Exploring Space and Philosophy

As part of my ongoing quest to finish more partially-read series, I decided to tackle C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy.  I read Out of the Silent Planet upwards of eight years ago, I think I read part of Perelandra, and then I never finished.  Since the first one had gone blurry, I decided I’d better reread it, and go from there.

The story centers on Ransom, a scholar who wakes up from a kidnapping to find himself on a spaceship bound for Mars.  He eventually works out that the two men who captured him intend to hand him over as a sacrifice to the Martians.  When they land, Ransom succeeds in escaping his captors.  When he actually meets the people of Mars (or Malacandra, as they call it), he finds them kinder and wiser than he expected, while almost strangely innocent of evil and content with their lives.

While the plot sounds like a sci fi adventure (and it is), the trilogy is largely concerned with philosophy and theology.  Ransom learns that Malacandra is governed by a kind of spirit, the Oyarsa.  Earth is meant to have a guiding spirit as well, but ours turned evil long ago, giving rise to the host of problems on Earth that are unknown on Malacandra.

The second book, Perelandra, sends Ransom to Venus (which the natives call Perelandra).  Here we see a world where Adam and Eve haven’t left the Garden of Eden yet.  Ransom meets this world’s Eve, and engages in a struggle with a devil character who has arrived to tempt Eve to eat the apple–metaphorically speaking.

The third book, That Hideous Strength, moves the struggle between good and evil to Earth.  Ransom is still a significant character, but the book has an ensemble cast of characters who become mixed up with an Institute intent on reshaping society in a horrible fashion.

I enjoyed the first two books in the trilogy quite a bit, and then struggled with the third.  The first two remind me of Burroughs books. though with less action and more philosophy.  The main reason for that is the landscapes and the creatures.  Lewis describes the strange worlds of Mars and Venus extensively.  The surface of Mars is uninhabitable, and all life exists in deep chasms.  There are three co-existing intelligent species, all extremely unique in features and in culture.  Venus is almost entirely covered in liquid, and most “land” is actually floating islands which move with the waves, rising up in hills and dropping down into valleys and changing every moment.  I was fascinated by the worlds, and the philosophy was interesting, if a little lengthy at times.

The third book is set on Earth, so there isn’t a new landscape to explore.  More troublingly, the tone changed.  That Hideous Strength reminded me too much of Kafka in The Trial.  The reader and the characters frequently have no idea what’s going on, no one will give a straight answer to anything, and there’s a lot of stumbling about in confusion.  Many of the characters felt more like caricatures, somehow less human and relatable than the non-human characters of the first two books.  There were also bits of Ransom’s philosophy I didn’t agree with at all–let’s just say Lewis probably wasn’t a feminist.

The third book wasn’t all bad.  It was slow and confusing for the first two-thirds, but picked up and got clearer in the end.  There’s also a fascinating and (I thought) under-developed concept about the Pendragon, England’s guardian through time, and the waking of Merlin.

Overall, I’d have to say it was a great first two books, and then the third feels more distanced from the first two, and, for me, not nearly as good.  I know that’s not a universal opinion, though, so take it as a sign of my particular taste.

It was worth reading to the end of the series, though, and not only because it’s been niggling at me as unfinished business for over eight years!

Other reviews:
Palantir Blog
Tides and Turnings
Unabridged Chick
Tell me about yours!

4 thoughts on “Exploring Space and Philosophy

  1. Diane

    Lewis is known way more for his religious philosophy writing than as a sci fi writer. I wasn’t aware he wrote this trilogy until you reviewed it, though I think the third book might be better known than the other two, as a stand-alone, since it takes place on Earth.

  2. I feel pretty much the same about these books as you: the first two were good, the third less so.

    Random trivia: Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet after he and Tolkien decided that one of them should write about space travel and the other about time travel, and they flipped a coin to see who would do which (Tolkien’s time travel novel was never completed).

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