Science fiction and conservatism may seem strange bedfellows. Think, for instance, of one of science fiction’s most famous writers, H. G. Wells. The author was irreligious, progressive, and arguably a utopian, all dreaded ideas for any conservative. In his writings, Wells portrayed the possibility and power of progress, and while he had a clear appreciation for the compassion preached by Christianity, his books certainly opened many young minds to agnosticism and atheism. And yet, even in Wells’ works there is much to feed the imagination and to instill wonder, necessary ingredients of any healthy conservatism.
But is that enough? As a child, I was fascinated by science fiction. Tales of other planets and strange ways of life enthralled me. But along with these beautiful images came ideals of progress, ideals to which I fell prey. Until college when I encountered the works of figures like Aristotle, Edmund Burke, and Russell Kirk, I was a fairly committed liberal (albeit one who opposed abortion). I wonder from time to time how the science fiction I devoured as a child formed (or malformed) my imagination. Did it instill the liberal impulse to trust in ‘progress’ and conceive of human nature as infinitely malleable, moving from planet to planet and substantially changing with its conditions? Or did it plant in me the conservative seeds of wonder that my later education would nurture?
These and similar questions motivated the great 20th century Christian writer C.S. Lewis to compose his “Ransom novels” or “Cosmic Trilogy,” which serve as an example of science fiction that takes the best that the genre has to offer without falling prey to the siren song of scientism or progressivism. This month, I consider the first two works in the series, and next month I will look at the trilogy’s final novel.
The deadness of space and the wonder of place
Like me, C.S. Lewis loved science fiction as a young man. After his conversion to Christianity, though, he came to recognize that many of the tales he had enjoyed were motivated by atheistic, scientistic, and progressivist ideas. In a 1937 conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis and his friend each expressed their disappointment with much contemporary literature, particularly science fiction. In response, they agreed they would each write a science fiction tale. While Tolkien’s The Lost Road remained unfinished until his death, Lewis’ effort resulted first in 1938’s Out of the Silent Planet, then came 1943’s Perelandra, and finally 1945’s That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups.
The first two novels follow the interstellar travels of the philologist Elwin Ransom. On his first trip (detailed in Out of the Silent Planet), Ransom is an unwilling passenger, kidnapped by two men, the greedy Dick Devine and the scientistic Dr. Weston on their way to Mars (or, as the native Martians call it, “Malacandra”). On the planet, Ransom escapes his kidnappers, and he comes to know the three rational species on the planet, learning their common language and taking part in their cultural activities. Ransom, unlike Devine and Weston, is able to love the beauty of this strange world and, as a Christian, see in its creatures a reflection of the Creator.
This point marks a crucial aspect of the novel and is worth dwelling on. Ransom’s experience of interstellar travel is deeply informed by his faith. Where Devine and Weston see only the opportunity for economic and scientific exploitation, Ransom sees a new world. Indeed, this division between the modern view of ‘space’ and the ancient view of the ‘cosmos’ becomes apparent even before the trio land on Malacandra. While hurtling from the Earth to Mars, Ransom is surprised to discover that he is traveling, not through an empty void, but through a fecund source of beauty and meaning. As Lewis writes,
The very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean all the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he now saw that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name.
I want to unpack this idea. Often, we don’t think very much about the language we use. A fundamental component of Language is that of communicating ideas, and so long as a given word or sentence gets the idea across, why quibble about the particular word or the structure of the sentence? Isn’t this just pedantry?
For Lewis, this is a naive view. Sure, some words are perfectly equivalent in many instances (e.g., I can say I have “a couple” of eyes or “two” without much difference), but there are times when words carry more baggage than we explicitly recognize. “Space” is one of these words. When I ask you to imagine space, what do you imagine? Perhaps blackness? Emptiness? Or, if you want to be a bit more positive, a grid on which things can move, like a Cartesian coordinate system?
This way of imagining space, though it can be quite useful for solving many mathematical problems, implicitly renders the created cosmos a black void. And this emptiness has the tendency to creep beyond our science fiction. In time, we begin to imagine the world as a sort of empty space that man fills with his inventions. Lost is the idea of the particular beauty and power of each individual nation, city, and village, the genius loci. Instead, the earth, like the universe, is empty, meaningless clay for our molding. “Space” envisions reality as something fundamentally dead.
The alternative to this way of thinking is a reinstitution of the classical vision of created reality as a unified cosmos. According to the ancients, all of reality exists in a sort of natural harmony. This harmony extends to all beings: just as a squirrel has a natural place in a forest, so man has a natural place in the great chain of being. Indeed, the macrocosm of the world was best understood as analogous to the microcosm of the human being. Man exists in a world that, though at times violent, even cruel, is ultimately ordered and meaningful. The world has a place for us, and we can truly flourish here. This flourishing may not be automatic (or even easy), but it is real. Conceptualizing reality as cosmos helps man cultivate wonder, the father of philosophy. When looking at the world (or to himself), man can earnestly ask “what is the role this plays within the whole?”
The medieval schoolmen, being Christian, were able to develop this idea and provide a more complete account of evil’s place in this world, but to think about that it’s helpful to turn to the second book in Lewis’ trilogy.
Extraterrestrials and the love of God
Out of the Silent Planet consistently challenges readers to reconsider their modern prejudices about the supposed emptiness and meaninglessness of the universe. The next in the series, Perelandra, continues to challenge readers in this way, but it also forces them to confront the roles that the human person, love, and sin play in our cosmos. Lewis melds science fiction imagery and techniques with Biblical narratives to craft a story that not only helps inculcate wonder in readers, but also informs their imaginings with a serious confrontation with the realities both of divine love and satanic hatred.
Perelandra is often considered the strongest of the three Ransom novels, and for good reason. Lewis’ prose is far more enchanting than that of his previous effort, and the plot has higher stakes. The novel tells of how the protagonist of the first novel, Ransom, is called by the Oyarsa of Mars (a sort of angelic ruler) to travel to Perelandra (Venus) to counter an evil attack against the creatures who live there. After he arrives, Ransom meets a woman called “the Queen,” learning that she and “the King” have only recently been created. He realizes that Perelandra is as yet untouched by original sin, and that the King and Queen are the Adam and Eve of this new humanoid species. As you may have guessed, the Tempter arrives in hopes of luring the Queen away from the lives they have been given by God.
Of course, I won’t spoil for you how things turn out, but I want to indicate something about Lewis’ science fiction that is unlike most other works of the genre: the way that it makes use of Biblical Revelation. Whereas much science fiction simply sidesteps the theological questions a Christian would raise on discovering rational life on other planets, Lewis asks us to wrestle with them. These are not mere hypotheticals for Lewis. Instead, these fantastical tales, by encouraging our imaginations to play freely, always turn us back to our own world.
Perelandra isn’t a sermon. The fantastical other world pulls readers in and lets them imagine a planet totally unlike our own. This is part of why it has been enjoyed by Christians and non-Christians alike. Yet one cannot read the novel without being struck by the sense that the King and Queen, Ransom, and—by extension—we ourselves, do not exist in a reality that is indifferent to us. Our lives have meaning, and our choices have moral consequences. We are not autonomous agents that simply act as we wish at all times; we are persons who are called to love.
Crucially, that love is not a merely human love. The love of God is a strange presence in Perelandra. Far less outspoken than He is in the book of Genesis that partially inspired the novel, the Divine is Something the Queen initially speaks quite confidently about, but we readers are not privy to His communications. We see things through Ransom’s eyes. Ransom, like us at our best, is but a fallen man hoping to know and serve God. We readers, who might be inclined to separate our imaginings of other planets from our belief in God, are implicitly reminded of who the God of the Bible is. He is motivated ultimately by the Love that He is. That love calls everyone who experiences it to become more than we are on our own. Evil is not simply that which is arbitrarily forbidden: it is that which lessens our capacity to experience and respond in kind to love. The aliens in Lewis’ novel must grapple with this core Christian claim, but so must every reader.
Redeeming science fiction
Let us return to our opening quandary. Is science fiction fundamentally scientistic? Or does it help inculcate wonder and love for reality? Or is the reality somewhere in between for each individual work in the genre? Generalizations are good and important. Indeed, without them one can never be wise. However, when made foolishly, generalization can lead us to embrace things that are harmful or write off things that are deeply valuable and meaningful.
I believe this is a danger with science fiction. Some works are expressions of foolish, idealistic progressivism that, to borrow a phrase from Lewis, forms “men without chests” who seek their fulfillment in technological development. But at the same time some works are deeply imbued with a love of creation and a joy in man’s capacity for wonder and exploration. More often than not, however, these two impulses are mixed in any given work of science fiction. To paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the spine of every book. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own library?”
One of Lewis’ great gifts was his ability to recognize the good in that which is imperfect. Just as he consistently defended the place of pagan myth in Christian civilization, so the first two works of his Cosmic Trilogy provide an implicit defense of the place science fiction can play in the Christian imagination. True, science is not salvation. “Only a god can save us,” said another great twentieth century figure in another context. Yet the beauties of God’s cosmos are ever new, and they reflect His own beauty to eyes ill-equipped to handle it unadulterated. For the open-hearted, the beauties of the cosmos can serve as stepping-stones to the God who made them.