Fifty years ago today the world was shocked by events that took place in Dallas, Texas, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in broad daylight. As the world mourned this loss, another life came to a quieter end on the other side of the Atlantic, that of C.S. Lewis, the famous novelist and scholar, who died in his home in Oxford. His death was almost missed in the media coverage of the day, which is probably how he would have liked it anyway – just to go away quietly. Incidentally, another famous author, Aldous Huxley, died in California on that very same day.
C.S. Lewis is, of course, well-known for his Chronicles of Narnia series, as well as many books on Christian theology. For most of his career he taught at Oxford University and specialised in Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature. His A Preface to Paradise Lost was a book I had to read for a course I took on John Milton a few years ago, and is still widely used and recognised as one of the most valuable criticisms of Milton’s work.
One lesser known thing about Lewis is that he wrote a trilogy of science fiction novels. I read them almost 20 years ago for the first time, but remember at the time being surprised that I previously hadn’t known about them. Over the years I have read most of the books written by Lewis and he is probably in my top ten author’s list. Some of his writings are more challenging than others, but I enjoy going back to most of them time and time again.
Because this is a post for Sci-Fi month I’d like to focus on Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, which has become known as The Space Trilogy, The Cosmic Trilogy, or The Ransom Trilogy. I’ll refer to them as The Cosmic Trilogy, because the one volume copy I own has that as the title.
The three books in the series are as follows:
- Out of the Silent Planet – this book takes place mainly on Mars, which we discover really goes by the name of ‘Malacandra’. The ‘silent planet’ referred to in the title is Earth, which we are told has been exiled from the Solar System. The main character in all three books, Elwin Ransom, is introduced in this book. He is kidnapped by two men and taken by spaceship to Malacandra. We also discover that Mars is inhabited and much of the plot centres around the interactions of the inhabitants with the three visitors.
- Perelandra – this setting for this book is mostly Venus, which is the Perelandra of the title. Ransom arrive on Perelandra just as life is beginning to emerge there. It is a virtually unspoiled planet and he has to fight with one of his previous kidnappers to prevent the planet from becoming spoiled.
- That Hideous Strength – this book is set on Earth, where a scientific think tank called the N.I.C.E. (The National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments) is secretly in touch with demonic entities who plan to ravage and lay waste to planet Earth. This is the longest of the three books and, at times, is much darker.
There was also an unfinished manuscript, The Dark Tower, that features Ransom again. If completed it would have been a sequel to Out of the Silent Planet. Walter Hooper edited the fragment that was written and published it in 1977. Its authenticity as a work of Lewis has been questioned, but this has been refuted by some who personally knew Lewis.
Apparently the writing of the trilogy came after a conversation with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, when they were discussing and lamenting the state of contemporary fiction. They decided that Lewis would write a space-travel story, while Tolkien was to write a time-travel one. The Tolkien story only exists as a fragment, published in The Lost Road and other writings (1987) edited by his son Christopher.
The Cosmic Trilogy is a different kind of science fiction. In the first book, Lewis wrote the following note, which appears before the main text: “Certain slighting references to earlier stories of this type which will be found in the following pages have been put there for purely dramatic purposes. The author would be sorry if any reader supposed he was too stupid to have enjoyed Mr. H. G. Wells’s fantasies or too ungrateful to acknowledge his debt to them.” Similarly to the Narnia books, the trilogy contains much Christian allegory and thought. However, similarly to the Narnia stories, these books can be enjoyed without getting caught up in these thoughts and ideas. Personally, I find both series the more richer because these themes are woven into them, but I know others who enjoy them for the stories that they are. Maybe it is this possibility of enjoyment on both levels that makes them the classics that they are.
This trilogy is worth reading, so I won’t give any spoilers here, just in case you want to check it for yourself. Even though Lewis has been dead 50 years now, his legacy lives on and his books are still as widely read now as they ever were. The Cosmic Trilogy is part of that legacy, which makes it worth adding to your reading list.