As I said before, C.S. Lewis didn’t just write for kids. And he didn’t just write fantasy either. Far from it. In fact, out of the dozens of books he wrote, The Chronicles of Narnia are the only ones that fall squarely into either of those categories. Three of his other books–not the most popular, but some of my favourites–make up the Space Trilogy, a series of beautiful sci-fi adventures worthy of any geek’s notice.
In chronological order, the three books are: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. However, they make sense when read in any order. I would recommend reading That Hideous Strength first (especially if you’re relatively new to sci-fi or to Lewis’s writing style) and then Silent Planet and Perelandra.
In a nutshell, the premise is this: A philologist named Ransom is hiking across the English countryside when he is kidnapped and taken aboard a spaceship bound for Mars. Mars turns out to be inhabited (did I mention these books were written in the 50s?) not only by three races of fascinatingly strange aliens, but also by angelic creatures called the Eldila. In the second book, the Eldila send Ransom to Venus, which is also called Perelandra, to avert a catastrophe. Venus is a paradisaical ocean planet inhabited by just two sentient creatures–the alien equivalent of Adam and Eve–but one of the scientists who first kidnapped Ransom has landed there with sinister purpose. In the third book, Ransom is the Director of a society formed to thwart the same kind of evil here on earth.
I enjoy these books on a number of different levels. First, the worlds that Lewis imagines are beautiful and wonderfully real, even if they do go against everything we now know about our solar system. He invents new, lovely names for all the planets, including our own, and even some bits of an invented language, “Old Solar.” Some people have called these books “Narnia for adults,” and while I think that’s a bit simplistic, I do see where they get the idea. Malacandra and Perelandra are just as fully-realized worlds as Narnia, and just as rich with allegory and symbolism.
Here’s the solar system according to the Space Trilogy:
It’s also always interesting to see how people imagined space travel before it was really possible. The spaceship in Out of the Silent Planet almost seems more elaborate than what we built to get to the Moon, but it sort of makes sense, at least to a non-scientific mind. And the “artifical gravity” concept isn’t much different than what I remember from Ender’s Game. The Space Trilogy is also great fun to read if you’re a Tolkien fan, because the central character is modeled on J.R.R. Tolkien, a philologist who was great friends with C.S. Lewis. In That Hideous Strength, Lewis gives a fairly explicit nod to Tolkien’s then-unpublished works when he has a resurrected Merlin (yes, THE Merlin) mention an ancient place called “Numinor,” the “true west.” (Tolkien, by the way, strongly disliked That Hideous Strength, along with most of Lewis’s other works.)
But the most striking thing about the Space Trilogy is that it is written from an unapologetically Christian perspective–a rare thing in the sci-fi world. The allegories are even more obvious than in Narnia. In each book, supernatural forces of good and evil are pitted against each other, each side using humans to accomplish their ends. But the differences in the way each side uses its humans illustrates some powerful insights about the nature of good and evil. Each book has a fairly straightforward storyline, but the complex philosophical implications make them both challenging and rewarding to read. Ransom is an engaging hero, and he has some truly frightening villains to fight–especially Weston in Perelandra. Also, That Hideous Strength is the only novel I’ve ever read that describes a conversion to Christianity realistically. C.S. Lewis is one of the very few writers who don’t give “Christian fiction” a bad name.
So there you go. If you like sci-fi and have not read the Space Trilogy, it’s well worth your time to do so. My personal favourite is That Hideous Strength (the least science-y of the three), but they’re all excellent in their own way. Go read them! Namarie!