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Angels and Eldils

The Cosmic World of CS Lewis, the other Inkling

CS Lewlewismarsis’s Cosmic Trilogy comprises three science fiction novels for adults, Out of the Silent Planet, Voyage to Venus (Perelandra) and That Hideous Strength, written and published between 1938 and 1945.

Its hero – if the Cosmic Trilogy can be said to have a hero at all – is Elwin Ransom, an introspective middle-aged scholar, in some respects perhaps the alter ego of Lewis himself. When we meet him first, in Out of the Silent Planet, he is enjoying a rambling holiday in the countryside of his native England. He falls into the clutches of two unscrupulous villains, the brilliant scientist Weston and his associate Devine, who happened to go to the same school as Ransom himself. The two kidnap Ransom and take him to Mars, where they plan to hand him over to the Sorns, one of the three species of intelligent Martians. Ransom escapes. He discovers that the friendly Martians are ruled by angel-like beings called eldila. Indeed, all the planets are so ruled, except Earth, which has been shut off for centuries from cosmic society. lewisvenus

In Voyage to Venus, the eldila transport Ransom to Venus where, in a parallel of the biblical Garden of Eden, he becomes witness to a rerun of the Adam-Eve story. He must confront and destroy Weston, who has been possessed by a demon and is trying to bring chaos to the realm of the benign Perelandra, the ruling eldil of the planet.

That Hideous Strength combines elements of the first two stories with the Arthurian legends of Dark Age Britain. A sinister scientific corporation, the NICE, is plotting to take over Earth and entices a young, naiive university fellow, Mark Studdock, into its inner circle. Through Mark, they hope to gain access to the mind of his psychic wife Jane. However, Jane is rescued by friends of Ransom. With Ransom leading, this group plans a counter attack on NICE with the help of a resurrected Merlin and a menagerie of animals, including a domesticated bear by the name of Mr Bultitude.

All three books have the stamp of Lewis’s scholarship in their meticulous use of language. Modern readers may shy away from his style, because Lewis “tells” a lot and does not “show” much. His universal narrator jumps unconstrained from character to character with a frequency that is sometimes bewildering. There is too that occasional moment when Lewis, the theologian, seems to have mounted his soapbox to preach sin and redemption. However, we cannot question his imagination or his storytelling ability. In any case, “showing not telling” is much overrated; humans had been telling stories for thousands of years before someone, somewhere decided that telling wasn’t good enough.

That said, the three novels have different textures and different emphases: lewisearth

Out of the Silent Planet relies on descriptive prose and although we know the Mars the author describes does not exist, he almost convinces us that it does. We are curious about the canals, about the three species of intelligent life and, most of all, we wait expectantly to discover just what precisely these eldila are.

When we get to Perelandra, some of that expectancy has gone. We know what the eldila are capable of, which gives us expectation of a different kind. But it is unfulfilled. Lewis treats us to a lot of dialogue that is philosophic, and reminiscent of his apologetic non-fiction. Venus becomes an allegorical battleground, although Lewis denies is his prologue that the work is allegory.

By contrast with both, That Hideous Strength is set on Earth and is – so it seems to me – satire. The comedic element is strong and it has to be. The plot allows no opportunity to suspend disbelief.

The Lewis of the Cosmic Trilogy is not the Lewis of Narnia. His brilliance as a writer for young people does not extend to his adult fiction. Out of the Silent Planet is a great story. The other two disappointed me. Lewis is not Tolkein and I find it difficult to forgive him for that.

The Final Frontier

To Boldly Go (5)

So what is the future for space opera?

With modern developments in cinematography and CGI, movies and television seem to have become the favoured media for science fiction. More people are hooked on visual fantasy than ever before. Film series like Alien, Star Wars and Star Trek, singles like ET, The Abyss, Blade Runner, Independence Day, Avatar and others have drawn millions – if not tens of millions – of fans to the box office. TV series such as Babylon 5, Stargate SG1 and Battlestar Galactica – the ratings are controversial – are certainly in the millions too if one counts computer viewings and DVDs. Over the past twenty years, science fiction literature has been relegated to the special interest it was half a century ago.

Or has it?

Accurate sales figures for books are not readily available. However, such that are indicate that quite the opposite is true. Wikipedia (which may not be completely trustworthy) has compiled a list: Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy has apparently sold 20 million copies since it was first published in the 1950s; Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, a work of fantasy though not space opera, takes the all-time second prize at 150 million; Frank Herbert’s Dune weighs in at 12 million.

If we take a look at what is out there (the Truth of course, but much else), we might be astounded. After a gap of some twenty-five years, Asimov went back to his Foundation and, amongst other things, went on writing Foundation stories until his death in 1992. From the seventies until his death in 2008, Arthur Clarke continued with his space and time Odysseys, and published other amazing stories by the way. Ray Bradbury, even at the age of ninety, did not stop writing and collaborating; and his collection of awards and was almost as long as the list of his books. The late Douglas Adams added a touch of comedy to the genre with his Hitchhiker books. The world has lost some of its greatest writers, but they have left a legacy that will outlive all of us alive today.

Novels by modern sci-fi writers, such as Ian M Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata, or Peter Watts’ Blindsight, may not reach the same fabulous heights of popularity as these older works. We cannot know; however, the writers themselves are in good company of others, producing a plethora of novels, short stories, plays and scripts – we should never forget that someone has to write those TV dramas! Writers like Greg Bear, Peter F Hamilton and Michael Moorcock, and a multitude of other wonderful authors are still exploring the boundaries of the probable – and improbable – with flair and imagination, imagination that is needed if we are to advance the species. Some of the greatest of humanity’s scientific advances have their origins in the novelist’s pen.

Fashions in literature change, but there is no time limit for amazing stories. Why else, after more than two thousand years, are we still reading the works of Homer? Why, after a few hundred years, are we still reading fairy tales to our children? In a few hundred more, our descendents may be reading something else, but it’s a good bet that science fiction will be high up on the list.

We will never cross that final frontier, yet we will not stop trying.

Follett’s War

The Longest Winter

The Winter of the World is a sequel to Fall of Giants, which I reviewed on WordPress last October. The story follows the lives and loves of the next generation of the families introduced in the earlier novel. It begins in 1933.

In Germany, Adolf Hitler has begun his rise to power. Carla von Ulrich’s ambition is to qualify as a doctor but the new regime wants only male doctors. Carla trains as a nurse instead. Her brother, Erik, is memerised by Nazi propaganda and joins the Party. Their parents, Walter and Maud, both social democrats, are fighting a losing battle against the rise of Naziism.

In Buffalo, USA, Daisy Peshkov loves a different sort of party. A rich heiress in her own right, Daisy’s great ambition is to meet the British king, George VI. She travels to London, where she meets and falls for Boy Fitzherbert and succumbs to  the spell of Fascism. Boy is the son of Earl Fitzherbert (Fitz), one of the chief characters in Fall of Giants. Daisy’s half-brother, Greg, sixteen, has an affair with a pretty, black, would-be actress. But Greg too has serious ambition and goes on to become a nuclear physicist involved with the Manhattan Project.

Woody and Chuck Dewar, sons of the US senator Gus Dewar, are making career decisions that will shape their lives, Woody in politics, Chuck in the navy. In London, Lloyd Williams, illegitimate son of the Earl (actually the half-brother of Boy, though neither of them knows it), wants to follow his mother Ethel into politics, but is inspired to go to Spain and fight against the Fascists there. He falls in love with Daisy Peshkov, a love that seems to have no future.

Meantime, in Russia, Voldya Peshkov (actually the brother of Greg, though neither of them knows it) has joined Red Army Intelligence, and is recruiting spies in Germany. He marries a nuclear scientist who is working on the fission bomb.winterworld2 These four scenarios and how they intersect and develop in a series of somewhat unlikely coincidences are at the core of this enjoyable novel by Ken Follett. The first part moves with pace and expectation. The author’s handling of Nazi-dominated Berlin, the suppression of all opposition, the inhuman treatment of dissenters and the horrors of WWII is immaculate. Having some second-hand knowledge of what it was like in Germany during those turbulent times, I found the German part of the story the most suspenseful and exciting.

I enjoyed the British scenes too, though I was less convinced by the history. Of course, London saw its share of demonstration and violence. However, the country as a whole did not take kindly to either Blackshirts or Communists and was much less polarised to left or right than Ken Follett implies.

Winter of the World is much too long a novel to summarise in a few lines. The cast is enormous, the canvas global and the plots (there are several, equally important) intricate. Suffice to say that all the main characters have a part to play in the world war sparked by Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Carla von Ulrich and her boyfriend Werner are driven to spy for the Soviets against their own country, only to discover that Stalin’s methods are every bit as evil as Hitler’s. Erik becomes disillusioned with Naziism, but he is “one of those inadequate people …” and succumbs just as readily to Soviet propaganda. Daisy’s conversion from dedicated aristocrat to fiesty ambulance driver is genuine and whilst hoping for a happy outcome of her love for LLoyd, we can still admire her for her loyalty to Boy, despite his shameful infidelities. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour brings the Dewar boys into the war for both patriotic and personal reasons, and the outcome for the Dewar family is not without tragedy.

In two episodes, Follett seems to depart from his edge-of -the-seat storytelling. He describes the Battle of Midway as if writing a school history. Similarly, his treatment of the Manhattan Project lacks the emotional drive of other parts of the book. Some of the coincidences are, for me, beyond the suspension of disbelief. Otherwise, Winter of the World is a great novel, no more or less than we expect from this author.

I look forward to the third book in the series.

 

 

 

 

10 Famous Quotations That Are Literary Misquotations

bookheathen:

We just love misquotations!

Originally posted on Interesting Literature:

As Hesketh Pearson put it, ‘Misquotations are the only quotations that are never misquoted.’ To see if he’s right, we’ve compiled a Top Ten list containing what we think are the commonest expressions in English which are misquotations of their original literary idioms. How many of these did you know started out as something different? And do you think that they are  still ‘misquotations’, if the phrases go on to gain a new life of their own?

Oh, and have we left off any good examples of literary misquotation?

1. Me Tarzan, you Jane. This line doesn’t appear in any of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original books, nor in the films; it probably arose as a compacting of the dialogue exchange between Tarzan and Jane in the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man.

2. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. This translation from Dante’s Inferno – the words are inscribed…

View original 440 more words

To Boldly Go (4)

The BBC Joins the Sci-fi Party

Until about 1953, fewer than ten percent of British households owned a television set. There were still regions of the British Isles that could get no signal. Though television broadcasting had begun in the thirties, it was suspended at the outbreak of World War II and did not resume until 1946. This was the great age of radio.

The BBC was already testing audience appetite for space travel stories by the early fifties. A radio series entitled The Lost Planet, scripted for children by the writer Angus MacVicar, was being aired on their Children’s Hour programme. McVicar, a native of Argyll, gave his story a unique Scottish flavour with a Scottish ‘back garden’ scientist – Dr McKinnon – in the mould of HG Wells’s Cavor. McKinnon builds a rocket ship for an expedition to Hesikos, an apparently dead planet that has wandered into our solar system. It turns out that Hesikos isn’t dead after all and supports underground an advanced humanoid society with telepathic abilities. With ‘good versus evil’ and ‘peace versus war’ themes similar to those of modern movies like Avatar, The Lost Planet serials featured villains who were human rather than alien, bent on exploiting Hesikos for their own selfish benefit.

jispaceAt about the same time, the BBC was also exploring the possibility of a story for its adult listeners. In 1953, it ran the first series of the space opera Journey into Space, scripted by Charles Chilton, who had worked for the Corporation since 1932 as messenger boy, presenter and producer. Journey into Space, which became one of the most popular radio shows of all time, combined the story of an expedition to the Moon with an intriguing time travel element that had the intrepid explorers returning to prehistoric Earth. The first serial was followed by two more, in which the four-man crew went to Mars. The programmes ran until early 1956.

McVicar and Chilton later turned their scripts into novels. McVicar was already an accomplished writer of both crime fiction and adventure stories for boys and girls, and successfully hopped from radio to printed page and, ultimately, to TV. Chilton is remembered more for his radio work, including a successful western serial Riders of the Range, later turned into a comic strip for the British children’s comic The Eagle. This weekly publication, launched in 1950, existed in one form or another until the 1990s and itself popularised space opera in the shape of its enduring cosmic traveller – Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future. Charles Chilton had no hand in his creation.

220px-The_Quatermass_XperimentThe BBC did not ignore television as a medium for sci-fi. In 1949, they had broadcast an adaptation of Wells’s The Time Machine, and in 1951 a children’s serial entitled Stranger From Space.  In the United Kingdom, the approaching coronation of Queen Elizabeth II sparked a dramatic increase in the sales of television sets and the Corporation was thus able to better gauge the response to TV fantasy. The next decade saw the appearance of several shows that proved popular, including the Quatermass series about alien monsters, a reprise of The Lost Planet, yet another children’s serial called Space School and finally, at the dawn of the sixties, ‘A’ For Andromeda. Andromeda was the creation of controversial astronomer Fred Hoyle, arguably the scientist who coined the term Big Bang.

The real international break for the BBC came in 1963. In late 1962, the newly-appointed head of Drama, Sidney Newman, was developing an idea for another children’s programme about a time-travelling alien with a ship that was “bigger on the inside.” He recruited Verity Lambert, an unknown producer working at ABC Television. Lambert liked the show. She made suggestions for significant changers and argued for a wider, family audience. Newman let her have her way, despite the reservations of more experienced producers asnd directors, and Dr Who was born.

doctorwho

The first episode of Dr Who, An Unearthly Child, went out on Saturday, November 23rd, 1963 and was largely eclipsed by the news of the assassination of President John F Kennedy the previous evening. The programme creators were concerned that the show might not survive. They need not have worried. The programme was repeated a week later before the broadcast of Episode Two and, with its electronic signature tune and frightening alien creations, the Daleks, almost immediately drew a cult following. Within a few years, the show had fans all over the world. At the beginning of 2014, we count no fewer than thirteen actors who have inhabited the body of the Doctor, including the late Peter Cushing in a film version.

Dr Who is now an international phenomenon.

[next - the final frontier?]

You are so right, Miss Austen!

A Review of Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey contains one of my favourite literary quotations. In the words of her heroine, ‘… the quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome ...’ A shrewd observer of character, customs and prejudices from an early age, Austen bit hard at the solemn and shallow works that were the school textbooks of her days. Her History of England, written in her teens, is not great literature, but it demonstrates the extent of Jane’s own reading, and that she was not averse to lampooning some of England’s iconic heroes.

northanger

Austen was a great reader, as all good novelists should be, and her taste included not only history and essays but the works of early English novelists such as Fanny Burney and Ann Radcliffe. And it was to the gothic novels of the latter that she turned in order to shape the character of Catherine Morland, her protagonist in Northanger Abbey. Catherine too is a great reader. However, she has a fanciful mind which creates imaginative fantasy from the most commonplace experiences and encounters.

Catherine accompanies her family friends, Mr and Mrs Allen, to Bath for the season and there makes the acquaintance of two families, the Thorpes and the Tilneys. She forms a friendship with the flighty Isabella Thorpe, and with the more sober Eleanor Tilney and her clergyman brother, Henry, for whom she develops a romantic attachment. Eleanor’s and Henry’s father, General Tilney, is misled as to Catherine’s social status and invites her to the family home. Its gothic atmosphere reminds Catherine of the fictional world of Ann Radcliffe, and her fanciful mind imagines the General guilty of all sorts of atrocity, including the murder of his wife. General Tilney, though quite innocent of murder, is a dreadful snob. And when Isabella Thorpe’s brother, spurned by Catherine, maligns her family and character to him, the General sends her home unceremoniously in the post-chaise. Ultimately, the General is brought to his senses and (as we expect in Jane Austen’s works) the story ends happily with the engagement and marriage of the two lovers.

If Northanger Abbey has a fault, it is that Austen ends it rather abruptly in a few pages of omniscient narrating. She might so easily have developed the final scenes through her characters’ eyes but for some unknown reason decided not to do so. In other respects, the novel is as good as anything else Austen wrote, with some sparkling satire and keen insight into the manners and foibles of society.

To Boldly Go (3)

Sci-fi finds new inspiration and a new audience

The film collaboration between Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick in 1968 was a landmark in the history of science fiction cinema.

2001film2001, A Space Odyssey did indeed go boldly into new sci-fi territory. Yet, though it won an Academy Award for special visual effects and BAFTAs for cinematography and soundtrack, it was by no means exceptional as a movie. The absence of dramatic dialogue, intentional for atmosphere rather than being the result of bad writing, caused it to drag. Its importance to the development of space opera as a legitimate branch of art lay elsewhere. 2001 introduced the first truly believable (and frightening) super computer. Its use of two distinctive pieces of classical music, Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz and Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra to represent two of the movie’s recurrent themes was imaginative and – in the case of the latter – possibly popularised a work that maybe the average music lover and most cinemagoers had never heard of.

More significantly, for the first time a film explored what space travel might truly be like, not an exciting and dangerous encounter with monsters and hostile aliens, but a daily grind like any other. Human beings had already gone into space and had flown orbit round the moon; a year after Kubrick’s film was released they would land on it. However, a cramped space capsule was no place for thrilling or romantic adventures. On longer trips, it would be much of the same. Eat, sleep, exercise, check instruments, and repeat the above!

Space opera of the past was speculation and fantasy. 2001, A Space Odyssey was realism.

*

Though lacking modern cinematography and the miracle of CGI, the 1950s and 1960s had already produced some excellent science fiction films. Often, these were movies with a message that reflected the uncertainties of the times. The world, recovering from the shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, began to fear in the heightening tension between the United States and the Soviet Union yet another war with catastrophic consequences for the human race. The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951 featured the soft-spoken Michael Rennie as a benign yet uncompromising alien who offered annihilation as the alternative to world and galactic peace. In the 1953 rendering of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds, the writers made significant changes to the book, bringing it up to date in its theme of atomic warfare and its consequences. A film of a different kind, When Worlds Collide, also issued in 1951, took as its subject annihilation by a rogue star, a theme that was copied many times over in the following decades. Forbidden Planet in 1956 took mankind far beyond this solar system, probably for the first time, and introduced us to one of the screen’s most memorable robots as well as to some metaphysical concepts reminiscent of Stevenson’s Jekyl and Hyde. The Time Machine, based on another Wellsian story, came out in 1960, Fantastic Voyage, about a rather different kind of space travel, in 1966. Although engaged later to write a novel of the film, Isaac Asimov was not responsible for this story and indeed criticised it as unscientific in its discussion of quantum mechanics.

dragonhIn the meantime, by the 1960s, science fiction writing had more or less shaken off its pulp image. Sci-fi was firmly established as a genre and well on the way to becoming mainstream literature. That publishers now chose paperback – and ultimately hardback – over magazines had little to do with the literary quality of the latter and certainly nothing to do with their popularity. Distribution problems had made the pulp magazines uneconomical. Of the dozens of science fiction magazines that made an appearance during the first half of the 20th century, mostly in America, only a handful remained.

Novelists who had served their apprenticeship with short stories for the sci-fi magazines began producing full length quality work. Some of the books were ‘fix-ups’ where the writer simply collected together some previously published stories and sold them as a collection in paperback. Others, by writers like Asimov and Ray Bradbury wrote new and connecting material and produced the whole in novel form. Asimov’s I, Robot and The Foundation Trilogy, and Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (http://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/we-are-not-alone-yet/) were examples of the latter practice. However, even more were completely new works of original and imaginative fiction that have since become classics. By no means all were space opera but many were stories featuring space travel and alien beings of one sort or another. Bradbury, who apparently did not regard himself as a science fiction writer at all, followed his Martian Chronicles collection with Fahreheit 451, a prophetic and dystopian work about the dangers of censorship. He also began writing for films, including John Huston’s Moby Dick and parts of the MGM biblical epic King of Kings.

spaceRobert A Heinlein, without doubt one of the greats of the genre, and often controversial but never dull, published two of his best full-length novels during this era, The Puppet Masters and Stranger in a Strange Land. Between their publication, he produced several novels for young adults (- though the publishing industry had not yet coined the term YA for books intended for teenagers -). Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End depicts an alien invasion of a peaceful kind though not without disturbing consequences. John Wyndham in The Day of the Triffids gave us an alien invasion by plants. Brian Aldiss in Greybeard pictured a futuristic Earth and dwindling human population made sterile by a nuclear holocaust. These and other authors such as Philip K Dick, Cliff Simak and Kurt Vonnegut fed the genre with wonderful writing and gave inspiration to younger writers who would come to the fore in the later years of the century.

Novels became longer and developed into series.  Ursula K Le Guin gave us dragons and the imaginery world of Earthsea, just as Tolkein had given us Middle Earth three decades earlier. Anne McCaffrey had a fondness for dragons too and in 1967 began writing her Pern books, creating a mythology that is still being exploited in this new century. In 1965, Frank Herbert, another of the 20th century greats of sci-fi, conceived his futuristic saga, Dune, which attracted plaudits and awards from readers and fellow writers alike. One of the most popular series ever, it comprised six novels in all, plus two published posthumously within the last decade.

“Live long and prosper!”

However, as the sixties ended, perhaps the greatest medium for bringing space opera to a new audience was television. Series such as Lost in Space gave viewers an appetite for interstellar adventures that could not be satisfied by the printed page alone. One writer who saw the potential was a former policeman called Gene Roddenberry who wrote scripts for both Crime and Western TV shows. In 1964, he conceived the idea of a Western-style trek, substituting for the Great Plains the Galaxy itself.

Fifty years later, and with six series and twelve movies to its credit, the Star Trek franchise is a world-wide phenomenon.

[next time - the BBC joins the party]

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