That Hideous Strength and Its Weaknesses

Disclaimer: I have a longstanding, sentimental regard for C. S. Lewis's writing.  His Narnia series was a love of my childhood, opening up a beautiful world of heroism, wonder, and bravery that's influenced me ever after.  My first fictional scribbles at a young age were a personalized plagiarism of Narnia and Carroll's Wonderland, because I just loved those stories so much.  With that in mind, if I'm a bit hard on Lewis in this review, it's because there is so much of his writing that I love, and it is impossible to evaluate this book without comparing it to the greatness he is capable of.  (For a recent example, please see Till We Have Faces.)

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C. S. Lewis's names for the planets
That Hideous Strength begins in the village of Edgestow, a quaint corner of England and home to a small but illustrious university.  The protagonists are a recently married couple settling down in their new life together - Mark, comfortable in his fellowship at the college, and Jane, less comfortable in the role of housewife.  Politics are rampant at the University of Edgestow, where the sale of some land to the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) is under debate.  As Mark grows distant through his social life, Jane must confront her personal challenges alone, not least of which are the nightmares that keep haunting her, and which may have something to do with the N.I.C.E.

The last book in the Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength focuses in on planet Earth and an imminent change in the social order that governs it.  At the forefront of the conspiracy is the N.I.C.E., ironically named, and though prior knowledge of Oyarsa and the edila is useful, this book can still be read as a standalone novel, for there is more dystopia here than fantasy.  In fact, the N.I.C.E. can be seen as a partial representation of Nazism, and the fact that C. S. Lewis wrote this during WWII can hardly be a coincidence, since the two groups hold much in common.

Though I loved the fast-paced, thriller quality to this novel, I was completely let down by several key points in the story.  Some of the Christian themes were handled in a way that made me uncomfortable, and the treatment of Jane was extremely disappointing in the end.  I talked a bit more about this in my latest podcast episode, C. S. Lewis in Outer Space, Part 2.  Though the book was very entertaining and had some great moments, I cannot recommend it ultimately. 

2 comments:

  1. To be fair, on the question of Jane, Lewis like Asimov had no real female connection beyond his mother for most of his early years. I don't think he had a girlfriend until he was an Oxford don...kind of like Russell Irk. Lewis spent his childhood in boarding schools with guys, so writing them may have been awkward for him. Asimov said he was so bad at writing females he avoided it. The exception to that was Susan Calvin, but her sex only came up in the one story about a telepathic robot. ("Liar!").

    Personally, I liked That Hideous Strength the best of the space trilogy novels because of its criticism of modernity. It was the first book in the space trilogy I read, though, and I assumed the King Arthur / angels ruling planets thing made more sense in the light of the first book. Lewis' SF was unique, to say the least.

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    1. Yes, this book left me wishing Lewis had written more contemporary fiction. The social critique was certainly the strongest and most compelling part, even if I didn't agree with all of it.

      I liked Jane as a character; it was just the way she was portrayed, through the lens of the other characters, that bothered me. What you say about Lewis's youth makes more sense of it, though. I guess it goes back to the age-old advice, "write what you know." ;)

      Asimov is still on my TBR list. I've heard lots of good things about him!

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