Well, I knew it would happen eventually: Culture 11 is no longer archived on the web, alas.
Since everything I wrote for them has now vanished into the ether, I thought I might start reprinting it here in order to make it available. So…below is probably my favorite piece for them, an essay on C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy. I think they altered the end a little bit, but this is my original version.
The Invisible Man
“Be comforted,” said Malacandra. “It is no doing of yours. You are not great, though you could have prevented a thing so great that Deep Heaven sees it with amazement. Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad. Have no fear, lest your shoulders be bearing this world. Look! It is beneath your head and carries you.”
That passage is from Perelandra, the second volume in C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy. I cried when I read it. I’m still not entirely sure why.
To give some context: the speaker in this passage is Malacandra, an extraterrestrial entity and also a Christian angel. He’s talking to Ransom, a human-being who has been summoned to Venus by God. Venus is, as it turns out, a second Eden, and Ransom’s task was to prevent a second fall by a different (and, somewhat improbably, green-skinned) Eve. To do this, he had to literally beat and then slay the Devil, who has incarnated in the form of a middle-aged space-traveling physicist. The passage above occurs just after Ransom realizes that he has been successful, and that, on Venus, there will be no fall. He is overwhelmed…and so Malacandra comforts him by telling him that he needn’t worry, because God doesn’t think he’s done anything particularly special.
It’s an odd moment in a very odd series. Lewis uses many of the standard tropes of sci-fi adventure — a rocket trip to Mars in the 1938 Out of the Silent Planet; mad scientists reanimating the dead in That Hideous Strength from 1946. But these hoary plots are used in the interest, not of adventure narrative, but of Christian apologetic. The rocket flight occurs not through empty space, but through something very like the Christian heaven; raising the dead is specifically diabolic in a way that Frankenstein and Herbert West only hinted at. The knowledge out there — in distance or time — is not better ray guns, or new social structures, or hideously unspeakable Lovecraftian fish-things. It’s simply God.
Lewis has, in other words, created a kind of holy doppelganger; a series which takes the form of sci-fi in order to undo it. Historically, sci-fi has always, especially in its more literate reaches, been studiously materialist. It’s not an accident that the first story of the genre’s first modern practitioner, H. G. Wells, is a vision of Darwinian apocalypse. In The Time Machine, man’s work, his reason, and his soul are first bifurcated and then crushed by the sheer weight of centuries. The future, for Wells and for those who followed him, is a kind of idiot potter, molding mind, gender, and form beneath its blind fingers. We may become one gender, or we may turn into superbabies, or we may devolve into hopping rabbit-like herbivores, or we may all die. The process may be liberating or terrifying or both, but we will change somehow. Time and space are enormous; they make and unmake. Man is small , and is made or unmade.
You might expect Lewis, as a Christian, to reject this view entirely — to deny the importance of time and space, and instead to focus on an eschatology in which human beings play a central role. In fact, Lewis’ intellectual mentor G.K. Chesterton pointed in this direction. In his story “The Blue Cross” in which he declared:
“Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don’t they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, ‘Thou shalt not steal.”‘
Lewis agrees with Chesterton to a certain extent; lying, for example, is wrong on Earth, is wrong on Mars, and is wrong on Venus…if anything, in fact, it’s more wrong on the last two. But other laws are different, or change with time and space. For instance, on Venus the inhabitants must live on floating islands; God has decreed they cannot spend the night on dry land. Similarly, Lewis suggests that in the past, it was not necessarily wrong to use magic; in modern days it is. And, most significantly, in the past, intelligent creatures could come in all shapes and sizes; on Mars, there are man-sized river otters and elongated giants and weird snouty tapir-frogs. After the incarnation of Jesus, however, all intelligent creatures are created in the form of man.
For Lewis, then, the future does not change man; rather, man has changed the future. Except, of course, it’s not really, or only man; the future is altered not by the human race as a race, but by Christ. It’s not man, but God who is important…and God is everywhere. “Though men or angels rule them,” Lewis says, “the worlds are for themselves.” Man’s individual moral choices are certainly important; God cares whether Eve falls, or whether Ransom beats the devil. But it’s God, not man, who is the measure of all things. “Be comforted, small immortals,” Malacandra says. “You are not the voice all things utter.”
But why is it comforting to be insignificant? Isn’t insignificance at the heart of the fiction of Wells and his heirs? Isn’t man’s nothingness at the base of the horror in Wells or (for example) in Lovecraft? At first it seems..but when you look closer, it’s less clear. In The Time Machine, for example, what terrifies and disgusts the narrator is not the absence of man, but his presence — the hideous hopping creatures which, in more and more degenerate form, populate the far future. Frankenstein’s monster is horrifying not because he isn’t human, but because he is. The gothic tradition on which much of sci-fi rests is about doubling; about recognizing one’s own twisted visage in the face of infinity. The supposed evolutionary ruthlessness, the acknowledgment of the “truth” of man’s insignificance, is, in these books, a kind of ruse. The real emotional power is in man’s proliferation; man is everywhere, inescapable. The future does not create the sci-fi writer; rather it is the sci-fi writer who creates, in his or her own image, the future.
Lewis created The Space Trilogy too, of course. But it’s not a romantic or agonistic creation; it’s an imaginative extension of truths which, for Lewis, apply to man, but don’t originate with him. The future doesn’t have to be about us; we don’t have to be there to make it matter. Science-fiction is just a dream, after all; the twisted gothic face it sees in time’s mirror is just a phantom. “Have no fear, lest your shoulders be bearing this world. Look! It is beneath your head and carries you.”” Lewis waves his hand, and the whole genre dissolves, leaving instead the universe. I’m still not sure why it moved me so much. But I think it was partly the sense of being freed, or saved.