The Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
(Quality Paperback Book Club, 1997, 724 pages)
As a fan of C. S. Lewis, I’ve been intending to read this trilogy for a long time. In fact, I’d read so much about these novels that I thought I already had a sense of the stories and themes before I actually started reading them. However, the universe that Lewis imagines as Ransom, a philologist and unlikely explorer of deep space, journeys to Malacandra (Mars) and Perelandra (Venus) defies easy characterization or summary. These are science fiction stories which use the devices of spaceships, inhabited foreign planets, and scientific attempts at human immortality. In fact, Lewis notes that the mode of the novels, if not the message, is heavily indebted to H. G. Wells. However, they rely as much or more on classical and medieval cosmology for the structure of the universe.
Each novel has a very distinct atmosphere. By sending Ransom to these strange planets and following him as he begins to adjust and become familiar with the landscapes and the inhabitants, Lewis gives us the opportunity to pull back and view the Earth and its place within the universe in a new and unnerving way. Ransom finds that these planets are ruled over by eldil, angelic creatures not immediately perceptible to human eyes, who can communicate with one another. He comes to discover that within the broader universe, Earth has become known as “the silent planet,” because our planet’s eldil has become “bent” and rebelled against the divine figure of Maleldil. While the rest of the planetary intelligences communicate amongst each other and as their planet’s populations, made up of various kinds of creatures, live in a state of peaceful flourishing, Earth has descended into war, strife, and interplanetary seclusion. As the novels progress, Ransom realizes his role in redeeming the Earth and restoring the planet with greater and greater clarity.
While occupying the genre of science fiction, these novels are really imaginative depictions of the Christian themes of creation, fall, and redemption. Lewis pits a scientifically reductionist view of the world against a view which is basically Christian, as well as being informed by classical metaphysics. The first two novels are particularly strong as Lewis first imagines, in Out of the Silent Planet, what an unfallen yet slowly dying world might look like. Next, in Perelandra, he depicts a planet whose inhabitants are newly created and who must mature as they encounter their first temptation toward evil. That Hideous Strength is a drastically different kind of book. The action plays out entirely on Earth as the spiritual entities encountered and discussed in the previous novels battle over the destiny of the planet. The final book combines an Orwellian plot with Arthurian mythology, and the combination doesn’t make for as successful a novel as the previous two. However, taken as the whole, the trilogy creates a world that is beautiful, tragic, and absolutely engrossing.