Book review: That Hideous Strength

Here goes – my first ever book review, which is going up on the Goodreads website.

C.S.Lewis: That Hideous Strength, 1945
C.S.Lewis concludes his unique space trilogy, following Mars and Venus with a show-down on Earth.

C.S.Lewis' space trilogy


This curiosity of a book was written at the end of WWII, a time ripe for warnings against totalitarian dangers. Lewis’s story of scientists intent on forming the world on ultimately dehumanising principles, languishes in obscurity, while George Orwell’s much more powerful and focussed 1984 was the one that stuck four years later. In fact Orwell reviewed That Hideous Strength in 1945, commending the parts concerning the scientific conspiracy as being not improbable, relevant in the light of topical events (ie. the atom bomb), and enjoyable as a thrilling crime story. The supernatural elements though, provoke reservations in the reviewer, who sees the story weakened by elements that more or less load the odds in favour of the side of God and good. These implausible elements make the work less a science fiction, but makes it richer as a work of science romance and imagination.

Lewis, now a celebrated Christian apologist, had already woven a theological aspect into the first two books of his space trilogy. In book 1:Out of the Silent Planet, we discover that planets have demi-Gods that are guardians of their worlds, and that ours has become evil (‘bent’). Book2:Voyage to Venus (or Perelandra) has a Garden of Eden theme at its centre – the hero battles to keep a new Adam and Eve on the straight and narrow. Lewis is leading us to a climax between good vs evil on Earth in book 3, and in that respect we are treated to an intriguing story with a satisfying semi-apocalyptic finale. What seems more self-indulgent, is the mixing in of Arthurian legend, and the embodiment of the planets in their mythological form of the god Mars, the goddess Venus etc. But since these make for some of the more entertaining parts of the novel, I don’t mind the indulgence at all. The newly re-awoken Merlin turns up the liveliness after a drier, too-slow build up.

Out of the Silent Planet, I enjoyed for the plausible but magical descriptions of travel through space, discoveries of alien flora and fauna, and the interactions of the hero with the species of Mars, especially his grappling with language. Perelandra also had a tremendous atmosphere, but was harder going, due to much more dialogue, which at least did carry the tension of the story within it. That Hideous Strength has a completely different feel to it, beginning in an ordinary setting of provincial academia, where the sinister events unfold from the point of view of newly married couple Jane and Mark. She is reluctantly courted by the good side, he is willingly brought in to the scientists’ scheme, but initially there is much hidden from both of them. The motivations and reactions of these characters are intended to show how an ordinary man and woman, ie. you or I, might be misguided and led into evil, or inspired to heroism in a certain situation. I found them believable in this respect, whereas the bulk of other personages seemed to be already arrived at their good or bad destiny, and as such were less discernible as individual characters.

So, as a serious vision of a dystopian future, this book is confounded by too much magic/spiritual flow to the story. As an enjoyable yarn, it is slow at times, but pleasingly original, and by the end it is definitely pointing the way to Narnia. Just follow Bultitude the bear!

About johnnynorms

I write lyrics & sing them in the Many Few, illustrated by doodle art:
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3 Responses to Book review: That Hideous Strength

  1. ian russell says:

    A fine review, more erudite than any of mine. Also, got to love those covers. (Are Pan still about?)

    It’s interesting seeing what others choose to read, and I’ve not heard of many of your choices. And now that I’m reliant almost entirely on the library I tend to go for ”classics”, ancient or modern, to avoid any pulp, plus I favour thin books. More than 300 pages could easily put me off as a demand on my time and attention.

  2. johnnynorms says:

    Pan got bought up by Macmillan, and combined they are now Pan Macmillan – I didn’t know that I just looked it up.

    My Goodreads choices are cherry picked from my history of reading..I haven’t read much fiction lately – I’m such a sloooooowwwwwww reader. I used to almost always finish a book however awful, but decided life’s too short and now I leave many books merely started or sampled. Same with films even – after 5 minutes you can often get the gist if it’s not for you. And just because it’s labelled a classic, I feel more pressure but not obligation to eat it all up.

  3. Pingback: CS Lewis and the Transhumanists | Subtle Engine

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