Sunday, April 22, 2012

Review - Perelandra by C.S. Lewis

Short review: Ransom travels via Angel express to Venus in order to save a new Eden from the poor judgment of a silly woman.

If you can't argue
And convince them with reason
Kill your enemy

Full review: Although Perelandra is usually classified as science-fiction, it is more or less the exact opposite, extolling the virtues of anti-science and anti-reason, with the only "science fictional" element being that almost all of the action takes place on Venus. The second book in C.S. Lewis' "Space Trilogy", and the weakest of the three books, Perelandra is a slow as molasses story packed with tediously unconvincing theological debates and a healthy dose of patriarchal misogyny. The book is somewhat noteworthy in that it is the first in which Lewis takes the stance that if you cannot overcome your ideological opponents with the superiority of your arguments, then it is okay to resort to violence in the name of your faith.

One of the first things to note about this book is that there is almost no story within it. Dr. Elwin Ransom, having returned from Mars in Out of the Silent Planet is called upon to journey to Venus, also known as "Perelandra" on a mission ordained by the agents of heaven. To get to Venus, Ransom gets into a divinely provided coffin and is flown by eldils to the surface and more or less unceremoniously dropped off in the Venusian ocean. The fact that for Ransom's interplanetary journey Lewis discards with even the pretense of having a spaceship powered by something other than outright magic should tip off an astute reader that he has abandoned the pretense that he's writing science fiction rather than religiously inspired fantasy.

Once on Venus, Ransom finds some floating islands and discovers that everything on the planet is "more", as in the colors are brighter, the water is more refreshing, the food is tastier, and generally everything is simply better than on Earth. Venus, it seems, has only recently been endowed with life and as yet it is still in a condition identical to that attributed to the Garden of Eden in Genesis. Before too long Ransom comes across a green-skinned woman who expresses disappointment in finding him. This is because she is the "Mother" and she is searching for the "King", who she apparently had become separated from some time before. And as soon as the Mother shows up the hubris and misogyny begins to flow thick and fast.

The hubris stems from Lewis' extreme humanocentrism: in answer to the question of why the "Mother" looks just like a human with green skin, we are told that because God had incarnated himself as a human all future intelligent beings will look like humans. I suppose it was just the misfortune of the hrossa, pfifltriggi, and sori to be created before humans and thus before God allegedly incarnated himself as a man that caused them to miss out on being shaped just like us. One might note that in Genesis it is asserted that humans were supposedly made in the image of God to begin with, so apparently when he incarnated himself as a human God was just assuming a physical manifestation of his normal form, which makes one wonder why the inhabitants of Malacandra were unlucky enough to be made using such different body architecture. Despite having made a somewhat exotic landscape in the previous book, and populating it with some moderately exotic denizens, Lewis seems to retreat from the exotic in Perelandra (and even further in That Hideous Strength). Oddly, it seems that Lewis became less certain of himself as an author as the series progressed.

And this brings up a side point about Lewis in general as an author and an apologist: he seems to have had only a very limited ability to come up with original ideas. In Out of the Silent Planet he posited a dying planet populated by three alien races. In Perelandra his vision is reduced to a world ocean populated by green humans. In That Hideous Strength he is reduced to university politics, parliamentary maneuvering, and manipulating newspaper articles topped off by recycling Arthurian, Greek, and Egyptian mythology. Even his celebrated Narnia series is populated by creatures drawn directly from Greek mythology to tell stories that are little more than thinly disguised tales from the Bible. Contrasting Lewis' fantasy with that of his friend Tolkien, who gave us a world populated by elves and dwarves that were markedly different than the elves and dwarves of previous stories, hobbit, orcs, and balrogs, reveals that even if one might not consider Tolkien's fantasy particularly imaginative by today's standards, he was leaps and bounds ahead of Lewis in this department.

But the limited story of Perelandra story is marred by more than humanocentrism and a lack of imagination, it is also chock full of misogynistic themes. The "Mother" that Ransom meets is searching for the "King", who was apparently lost on a different floating island than the one Ransom encounters her on. It soon becomes apparent that the entire story of Perelandra is a new version of the fall of humanity, with the lush and inviting floating islands rolling over the ocean of Venus replacing Eden and the prohibition against sleeping on the "fixed land" replacing the forbidden fruit. Once Weston arrives (or at least the animated body of Weston) to fill in for the deceptive serpent, the stage is set for Lewis to replay the temptation of Eve. Ransom quickly decides that he has been sent to Venus to serve as an intercessor in the tempting so as to foil Weston's efforts to convince the Mother to disobey the divine edict against sleeping on the fixed land. But in this drama one can see Lewis' low opinion of women: Weston immediately sets up the Mother as his target, but there is no suggestion that the King, who is also presumably alone and (without Ransom there) unguided, might choose poorly and decide to disobey the divine mandate. Only the Mother is viewed as a juicy target, and only the Mother is seen as requiring guidance from Ransom to make the correct choice.

At this point the book becomes almost comically tedious as Weston makes some fairly weak arguments in favor of disobedience and Ransom makes some even weaker arguments against it. In the course of the interminable debating it becomes apparent that Weston is not Weston any more, having been possessed by some malevolent spirit at some point prior to his arrival on Venus. And this raises a host of nagging questions about the story. Given the edict against the "bent" eldils of Earth traveling the heavens, how did this particular one manage to bridge the gap between worlds? If the "evil" forces use a spiritual tempter to try to deceive the Mother, why was Ransom sent to be her protector given that he cannot even seem to counter the ridiculously limp arguments that Lewis puts into Weston's mouth? Why is Weston not countered by the Oyarsa of Perelandra, who is supposedly acting as the guardian of life on the planet? If the Mother chooses to disobey, would this corrupt the Oyarsa of Perelandra? As a corollary question, which came first on Earth, the bent nature of the planet's Oyarsa or Eve's fall from grace? Given that Weston is apparently a spirit that has taken up residence in a human body and would thus be aware of the reality of the spiritual realm that Lewis assumes is real, why does Weston continue to converse as if the spiritual realm were not real, even when talking only to Ransom? And so on and so forth. Lewis simply didn't bother to think his fictional reality through, probably because he wasn't interested in writing a story but rather interested in getting to the polemics. But the very nature of the unanswered questions that stick out of the story would have undermined Lewis' polemics even if they were well-written, and as Lewis is unable to make a convincing case for either side in his fictional theological debate, the unanswered questions overwhelm them.

Having set Ransom up to be outmatched in debating skill by having him opposed by a tireless denizen of the nether realm, Lewis ends up endorsing violent murder as a means of winning an argument. Once he realizes that he cannot win a debate against demon-Weston, Ransom decides that the only way to save the Mother from making the wrong choice and turning to disobedience is to kill his adversary. But this just raises the question of what the purpose of the whole charade was. If an acceptable resolution to the temptation of the Mother is to take the decision out of her hands and kill off the tempter, why did the divine forces have Ransom involved at all? Why did they let demon-Weston get to Perelandra in the first place? One could have made an argument that the divine wants to allow for free will, which means allowing for the ability of the residents of Perelandra to choose incorrectly, but when Ransom takes it upon himself to kill demon-Weston, doesn't that deny the Mother the ability to make a choice on her own? Not only that, the story seems to suggest that should a believer find himself (and in Lewis' mind, one can be certain that it would always be himself) unable to match an ideological opponent with a superior argument, it is perfectly acceptable to resort to violent means to shut them up. Burning heretics and apostates at the stake was always Christianity's best maneuver for silencing the opposition, and Lewis seems to tacitly endorse such actions in this story.

So, having endorsed the idea that women just aren't competent to make choices for themselves and it is okay to beat your enemies to death, Lewis has Ransom aimlessly wander about for a while, along the way seemingly endorsing the position that paying homage to alternate deities could be acceptable. This seems an odd position for someone making Christian apologia to make, but it seems that in Lewis' theology that subordinate divine entities are acceptable and may even be worshiped. Eventually Ransom's meanderings bring him back to where the  Mother is, and now that Weston is dead, she has found the King. They are also attended by the Oyarsa of Perelandra who helpfully decides to show up after the crisis has passed. The Oyarsa also turns over dominion of the planet to the King. Having sat around doing not much of anything offstage for the whole book, the King is given rule over everything, including the Mother. And of course, having theoretically done the heavy lifting of making a "choice" to obey or disobey the divinely ordained rules, the Mother is perfectly content to turn over dominion over her future to the King. Because, as should be apparent from the story in Perelandra, women can't be trusted with the weighty responsibility of making decisions for themselves.

As with Out of the Silent Planet, there is not much story in Perelandra. In fact, there is considerably less story and a lot more badly reasoned polemics. The most damning element is not that the polemics are phrased in a way that belittles women, although they are, the most damning element is that Lewis seems to think that reason and argument is simply insufficient to make an effective case for his espoused beliefs. Perelandra is, quite simply, a treatise built upon eschewing reason in favor of brute force. The book could even be fairly construed as advocating anti-reason and continuing Lewis' campaign against all human learning and thought of more recent vintage than the 13th century. With next to no story, an anti-woman message, and a pile of theological debates that amount to nothing more than nonsense, Perelandra is a book that should definitely be avoided.

Previous book in the series: Out of the Silent Planet
Subsequent book in the series: That Hideous Strength

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  1. I wanted to thank you for throwing yourself on the literary grenade, so to speak, because now I don't ever have to consider reading these books. ;) Not that it would have been likely, but still... Also, if you'd like to lose a bit more respect for Narnia, seek out a little William Morris, which is where Lewis lifted many of the interesting bits of his fantasy from. I read The Wood Beyond the World a few years back and noted some fascinating parallels.

  2. @Lindsay: I suppose that one might say I'm reading bad books so others don't have to.

    Thank you for recommending The Wood Beyond the World. That definitely looks interesting and I will have to check it out.

  3. we were required to read this book for our British Literature class. I couldn't get past the first chapter and a half, it was awful. I tried so many times, but I could just not read it. It was so slow, and horrid, and the biblical allegory is just wrong, and pointless. I love this review, thank you!

    1. @Anonymous: I have come to the conclusion that, other than the moderately passable Narnia series, Lewis' writings were all awful.