I own a voluminous number of books, partly because I am predisposed to purchasing anything which looks at least vaguely titillating and stimulating – in this instance, some worn old sci-fi from C.S. Lewis. Like many, I grew up on a diet of The Chronicles of Narnia, owed predominantly to the advent of the films, always being a little confused about the fictional chronology, learning from church that the tales were resolutely Christian allegories. I’ve always known Lewis as a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, but in my head, he was just the creator of Narnia. I was intrigued to read what more flowed from his pen.
This story can be read by itself but is also a sequel to Out of the Silent Planet in which some account was given of Ransom’s adventures in Mars – or, as its inhabitants call it, Malacandra. All the human characters in this book are purely fictitious and none of them is allegorical.
Lewis’s opening words proved true: despite Voyage to Venus (otherwise known as Perelandra) being a sequel, I had little trouble in following the story and grasping the rich galactic mythology, though I’d have no doubt experienced greater emotional investment had I known (and read) its preceding instalment. But no matter: it’s an interesting book, if not an especially readable one.
The basic plotline is as follows. Elwin Ransom is a Cambridge philologist and, inexplicably, a traveller in space. He is more in the vein of H.G. Wells’s Time Traveller than Flash Gordon, prone to several pages of philosophizing and wayward, multi-directional intellectualisms. There is speculation that he is at least partly inspired by Tolkien himself, who was, of course, a philologist by trade. The narrative is fuelled by the conflict with Professor Weston, his academic opponent who ends up occupying a role of far more Biblical proportions (according to Wikipedia, he may be a caricature of none other than Cecil Rhodes).
Venus – or, rather, Perelandra – is visualised with such vivid imagination that it is hard to do justice to the depth and breadth of Lewis’s creations in a single review. There are dragons, friendly seahorses, gods, demons, intergalactic fruits, Morlock-esque cave monsters and far more beyond. Key, however, is the book’s function as a work of Christian, or theological, science fiction, much in the same way that The Chronicles of Narnia is theological fantasy. The final sentence of Lewis’s introduction may make that perplexing: “none of them is allegorical.” Narnia is, famously, an allegorical reconfiguration of the Biblical myth, with Aslan as God (allegory, famously, being what Tolkien strongly disliked in literature). His prefix of “characters” with “human” explains the confusion. Here, God is Maledil.
Much of Ransom’s philosophizing invariably involves the nature of religion, and the narrative takes a pause to allow for a multi-page debate between Ransom and Weston about the nature of God, life, and the universe.
Was it sane – was it imaginable – that they should find themselves at once engaged in a philosophical argument which might just as well have occurred in a Cambridge combination room? … Could it be that he had travelled more than thirty million miles of space in search of – conversation?
“It is a most interesting thing in popular religion, this tendency to fissiparate, to breed pairs of opposites: heaven and hell, God and Devil. I need hardly say that in my view no real dualism in the universe is admissible … Your Devil and Your God are both pictures of the same Force. Your heaven is a picture of the perfect spirituality ahead; your hell a picture of the urge or nisus which is driving us on to it from behind.”
“Can you understand nothing? Will you always try to press everything back into the miserable framework of your old jargon about self and self-sacrifice? That is the old accursed dualism in another form. There is no possible distinction in concrete thought between me and the universe. In so far as I am the conductor of the central forward pressure of the universe, I am it. Do you see, you timid, scruple-mongering fool? I am the universe. I, Weston, am your God and your Devil.”
Essentially, Weston – the antagonist – is voicing an interpretation of theology which dismisses dualism and claims instead that all spiritual power evolves from a unified source, the “Life-Source.” Ransom is, naturally, of the opposite view. According to Bob Rickard in the excellently-titled Fortean Times, in a review of ‘C.S. Lewis and the Final Frontier‘ by Sanford Schwartz from 2010 which has already fallen to the Wayback Machine, Lewis was attempting to “clarify modern arguments for Christian morality that were important to him, as modern authorities generally argued from mediæval antecedents who, in turn, borrowed from the pre-Christian world view.”
One certainly gets that impression from reading Voyage to Venus, which is as much mind to the academic as it is the narrative. I’ve always been of the view that the simplest and most successful means of communicating academic and theoretical concepts to people is through narrative fiction, rather than straight academia (the goal of which doesn’t need to be mass communication but, in my opinion, should be at least part of it). Yet, despite the great success found by Tolkien and Lewis in their academic narrative fiction, it’s a sub-genre which has somewhat fallen to the wayside in recent years. Something more closely resembling aestheticism – art for art’s sake – has taken hold as global populations have expanded and, with that, the expansion of narrative consumption.
Perhaps that sounds trite, but the past few decades – probably starting with Star Wars – have been a revolution in the accessibility of narrative media, much as the advent of the printing press skyrocketed literacy rates and forever changed the psychology and character of the human race. With technological development has come more ways to watch and read, and with blockbuster fiction has come a brilliant way to get more people consuming narrative. That such a popular shorthand for hooking up is “Netflix and chill” as opposed to, well, hooking up, is testament to this. The sheer amount of money spent on cinema trips, streaming subscriptions, books and so on is mind-boggling. But an accompanying depth to popular media is lacking; nowhere is this more apparent than in the media’s recent reckoning with its record of diversity, and how cinema and television have constructed and perpetuated racist and misogynistic tropes that filter through to the popular consciousness. This is a very generalised argument I’m making, but I think it broadly holds true.
This is an example of supreme irresponsibility on behalf of creatives for not having a greater consideration of A) whether their stories are any good, and, B) what social impact their stories are having, and what seems to be a divergence between writers of narrative and the academic intellectual. I’m not sure there ever was a fabled time when quality was prized over popularity (this goes back all the way to the origins of cinema), nor one when the most influential fiction was being done by deep thinkers (the most notable aesthetic novel, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray*, was published in 1890, after all) but there is a definite lack of critical thought and proposition of ideas in contemporary narratives – even when it is very good. “It’s just a film” (swap out for media of your choice) is a relatively common refrain when social criticism is applied to works of fiction. It’s just art – why can’t we enjoy art for art’s sake? “A good question, for another time.”
Voyage to Venus is a refreshing break from the conventional modes of storytelling, a throwback to an earlier age of literature when narrative could be deployed to work through academic ideas, and, particularly, an earlier age of science-fiction. It was written in a time when our galactic horizons were still firmly rooted in the solar system, whereas now they look beyond. Magic and mystery remained abundant in the planets of Venus and Mars. There was still wonder to be found in fantasy as basic as space travel and aliens. It reminded me a lot of Wells’s The Time Machine, so revolutionary for its time but which reads so quaintly today. And, it marries science-fiction with theology, a practice which is still pretty uncommon and interesting in its own right.
My praise is not unequivocal – it took me a few months to read this tiny paperback because the prose is pretty dense. It is not a well-paced book. With its overt academic theorising, it will probably put off many readers. The volume of imagination within is sometimes too much, and I had trouble following exactly what was going on, particularly given it is a first-person narrative. But it is a useful insight into one of the great writers of the 20th Century through works significantly less well-known than Narnia, which is quite a gift. Usually, when reading old literature, one comes to it pre-loaded with perceptions from its place in the popular cultural imagination. The Space Trilogy, for whatever reason, doesn’t occupy it. You can go in fresh. How lucky!
*weirdly, a few minutes after writing this, I scrolled through Instagram Stories and saw a friend reading a collected edition of The Yellow Book, a periodical which ran from 1894 – 1897 and strongly espoused the values of aestheticism and decadence, possibly directly inspired by Wilde’s yellow book, a corrupting influence, in Dorian Gray.