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.
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 . . .

(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


  1. I apologize in advance for a half-formed response.

    Was Lewis, like his friend Tolkien, a nature lover? I don't mean in a pagan sense. I know Tolkien was what we might now dub a conservationist and not a modern environmentalist.

    I bring it up because, reading Lewis words now about man as a spreading plague through the cosmos, I hear echoes in modern scientific and sf circles about contaminating the universe (specifically, through bacterial contamination of planetary probes). You can also see it in all the hypothetical worries about insuring a just political order in extraterrestrial colonies.

    Still, I take your point Lewis' opposition to the "Time enough to rest in the grave" sort of hero in Things to Come.

    Your mention of Gnosticism brings to mind Harold Bloom. I have read none of his work. He did do some criticism of sf, and I understand he was generally eager to find gnostic meanings in text. I don't know how that influenced his views on sf. I find it a curious attitude for a critic who claimed to only look at texts and not the identities of their author or historical context.

    1. Hi, Randy,

      No need to apologize. Half of what I write is only half-formed.

      I suspect that C.S. Lewis was a nature lover, but not in the way we might think. He was a Christian first, in all things it seems to me. Nature is part of the Creation; it must lead to the Creator but never take his place or block the path between us and him. Those are my words, not Lewis's. For his words, have a look at a quote from him at this URL:

      I would not call Lewis a pessimist. How could he have been if was a Christian? But he doesn't seem to have been so naively optimistic as H.G. Wells in Things To Come, either, nor as so many of the optimistic or utopian science fiction writers who came after.

      It seems to me that science fiction became less optimistic after 1960, maybe after 1970, definitely after 1980, when what I call Gothic science fiction came along. We don't have the optimism of Wells, but we also don't have his faith in or love of humanity (which seems to have been an abstraction more than a conviction). We more likely see ourselves as a plague--upon the Earth and likely to spread across the galaxy in the same way.

      In giving up on God, I think we have come to hate ourselves. Just look at all of the people who wish for humanity to be extinguished, or, as you pointed out, confined to Earth. The current concept of a quarantine is nothing like the one described by C.S. Lewis, though. Strange that people who hate would arrive at the same conclusion as one who loved.

      Harold Bloom (who died two weeks ago) wrote on science fiction, as you point out. He was also a self-identifying gnostic (or Gnostic) and a nonbeliever. I don't know if that's the same thing as an atheist, though. Anyway, he wrote on Gnosticism, too, including in a book called The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (1992, 2006). In that book (I haven't read it), he evidently proposed a unified-field theory of his subject, saying that American religion is essentially Gnostic. If that conclusion converges on Leslie Fiedler's own unified-field theory that American literature is essentially Gothic, then a Gothic, Gnostic science-fiction or fantasy would seem our basic and inescapable form. No wonder we love this stuff so much.

      See what I mean about my half-formed ideas?

      Thanks for reading and writing.


  2. I've heard a lot of different definitions of Gnosticism.

    When reading about the Cathars of medieval France, claimed by some to be gnostic, I've heard the following tenets: disgust for the body and sexual procreation, the idea that religious texts have hidden meanings known only to adepts, and that the creator of the world, the Demi-Urge, was an evil deity who created a corrupt world. (Supposedly, this also led to them thinking that the crucifixion should not be celebrated? Why are you celebrating the triumph of evil?)

    I've also heard a claim that gnosticism involves a belief that the deities of the world are shadows of a real god.

    It's a subject I've done no direct reading on. My suspicion is that "gnosticism" has a lot of different definitions. I see Wikipedia lists it as an umbrella term for a lot of different beliefs.

    One I hadn't come across is that there is no sin, only ignorance. That certainly seems a strain in some sf.

    On the political side, it seems to be more a reference to hidden meanings (the Leo Strauss school of political philosophy) in texts (dubious retrofittings of political philosophy and ideas). I'd say progressive politics definitely exhibits a disgust with the body behind its denial of biology. Or, more precisely, a hubris that natural (and Nature's God, if you're a believer) law can be denied.

    Of course, PKD is frequently cited as gnostic, especially The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

    I think Brian Aldiss had the notion that sf was essentially gothic. I don't think that's really defensible for the entire genre. But, in thinking about what I've read in sf even in the past year, you can see the gothic in a lot of it.

    I suppose gnosticism might be transmuted into all those stories of heroes discovering the true nature of the world or some vast conspiracy. Perhaps superior mutants are our version of the Cathar perfecti.

    I've read a lot of Wells' sf, but one of the few I haven't read is The Shape of Things to Come. But you make me want to get out my DVD and hear Raymond Massey and Ralph Richardson go on about Wings Over the World and the Boss and the deadly earnest ending.

    Frederik Pohl once wrote an essay about how many times, as a young sf fan, he went to see Things to Come in the theater.

    However, I'll definitely be interested in any of your future thoughts on gnosticism and gothic in sf.

  3. Dear Randy,

    I think you know a lot more about Gnosticism as I do. I first began to read about it not long ago in reference to the new kinds of gnostic thought popping up in our current version of an insane world. It didn't take me long to discover Eric Voegelin and his ideas on the subject. In reading about him and them, I think I could see a kind of gnostic core to the socialist/statist/progressive program that has driven so much of the history of the last century. It seems to me that the most salient of these ideas are that there can be a special kind of knowledge--a revealed knowledge first made available to the adept--that can be used first to understand the world, then to reshape it. Within this idea is the very strong implications that: a) the Creation is flawed; b) an awareness of the gnosis makes certain people god-like in their power, perception, and intelligence; and c) the Creation can be made more perfect if only we follow these god-like people and implement their ideas on earth and within history. A disgust at or disdain for the body seems secondary--essential but secondary. One criticism of Voegelin is that his description of what is Gnostic is too broad and so can be applied just about anywhere. Maybe so. But it seems to me that people as varied as Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, L. Ron Hubbard, Elizabeth Warren the Fake Indian, and various Kennedy Assassination Conspiracists ("I know the truth and so the whole world now makes sense to me!") can be considered Gnostic. Journalists and novelists, especially science fiction writers, might easily fall into Gnosticism if they're not careful.

    Part Two follows.