Planetary Peregrination III- Reviewing C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength

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The solar eclipse provided a unifying effect on the world, albeit momentarily, when people stood outside to witness the splendor of the moon covering the sun. 2017 seems to be the year of space: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 premiered in May, Star Trek: Discovery will launch in September on CBS, and finally Star Wars: Episode VII The Last Jedi comes to theaters in December. Science fiction fans and astronomers get to experience a solar-system’s worth of story-lines to satisfy their cosmic cranial cravings!

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Traveling the across the imaginative galaxies, I have been currently reading Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy comics. The subject of space travel ignites a creative fire in my mind. Peculiar surroundings and new literary beings I encounter through the medium of science fiction point toward a higher reality than the drudgery I face on a daily basis. Today, I am going to provide an analysis and my opinion on the final novel of C.S. Lewis’ epic Space Trilogy—That Hideous Strength. Having read the first two books multiple times and the setting occurring on other planets, I found it fairly easy to compose reviews.  Please bear with me as I gather “strength” to complete my thoughts on this final installment of Lewis’ SF series.

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While the events Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra occur largely on the Mars and Venus respectively, That Hideous Strength’s setting is grounded to Earth. Along with the change in scenery, the primary character of the Space Trilogy—Dr. Elwin Ransom—was absent for a sizeable chunk of this third novel. Lewis starts the book focusing on a cast of individuals, an academic Mark Studdock, his wife Jane, and Lord Feverstone, director of National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments [N.I.C.E]. N.I.C.E. is an institution that seeks to implement social control for individuals. Unaware of the events of the previous two books, Jane begins to receive visions in her sleep. Initially, she is transported to St. Anne’s hospital because the dreams are believed to be psychologically, not divinely inspired.

Persistence of Jane’s visions causes her and Mark’s marriage to strain. Dr. Elwin Ransom finally makes his appearance in chapter seven. The prophetic revelations Jane experienced Ransom tells the reader were actually a warning about an upcoming war. Ransom details the events of Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra to Jane. He explains that reality is not limited to the physical realm. Ransom serves as the king [Pendragon] of the legendary kingdom of King Arthur. In keeping with the mythology of the first two books, Lewis reveals that Lord Feverstone is actually Richard Devine- foe to Ransom in Out of the Silent Planet. Feverstone is determined to really be working on behalf of the fallen Oyarsa [demons/fallen angels] who seek to exploit human greed and selfishness with and end game of total annihilation of humanity.

Lewis incorporates Christian elements into That Hideous Strength maintaining the theological tracks he built earlier in the Space Trilogy. He juxtaposes the scientific materialistic philosophy of N.I.C.E. against the traditional Christian worldview that is embodied by the Random-led camp at St. Anne’s. Over the mode of fiction, Lewis shows that while humanity naturally have a selfish tendency, our sinfulness cannot be overcome except through the aid of God. The agenda of the fallen angels [Lewis calls them eldila] under the guise of nicety and scientific advancement believed that true progress could only occur if the flesh of humanity was destroyed.

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I discovered that the meaning of the title– That Hideous Strength—is a reference to the Tower of Babel. A new Tower of Babel, the building that housed N.I.C.E represented humanity’s attempt to control nature and unify through man-made efforts alone. Genesis 11:4 tells us of the pride of a united humanity, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky,* and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.” Unification under a common purpose breeds the potential for good, but also may lead to potential for evil. In the ninth chapter Elwin Ransom reflects on the possibility of his enemies [the fallen angels] on the verge of achieving artificial resurrection of the body [i.e. artificial immortality], “Despair of objective truth had been increasingly insinuated into the scientists; indifference to it, and a concentration upon mere power, had been the result” (p. 200)  We only need to look back last century on what concentration of power in the “greater good” looks like under a Hitler or a Stalin.

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Honestly, I would give That Hideous Strength 3.5 out of 5 stars. Initially, I found the shift in plot and scenery to be laborious to follow. This book was disconnected from Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. Along with the new set of characters, the late arrival of Dr. Ransom left me confused. After reading the book a second time, I gained a new found respect for Lewis’ contribution to science fiction and the completion of his Space Trilogy. The Christians become more evident the second time around- especially the theme of the New Tower of Babel. Hidden in the final pages of That Hideous Strength is a subtle, yet curious allusion to Middle Earth. According to Bradley Birzer in The Challenge: How C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy Came into Being“Lewis had borrowed significantly from Tolkien’s Atlantean world of Númenor. Númenor, corrupted as “Numinor,” appears nine times in That Hideous Strength as well as in one of Lewis’s poems, “The End of the Wine”.

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C.S. Lewis was also a contemporary and close friend to the Lord of the Rings’ creator J.R.R. Tolkien. May it be possible that The Hobbit, Silmarillion, and Lord of the Rings represented ancient history while the events of Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandra, and That Hideous Strength reflect the fictional universe’s modern timeline? This Easter egg may be in reality me simply searching for a link between my two favorite fantasy writers, but I still found it to be intriguing.

Despite the awkward handoff between Perelendra and That Hideous Strength, I still recommend reading the final installment of the Space Trilogy. Lewis, a largely non-fiction writer, went on a limb to delve into the realm of science fiction. This work is a necessity for any collector of science fiction or fan to C.S. Lewis!