By Dave Dentel
Few works illustrate the power of fantastic stories for exploring deep, meaningful, yet hard-to-pin-down ideas better than the space trilogy by C.S. Lewis.
Not that the novels are easy to define. They’re usually described as science fiction, a label that works if you consider that the first two involve a human traveling to Earth’s nearest planetary neighbors and interacting with the creatures he encounters there.
But the stories are not necessarily scientific; Lewis isn’t really interested in detailing the kind of life forms astronauts would be likely to discover on Mars and Venus.
Instead the noted Christian apologist uses these books to examine things much weightier than escape velocities, thrust-to-mass ratios, or even biological adaptation. In writing about alien worlds, Lewis moves the reader beyond the mundane to help him (or her) to consider supremely profound issues such as humanity’s relationship to our creator or the nature of evil.
Inspiring New Work
It’s a neat literary trick, though not easy to pull off. Lewis employs symbolism, of course, but thankfully doesn’t lapse into allegory—a genre which too often reads like a litany of tired puns.
And his fantasies remain anchored enough in the known universe to let readers focus on the underlying theme instead of having to unravel a convoluted mythos or decipher copious technobabble. (Sorry, Star Wars and Star Trek!)
It’s the kind of balance I try to achieve in my new volume of suspense stories, This Do in Remembrance.
Though all the tales in my anthology take place here on Earth, they venture just far enough into a stylized realm that readers should have little trouble seeing past the narrative and into the really mindful stuff. Things like war, love, identity—and the ethics of losing football games on purpose.
They’re also fun to read. Like Lewis’s novels, my stories feature protagonists who face challenges meant to provoke sympathy and understanding. Perhaps that’s why I find the space trilogy so profound.
Outer Space, Inner Peace
Out of the Silent Planet, for example, begins as an abduction story when the hero is captured and flown to Mars. But upon leaving Earth’s atmosphere, Ransom (the central character in all three books) is surprised to learn that space is not what he anticipated.
Instead of being void and cold, it is filled with the presence of God. Even the creatures on Mars commune directly with their creator. This shows Ransom that what humans on Earth assume is the norm—spiritual darkness and alienation from a Heavenly Father—is really an aberration.
Nature of Evil
The next book, Perelandra, continues exploring how nature becomes corrupted as Ransom visits Venus just when the pristine world’s inhabitants risk succumbing to original sin. Lewis uses this tableau to examine innocence and free will. He also shows how evil, though utterly destructive, evokes no awe and possesses no grandeur. It is simply puerile.
That Hideous Strength, the final novel, returns Ransom to Earth when a new scientific undertaking not only fails to deliver the promised progress, but instead threatens annihilation. Though a dark story, it provides an effective warning—that human knowledge stripped of its moral underpinnings is perhaps the most dangerous thing we face.
But never fear. This is a story with an ending that is better than we deserve.