Sunday, October 27, 2019

From Things To Come into The Space Trilogy-Part Two

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) is in the Space Trilogy. Out of the Silent Planet, from 1938, begins with this disclaimer from its author:
Note: Certain slighting references to earlier stories of this type which will be found in the following pages have been put there for purely dramatic purposes. The author would be sorry if any reader supposed he was too stupid to have enjoyed Mr. H.G. Wells's fantasies or too ungrateful to acknowledge his debt to them.
C.S.L.
Are we to believe him? I'm not sure. Maybe C.S. Lewis was too polite to go at Wells and his ideas outside the bounds of fiction. It seems to me, though, that Lewis had more than a little to say about the overweening faith in science and technology, also the materialism, collectivism, and progressivism, exhibited so obviously in Things To Come. Maybe Lewis saw that film while he was planning or beginning to write his book. (1)

Here is a pertinent quote from The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science: Collected Essays on SF Storytelling and the Gnostic Imagination by Frank McConnell (2009):
It was once fashionable to attack Wells for his optimism--to denigrate his boyish insistence that if only the world could he handed over to the engineers and the scientists, they would produce a clean, sane, chromium and glass civilization.
This optimistic side of his vision is expressed most unabashedly in his one screenplay, Things to Come (1936). The Marxist critic of the 1930s, Christopher Caudwell, accused Wells of being irresponsibly "spiritual" in his hopes for the future. C.S. Lewis, at almost the same time, accused Wells of being overly "materialistic."
So Lewis accused Wells of being "overly 'materialistic'." Great! That fits my thesis. Except that the late Mr. McConnell admitted that he was unable to find a source for the quote and the accusation. Drat! That's kind of a problem. But do we really need a quote from Lewis directly about Wells in order to see that they were at odds, or that at least Lewis was at odds with Wells? Maybe not. Maybe the works speak for themselves.

Weston, the villain in Out of the Silent Planet, makes a return appearance in the middle book of The Space Trilogy. Called Perelandra, it is my favorite of the three. Although he is only human in the first book, Weston descends into a demonic or satanic state in Perelandra. What I mean is that he's really bad. Really, really bad. For he wishes to seduce and corrupt an entire innocent people even before they are a people. He is the serpent in the garden of the planet Perelandra, what we call Venus, and he wishes to do to it what Old Nick has done to us here on Earth. (Or I guess what we have done to ourselves by succumbing to his temptations.) Weston has arrived--or soon will--on the planet, and this is where the ideas of H.G. Wells once again show themselves. Pay attention, because this is the earliest mention that I have seen within a work of fiction itself of the opposition fantasy (or at least Lewis' brand of fantasy) has to science fiction (or at least Wells' brand of science fiction):
He [Weston] was a man obsessed with the idea which is at this moment circulating all over our planet in obscure works of "scientifiction," in little Interplanetary Societies and Rocketry Clubs , and between the covers of monstrous magazines, ignored or mocked by the intellectuals, but ready, if ever the power is put into its hands, to open a new chapter of misery for the universe. It is the idea that humanity, having now sufficiently corrupted the planet where it arose, must at all costs contrive to seed itself over a larger area: that the vast astronomical distances which are God's quarantine regulations, must somehow be overcome. This for a start. But beyond this lies the sweet poison of the false infinite--the wild dream that planet after planet, system after system, in the end galaxy after galaxy, can be forced to sustain, everywhere and for ever, the sort of life which is contained in the loins of our own species--a dream begotten by the hatred of death upon the fear of true immortality, fondled in secret by thousands of ignorant men and hundreds who are not ignorant. (Chapter 6) (2)
Weston, who has evolved since his debacle on Mars, explains himself again in the pages that follow. You can read them for yourself. Here's the really important part, the meat of his desire:
"The goal, Ransom, the goal: think of it! Pure spirit: the final vortex of self-thinking, self-originating activity."
Weston adds:
"Time is one of the things it will transcend."
He then describes a Force--yes, that's his exact word--
"a great, inscrutable Force, pouring up into us from the dark bases of being. A Force that can choose its instruments. [. . .] I've become conscious that I'm a man set apart. [. . .] It--the Force--has pushed me on all the time. [. . .] It is through me that the Spirit itself is at this moment pushing on to its goal."
So not only did Lewis respond to Wells, probably to Things To Come, and without a doubt to what he called "scientifiction," but he also anticipated the atheistic/materialistic space-fantasy of George LucasStar Wars, as well as the ideas of Lucas' mentor Joseph Campbell and the latter-day, half-baked, quasi-Marxist and early science-fiction fan Paul Krugman. And when I say he anticipated them, I mean that he headed them off, making their ideas obsolete even before they were formed.

Anyway, there is a lot of talk here of things that have traditionally been within the domain of faith, theology, and religion: spirit, transcendence, immortality, immanence, eschaton, and so on. I'm not a philosopher or theologian. I'm not exactly in my league in writing about these things. But it seems to me that the leftist-socialist-progressive drive, exhibited so often in science fiction, is towards a new kind of religion, one that is atheistic/materialistic and that wishes to bring about transcendence, immortality, and a material perfection called Utopia within the bounds of Time and Space. In this religion there is and will be no God, no heaven, no hereafter, no eternal life. (Sounds like lyrics from a John Lennon song.) And now I find that the same Frank McConnell whom I quoted above had these words written about him on a website, which shall remain nameless:
A member of the Pulitzer Prize jury, the late Frank McConnell helped science fiction gain standing as serious literature. [. . .] Initially believing that science fiction is primarily one of many forms of storytelling, McConnell gradually recognized science fiction as a modern expression of Gnosticism, rejecting bodily concerns for an emphasis on spirituality.
I love it when these things come together.

And now I wish I had his book. Anyway again, I think that Gnosticism, one version of which was a medieval Christian heresy, has showed up again in the modern world like in a game of Whack-a-Mole. I by no means have diagnosed this problem. In fact I have about as much as I know about it from a twentieth-century German-American philosopher named Eric Voegelin (1901-1985). He's another I would like to read. But for now we're on C.S. Lewis and there are one and a half books in his Space Trilogy to go.

To be continued . . .

Note
(1) Lewis dedicated Out of the Silent Planet to his brother, Warren H. Lewis (1895-1973), "a life-long critic of the space-and-time story." I guess the question is this: Does "critic" mean "one who criticizes"? I don't think so. More likely, Lewis meant that his brother was a person who read and judged the merits of what we now call science fiction.
(2) I'll refer you once again to William Gibson's essential short story "The Gernsback Continuum," from 1981. The Gernsback of the title, yclept Hugo, was the originator of the term scientifiction and a successor to Wells in the field of utopian, progressive, and even a faintly fascist or socialist science fiction.

Original text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, October 25, 2019

From Things To Come into The Space Trilogy-Part One

I'm going back farther now into the past, into spring when, in a week when I was sick, I read The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis. Things To Come (1936) was still fresh in my mind when I read these books. That freshness may have influenced my thoughts on Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), and That Hideous Strength (1945). I shouldn't spend too much time on this, but I'm sure I will. There is a lot in The Space Trilogy and it's hard to move past some of these things without commenting on them and applying them to issues current in this blog and in our world of today.

Ransom is the protagonist in The Space Trilogy, yet much of the narrative turns on the actions of its villains (as is so often the case in our popular culture). In Out of the Silent Planet, the villain is Weston. When he explains himself in Chapter 20, he reminds me of Raymond Massey's character Cabal in Things to Come, which was released in 1936, just two years before this book was published. The premise is that Earth, called Thulcandra, the Silent Planet of the title, has been quarantined from all others because of the influence of its "bent" Oyarsa, or planetary leader. Weston himself is referred to as "bent," meaning, I think, fallen in his nature and given to pride and other sins (as we all are). Not satisfied with confinement to Earth, Weston seeks, as Cabal does, to conquer the universe. Speaking to the Oyarsa of Malacandra (Mars), he says:
"To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race. Your tribal life [. . .] has nothing to compare with our civilization--with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower. Life [. . . .] has ruthlessly broken down all obstacles and liquidated all failures and to-day in her highest form--civilized man--and in me as his representative, she presses forward to that interplanetary leap which will, perhaps, place her for ever beyond the reach of death. [. . .] It is in her right [. . .] that I am prepared without flinching to plant the flag of man on the soil on Malacandra: to march on, step by step, superseding, where necessary, the lower forms of life that we find, claiming planet after planet, system after system, till our posterity--whatever strange form and yet unguessed mentality they have assumed--dwell in the universe wherever that universe is habitable."
The comparison between Weston and Cabal is imperfect. I don't want to overstate it. But it looks as though Weston is, like Cabal, a Darwinist, thus more or less a materialist, also a believer in the March of Progress and a subscriber to Scientism. I think you could fairly interpret Weston as a seeker after transcendence within a purely material universe, one that exists solely within Time and Space. To him there is likely no hereafter. Like too many real-world people today and of his own day, he appears to be a seeker after an immanentized eschaton. Like Cabal, too, he is a collectivist rather than an individualist. Cabal says: "Rest enough for the individual man, too much and too soon and we call it death, but for man, no rest and no ending." Weston, speaking in pidgin Malacandrian, echoes and simplifies Cabal's thought: "Me die. Man live."

Weston expresses a more complex idea--or his creator, C.S. Lewis, expresses it--through an exchange between Weston and the Oyarsa, summarized by the Oyarsa:
"Strange!" said Oyarsa. "You do not love any one of your race [. . . .] You do not love the mind of your race, nor the body. Any kind of creature will please you if only it is begotten by your kind as they are now. It seems to me [. . .] that what you really love is no completed creature but the very seed itself: for that is all that is left."
I'm not sure what Lewis was getting at here unless it is that Weston, and by extension all of us, is not satisfied with the "completed creature" made by God but wants instead to make of himself/humanity something new, created by himself/itself through technology, or maybe by a corrupted Nature. Call his desire a kind of transhumanism. In any case, Weston, like so many of his fellow travelers in the real world of today, claims to love humanity but no single member of humanity, nor does he love the human body. We have seen and continue to see that lovelessness--actually an outright loathing--of the human body, i.e., the "completed creature" made by God, in our real world, too, in ancient and medieval Gnostic beliefs and in modern-day iterations of Gnosticism such as socialism, generic kinds of leftism and utopianism, the entirety of transgenderism, and a politicized and scientified (or pseudo-scientified) brand of homosexuality. Within Lewis' Space Trilogy, that loathing or disregard of the body rears its head again in That Hideous Strength. Anyway, some of the philosophy or metaphysics of these three books is a little beyond me: I'm happy to hear other interpretations and opinions.

To be continued . . . 

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, the Avon edition of 1949 with a cover illustration by an unknown artist.

Avon reprinted Lewis' novel in 1956 with new cover art by Everett Raymond Kinstler. 

The version most readers know is probably the Macmillan edition of 1965. The cover artist was Bernard Symancyk, who I find is missing from the Internet. So . . .

Bernard Edward Symancyk was born on November 4, 1917, in Westfield, Massachusetts, to Konstanty and Marion Symancyk. He lived in Massachusetts and New York in the 1930s and '40s. By the time he enlisted in the U.S. Army on June 15, 1942, he had received two years of college education and was working as a commercial artist. Symancyk served in the army until October 11, 1945. Previously, in 1943, he had married Dorothy Margaret Curry.

I don't know much about Symancyk's career as an artist, but in the 1940s, he was a practitioner of an art movement called Perceptionism. In the 1960s, he created stylized or conceptualized scientific and technological-type illustrations. His covers for the Space Trilogy are his only genre works listed in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Symancyk died on July 13, 1987, and is buried at Calverton National Cemetery, Calverton, New York.

Original text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, October 5, 2019

July: We, The Moon, and Things to Come-Part Two

Despite having been made during a decade of collectivist horrors and hints of even greater horrors to come, Things to Come (1936) is seemingly in earnest and has an almost childish ignorance or naïveté to it. Blame that on H.G. Wells, who wrote the screenplay when he was around seventy and still, apparently, an unreformed socialist. Though maybe not yet in his dotage, he seems to have failed to keep up with the times and the world's events. For example, Stalin's great purge of just about anybody who breathed began in 1936. That same year, the Nazis rounded up Gypsies and Jehovah's Witnesses, opened the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen (later used by Communists in East Germany), and occupied the Rhineland as a prelude to further aggressions--and ultimately to a war in which tens of millions died. (Many more tens of millions would probably have died, too, but they had already been killed off by their Soviet masters. Or, to use a recently made euphemism, "Some people did something.")

We have these very nearly useless terms now of Right and Left, with the Nazis at one extreme and Communists at the other. My question is this: what kind of classification system is it where two opposites are the same? The Nazis and Soviets may have had their differences, but they were more alike than they were different. Both fall under a category that someone before us called the One State--a totalitarian state--ruled over by one man who is seen as the hero and champion of the people (the Volk or Proletariat) and the nation (the Fatherland or Motherland). He is the great Benefactor and all praise must come his way--or else. We'll see those terms--One State and Benefactor--again in a minute.

The Nazis were pulled in two different directions, I think. On one side was a kind of irrationality so extreme that it almost defies explication. On the other were socialism, science (or pseudo-science), technology, and the Teutonic propensity to establish and maintain order. When it comes to reason, though, the Soviets went whole hog--or at least they claimed to. (Never mind Lysenko and his crackpot ideas.) We should remember that both regimes were extremely illiberal and had nothing but hatred and contempt for western values, including democracy and free-market economics (which includes capitalism). Wells seems to have been ignorant of all of that. It's as if he had used his own fictional time machine to go back to the Victorian or Edwardian era, before the Great War and the Russian Revolution, to a time when collectivism, socialism, and the totalitarian state were still mostly abstractions.

Nobody dies in an abstraction, though many have died because of one. Although Wells seems to have shared some of his ideas with the Nazis and the Soviets, one of his saving graces is that he never killed anybody or commanded anybody to be killed. In Things to Come, though, he prescribed a system that in his own age was busy killing people and would soon be busier still. The body count of twentieth-century totalitarianism or statism or socialism, whatever you want to call it, is staggering: perhaps nearly 100 million people killed by worldwide Communism, another 25 million killed by the Nazis (according to the authors of The Black Book of Communism.) Those figures don't count wars in which many tens of millions more were killed, including almost 400,000 Americans. (Please explain your support for a system of government that has resulted in the deaths of so many Americans, including your fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, and cousins. You may use as many words as you like in your answer. You will need them.)

We are presented in Things to Come with a series of dichotomies: future vs. past, progressive vs. reactionary, revolutionary vs. counterrevolutionary, reason and rationality vs. romanticism and emotionalism, collectivism vs. individualism, science vs. art. We are supposed to believe, I think, that the former in each of these pairs of values is right and proper and of course far superior to the latter. H.G. Wells, though, in his lack of insight or irony, or because he simply would not see the truth, also in his old-fashioned faith in socialism and collectivism, failed to see that his ideas had already been, in his very age, discredited.

So, two long excerpts from two vastly different works . . .

At the end of Things to Come (1936), Raymond Massey's character, called Cabal, does a bit of speechifying that I think is supposed to inspire us. He and Passworthy, played by Edward Chapman, who have sent their children into space, stand next to an immense telescope and gaze into the night sky:
Cabal: There! There they go! That faint gleam of light.
Passworthy: I feel what we have done is monstrous.
Cabal: What they have done is magnificent.
Passworthy: Will they come back?
Cabal: Yes and go again and again until the landing is made and the moon is conquered. This is only a beginning.
Passworthy: But if they don't come back, my son and your daughter, what of that, Cabal?
Cabal: Then, presently, others will go.
Passworthy: Oh, God, is there never to be any age of happiness? Is there never to be any rest?
Cabal: Rest enough for the individual man, too much and too soon and we call it death, but for man, no rest and no ending. (1) He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First, this little planet and its winds and waves, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain it. Then the planets about it, and at last, out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.
Passworthy: But we're such little creatures--poor humanity, so fragile, so weak, little . . . little animals.
Cabal: Little animals, eh? If we're no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than other animals do or have done. It is this [looking downward, at earth or at his own body] or that [looking upward into the stars]. All the universe or nothingness! Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be? Which shall it be?
Choral voices (singing): Which shall it be, __? Which shall it be, __? Which shall it be, __? Which shall it be, __? [I can't tell what the last word is in this repeated question.]
A couple of observations first, then to my main point. One, Cabal is ready to accept that his daughter will never come back, in other words, that she will perish in outer space. Nice father. Two, Cabal--and by extension probably Wells himself--also seems to believe that "we're no more than animals" and that "we must snatch each little scrap of happiness [. . .] mattering no more than other animals do." Okay, so Cabal says "If" to begin his statement, but that word seems to be there so that Wells himself could say to anyone who might object: "I didn't say that, my character did." In any case, Cabal's cause is clear: to conquer "all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time." Reason shall reign everywhere and there will no longer be mystery anywhere. In case you haven't gotten the idea yet, Cabal knows how we should all live, and we must be made to live in his way. Again and again throughout Things to Come, he declares the superiority of his ideas, and he won't let anything stand in the way of his reshaping the world to meet his vision. Does that sound familiar? It should, because we have seen and continue to see the same thing in aspiring, incipient, and actual tyrants the world over, including among the current candidates for president from one of our major political parties. Anyway, this is why I call Cabal the true villain of Things to Come. He is arrogant, certain that he is right, that his ideas are right, that other men must live as he wishes them to live. He is a subscriber to a priori systems of thought, systems that have, when brought about in the real world, resulted in the deaths of countless millions of people. He is driven by a vision of how the world should be--a vision of practically religious intensity. In short, he is a true believer and an incipient tyrant. We should feel sorry for the people of his future world except that they are very likely to throw off his rule as people always do once they have had enough.

Now to my main point: I was struck by this final scene in the film because I saw in it a kind of inversion of the beginning scene of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which was first published in English in 1924. In Record One (Chapter One), a notice appears in the State newspaper:
"In another hundred and twenty days the building of the Integral will be completed. The great historic hour is near, when the first Integral will rise into the limitless space of the universe. One hundred years ago your heroic ancestors subjected the earth to the power of the United State. (2) A still more glorious task is before you: the integration of the indefinite equation of the Cosmos by the use of the glass, electric, fire-breathing Integral. Your mission is to subjugate to the grateful yoke of reason the unknown beings who live on other planets, and who are perhaps still in the primitive state of freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically faultless happiness, our duty will be to force them to be happy." (3)
A sentence bears repeating: "Your mission is to subjugate to the grateful yoke of reason the unknown beings who live on other planets, and who are perhaps still in the primitive state of freedom."

That is what Cabal has in mind, I think, in Things to Come, first in regards to the society led by the warlord known as The Boss, played by Ralph Richardson, then, in the closing moments of the film, to the entire universe. Things to Come reaches its end. Then We begins. The latter can be seen as a kind of continuation or extrapolation of the former. The mission of the crew of the Integral is the same as Cabal's mission: to conquer the universe using reason as a weapon. Cabal, then, is Zamyatin's Well-Doer, in other translations called Benefactor, and the society he envisions is one in which reason, science, and technology are the ultimate arbiters of all things. By the way, the last sentence in We is this: For reason must prevail. We not only begins as Things to Come ends, it also ends as Things to Come ends.

The progressive mind in general is lacking in irony, more than that, in an understanding of human nature. So, too, was Wells at this late date. That seems clear to me. I don't know whether he ever read Zamyatin's book. Probably not. It may not have mattered anyway. Once progressive ideas become fixed in the mind, they seldom become unfixed. (Just look at Crazy Bernie: a hundred and fifty years old and still shouting and growling about the evils of all of those rich people who are not he and his wife.) Even if Wells had read We, he may still have written his screenplay the way it has come down to us, failing all the while to understand that his ideas and his story had already been rendered obsolete by the cutting and prescient satire of We.

Notes
(1) There are faint echoes of this line in Neil Armstrong's words upon setting foot on the moon: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."
(2) Note the singular: the United State, not the United States. In some translations, it's called the One State.
(3) I have the Dutton paperback edition (D39). The quote comes from page 3. (D39 sounds like the name of a character in We.)

I saw the commercials for the TR7 before I saw the movie Things to Come. The phrase "The Shape of Things to Come" became associated in my mind with the car first. I think that was the opposite of what Triumph had in mind: it was supposed to invoke memory of the movie, which was based on a previous novel by Wells called The Shape of Things to Come (1933). The idea, I guess, is that here is a car for the future. Technology has made it this way. Technology and the future are good.

Finally, I have not read The Shape of Things to Come. I have read a description of it, though, and it seems to be a different kind of story, perhaps not so naïve, perhaps a little more skeptical of progressive ideas and the possibility of building a future Utopia. Maybe someone who has read it can tell us more.

Original text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley