Friday, September 14, 2012

That Hideous Strength

by C. S. Lewis
originally published by John Lane the Bodley Head, 1945, 382 pages

Like the first two books of C. S. Lewis's space trilogy, That Hideous Strength links up with a famous literary legend. In this case, it's the story of King Arthur. What's more, it also serves as the inspiration for a more contemporary young adult novel - Frank Peretti's Nightmare Academy, the second (and last so far) in his Veritas Project series.

This novel is longer than the first two in the trilogy combined, and that is only fair, since in many ways it climaxes Ransom's fight against the foolishness and evil that man has brought to two other planets. Back on Malacandra both he and Weston tried to understand the inhabitants in strictly scientific terms, missing a huge part of the total picture, and being rebuked for their ignorance. On Perelandra, Ransom fights a feminism that demands that authority justify any restrictions on our individual freedom.

Both forces come together against humanity in the form of the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.).  N.I.C.E. aims to improve humanity in two main areas, by taking control of human biology and humans' social structures.

Of course, as Christians, we know that if any group actually calls itself N.I.C.E., it's too good to be true. Lewis shows us the truth behind N.I.C.E. by showing us just how nasty is the infighting and academic status-seeking behind allegedly noble scientific research. The satire here is directed at a temptation we all face - the desire to get into the "Inner Ring," as he calls it in one of his books. From teen cliques to class warfare, from snobbery to reverse snobbery, we all are tempted to be part of the 'in' group.

If intellectual snobbery was all that N.I.C.E. was about, it would be little threat to the world at large. What makes N.I.C.E. more dangerous than the average ivory tower is its goals. The similarity of the goals to the objectives of postmodernism today is why many consider this a prophetic novel. Postmodernists today hope that storing our memories and personalities online or our corpses in freezers (cryogenic suspension) will make us immortal, and N.I.C.E. finds a way that is just as grotesque as frozen corpses to sustain just that kind of undead zombie living.

Postmodernists also believe that all social structures are arbitrary, that there is no such thing as human nature. Therefore, like N.I.C.E., they have the goal of eradicating the idea of human nature and social organization (especially the traditional family - think of the crusade for gay "marriage"). This goal is what draws in Ransom as its opponent, by this time the head of a group dedicated to fighting the arrogant foolishness that Weston stood for - not science, but scientism - the worship of science (which is also C. S. Lewis's target in The Abolition of Man, also reviewed on this blog).

The strangeness of Ransom's group may be the one element that is a bit off-putting for some readers. The group includes the somewhat mystical Ransom as the legitimate heir of King Arthur; a bear (whose animal perspective is imaginatively portrayed); a psychic named Jane Studdock struggling with the meaning of her marriage; and eventually the help of the Arthurian magician Merlin. The issue of marriage is what links the novel to Peretti's Nightmare Academy, in which a student is plunged by scientists into a psychological nightmare in which nothing he does makes sense. In That Hideous Strength, Jane's Studdock's husband Mark is similarly plunged into a deliberately distorted room in which everything is subtly wrong, and he is threatened with the loss of his hold on reality, including the underlying reality behind his marriage to Jane.

Of course, the ultimate reality behind marriage, behind life and death, behind the foundations of human society, is spiritual. How the aggressively materialistic N.I.C.E. is implicated in that spiritual reality - and what Merlin, whose spiritual foundations are seemingly pagan rather than Christian, can do to oppose N.I.C.E.'s nastiness - wraps up the novel with both biting satire and inspiring insight.

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