First published in 1943, Perelandra by C.S. Lewis is an astonishing work of the imagination. It is the middle book of the author's Space Trilogy and superior, I think, to the first, Out of the Silent Planet, from 1938. (In those five years, Europe went from the Anschluss and Kristallnacht to the slaughter at Stalingrad and the growing lethality and horror of Auschwitz: could real-world events have led Lewis to ever greater insight and power in the writing of his book?) The influence of A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay (1920) is here, but there is also something of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian novels and other utopian, anthropological, or ethnographic fiction in Perelandra, and in Lewis' trilogy as a whole. Avatar (2009), made in contrast by a muddleheaded atheist, agnostic, or whatever-ist, is from the same mold. Avatar is pretty execrable, though, again in contrast to The Space Trilogy.
In fantasy, men often go native. Civilization, after all, has its discontents. The problem for us is that no matter how hard we try--no matter how much slumming, slum tourism, poverty porn (1), Mardi Gras or Carnaval do Brasil, tattooing, piercing, scarring, mushroom eating, or other primitive experience we might chase after--we can't get back to that time before the apple. In our ignorance and nostalgia, we strive for Paradise-on-Earth--for Utopia--not realizing that such a thing is now and will forever be beyond our reach. Our Creator made Eden. We are not capable of remaking it for ourselves, despite all of our aspirations to godhood or delusions of godlike power and wisdom we might hold. The people of Perelandra--its Lady and King--still live before the apple, though, and it is this state of grace that Weston seeks to ruin. As he says, "The King [the one man on Perelandra] must be forced to be free." (Chapter 10) (2)
I have written before about the uncanny valley, a supposedly new concept but one foreseen, it seems to me, by C.S. Lewis in Perelandra. Weston, formerly a human being, has become transformed into something demonic or satanic:
Ransom kept his eyes fixed upon the enemy, but it took no notice of him. Its eyes moved like the eyes of a living man but it was hard to be sure what it was looking at, or whether it really used the eyes as organs of vision at all. One got the impression of a force that cleverly kept the pupils of those eyes fixed in a suitable direction while the mouth talked but which, for its own purpose, used wholly different modes of perception. [. . .] It was impossible to point to any particular motion which was definitely non-human. Ransom had the sense of watching an imitation of living motions which had been very well studied and was technically correct: but somehow it lacked the master touch. And he was chilled with an inarticulate, night-nursery horror of the thing he had to deal with--the man-aged corpse, the bogey, the Un-man. (Chapter 9)
All of this takes place as Ransom, the Lady, and the Un-man ride on the floating islands of Venus, over swells and into deep valleys . . . uncanny valleys. (The islands in Avatar float, too, but in the air instead of upon water.)
I find that passage chilling, too: its author, being not a materialist but a believer, knew down in his bones and blood and soul what evil is, what we are up against on our own planet of quarantine, and that there is indeed an Enemy among us. Now here we are in the twenty-first century inviting him into our lives, most obviously in the form of transhumanism.
We have our machines and gaze into their screens, wanting and hoping to see ourselves in some perfected or ideal form there. Weston shows the Lady of Perelandra a mirror. She sees her own face for the first time. She shrinks from it, her own face:
"My face--out there--looking at me. Am I growing older [i.e., falling away from innocence] or is it something else? I feel . . . I feel . . . my heart is beating too hard. I am not warm. What is it?" [. . . ]
"What is it?" she repeated.
"It is called Fear," said Weston's mouth. [. . . ] "Now that you know Fear, you see that it must be you who shall taste it on behalf of your race. You know the King will not. You do not wish him to. But there is no cause for fear in this little thing: rather of joy. What is fearful in it?"
"Things being two when they are one," replied the Lady decisively. "That thing" (she pointed at the mirror) "is me and not me."
"But if you do not look you will never know how beautiful you are."
"It comes into my mind, Stranger," she answered, "that a fruit does not eat itself, and a man cannot be together with himself." [Emphasis added; from Chapter 10.]
Not only did C.S. Lewis understand and foresee the uncanny valley, he also foresaw our smartphones, our social media, our whole selfie culture. Now we have slow-motion selfie video so that we can watch ourselves in all our glory. Now, also, there is a television show called Black Mirror. The title refers to the omnipresent smartphone screen, the mirror in which we strive to be together with ourselves and to eat of the fruit that is ourselves.
Finally, in answer to the collectivist Weston and collectivists everywhere, including no doubt H.G. Wells and his hero--our villain, or at least my villain--Cabal, there is this:
"Because we are with Him [the Creator], each of us is at the centre. It is not as in a city of the Darkened World where they say that each must live for all. In His city all things are made for each. When He died in the Wounded World He died not for men, but for each man. If each man had been made the only man made, He would have done no less." [Emphasis added; from Chapter 17.]Notes
(1) Here's a pertinent quote from Anthony Trollope: "Poverty, to be picturesque, should be rural. Suburban misery is as hideous as it is pitiable." From The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1847), a novel about my father's and grandfather's people, published in the midst of famine but taking place before it. We still think of poverty as picturesque, but in our age, urban poverty--dense, overcrowded, miserable, dirty, urban poverty--has become picturesque, too.
(2) "The King must be forced to be free": an echo and inversion of a sentence from We: "If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically faultless happiness, our duty will be to force them to be happy." Forced freedom, forced happiness, forced equality--things like these form a pattern in our understanding of the mind of the tyrant.
To be continued . . .
|When it came to publishing Perelandra in paperback, Avon got there first with this 1950 edition, subtitled World of the New Temptation. Unfortunately, the identity of the cover artist is unknown.|
|Finally, the Macmillan edition of 1965 with cover art by Bernard Symancyk.|
Original text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley