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Deeply rooted in the humane traditions of Western civilization, science fiction, poetry, and mythology allow us to explore that most fascinating of subjects: the human person.
Rather famously, J.R.R. Tolkien once asked Lewis, rhetorically, “What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?” The answer: “Jailers.” Not surprisingly, especially given his authorship of several works of the fantastic, Lewis enthusiastically agreed with his friend.
“Agreed with” might be an understatement. Through his Space Trilogy—Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength—Lewis, along with his American counterpart, Ray Bradbury, made science-fiction respectable, just as Tolkien almost single-handedly made fantasy respectable. In his own history of science fiction, the Billion-Year Spree, Brian Aldis rightly gives Lewis his due: “With the possible exception of Huxley, C.S. Lewis was the most formidable and respected champion of science fiction the modern genre has known.”
To be sure, Lewis and Tolkien reached such heights as they really sought nothing less than the attainment of mythology.
Mythology, indeed, was paramount for Lewis. “All mythologies & religions are products of imagination in the sense that their content is imaginary, i.e. false,” Lewis argued. “The more imaginary ones are ‘nearer the mark’ in the sense that they come nearer to admitting their falsity.” Further, he claimed, tying mythology into poetry, and, thus all storytelling:
Mythologies and religions are products of imagination in the sense that their content is imaginative. The more imaginative ones are ‘nearer the mark’ in the sense that they communicate more Reality to us. Poetry ‘creates life’ in the sense that its products are something more than fictions occurring in human minds, mere psychological phenomena, and can therefore be described as inhabiting a ‘spiritual world.’ Poets ‘proclaim the mystery’ in the sense that they somehow convey to us an inkling of supersensual and super-intellectual Reality: which is a Mystery in the sense of mysterium tremendum, something not merely wh. we happen not to know but which transcends our common modes of perception. They produce the illusion of penetrating it in the sense that they make us feel we have understood when we have really been refreshed by contact of quite a different kind with Reality. Poetry is a great power in the sense of actually enriching our deepest life by such contacts.
Deeply rooted in the humane traditions of Western civilization, science fiction, poetry, and mythology allow us to explore that most fascinating of subjects: the human person. “The proper study of man is everything,” Lewis asserted. “The proper study of man as artist is everything which gives a foothold to the imagination and the passions.”
Importantly, Lewis not only wrote science fiction, he wrote about and analyzed science fiction, fascinated by the genre itself. He had read such stories since his earliest memories, Lewis proudly revealed in his 1955 article, “On Science Fiction,” but only in recent memory had they taken on the moniker “science fiction.” For Lewis, though, the term science fiction was too broad. Thus, he broke the genre into six subcategories.
First, there was the “displaced person” story in which “the author leaps forward into an imagined future when planetary, sidereal, or even galactic travels has become common. Against this huge backcloth he then proceeds to develop an ordinary love-story, spy-story, wreck-story, or crime story.” Overall, though, Lewis rated such stories as only haphazardly science fiction—with science fiction setting the backdrop for any possible number of stories. This was, Lewis judged, “tasteless.”
Second, Lewis continued, there was the “fiction of Engineers.” That is, the fiction of those writers who truly embraced the science within science fiction. They wanted to know space elevators and space ships actually work. What are the mechanics behind each? The greatest exemplar of such writing was probably Arthur C. Clarke. While he admired such attempts, Lewis found this form of science fiction too abstract to attract him. “I am blind to their appeal,” he wrote.
Third, there were science fiction stories that might as well be called “speculative.” In 2022, we might call this sub genre, “fantasy.” To clarify this category, Lewis asks: “What would Hades be like if you could go there alive? Homer sends Odysseus there and gives his answer. Or again, what would it be like at the Antipodes?” Dante, as another example, led Virgil and himself through a speculative moral universe. In contrast to Homer and Virgil and Dante, though, the modern author often gives us a rather uninteresting travelers, such as Alice or the Ancient Mariner. After all, Lewis believed, “to tell how odd things struct odd people is to an oddity too much: he who is to see strange sights must not himself be strange.”
Fourth, there exists a subgenre of science fiction known as “Eschatological,” an exploration of the last things of this Earth. “This kind gives an imaginative vehicle to speculations about the ultimate destiny of our species.” Here, again, Lewis used Arthur C. Clarke—especially his Childhood’s End—as an example of this subgenre.
Fifth are what once would’ve been called “weird tales” but have more recently been labeled, loosely, as horror. “In it,” Lewis explained, “you will find not only stories about space-travel but stories about gods, ghosts, ghouls, demons, fairies, monsters, etc.” Often, in such stories, one need only walk to the nearest woods to find such romance, rather than travel to other planets. Or, if one does travel to another planet, he need not fuss too much over the mode of transportation. “In this kind of story the pseudo-scientific apparatus is to be taken simply as a ‘machine.’” As an example, Lewis looked to his own Space Trilogy, especially the first two volumes: “I am inclined to think that frankly supernatural methods are best. I took a hero once to Mars in a space-ship, but when I knew better I had angels convey him to Venus.”
Within this last subgenre, however, there is also, at least in Lewis’s mind, a blending with the third genre of fantasy. Perhaps, then, we can delineate it as a sixth genre: the mythopoeic. Here, for example, writers subcreate entire worlds, universes, and systems. “If good novels are comments on life, good stories of this sort (which are very much rarer) are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.” As examples, Lewis provided the Odyssey, the Kalevala, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. These books in the sixth subgenre often affect us at the deepest levels of our being, engaging and providing a “mode of imagination.”
The seventh and final category for Lewis was “dystopias” such as 1984 and Brave New World. Lewis worried that these stories offered rather Manichaean views of the world, not allowing for the possibility of redemption by grace.
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