Nature is the ladder we have climbed up by. Now we kick her away.
That Hideous Strength is the final volume of C.S. Lewis’s SPACE TRILOGY. This story, which could be categorized as science fiction, dystopian fiction, Arthurian legend, and Christian allegory, is different enough from the previous books, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, that you don’t need to have read them, but it may help to vaguely familiarize yourself with their plots. Generally, in the previous stories, Dr. Elwin Ransom has been to both Mars and Venus and discovered that the planets are governed by heavenly beings and that Earth’s governor is a fallen angel. These forces are at war and the fate of the universe is at stake.
In That Hideous Strength, Ransom is back on Earth and is preparing a group of people who can fight the forces of evil. This evil is manifesting as a corporation called the National Institute of Coordinated Experimentation (N.I.C.E.) which is trying to purchase some wooded property owned by Bracton College at the University of Edgestow in England. To do this, they’ve had to exert their influence over some of the “progressive” faculty by getting them to buy into their subtle message of saving the human race through (but not obviously yet) sterilization, selective breeding, re-education, and biochemical conditioning. The end-goal, though they only talk about this in the inner circle, is a future in which the working class is no longer needed to support the brains that run the world. NICE wants the talents of the progressive faculty on their side as they generate propaganda, but they also want to recruit some more ancient magic — they plan to dig up the body of Merlin, which they believe may be buried on the college’s property.
Dr. Mark Studdock, a sociologist and a new Bracton faculty member who doesn’t feel like he quite fits in yet, is tempted to join NICE when they offer him a high-status job. At first Mark is suspicious of the group and their recruitment methods and he’s bothered by the vague job description, but their insistence that they need him, their appeal to his vanity, and his low self esteem combine to make their offer seem attractive. Having left Bracton to join the NICE administration, Mark is unaware of the police tactics that NICE is using to make the college town comply with their new order. Meanwhile, also back at Bracton, Mark’s new wife, Jane, is having ominous visions. Thinking she may be going crazy, she seeks help and ends up among the group, lead by Dr. Ransom, which is fighting NICE.
One thing that C.S. Lewis does so well in this novel is to portray the slippery slope of Mark’s gradual slide into evil which is caused by a lack of his own moral compass. Though he doesn’t realize it at first, he is foremost a people-pleaser. He wants to increase his status in the eyes of both his colleagues and his wife, and though he’s not actually concerned about his character for himself, he wants others to admire him. Wanting to seem both successful (financially and professionally) and of good character, and without any moral grounding of his own, he has no idea how to behave in this situation and eventually succumbs to the pressure. When he becomes better acquainted with NICE’s tactics and plans, the cognitive dissonance he feels leads him to wholly embrace the evil. It doesn’t help that Mark discovers that even when he tries to be good, there is no natural law that the universe must reward him for it.
In contrast, characters who have a stronger sense of self, like Jane, have more concrete ideas about right and wrong and are not as easily influenced or corrupted. Yet Lewis doesn’t condemn Mark while wholly commending Jane. Instead, Mark’s inferiority complex seems heartbreaking, and Lewis makes Jane, an educated feminist, deal with her hatred of masculinity. Other good characters are forced to examine their own self-righteousness.
Another thing that is beautifully done in That Hideous Strength is Lewis’ melding of the ancient and new, especially in England’s history — the dark ages with its ancient forest magic, mythical creatures, and irrational superstition, and the new age of rationalism, science and technology. Lewis also speaks eloquently about the difference between organized religion and real spiritual experience. There are also some lovely literary allusions in That Hideous Strength; no fantasy literature lover is likely to miss Lewis’ reference to the work of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien.
That Hideous Strength is a deeply philosophical novel which, except for the mention of corsets, doesn’t feel dated though it was published in 1945. Some readers may not appreciate all the philosophizing, but I am always fascinated by C.S. Lewis’ ideas, finding them logical, enlightening, and superbly said. Some of these ideas can be found in his non-fiction works The Abolition of Man, Mere Christianity, God in the Dock, and probably others that I haven’t read. That Hideous Strength — in fact the entire SPACE TRILOGY — is a profoundly thoughtful and beautiful work of science fiction. I recommend Blackstone Audio’s version narrated by Geoffrey Howard.