C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, like most of his fiction, communicates profound theological truths through a compelling story. “Out of the Silent Planet,” “Perelandra,” and “That Hideous Strength” present wise and cutting insights that have established them as valuable resources for Christian adults. But thoughtful teenagers with good reading skills can also understand and benefit from them.
I should know; I read the space trilogy as a high-school student and loved it. “Perelandra” is still my favorite of Lewis’ novels. I enjoyed discovering Lewis’ colorful imagined worlds and seeing the theological ideas I had read about in his nonfiction play out in fiction. I didn’t fully grasp everything in the books, but I understood enough to appreciate them.
The first book, “Out of the Silent Planet,” follows a scholar named Ransom who is kidnapped and taken to the planet Malacandra, which we call Mars. He must learn to survive on the alien planet. The plot is simple and serves largely to showcase the rich, beautiful world that Lewis imagined.
In “Surprised by Joy,” his spiritual autobiography, Lewis wrote that the books of George McDonald had baptized his imagination, showing him the transcendent in ordinary things. “Out of the Silent Planet” baptizes our concept of the planets, and of space itself. Lewis depicts space not as dark and cold, but filled with the light of the stars and the glory of the sun. Ransom comes to think of the area beyond the planets not as “space” but as “the heavens,” an ocean of light more full of life even than the planets. The planet Malacandra is also beautiful, and this beauty turns out to reflect its goodness. Expecting the hostile aliens common in science fiction, Ransom is surprised to discover that Malacandra’s inhabitants are naturally virtuous in contrast to his own species, which is “bent” by evil.
In the second book, “Perelandra,” Ransom is sent to the planet Perelandra, or Venus, where he meets the Perelandran equivalent of Eve, who is separated from the first man and tempted by an evil being. The setting is perfect for this reimagining of Genesis 3 as a paradise of islands clinging to the surface of the water, covered with exquisite fruits and adoring animals. Its other strengths include the thoughtful dialogue and the varied ways the theme of contentment is built into the story. The vision of glory at the end is particularly memorable.
As a teenager, I found “Perelandra’s” demon-possessed villain very disturbing. The story is not graphic; I was troubled not by violence but by the villain’s determination to hurt anything he came in contact with—human, animal or plant—using any means necessary, ranging from rational arguments to physical force to childish teasing. On Perelandra, good and evil are revealed with startling clarity. In a culture bent on erasing the idea of evil, it may be beneficial to be disturbed by things that should be disturbing. Still, young, sensitive readers should use caution.
“That Hideous Strength” is distinctly different from the first two books: The primary characters and setting are different, and the writing style shifts drastically, reflecting the influence of Lewis’ friend Charles Williams. It is a difficult read, and in high school I didn’t know what to do with it. It deals with broad social issues that I didn’t have the background to understand. I also made the mistake of rushing through the first few chapters to get to the “interesting part.” As a result, I missed some important plot points that would have helped me make sense of the rest of the book.
Although the sci-fi elements don’t enter the story until several chapters in, ordinary actions lay the foundation for everything that happens later. This is deliberate: The point is that even mundane elements of everyday life are filled with spiritual significance. Despite its challenges, I believe this book can be good for teens if they take it slowly and carefully.
“That Hideous Strength” focuses on a young married couple, Mark and Jane Studdock. Mark, a scholar, is offered a post at Britain’s National Institute for Coordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E. As he rises through the ranks, Mark discovers that its quest for scientific progress hides darker purposes. Meanwhile, Jane is drawn into a quite different group of people residing at a manor called St. Anne’s.
The plot weaves back and forth between these two groups, one dominated by a desire for power, disguised as scientific advancement, the other by determination to do what is right. While “Out of the Silent Planet” and “Perelandra” depict good and evil on other planets, “That Hideous Strength” shows what they look like in 20th-century England. It’s not hard to apply those lessons to 21st-century America; N.I.C.E. resembles a certain other organization that arranges the killing of human beings to use their organs for experiments.
Still, there is very little objectionable content in any of these books. Some violence occurs, but it is not described explicitly. “That Hideous Strength” suggests sex between married couples at the end.
All three books have interesting settings and compelling plots. They build on each other, but each one can be read alone. I heartily recommend them for teens who enjoy speculative fiction that inspires deep thought.
Image copyright Scribner Book Company.
Elizabeth Sunshine is an MTS student at the University of Notre Dame with a focus on biblical studies.