated dread in how Lewis places the words of prominent Anglospheric scientists in his villains' mouths:
"'The boy was ideal, said Weston sulkily, 'incapable of serving humanity and only too likely to propagate idiocy. He was the sort of boy who in a civilized community would be automatically handed over to a state laboratory for experimental purposes.'"
Yet as much as Silent Planet and its sequels distrust the developments of 20th century science, the books do not appear to be primarily critiques of science itself. Instead, the texts form a call to lovers of the humanities to embrace their responsibility to put a stop to the excesses of science. New advances in knowledge and technology can teach us how to do a thing, Lewis points out, but they cannot teach us whether we should do a thing. Only the humanities - those disciplines which study what it means to be human - can do that.
The Duty of the Individual
In The Space Trilogy, the defining moment of each text almost always comes down to the choices of an individual. Outnumbered and often alone, Lewis' heroes must decide to speak up, speak out, and at times put their lives on the line in physical conflict against the overwhelming majority. Remembering again the 20th century context of these stories, this element is truly remarkable. On both "sides" of World War II, the call of the nation-states was to group identity, not individuality. Consider even the speeches of Churchill: One rarely finds an encouragement from the prime-minister to listen to one's own conscience. By contrast, The Space Trilogy hinges upon the inner movements of conscience in the persons of ordinary women and men.
Self-sacrifice, the novel points out, is the ultimate height of human achievement. Yet sacrifice does not always look the same. In Perelandra, for instance, one character learns that his self-sacrifice demands actually physically opposing the forces of evil in combat, rather than standing piously on the sidelines. If it is a mistake to believe all sacrifice need to be bodily sacrifices, Perelandra argues, it is equally mistaken to believe sacrificing one's own life will never be required in the battle against evil.
While brief and sometimes clumsy, The Space Trilogy books nonetheless challenge us still today to grapple with questions of right and wrong amidst a world less interested in the humanities than ever before. They are stories of duty, stories of responsibility, and stories of sacrifice. And while many will disagree with their conclusions, none will hear their questions and remain unchanged.
And that's the five-minute guide to The Space Trilogy.