After I came to Moscow, Idaho, it quickly became apparent that I would have to spend some more time with C.S. Lewis. I have managed to push it off until now due to having read through the Chronicles half a dozen times, as well as the Screwtape Letters once. But over the past two years I’ve gotten so tired of references to the Space Trilogy and Til We Have Faces piling up all around without me being able to appreciate them. And so this May, all will change!
The Space Trilogy has sat on my father’s shelf for longer than I have been alive, and I remember many times as a child picking the books off the shelf and examining the covers. While interested, for some reason I never felt compelled to actually turn to the front page and start reading. As of this morning, though, I have completed the first installment for the first time.
It was pretty good. The criticism of modernity, while needful, got heavy-handed at the very end. It started out very funny, with the arch-physicist Weston being forced to speak like in pidgin while insisting he was the superior being. From my privileged position I can say that Lewis is beating a dead horse, but the horse was very much alive in his day, so I shouldn’t judge. What I wasn’t expecting was a recurring and piercing critique of English imperialism, and I feel like that only sharpened the criticism of modernity.
The criticism of modernity is at its best when it is manifest, and it is best manifest in the book as the idea that the heavens are not just empty space. This is presented in t wonderful mythology of ancient cosmic warfare, specifically, the spectacular idea that our world’s guardian angel, Satan (the prince of the power of the air), has demonically enshrouded us from other worlds. But I felt Oyarsa was given too much dialogue and that took some of the angelic mystery away. Who would have thought that a world-guiding spirit would have the diction of C.S. Lewis?
This is a book of ideas, and the ideas are good. But, I do want the world building to go deeper. The fictional names are excellent, and this is a very noteworthy accomplishment for science fiction at that time. I love the word ‘Thulcandra.’ The prose is okay. I wish the descriptions of the landscape were clearer and more detailed. I feel like Lewis could have done a better job on the prose throughout, as is shown in the book itself with the occasional hilarious line or revelatory gems such as: ‘the pale earthlight behind him.’ I wish there was more of that, and I think Lewis was capable of such.
What is evidently absent from the book is vigorous plotting and conflict. By the end, while it is a book about many things, the only thing that actually happens is that a man walks around. This is sad, because it begins with a delightful premise: the main character, a philologist, is kidnapped and launched to another planet against his will. That’s great! But he then proceeds to spend most of the book away from the antagonists or really any danger at all. When the antagonists reappear at the end, they are feeble and impotent. This lack of conflict perhaps could be excusable if Lewis went even deeper into the world-building, but the three species on Malacandra remain for the most part caricatures. They are interesting beings and you do feel an emotional connection with Hyoi and Augray, but we just don’t see them do very much at all.
Worth the read.