The CS Lewis podcast recently launched a new series focussing on one of Lewis’ lesser known works of fiction, his Space Trilogy. Here, Ruth Jackson shares why she and Professor Alister McGrath think the books are worth a read, despite their length and difficulty
CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy is not an easy read. Nor is it his best work in my opinion. Many don’t even realise Lewis wrote science fiction, much less have perused these three colossal volumes – Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.
I recently interviewed CS Lewis expert Professor Alister McGrath about the Space Trilogy and he agreed the books, “are quite difficult for modern readers because they involve stepping back not simply into a different narrative form, but to a different social world”. Comparing these early works of science fiction to The Narnia Chronicles, McGrath said: “I think that’s one of the reasons why they have not been as widely read as perhaps they deserve and why many readers who are familiar with Narnia will find these three books quite difficult.”
So, why read them?
I asked McGrath why we should read The Space Trilogy despite obstacles presented by the sometimes archaic language, anachronistic references and Medieval allusions. He said:
“I think we can see two main reasons. One is if you’re interested in Lewis, he is learning the art of writing fiction. I think we can learn a lot from that, just looking at this and seeing Lewis finding his voice.
But secondly, Lewis really is exploring questions that were becoming very important in the early 1940s, the nature of science, the human relation to the world around us, and also some theological questions – what happens if there’s no fall, that kind of thing. So, it’s a really interesting window into the way in which Lewis was thinking. And that’s why I think a lot of people do find these works, although difficult, actually to be really quite rewarding.”
Although they were written nearly a century ago, these three books explore numerous relevant contemporary themes, such as gender identity, mental health struggles, sex and sexuality, animal rights and aliens.
CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy raises pertinent questions, including how far we can trust technology, whether science and religion are in conflict, how we should treat those who are different to us and what the future of humanity is.
McGrath, commenting on the relevance of these books said: “…if we think about weapons of mass destruction, if we think about artificial intelligence, these are things which have emerged from scientific enterprise. They’re not characteristic of science, but they’ve emerged from it because of human nature. I think what Lewis wants us to go away and think about is how on Earth do we stop this getting out of control? And that’s a very unsettling question.”
These books consider important theological issues such as suffering, sin, justice and redemption. Lewis also highlights various ideologies and worldviews, inviting the reader to assess and critique them through the powerful medium of a compelling story. McGrath said:
“Lewis is trying to help us to see that we all bring worldviews to bear on our approaches to situations. And those shape our expectations and our interpretations. And what Lewis is inviting us to do is to judge how good these worldviews are in terms of the moral character of the people who hold them. I think it’s almost like a way of critiquing a worldview by judging the character and the actions of the people who hold these worldviews.”
Praise from JRR Tolkien
CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy, unlike The Chronicles of Narnia, is not child-friendly (sexual assault, murder and demon possession all feature), however the characteristic Lewis charm, creativity and story make it a gripping read.
When Lewis read these stories aloud to The Inklings, an informal literary discussion group who met in Oxford, JRR Tolkien enjoyed them immensely. In the foreword to Out of the Silent Planet, Tolkien said:
“It proved an exciting serial, and was highly approved…I at any rate should have bought this story at almost any price if I had found it in print and loudly recommended it as a ‘thriller’ by an intelligent man.”
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A helping hand
Given some of the previously mentioned difficulties, we may need some help as we dive into Lewis’ three lengthy works of science fiction.
I asked McGrath whether there was any advice he could offer to those of us who might struggle to follow some of the more complicated elements of the books and he suggested two options. Firstly, he pointed out a few books which offer background information, context and commentary about the novels.
McGrath’s other recommendation was to read the books alongside friends. He said:
“The other thing is you read it with friends and you have a pact that you’re each going to read the same chapter and then you’re going to talk about it and you’re going to keep going until you get through the book. You may find that you read other books to help you, but two of you together might find you can make more sense of them, than one of you on your own.
Of all of Lewis’ novels, these are the ones where I think we need the most help if we’re going to appreciate them. And because I know Lewis saw them as being very important, I think we owe it to Lewis to try and do our best to make sense of them.”
I would like to make a third recommendation; which McGrath is far too humble to suggest. My proposal would be to read CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy alongside this new podcast series with Professor Alister McGrath.
The CS Lewis podcast is released every Monday, so why not listen weekly to one of the world’s leading experts on Lewis and journey with him as he unpacks pertinent themes, questions and insights into these three books? Perhaps you could even do this with a friend or in a small group setting, so you can discuss the ideas together.
To check out The CS Lewis podcast, click here.
Ruth Jackson is a producer and presenter for Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? radio programme. She is also host of The CS Lewis Podcast with Professor Alister McGrath and the Unapologetic podcast.