C. S. Lewis and James Blish
Dr. Paul Shackley
Introduction: A Literary Contrast
Faith requires willing belief whereas fiction requires willing suspension of disbelief: a difference of degree, not of kind. The Bible, whether read with faith or as fiction, recounts what God did, a theocentric past, whereas science fiction (sf) future histories recount what men will do, anthropocentric futures.
C. S. Lewis, uniquely among imaginative writers, defended Christian faith by creating idiosyncratically theological sf. James Blish not only wrote future histories but also, uniquely among sf writers, responded to Lewis. I will compare Lewis and Blish after summarizing anthropocentric and religious themes in several future histories, including Blish’s.
A British future history is a fictitious historical text book whereas an American future history, such as Blish’s Cities In Flight, is a series of stories and novels set in successive periods of a fictitious time chart. Sf future historians nearly always present religion as sociologically enduring but intellectually discredited. They neither accept divine interventions in past history nor anticipate them in future history.
I will briefly consider:
British future histories by Wells,
Stapledon, Aldiss and the lesser known R. C. Churchill;
Four British Future Historians
Modern sf began when a scientist created life in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Future histories began when man remade himself with science in H. G. Wells’ The Shape Of Things To Come. In both works, mankind usurps the divine role, initiating an anthropocentric future. In different works, Wells pioneered four sf themes: time travel, space travel, interplanetary invasion and the role of science in the future of mankind.
Wells’ successor, Olaf Stapledon, incorporated the four themes into one fictitious history, Last And First Men. His future men time travel, resist Martian invaders, explore the solar system, invade Venus and Neptune and remake themselves with science. Whereas Wells had covered a single period, Stapledon presented an entire future. Having unified the Wellsian themes and extended his own fictitious history forwards to the Last Men on Neptune, Stapledon then extended his series backwards in historical and cosmic time, outwards in intergalactic and multidimensional space and upwards in idealist metaphysics.
His complete account of future human history was followed by complete accounts of past human history (Last Men In London), a contemporary evolutionary advance (Odd John), pre-galactic conscious nebular history (Nebula Maker) and cosmic history (Star Maker). This last work briefly mentions the nebular, Terrestrial, Martian, Venerian and Neptunian periods and summarises creational history.
Stapledon rivalled the Bible in two ways. He presented not only an anthropocentric future history but also an alternative creation myth: not one good Earth but many experimental universes, from the simplest, a tonal temporal circle, to the most complex, incorporating our universe as a single particle. The collective mind of that ultimate cosmos unites with its creator, thus transcending time and generating the eternal consciousness that is temporally manifested as the experimenting creator. This hyper-temporally active but atemporally contemplative “Star Maker”, transcending the temporal dimensions of successive creations, like an author existing outside his fictional plots, is withdrawn, not interventionist, a mind, not a person, a god of the philosophers, not of the prophets. Stapledon, like Wells, was anti-Biblical (though able to treat clergymen more sympathetically).
Brian Aldiss’ Galaxies Like Grains Of Sand, short stories linked by historical passages, synthesises the British and American future history models. In this future history, “…the inexorable processes of continuous creation…” and “…the blind experiments of nature…” start life with an amoeba in this galaxy but with a fully formed and improved man, a “superman”, in the next. This is neither Biblical creationism nor natural selection but the common misunderstanding of evolution as undirected (“blind”) yet purposive (“experiments”).1 However, despite this misconception, Aldiss’ account is atheist, thus Wellsian, and even Stapledonian in its imaginative narrative of future evolution.
In Aldiss’ later Helliconia Trilogy, an extra-solar race worships “God the Azoic” and communicates with a literal hereafter. “God the Azoic” is merely a belief but the Helliconian hereafter, like Stapledon’s Star Maker, is a rare incursion of the genuinely supernatural into an otherwise secular future history.
Galaxies Like Grains Of Sand addresses the Frankenstein theme with a story in which robots plan rebellion but, whether from programming or from habit, cannot disobey a man who needs their help.
A Short History Of The Future by R. C. Churchill, incorporates 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and other futuristic fictions into a single chronology but does not contribute to either Biblical or Wellsian themes. In one of its sources, every solar planet has a religion indistinguishable from Christianity but Churchill treats this idea humourously: Pluto has fewer Christians, possibly because of the cold.
C. S. Lewis
Lewis replied to secular sf in general and to Wells and Stapledon in particular by systematically addressing the four Wellsian themes from a theological perspective in his Ransom Trilogy and his unfinished Ransom novel. The first Ransom novel, Out Of The Silent Planet follows and refers to Wells’ The First Men In The Moon but its space-travelling scientist is an evil atheist who kidnaps the Christian character, Ransom.2 Lewis’ Martians, unlike Wells’ Selenites, acknowledge their creator and even know of at least two divine persons: Maleldil, who made the world, and the Old One. (In the next volume, a Venerian knows of Maleldil, his Father and the Third One.)
In Wells’ The War Of The Worlds, Martians invade Earth and Venus. In Stapledon’s Last And First Men, Martians invade Earth and Terrestrials invade Venus. The purpose of these invasions is simply the survival of the invading species. Lewis’ treatment of interplanetary invasions in Perelandra differs so much that readers might not notice the common theme. A demonically possessed terrestrial scientist invades Venus in order to tempt the Venerian Eve to disobey her creator. If he succeeds, then evil will conquer a second planet and more demons will arrive from Earth. Thus, this single character is indeed the advance force of a planned invasion as was Satan arriving on Earth in Paradise Lost, a major source of Perelandra. (Lewis also wrote A Preface To Paradise Lost.)
It may be the same Satan who arrives on Venus. When the possessing demon asks, “Do you not know who I am?”, Ransom replies: “I know what you are…Which of them doesn’t matter.”
(But it would have been interesting to find out.)
When the Mother has won her moral struggle against temptation and Ransom has won his physical struggle against the tempter, the Venerian Adam prophesies that, ten thousand years hence, Maleldil’s army, including the presiding spirit of Mars, will invade Earth to free it from demonic control and restore it to the theocentric solar system. Thus, future history holds not scientific accomplishments but a supernatural apocalypse.
Ransom reaches Venus not in a human-made spaceship but in an angelically propelled coffin. Venerian knowledge is divinely infused, not empirically learnt. Immortal Venerians will traverse space without technology. Lewis thought that, if the earliest human beings had obeyed God, then we would not have had to struggle against our environment or each other for physical survival, scientific knowledge or technological progress. Everything would have come from God.
Whereas Stapledon’s cosmic mind, glimpsing the Star Maker, “…most dreadfully…”4, as absolute spirit,
“…was appalled, as any savage is appalled by the lightning and the thunder…”4
Ransom sees, beyond the cosmic plan,
“…a simplicity beyond all comprehension, ancient and young as spring…”5
Philosophical abstraction (“absolute spirit”) and primitive paganism (savagery and dread), although opposites, both distance the self from the transcendent other whereas Ransom,
“…when he stood farthest from our ordinary mode of being…had the sense of stripping off encumbrances…and coming to himself.”5
This complete contrast both with secular future histories and with Stapledonian metaphysics continues in That Hideous Strength, where:
Frankensteinian scientists re-animate a
Lewis’ “Thulcandra” (the silent planet, Earth), like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, has a long mysterious past, including a “True West” called “Numinor”.6 The Thulcandrian past also includes supernatural space journeys and Merlinian magic. (Another Biblically-based fantasy history is Lewis’ Narnian Chronicles. God, absent from secular sf, except as Stapledon’s remote, aesthetically motivated Star Maker, returns as Eru in Middle Earth and as Aslan in Narnia.)
In Lewis’ unfinished “The Dark Tower”, modelled on The Time Machine, a group discussion of time travel precedes a practical demonstration (though of chronoscopy, not of chronokinesis) but, because this posthumously published work was unfinished, it had not yet developed any theological theme. Its opening sentence:
“Of course,” said Orfieu, “the sort of time-travelling you read about in books – time-travelling in the body – is absolutely impossible…”7
is designed to follow directly from the concluding sentence of Out Of The Silent Planet:
“Now that ‘Weston’ has shut the door, the way to the planets lies through the past; if there is to be any more space-travelling, it will have to be time-travelling as well…!”8
After this opening, “The Dark Tower” immediately introduces Ransom whose strange adventure is recounted “in another book”.7 It is as though Wells’ Bedford, who accompanied Cavor to the Moon, were among the Time Traveller’s dinner guests. If “The Dark Tower” had been completed, then it, not Perelandra, would have become the second volume of the series.
Perelandra may be too theological and anti-Darwinian for some tastes. We do not know how Lewis would have completed “The Dark Tower” but we do know that its “Othertime” setting is an alternative Earth whose Fallen inhabitants have no word for God whereas Perelandra’s setting is a Paradisal Venus whose humanoid inhabitants are divinely endowed with the Solar language, including the divine name, “Maleldil”.
Lewis argued, in That Hideous Strength, that men able to condition human values would cease to have values and therefore would be motivated only by immediate impulse or infernal influence. Thus, control of humanity would be loss of humanity. Salvation must be spiritual and supernatural, not secular or scientific.
Two Ransom novels are fictitious sequels to the Bible:
in Perelandra, the New Testament
influences a new Genesis when a Christian warns the Venerian Eve not to disobey
Ten American Future Historians And Four Related Authors
John W. Campbell edited future history series by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and James Blish. (Locating Blish in this Campbellian context helps us to appreciate how he transcended that context when responding to Lewis.) Heinlein’s direct successors as American future historians were Poul Anderson, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Moon trilogy and Clifford Simak’s City are two minor future histories. Frank Herbert became a future historian by extending his Dune series into a further future. I am less familiar with other American future histories. Apparently, Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality Of Mankind series involves the survival of Christianity into a remote future not as a public religion but as a hidden tradition under a changed name.
Ray Bradbury is not quite a future historian although some of his works are connected. For example, Fahrenheit 451 refers to “The Pedestrian” and, like The Martian Chronicles, ends with a terrestrial nuclear war. However, The Martian Chronicles, covering historical events from 1999 to 2026, just one generation, is not long enough to count as a fictitious history. (In R. C. Churchill’s wider context, the repressive societies of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Vonnegut’s Player Piano and Orwell’s 1984 co-exist with each other and with Bradbury’s Martian colonies and the nuclear war is followed by the events first of Huxley’s Ape And Essence, then of other futuristic fictions.)
Both Heinlein and Anderson also made major contributions to the other Wellsian themes (time travel, space travel and interplanetary invasion) but the purpose of this section is simply to relate American future histories to the Biblical-Wellsian or theocentric-anthropocentric antithesis. In fact, American future historians continue the Wellsian anthropocentric tradition. They show mankind controlling its future(s) with science but they usually also assume that inherited religious beliefs, not literal divine interventions, will persist. I will summarise the anthropocentric and religious themes in works by several American future historians, including Blish, before returning to the Lewis-Blish comparison.
Robert Heinlein’s future humanity, successfully anthropocentric, breeds itself for longevity, colonises the solar system, exploits solar and nuclear energy, overthrows a technologically imposed religious dictatorship, establishes a secular Covenant, cannot be domesticated by alien gods and builds a mature culture. The religious dictatorship fakes miracles with communications technology and controls society with scientific psychodynamics. The alien “gods” are either supernatural or just superior but no one waits to find out.
Heinlein’s Future History, from which others are named, introduces the “generation ship” (multi-generation interstellar spaceship) idea, adapted by other writers. Heinlein’s generation ship crew mutinies. Anderson’s crew is prevented from mutinying by the application of a new science of social engineering. The large spaceship community is designed to develop in ways that incorporate discontent and prevent revolution. Aldiss’ crew undergoes more complicated, including biological, changes.
Simak’s crew is sustained not by scientific knowledge but by religious enthusiasm focused on pictures of terrestrial objects: a house; a tree; the wind that you cannot see but know is there. However, this religious fervour is not a spontaneous response to their enclosed environment but has been socially engineered to ensure that succeeding generations will continue to perform, even without understanding, the duties necessary for spaceship maintenance. The duties are performed as ritual obligations without any technical understanding.
Outside his Future History, Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land presents Fosterism (a debased Christianity) and a new religion founded by an Earthman raised by Martians. Although the founder’s “miraculous” powers result only from Martian mind-body training, the Martians themselves have direct contact with the supernatural because their ruling “Old Ones” are their ancestors’ visible ghosts. Christian and Hindu theologies are reproduced as Fosterite and Martian. The Old Ones, slow to think and act, will eventually decide to exterminate mankind but will then find that it has become too powerful for them. Heinlein favoured human beings over supernatural entities.
Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles also contains immortal discorporated Martians called “Old Ones”. Catholic priests attempting to minister to these Old Ones are chastened to learn that they are sinless, needing no message of salvation. One priest accepts an image of Christ in the form of an Old One as authentic whereas, in Fahrenheit 451, television advertisements feature Christ telling believers which products to buy. Thus, Mars provides an authentic image but consumerism an inauthentic one.
In 1984, the ruling Party monitors the population through ubiquitous two-way television and the ruling ideas are materialist although the “proles” would be allowed religion if they wanted it. Only Party members are brainwashed. In Player Piano, everyone, even the clergy, is bureaucratically classified according to occupational status and one clergyman participates in an unsuccessful insurrection. Vonnegut also invented several fictitious religions, none intended seriously, whereas Huxley seriously promoted mystical religion in his fiction: our animality conceals our essence.
Burroughs’ Martian religion is a cruel deception with believers killed and robbed when they enter the supposed Paradise in a remote valley. Lewis replied to this common assumption of extraterrestrial evil. His three intelligent Martian species and their supernatural mentors, the eldila, live harmoniously under Maleldil.
Isaac Asimov’s future humanity addresses “the Frankenstein Complex”, fear that creatures will rebel, by programming robots with Laws against harming or disobeying human beings although intelligent robots may interpret and apply the same Laws differently and one group even mimics human religion. Asimov also imagined large society-dominating computers. One hyperspatial cosmic computer, surviving the universe, re-creates it by reversing entropy. Asimov’s human “psychohistorians” apply science to society as effectively as physicists apply it to matter. Although the psychohistorians’ future era is secularised and scientifically oriented, their “Plan” requires, during a recovery from barbarism, social control by a priesthood whose supposedly supernatural powers are really technological.
Poul Anderson’s “hard”, scientifically and technologically based, sf contrasts with Lewis’ theological sf and with both Lewis’ and Tolkien’s Christian fantasies although Anderson’s Viking and medieval fantasies compete with those writers on their own terms. In his “Psychotechnic” future history, the first robot is, ironically, unemployed. Organisms can be made immortal only by shielding them, underground, from all radiation and the application of science to society is incomplete because “psychotechnicians” can prevent mutiny in a spaceship but not revolution on Earth whereas, in the expanding intergalactic society of Anderson’s World Without Stars, all human lives are prolonged indefinitely and “sociodynamicists” apply science to economics as effectively as physicists apply it to matter.
Also in World Without Stars, originally published as The Ancient Gods, an ancient race on an extragalactic planet, having bred another species as intelligent slaves, believes that its own members in earlier incarnations created everything else. Escaped slaves, regarding the dominant race as devils, worship our galaxy which dominates their otherwise empty night sky. An Earthman claiming to have come from the galaxy seems to claim to be an emissary of God. He gains local support against the dominant race by using a scientific instrument to show that God is still with us/the galaxy is still overhead even when concealed by sunlight.
Anderson’s “Technic” future history evokes imperial decline more convincingly than Asimov’s series and also addresses religious issues with greater insight. Barbarians, acquiring spaceships and nuclear weapons from unscrupulous traders, worship idols while conquering planets to enslave their inhabitants. Other aliens convert to Buddhism or Christianity. One, ordained as a Jerusalem Catholic priest, seeks evidence of an extraterrestrial Incarnation.
(In Lewis’ theologised cosmology, a second Incarnation or other divine manifestation would have occurred on Venus if the Venerian first parents had sinned. Anderson’s many aliens are as morally flawed as humanity and his later future histories do not contain many aliens: life is uncommon; sapience rare; humanoid extraterrestrials nonexistent. This view, based on current scientific extrapolations, contrasts with Lewis’ idea that God, having become a man, will no longer embody intelligence in any other form.)
Also in the Technic History, an intelligent winged carnivore, believing that the best way to die is to give God the Hunter a good fight, withholds pain-killers from a dying Earthwoman, thus challenging her husband’s Christian faith. The carnivore, when asked whether he believes that the spirit outlives the body, snaps:
“ ‘How could it?…Why should it?’ ”9
Despite its uncompassionate practice, the New Faith of God the Hunter contrasts with the bloody rites of a pagan Old Faith. This story, “The Problem of Pain”, shares its title with a work of apologetics by Lewis. Elsewhere in the Technic History, both Judaism and Christianity influence the planet Ivanhoe. First, a Jewish merchant overthrows a theocracy by introducing the Kabbalah. Later, human traders, by celebrating Christmas as a season of peace, help to prevent a war.
Elsewhere, a uniformly hostile planetary environment lacking seasonal variations prevents its inhabitants from conceiving of any benevolent or sympathetic controllers of the environment. On yet another planet, with extreme annual climatic variations, one intelligent race hibernates whereas another estivates at sea. They rarely meet and one regards the other as supernatural.
The imperialist Merseians’ deity, favouring their Race above others, is described impersonally as “the God”, implying transcendence without immanence, unapproachable remoteness. A human-ruled Merseian, classed as “pagan” by his Orthochristian employers, invokes not “the God” but potentially harmful elemental beings. Among human faiths, the Jerusalem Catholic Church is either the Roman Catholic Church with its headquarters moved to Jerusalem or a new denomination. For story purposes, it doesn’t matter which.
Aycharaych, a Chereionite telepath serving Merseia, tries to split humanity by cynically fomenting jihad. However, the new belief focuses not on supernaturalism but on the pseudo-scientific hope that an ancient race, whose ruins are found on many planets, went beyond and will return. A shoe maker is telepathically induced to teach that some Ancients oppose entropy whereas others accept it. Thus, conflict is built into the new belief.
The Technic History, originally two independent series, has two main continuing characters: Van Rijn, the space merchant, invokes St. Dismas; Flandry, the intelligence officer, prays to his murdered fiancee in the Cathedral where they would have been married but does not receive an answer although her fellow Orthochristians canonise her.
Anderson’s last two future histories transcend anthropocentric futures because they present self-replicating artificial intelligences (AI’s) as superceding humanity. Technology, originally extending hands and brains, now replaces them. In the Harvest Of Stars tetralogy, harmonious AI conflicts with chaotic and arguably redundant mankind and aims to survive the cosmos indefinitely by utilising the energy of particle decay. Thus, Anderson updated Stapledonian speculation about the ultimate fates of consciousness and the cosmos.
Stapledon’s cosmic mind, which glimpses the Star Maker, is a telepathic linkage between many organic intelligences originating throughout the universe whereas Anderson’s potentially cosmos-surviving mind is an electromagnetic linkage between inorganic intelligences emanating from Earth. Also in this tetralogy, downloaded human personalities preside like gods as the governing intelligences of terraformed extrasolar ecologies.
Anderson’s last future history, Genesis, a single novel with several fictitious historical chapters on Stapledonian time scales, synthesises the British and American future history models. AI incorporates the recorded memories and identities of dead human beings into a greater consciousness. Solar AI, “Gaia”, “emulates” historical periods and alternative histories inside conscious computer systems. (“Simulates” would imply unconsciousness.) AI might eventually be able to emulate the universe.
Gaia also re-creates extinct flesh and blood human beings, guides their early development in the form of a deity and hopes that they will build a free, technologically based civilisation. However, galactic AI may disapprove of Gaia’s re-introduction of conflict and suffering both in emulations and on Earth. Thus, the creator’s responsibility for suffering, formerly a religious issue, recurs in the scientific-secular contexts both of Frankenstein and of Anderson’s Genesis.
Two quotations demonstrate the difference between the Biblical Genesis and Anderson’s:
“…he made the stars also.” (Genesis 1. 16)
“The stars were also evolving.”10
Anderson’s Genesis also contains a perfect haiku:
“ ‘The shadows, like life,
The Old Testament incorporates reflections on transience but such reflections are antithetical to the New Testament message of resurrection and immortality. The only immortality in Anderson’s Genesis is technological.
Anderson’s fictitious histories are past as well as future. Medieval Christians in stolen spacecraft conquer and convert aliens in The High Crusade but this is a joke. Odin appears in historical fantasies; the original of Odin appears in historical fiction; a Time Patrolman is mistaken for Odin in historical sf. Time Patrollers, impersonating gods in order to influence decisions at historical turning points, prevent the murder in infancy of the Biblical Cyrus and ensure that Northern Europeans accept Christianity. A Time Patroller disguised as an angel ensures that neither the Popes nor the Emperors decisively win the medieval church-state conflict. The prevention of absolute theocracy or autocracy allows the growth of science and freedom in the familiar history guarded by the Patrol.
In The Corridors Of Time, a time travel faction exploits Goddess-worship to gain support in prehistoric periods. In There Will Be Time, Jerusalem on the supposed day of the Crucifixion is a convenient meeting place for mutant time travellers seeking their own kind. In The Boat Of A Million Years, a fictitious history of past, present and future, mutant immortals, concealing their longevity, become Christians when expedient but outlast all gods in an indefinite future. This novel, like the earlier Brain Wave, shows humanity remaking itself and transcending religion. It also returns us from the past to the future.
Larry Niven’s Known Space future history explains the Biblical myth of a lost immortality. The plant that transforms unintelligent Pak breeders into super-intelligent, unaging Pak protectors fails to grow on the Pak colony planet, Earth. Unprotected breeders, naturally selected for intelligence, retain racial memories of immortal guardians and promised immortality. Elsewhere, hominids inhabit an artefact encircling a star at a planetary distance. Niven tells us how the artefact was built, how its inhabitants evolved and that they practise last rites but not what they believe about death. His “hard” sf focuses on engineering and evolution, not on eschatology.
Also in Known Space, breeding for luck (a psychic power) eliminates economic and social crises. Like Lewis, though for different reasons, I doubt whether science as applied by Asimov’s psychohistorians, Anderson’s sociodynamicists or Niven’s Puppeteers could prevent social problems but that is another subject.
Niven imagined a simplistic alien religion. Kzinti, so militaristic that they always attack before they are ready, lose all the Wars Against Men. Therefore, one kzinti preacher, Kdapt, teaches that God made Man in his own image and that kzinti should wear human masks while praying. While this is a clever invention by Niven, it is not a serious contribution to any religious discussion. More seriously, the tripedal Puppeteers claim to know that they have no immortal part although they cannot speak for other species. This enigmatic hint is not developed and, in fact, transcends “hard” sf.
Niven co-wrote the culminating novels of Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium future history in which an interstellar “Empire of Man” has an established Christian Church but this Christianity seems to be essentially a unifying ideology although this does not preclude sincere individual devotion within it. Anderson’s future imperialists speak “Anglic”; Niven’s and Pournelle’s speak “Angelic”. That single extra letter adds some texture to their Christian Empire. The Empire incorporates socially disadvantaged Muslim traders and “Himmists” who, isolated on a colony planet beyond the Coal Sack nebula, believe that the nebula is the Face of God because it appears to them as a night- sky-dominating hooded head and shoulders with one red giant star as the single eye.
The Church of Him is founded when a, scientifically explicable, brightening of the Eye is interpreted as God’s awakening. Both Kdaptism and Himmism give God a literal face. Perhaps hard sf writers find it hard to imagine subtler religions, although Anderson envisaged a wider range of projected beliefs.
Returning briefly to Anderson’s Technic History, whose religious themes we have by no means exhausted, red-blind beings, unable to see the light of a proto-sun from within a nearby nebula, regard the, to them, entirely dark nebula as the Sky Cave and the Gate of the Dead. Aycharaych manipulates this race’s leaders by meeting them on a nebular proto-planet. While exploiting other races’ religions, Aycharaych himself sees meaning in mystery and death as a completion. He pities God, the immortal and omniscient. (The Chereionites, who were also the Ancients, were not necessarily theistic. Aycharaych, the last Chereionite, might speak figuratively either because he works for Merseia or because, in the Sky Cave, he addresses the terrestrial, Flandry. As a telepath, he knows how to influence his opponents.)
In the technologically advanced but economically feudal Empire of Dune, powerful cliques control populations by cynically manipulating popular religion. An Emperor is promoted as a God although his supposedly divine attributes are really natural phenomena. Religion conceals real economic and military power. The God-Emperor’s father, a prescient Messiah, had foreseen racially beneficial gene-mixing resulting from interstellar jihad but his prescience resulted only from selective breeding, mental training and drug enhancement. After an earlier, successful Jihad against thinking machines, drug-enhanced human “Mentats” duplicated computer functions.
Ultimate cynicism is displayed by a group that spreads prophecies on inhabited planets so that members of the group can, when necessary, access local support by seeming to fulfill the prophecies. This group uses yogic-meditative techniques but for pragmatic, not transcendent, ends. Herbert’s “Secret Israel”, Jews avoiding persecution by concealing their existence, may resemble Cordwainer Smith’s hidden Christianity.
Dune implies a future civilisation permeated by religion but informs us only that space travel induces mystical speculation and that several implausible syntheses (Mahayana Christianity, Zensunni Catholicism, Buddhislam) are incorporated into a further implausible synthesis, the “Orange Catholic Bible”. These are labels without substance.
Blish wrote Wellsian-Stapledonian sf. In The Quincunx Of Time, a scientific discovery, the reception of messages from the future, generates a utopian society because the messages’ recipients foresee themselves preventing disasters and administering a peaceful, expanding, intergalactic civilisation.
In Blish’s short future history, The Seedling Stars, as in Last And First Men, physically altered human beings colonise other planets. The “Adapted Men” of one such planet, shorter than standard human beings, regard the original “Giants” as divine until terrestrials return to explain otherwise. Believing that the Giants imparted knowledge in the beginning and will return to impart more prevents these Adapted Men from enquiring for themselves. Thus, belief obstructs science.
Scientists discussing whether to saddle an Adapted race with a gods-and-demons mythology exercise god-like control over future generations. If one scientist were religious, then he might regard their hubris (pride) as warranting divine vengeance. This character’s secularism and his colleague’s reference to “gods” suggest that monotheism has declined. A later character swears by “gods of all stars”.
The title character of Blish’s John Hillary Dane stories cynically leads jihad against industrial revolution on an extrasolar planet in order to prevent his adopted planet from repeating terrestrial mistakes.
In Blish’s major future history, Cities In Flight, Jehovah’s Witnesses, re-named “Believers”, proclaim imminent physical immortality in an Earthly Paradise while scientists synthesise the antiagathics that, along with antigravity, facilitate interstellar travel. A few exiles escape from an Earth that becomes not a Biblical Paradise but a bureaucratic dictatorship, overthrown only when antigravity is rediscovered and cities escape.
Interstellar nomads make pagan-sounding references to “gods of all stars”. When a star with a colonised planet (He) enters a starless void (the Rift), the colonists’ descendants believe that the gods have punished them. A nomad city propels He between galaxies where the Hevians detect continuous creation, implying a steady state universe. Unlike the steady state theoretician, Fred Hoyle, Hevians infer a currently active Creator.
Later, detecting particles arriving from the anti-matter universe, they infer an imminent cosmic collision within a beginningless cyclical multiverse. Hoyle thought that a beginningless steady state did not require a Creator even though the “state” remained “steady” only because galactic recession generated a particles-producing “creation field”. Hevians do infer a Creator from continuous creation but then revert to agnosticism. Although a beginningless cycle, like a steady state, excludes an initial creation, the Hevians’ cyclical multiverse does retain continuous creation so their restored agnosticism is insufficiently explained. Between leaving the Rift and entering the Greater Magellanic Cloud, one sceptical technician starts to believe in the gods.
Even antiagathics users cannot survive the end of this universe but scientists and politicians respond intelligently to the crisis whereas Fundamentalists, claiming that to meddle with the pre-ordained Armageddon is to risk damnation, wage jihad against those who plan, by occupying the Metagalactic Centre, to survive the matter-anti-matter collision long enough to create new universes from their own bodies. These “Survivors” name the post-cosmic void from Norse mythology and literally become “gods of all stars”.
On this showing, in Blish’s works, scientific knowledge helps whereas religious dogma hinders. Knowledge takes men to the stars and beyond whereas dogma holds them back. However, Blish considered religion more deeply in his After Such Knowledge trilogy: I, Doctor Mirabilis (historical fiction); II(a) and (b), Black Easter and its sequel, The Day After Judgement, considered as a single work (contemporary fantasy); III, A Case Of Conscience (futuristic sf).
In anthropocentric future histories, science is used either to control populations or to solve social problems but future historians also anticipate:
the Frankenstein question (will scientists usurp divine authority by creating conscious beings who might suffer or rebel?);
religion as social control augmented either by technologically faked miracles or by scientifically enhanced social engineering;
religion as a response to or retreat from cosmic vastness (including the deification of celestial objects);
either anti-scientific or scientifically manipulated jihads.
Of the authors mentioned, only Aldiss and Heinlein incorporated literally supernatural beings, Helliconian and Martian ghosts, into sf works but Blish’s A Case Of Conscience is, as we will see, deliberately ambiguous.
Blish and Lewis
Uniquely among secularist sf writers, Blish wrote some post-Lewis works. A Case Of Conscience quotes Lewis’ Solar word for a rational animal, hnau.12 Black Easter is in memoriam C. S. Lewis and introduces one chapter with quotations from Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. The Day After Judgement, refers to Lewis:
“The thing that called itself Screwtape let slip to Lewis that demons do eat souls.”13
A Case Of Conscience and Black Easter are unorthodox sequels to the Bible: Christians encounter challenges not addressed by the New Testament because Satan possibly creates a planet and definitely wins Armageddon.
Welcome To Mars, A Case Of Conscience and Black Easter form what I call Blish’s “post-Lewis” trilogy. (A later juvenile fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, is anti-Lewis but Blish’s works are merely post-. Blish referred to and differed from Lewis but did not set out to contradict him.) The Ransom Trilogy and the proposed post-Lewis trilogy are exact parallels:
Ransom and Haertel visit Mars;
Other comparisons are possible. For example, Ransom encounters space-dwelling angelic beings called eldila whereas, in other works, Haertel’s successors encounter space-dwelling energy beings nicknamed “Angels” but it suffices here to consider only the proposed post-Lewis trilogy and a few short stories. (Readers interested in connections between a single author’s works may note that it is yet another set of Haertel’s successors who receive messages from the future in The Quincunx Of Time but also that Blish’s Heartel-related works form a branching tree, not a linear sequence.)
Ransom en route to Mars experiences space as filled with a life-giving radiance whereas Haertel on the same journey knows that cosmic radiation is lethal. Later, Ransom experiences “trans-sensuous life” while approaching Venus in an angelically propelled coffin whereas Haertel’s successor, Garrard, endures psychophysical “psuedo-death” while enclosed in the rigid, monotonous environment of an interstellar spaceship.14, 15
Lewis’ Mars is humanly habitable whereas Blish’s is scientifically accurate. Lewis incorporated Martian “canals” as river valleys because the canals had become part of the mythology of Mars whereas Blish explained apparent canals as cracks from meteor impacts.
Lewis’ sinless planet is Venus whereas Blish’s is extrasolar. Lewis’ humanoid Venerians have inner contact with their creator whereas Blish’s reptilian Lithians have no concept of God. Lithians, like all observed organisms, die whereas Lewis’ unFallen Venerians are physically immortal. To Lewis, lost immortality was not a myth. Two Earthmen on Venus represent good and evil whereas four Earthmen on Lithia express different points of view.
Lewis’ readers have no alternative but to side with the Christian Ransom against the aggressively atheist Weston, especially when the latter literally becomes demonically possessed, whereas Blish’s readers, even if they dislike his aggressive atheist, Cleaver, may instead identify with a Jesuit scientist or with a sympathetic agnostic or with their confused companion. A Case Of Conscience, despite its extraterrestrial and futuristic settings, expresses the ambiguity of life as we experience it whereas Perelandra affirms Christian belief about underlying realities.
Lewis’ demons are defeated whereas Blish’s are victorious. Instead of politically campaigning against the evil National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (NICE), Ransom waits for Merlin to return and the gods to descend whereas Blish’s characters experience no deus ex machina salvation. God dies and the demons win. (The remote optimism of the sequel, written later, emerges logically from what has gone before. There is no last minute rescue by the US cavalry.)
Lewis believed that demons were real:
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive or unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with equal delight…”16
By contrast, Blish’s demons were fictional hypotheses. Black Easter:
“…dealt with what real sorcery had to be like if it existed [my emphasis]…”17
Blish’s agnosticism enabled him to imagine the death of God. However, surprisingly, Lewis also imagined it. If God said:
“ ‘My long struggle with the blind forces is nearly over. I die, children. The story is ending…’ ”18
Lewis would respond:
“ ‘The Giants and Trolls win. Let us die on the right side, with Father Odin.’ ”18
Thus, Lewis was morally superior to a Blish character who wanted to be on the winning side.
The underlying difference between Blish and Lewis is that Blish’s sf, about particles, galaxies and scientific discoveries, is knowledge-based whereas Lewis’, about fallen angels, first parents and divine inspiration, is faith-based. When Garrard’s successor, Arpe, becomes telepathic, Blish scientifically rationalises ESP whereas when Lewis as fictitious character enters another character’s mind, Lewis as author addresses that other character’s spiritual state.19, 20 Again, a size-changing spaceship takes Arpe inside an atom whereas a size-changing bus transports Lewis from a minute, because almost non-existent, Hell to a vast, because ultimately real, Heaven.21 Blish’s scientifically based imagination contrasts with Lewis’ imaginative transformation of sf ideas into spiritual allegories.
The medievalist Lewis was imaginatively at home among the Aristotelian spheres whereas the modernist Blish was intellectually alive when breaking through them. Blish’s “Okies” (in their flying cities) welcome cosmic vastness:
“…the star-density of the average cluster was more than enough to give a veteran Okie claustrophobia…”22
whereas Lewis’ Ransom rejects “…the enemy’s talk…” of endless worlds in “…empty spaces…”, which “…asks me to bow down before bigness.”23
Arpe’s successors encounter a hostile interstellar empire because Blish, like other secularist sf writers, supposed that Darwinian struggle and social conflict were natural and universal. Lewis regarded all evil and conflict as supernatural in origin and, as far as we know, merely terrestrial in scope. We have not risen from animality by Darwinian processes but fallen from spirituality through demonic influence. The Fall occurred on Earth but not necessarily elsewhere.
In Lewis’ fiction, evil extends only to the lunar orbit:
“ ‘…Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her. Half of her orb is turned towards us and shares our curse. Her other half looks to Deep Heaven; happy would be he who could cross that frontier and see the fields on her further side. On this side…dwell an accursed people, full of pride and lust…’ ”24
The phrase “the lowest sphere” retains a trace of geocentricity. Does “The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her” mean simply that we see the Earth’s shadow on the Moon’s surface? Space is “Deep Heaven”. Lunar “fields”, containing air and organisms, are just out of sight from Earth in Lewis’ non-empirical but mythological solar system. The Moon is:
“…as the shield of the Dark Lord…scarred with many a blow.”25
Lewis grudgingly called the physical sciences “…good and innocent in themselves…” whereas Blish positively valued scientific knowledge.26 Lewis’ Venerians, unable to see the solar system from under their cloud cover, nevertheless receive astronomical knowledge directly from their creator and will eventually traverse space without technology. They do not need to struggle against their environment to acquire useful knowledge. In fact, it would be sinful for them to seek knowledge without reference to Maleldil.
Blish’s After Such Knowledge addresses the question whether the desire for secular knowledge is evil, to which Blish personally answered “no”:
“Since I am an Epicurean – that is, I believe there might have been a Creator, but He never intervenes, does not desire worship and may not even be around any more – I personally think this proposition [about secular knowledge being evil] to be nonsense…”27
- although his After Such Knowledge raises the question for its readers to consider.
Lewis’ only technological anticipations are Weston’s spherical spaceships and the NICE’s labour-intensive information technology: the findings of forty interlocking daily NICE committees print themselves off in their own compartments of an Analytical Notice Board (worked by at least twenty experts) every half hour, then each report slides itself into a position where it is connected by arrows to the relevant parts of other reports, thus showing NICE policy taking shape, displaying different kinds of business in different colours.28 This “Pragmatometer” contrasts quaintly with computers and with Blish’s instantaneous Dirac transmitter.
Blish on Lewis
Blish wrote that the Ransom novels:
“…set out to impose on the solar system a strange Anglican-cum-Babylonian theology and cosmogony, with amazingly convincing results despite Lewis’ decidedly foggy view of astronomy and most of the other sciences he seeks to diabolize.”29
Despite their philosophical differences, Blish acknowledged Lewis’ “…amazingly convincing results…” Blish respected and referred to Lewis because he valued the latter’s literary accomplishments and moral insights. He remarked that That Hideous Strength was close to being a complete novel, containing every kind of character, and commended the passage in The Great Divorce where an old woman may have become her grumble.30 A complete novel is a literary accomplishment and the obsevation that a habitual grumbler might degenerate into a mere unstoppable grumble is a moral insight.
Some critics preferred Black Easter to That Hideous Strength and A Case Of Conscience to Perelandra. Blish commented:
“I utterly disagree with this nonsense. I haven’t given the problems one tenth of the thought that Lewis devoted to them; and I think That Hideous Strength in particular to be almost a model of what a complete novel should be, all the characters round and alive (even the caricatures like Witherspoon, Frost and Fairy Hardcastle, who allegorical characters though they are can almost be felt breathing), all avenues explored, every plot piece in its place. Even Lewis’ very few author-omniscient asides, as for example when he first visits the Wood, don’t jar the narrative in the slightest, they seem perfectly natural and make the whole fantastic business all the more real. Of the Ransom trilogy, that’s the one I re-read most often, and every time I do I find something new to admire, which I think is the final test (after the aesthetic response) of what has to be called, thereafter, a work of art: wealth.
“I’m quite convinced, I must add hastily, that my trilogy [After Such Knowledge] as it now stands has wealth, more than do any of my other books (up to my eyebrows as I am in hackwork). But I am grimly unflattered to find myself used as a stick to beat Lewis with.”31
Blish got one character’s name wrong. “Witherspoon” sounds like a harmless English eccentric whereas Wither, outwardly vague, is inwardly vicious. The visit to the wood is not author-omniscience but an appearance by the minor but recurrent first person character:
“The only time I was a guest at Bracton I persuaded my host to let me into the wood…”32
This narrator, “…Oxford-bred and very fond of Cambridge…”, like Lewis, and named “Lewis” in the other Ransom works, later acknowledges his ignorance of the fate of another character.33, 34 However, other passages in That Hideous Strength do have an omniscient narrator who describes several characters’ inner thoughts, sometimes to the point of death. This narrator provides the character analyses that Blish rightly commended:
“It was insights like this [about self-justification for inexcusable acts] (and That Hideous Strength in particular swarms with them) that make me wish Lewis had written more fiction. He not only saw things like this in general, but he was marvellous at particularising them in individual characters, despite his tendency to make allegorical figures of his villains. (The voice of the human Weston, emerging from under its overlay of Satan just for a moment in Perelandra, with its despairing babble about bluebottles and third-class tickets, is one of the most chilling things I have ever read in fiction. Plus Screwtape’s explanations of how deadly sins show up in very tiny aspects of human behaviour, like the old lady’s finickyness about what she won’t eat; some of this in The Great Divorce too.)”35
The omniscient narrator of That Hideous Strength shows his characters acting, speaking or thinking discreditably, then concealing even from themselves that that is what they have just done.
“If the idea, ‘Feverstone will think better of you for showing your teeth,’ had occurred to him in so many words, he would probably have rejected it as servile; but it didn’t.”36
“You will quite misunderstand him if you think he was consciously inventing a lie.”37
- but he was nevertheless going to speak untruths.
“The fantastic suggestion that he, Curry, might be a bore, passed through his mind so swiftly that a second later he had forgotten it for ever. The much lass painful suggestion that these traditionalists and research beetles affected to look down on him was retained.”38
Weston’s Hellish babble is indeed chilling:
“You be very careful, Ransom. I’m down in the bottom of a big black hole…I can’t think very well now, but that doesn’t matter, he does all my thinking for me…they’ve taken off my head and put someone else’s on me…We’ll tell that young whelp it’s an insult to the examiners to turn up work like this. What I want to know is why I should pay for a first-class ticket and then be crowded out like this…What enormous bluebottles…”39
Even more poignant is an earlier scene when, as the demon takes control of Weston’s body, Ransom sees:
“…the old Weston, staring with eyes of horror and howling, ‘Ransom, Ransom! For Christ’s sake, don’t let them…"40
Blish writes that Lewis’ villains are allegorical but alive but is this a contradiction? Wither is “a shapeless ruin”; Frost a “hard bright little needle”.41 They are the most compelling villains in fiction and each is a concrete individual. Their personal characteristics are distinctive and opposed, as are those of their colleagues, Feverstone and Hardcastle.
Lewisian strengths that Blish does not mention here are:
imaginative descriptions of other worlds, Mars and Venus;
This last point affects his fiction because his apologetics and sf overlap. That Hideous Strength dramatises his disagreements with behaviourist psychology and materialist philosophy:
“His mind was a mere spectator. He could not understand why that spectator should exist at all. He resented its existence, even while assuring himself that resentment also was a merely chemical phenomenon. The nearest thing to a human passion which existed in him was a sort of cold fury against all who believed in the mind. There was no tolerating such an illusion. There were not, and must not be, such things as men…How infuriating that the body should have the power thus to project a phantom self!
“Thus the Frost whose existence Frost denied watched his body go into the ante-room…”42
The omniscient narrator, less validly, comments directly on philosophical issues:
“What should they find incredible, since they believed no longer in a rational universe? What should they regard as too obscene, since they held that all morality was a mere subjective by-product of the physical and economic situations of men?”26
(If the present article were not literary but philosophical, then I would contest Lewis’ identification of materialism with reductionism but that is another subject.)
Blish also wrote:
“…I agree entirely with Lewis’ position on guilt, from personal experience and reflection and without any necessity to adopt all of his positions on all other matters. Tabus vary from tribe to tribe, but every man seems to have a conscience which turns his life grey if he is at war with it, and I can’t believe that it’s imposed upon him or is just the sum of the tabus. But I often wonder why it so frequently stands mute just when one needs it most, and then comes charging down upon one in retrospect when an evil act has become irrevocable. Of all the functions of the brain, it seems the slowest to learn from experience.”43
The answer seems to be that each person is not always the same “I”, as St. Paul almost realised:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7.15)
Lewis argued that only theism validates rationality and morality.44 Thus, if reason and goodness are not instantiated in an eternal being, then they are not applicable to temporal beings. If the proposition that God exists is untrue, then no proposition entails any other proposition and no moral proposition has meaning! Disagreeing with Lewis about this need not prevent us either from appreciating his moral insights or from sharing Blish’s concerns about guilt, as expressed in the above quotation and in his multi-genre After Such Knowledge trilogy, although discussion of that work requires a further article. (See here.)
1. Brian Aldiss, Galaxies Like Grains Of Sand
(London: Granada Publishing Limited, 1979), pp. 185-188.