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.
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."
"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 Lucas' Star 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 . . .
(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, 2023 Terence E. Hanley