Saturday, June 08, 2013

When can we visit Perelandra?

On a warm evening the other day, I was watering the tomatoes on the hill behind our house.  A hummingbird drifted in front of me.  He seemed to hesitate for a second, then flew right through the spray of water, and on to his other business for the evening.  "Ah!  That hit the spot!"  He doubtless said in hummingbird-ese.

I read many books for pleasure, which tend to find their way to the floor beside my bed: Dickens, Journey to the West, Tang poems, lately Bunyan.  But there are probably no writers to whom I return as often for refreshment of soul and mind, that spray of cool water on a hot summer day, as to C. S. Lewis and his friend, J. R. R. Tolkien.  Recently I began reading Lewis' Space Trilogy for the, oh, tenth time?

I won't say much about Out of the Silent Planet today.  The science is, of course, embarrassing.  Ransom can't figure out he's going to Mars, even though the space ship is moving away from the sun?  The space ship is massive enough to create its own gravity, so how did it get into space?  It doesn't use jets to stop its fall towards Mars?  Their fuel is solar radiation -- and they get up to 50,000 miles an hour?  There are no germs on Mars, and the Martians aren't concerned among human germs?  Ransom mistakes Earth for the Moon?   

Once one arrives at Mars, though, Lewis' fertile imagination takes over, along with his rich talent at mimicry and psychological insight, and the story never lets up after that. 

For his journey to Venus, the hero Ransom is carried by angels in a coffin-like object.  Lewis explains why he made the switch elsewhere.  He realized even pretending to be "scientific" was just not his thing.  He wanted to write moralistic fantasy, not science fiction in the technical sense, like Arthur C. Clarke.  So you might as well go all-out with frankly magical means of conveyance.  (Of course he does the same in his Narnia tales -- so this proves a useful dry run.) 

This means there is less stupid science to swallow in Perelandra.  Lewis' imagination, though, goes to town on the Planet of Love, projecting all his own dreams of paradise.  (In his autobiographical allegory, Pilgrim's Regress, the hero John longs all his life for an island of paradise, which once discovered, turns out to be the same as the mountain of orthodoxy that he learned to fear growing up in Northern Ireland, I mean in Puritania.  So I think Lewis' invention here is especially close to his heart.)

For those who have not read Perelandra yet, but have seen Avatar, a few words of comparison might be helpful.  Avator is the most gorgeously crafted alien world I have seen on film.  Some of the science is just as bad as in Out of This Silent Planet, especially the mountains that float above the earth, even though made out of rock. 

Perelandra is perhaps even more rich in invention, and mostly avoids that kind of error, unlike Out of the Silent Planet.  (Though one
wonders why mountain-sized waves allow plants to grow low down on the fixed lands.  Also, Ransom sees no death on Venus until the Unman arrives.  Why do the flowers bloom, then?  And why does the lady -- beautifully portrayed -- expect to have children, as the animals do?  There wouldn't be much room to reproduce if the world were full of things that never died!  Here we touch on an interesting theological and philosophical question, which Lewis' wonderful imagination fails to find an answer to.) 

The chief invention of Perelandra are floating islands, where bubble trees and sweet gourds grow, along with nuts and other fruits that make the mouth water.  I can not only imagine those islands, Lewis makes me greatly wish to visit them.  Lewis also imagines underwater, subterranean, and fixed-land ecosystems, in less detail but with some creatures just as fetching, such as the singing beast, and the banner forest.  He makes creation good without being banal, and mysterious, without being evil.  It's a remarkable work of invention, in some ways among the best I know of in science fiction.  (And certainly more attractive than Venus' actual surface conditions of 800+ degrees and carbon dioxide!  Though apparently there may be a breathable atmosphere above the planet at a certain height.)

Still, evil does come into Perelandra, in the form of a devil-possessed physicist.  (The Unman has to be a physicist, because otherwise he couldn't have invented a space ship.  Lewis is not dissing the physical sciences, which I think he rather likes, from a distance.  I wonder if he ever chatted with Schrodinger, who was also at Magdalene College?) 

In the context of so much beauty, the cleverness and realistic horror with which Lewis describes his Unman, makes this book something of a masterpiece, in my opinion.  (Though the philosophical hymns at the end take some patience to endure -- I don't think they quite succeed.)  Good and evil set one another out more clearly.  Ransom's internal dialogues are subtle and true to life, and also among the virtues of the novel.   

So when will someone make movies out of this series?  What director could pull it off?  You'd need someone with real talent, and also some philosophical and theological imagination.  But I hope they do it: I'd love to see this world, especially, on the Silver Screen. 

Genuine refreshment of the soul, after all, may also come through movies, though that seems to be an even rarer accomplishment. 

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