Sci-fi that's too heavy on the allegory: C.S. Lewis' "space" trilogy
Given my interests, one would think that I am a huge fan of C.S. Lewis. While I do admire some of his religious writings and particularly enjoyed The Screwtape Letters, I find his work a little too heavy on the allegory. Like his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, I didn't approve of him mixing mythologies in the Narnia books. Moreover, I came upon them late in life, and while the kids enjoyed them, I did not get much out of them.
However, I had heard good things about this "space" trilogy, which is a someone curious body of work. It was written during the Second World War and could credibly be counted as "hard" science fiction in terms of how it explains space travel (which is confined to our solar system). It is quite inventive and combines spiritual concepts in an interesting way.
That being said, it is not a conventional trilogy insofar as the plot only somewhat builds during the series. Most trilogies (this includes my Man of Destiny series, which started out as a trilogy) are basically a story arc spread out over multiple episodes or periods. The "space" books differ greatly in tone and character, and in the author's forwards (and sometimes in the epilogues) this is explained.
All of which is to say, there are good points to the books, but to me there is a fatal flaw that finally brought my reading to a halt, and that is the excessive use of allegory.
Tolkien himself was a sharp critic of using this method of storytelling, and made a point of separating stories that were applicable to other areas from ones that were simply extended metaphors for making a point. The latter is what the "space" books are.
The first book is the worst in this respect. Out of the Silent Planet features three remarkably thin characters who are really nothing more than placeholders for points of view. There is vivid description, lengthy discussions, and not much else of interest. Lewis loves language, and major part of the book discusses how other life forms would utilize it. At the end is a note promising the next book will be less heavy-handed.
It isn't. Like the first book, Perelandra had a remarkably inventive setting (the first book was on Mars while this one is set on Venus) but apart from an attempt at better narrative framing, it is mostly description and long-winded philosophical discussions.
That Hideous Strength concludes the series but can also be read by itself. Maybe that's what I should have done, because by now my tolerance for symbolism was non-existent. I'm about 100 pages into it and have completely lost interest. None of the characters feel in any way real - they are all archetypes placed in the story to make a political, philosophical or religious point.
Of course it is possible to do this while retaining vibrant and fascinating characters. Tolkien certainly did it, as did Evelyn Waugh. Indeed, the strength of Waugh's writing is that it feels like a real story and the sense of meaning and purpose only gradually makes its presence known.
That Hideous Strength is basically a Nineteen Eighty-Four style tale written in a much more elaborate way. Indeed, George Orwell was one of the few writers who did allegory well, and his secret was he kept it brief. Animal Farm is a very quick read, and while Nineteen Eighty-Four is more detailed, the doomed romance keeps it interesting.
Yesterday I reached the breaking point. It was the perfect time for a good book, and yet after reading only a few words of That Hideous Strength I had to set it down. Instead I reached for a Joseph Conrad anthology and started reading The Shadow Line, which actually held my attention.
I suppose I could soldier on and at least skip and skim my way through the remainder of That Hideous Strength, but I feel that's dishonest. Since I'm not required to do a paper on it, I'm going to simply stop reading and perhaps at some later date I will decide to pick it up again.