C.S. Lewis on the Final Frontier
C.S. Lewis on the Final Frontier: Science and the Supernatural in the Space Trilogy.. Sanford Schwartz. OUP: 2009. 240pp. $27.95.
Reviewed by Ryder W. Miller
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:5 (#334) in May 2010.]
For those who may have found C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy baffling or who want a deeper understanding of the classic trilogy, Sanford Schwartz provides both interpretation and historical context for general readers and scholars alike. Though Schwartz retells the stories of these books, his text aims at an academic or literary audience. Some may be unfamiliar with persons and ideas that influenced Lewis’s work.
According to Schwartz, the chief influence for Lewis’s Space Trilogy appears to be a not widely known philosopher, Henri Bergson, who at the time sought a middle ground to explain the natural world between religious explanations and natural determinism. But: “[…] just as Bergson transfigured a ‘mechanistic’ theory of evolution still entangled in the static categories of traditional metaphysics into a new principle of Becoming, so Lewis transfigures Bergson’s ‘vitalistic’ naturalism, rejecting his reduction of the divine to an immanent creative impetus but reworking his radical reformulation of the concept of time into a Christian vision of perpetual cosmic development” (55).
Arthur C. Clarke was also an influence on Lewis, exchanging letters and ideas. Sadly missing here is any reference to From Narnia to a Space Odyssey (Ryder W. Miller, 2003), which first documented the letters between Lewis and Clarke, who sought to convince Lewis that space explorers would not be Imperialists with questionable motives. After Clarke’s letters concerning Perelandra, Lewis never published a book set off our planet again.
As such, Schwartz’s study is more of an exploration of the reaction of Lewis to evolutionary ideas (with references to “Survival of the Fittest” and H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds in particular), rather than Environmentalism. Lewis wrote these novels at least a generation before Earth Day. These “imaginary” planets are not of interest to exploiters of natural resources in Schwartz’s exploration, rather the home of different beings to conquer or protect. It is the treatment of indigenous “cultures” and religious domains that are at stake here, not a warning against the questionable exploitative schemes of those times.
Despite the title, there is also no reference here to Star Trek, which follows the trilogy by at least a generation. Lewis does appear to have influenced Star Wars, which also trumpets the use of the history making “Force”, but there is no mention of it here either. The Space Trilogy presents itself as an alternative to these fan “fictions”, but more Mythopoeic readers would rather go to Narnia again than the intergalactic ideological battleground created by Lewis.
Schwartz provides useful interpretations, though there are room for others. Schwartz’s treatment is not monolithic and one can explore the Space Trilogy in different ways. One can search for its influence in the science fiction which follows. Certainly it seems to usher in the Mars-“friendly” Martian Chronicles of Ray Bradbury, who also alerted us to potential damagers of The Red Planet. Rather than being solely an anti-Imperialist exploration, one can revel in the post-Copernican arguments in the Space Trilogy. One can also read the Space Trilogy as an exploration of a failing argument for Pacifism. One should be reminded that Lewis was a soldier before he was a scholar, but as Schwartz shows, he was certainly concerned by some of the scientific ideas of his day.
Many of the points made by Schwartz would not be obvious to the casual reader. The book does set the context to better understand the interplanetary strivings of that era, which at the time were still just dreams and nightmares. Here one is reminded that Out of the Silent Planet, a reaction to H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. The World Wars following the turn of the century cast mankind as villains, and the Imperialistic enterprise and arguments were waning. The technology of the day was zooming forward, and Lewis may have been surprised that we had not yet made it to Mars.
The language does not usually overwhelm, but Schwartz’s ideas require careful reading. These represent valuable insight into Lewis’s multifaceted Space Trilogy. Schwartz has made a contribution to Inklings studies here, but there is clearly intellectual space for others.
[See also Joe R. Christopher's review of this same work from Mythlore #109/110.]