From Narnia to A Space Odyssey: The War of Ideas between Arthur C. Clarke and C. S. Lewis. Ed. Ryder W. Miller. New York: iBooks, 2003. Print.
The title got my attention. I have been a fan, perhaps even a follower, of C. S. Lewis since I read “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” in high school. And I am old enough to have seen the original 2001: A Space Odyssey film in a Cinerama theater. Cinerama was a large screen, almost like IMax, with depth, not gimmicky 3-D.
The subtitle of the book is a bit misleading, but attention-getting since it implies conflict. Yes, Lewis and Clarke (that sounds funny to an American…) did not agree on some religious and political issues, but their correspondence was mostly about science fiction and space travel. One curious detail this book points out is that Clarke was a long-time friend of Joy Gresham, who would become Mrs. Lewis. Clarke writes here that he could never bring himself to see the play Shadowlands or read Lewis’s A Grief Observed because they were about her death.
Actually, even the title, not just the subtitle, is slightly misleading because both writers considered the Narnia stories fantasy, not science fiction, so neither one wrote about them in their letters or in the works printed in this book. Since Lewis died before Clarke wrote any of his Space Odyssey works and Clarke left England before Lewis had completed the Narnia series, the title really signals the works the respective writers are best known for, not what they actually wrote about in this collection.
Lewis and Clarke wrote each other a few times over eleven years beginning in 1943 after Lewis had published his Space Trilogy until Clarke left England for good in 1954, four years before Lewis married. Most of the letters concern space travel and ethical issues of space exploration. Clarke is slightly more sanguine than Lewis about human nature. One of Lewis’s themes is that colonizing space would mean bringing sin into places that may have not known sin before. Yet Clarke’s essay “The Moon and Mr. Farnsworth” written around 1946 expresses an equally skeptical view of man colonizing space. The editor Mr. Ryder calls Lewis anti-imperialist, and Clarke’s essay could be called the same. Perhaps because Clarke was a scientist, he was more interested in discovery more than Lewis.
The books begins with a collection (likely the collection) of letters that Clarke and Lewis wrote to each other. They are fun to read to get an idea of what they were thinking at the time, but there is hardly the conflict implied either in the book’s subtitle or in the editor’s introduction. Most of the differences were professional–Clarke worked as a scientist, Lewis as a professor of literature. It actually appears that Lewis was curious to understand some of the science Clarke employed in his stories.
Although both men were acquainted with Ms. Gresham, they lived in different parts of England. Clarke moved to Australia in 1954 and eventually settled in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The two men only met once at a pub in Oxford, each with some friends in tow. Clarke did not recall the name of Lewis’s friend at the time, but he realized later that it was J.R.R. Tolkien.
The letters are interesting to read, but the bulk of the book consists of science fiction stories by each of the men, two by Lewis and five by Clarke. “Ministering Angels” expresses Lewis’s skepticism on interplanetary imperialism as well as slamming “liberated” academics. The irony is that many of today’s readers would say to themselves, “So what is wrong with that?” in a manner analogous to today’s President of the United States referring to gay marriage as a “right.” The scientific mumbo-jumbo used to encourage questionable behavior and policy is funny if not sad–it is reminiscent of the “scientific” arguments used by the N.I.C.E. in That Hideous Strength, the third book of the Space Trilogy.
The second Lewis story, “Forms of Things Unknown,” was deliberately chosen to compare with Clarke’s first story here, “A Meeting with Medusa.” Both stories echo the Medusa myth, but reading these tales reminds us that Lewis a literary scholar and Clarke a scientist with a specialty in marine biology. Both stories are quite clever.
Clarke’s “Jupiter Five” is fiction that has been adapted as a possibility for origins of life in the Solar System, most famously (or notoriously) by Richard Dawkins. Two of the other three stories are clever stories that deal with religious issues that Lewis might bring up as well (one Christian, one Buddhist). The last Clarke story is another clever tale that takes place on earth. Today it would probably be considered a short “techno-thriller” à la Tom Clancy rather than science fiction.
The meatiest part of the book is the three essays, one by Lewis and two by Clarke. Lewis’s essay “On Science Fiction” is an overview of the genre at the time, in the early to mid 1950s, starting with Jules Verne and mentioning Clarke (whose writing he admired) several times. Like so much of Lewis’s professional writing, this is well done literary criticism. Perhaps his most pointed remark is that critics should never write about something they hate. Lewis said he hates detective stories, so he never reviews them. “Hatred obscures all distinctions,” so one cannot critique the subject clearly.
Lewis also makes a point about a lot of good science fiction and fantasy writing–including his own:
Every good writer knows that the more unusual the scenes and events of his stories are, the more ordinary, the more typical his persons should be. Hence Gulliver is a commonplace little man and Alice a commonplace little girl. (74)
Good advice certainly.
Clarke’s two essays are both about the possibilities of space travel. The first, “The Moon and Mr. Farnsworth,” as mentioned already, expresses Clarke’s own version of skepticism about space imperialism. The second essay would be considered current and publishable in Wired magazine this month: “When Will the Real Space Age Begin?” This is written from the perspective of a scientist who has been able to imagine “star drive” and other “future” technologies.
Perhaps the best analogy he uses is comparing space exploration with the exploration of Antarctica. Men reached the South Pole in 1912 “by the most primitive means imaginable,” ponies and sled dogs.(172) Not until forty years later did people actually establish permanent bases there. By then they had the technology to make such bases practical. Even today, it is inhabited but not colonized–no one lives there permanently, and only Argentina’s Esperanza base has anything approaching family living.
Similarly, the moon landing in 1969 using expendable multi-stage rockets got us there, but such technology was hardly enough for establishing bases or regular voyages there. With greater miniaturizing, more scientific discoveries, greater understanding of human metabolism, and more efficient energy sources, regular space travel might be possible in the future, just as Antarctic exploration and studies had to wait until the development of better icebreakers, more practical snowmobiles, prefabricated Quonset huts, and so on.
Both men were brilliant thinkers, and this slim volume gives a sense of some of the things they thought about, and, really, how they did have a lot of respect for each other.
P.S. Lewis’s quotation from Beowulf (“Nis þæt feor heonan/Mil-gemearces”) is from lines 1362 and 1363 of the epic and says “It’s not that far hence in mile-markers,” describing the distance between Heorot Hall and Grendel’s mere.