Thursday, April 3, 2014

C.S. Lewis Space Trilogy: Perelandra (part 1)

Erich von Däniken speculated that the stories in ancient myth and legend about gods angels and miracles were actually distorted accounts of space aliens. C.S. Lewis anticipated this idea and inverted it. In Lewis’s cosmos, space aliens are actually angels.

Elwin Ransom, a mild-mannered professor of philology, knows about these heavenly beings first-hand, having been taken to the planet Malacandra (known to terrestrial astronomers as Mars), by a pair of unscrupulous scientists, and having met Oyarsa, the ruling intelligence of that planet. He has learned that each planet has its own such planetary genius, but the Oyarsa of Earth rebelled against Maleldil, who rules over all, and waged war against his fellows. As a result, Earth has been quarantined from the rest of the Solar System.

At the end of Out of the Silent Planet, Oyarsa hints to Ransom that great changes will be coming to the Solar System in the near future and the long “Sitzkrieg” of Thulcandra, the Silent Planet (as Earth is called), may be coming to an end. Perelandra begins with Ransom preparing for another journey into space, this time as an agent for the divine eldila.

In some of our previous looks at Old-School Science Fiction, I’ve invoked the Nebular Hypothesis, the theory that the sun and planets coalesced out of a great cloud of interstellar gas which is the basis of our current understanding of the origin of the Solar System. When the theory was first proposed, it was assumed that the outer parts of the cloud would have coalesced first, and that therefore the outer planets are older than the ones closer to the Sun. We’ve seen how this assumption colored the depiction of the planets in science fiction for much of the 20th Century: Mars was usually presented as an ancient, dying world, such as perhaps Earth will be in several million years; and Venus as a young, primeval world, similar to what Earth was like in prehistoric times. Pulp writers portraying Venus were often tempted to forest it with Paleozoic jungles inhabited with antediluvian monsters.

C.S. Lewis, drawing on some of these ideas for his Space Trilogy, followed the tradition of making Venus, or Perelandra as he called it, a young planet; but he went past the Antediluvian, all the way to the Edenic.
Lewis’s Perelandra is an unfallen world, a sinless paradise. The dark archon of our world wants to change that. Hitherto, he has been unable to cross the orbit of Earth’s Moon, due to the cosmic interdiction of Maleldil; but Weston’s space ship has changed everything. The quarantine has been broken and the terrestrial forces of Darkness are about to stage an assault on Perelandra, to corrupt it as Earth has been corrupted. Oyarsa has recruited Ransom to go to Venus to prevent this from happening.

Lewis used the writings of H.G. Wells, particularly The First Men in the Moon, as his inspiration for Out of the Silent Planet, but Perelandra draws more from fantastic literature of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. As Lewis himself later put it, “I took a hero to Mars once in a space-ship, but when I knew better I had angels convey him to Venus". It’s typical of Lewis that he found angels to be more believable than Weston’s technobabble.

Arriving on Perelandra, he finds it covered completely with water, which seemed a plausible conjecture before the Mariner space probes gave us a better look at Venus. The oceans of the planet are sweet, which both symbolizes the world’s uncorrupted state and on a more prosaic level makes sense assuming that the planet is several million years younger than Earth. Ransom encounters floating islands, composed of densely-matted vegetation, upon which trees grow and animals dwell. Lewis does a wonderful job of describing the strange, lush world that Ransom finds.

It is on one of these islands that Ransom, anticipating James T. Kirk, meets a green-skinned space babe. She is the Eve of this Paradise, this world’s First Woman. Ransom is able to speak with her, because the language he learned on Malacandra turns out to be a lingua franca of the Solar System, (and the fact that he already knew “Old Solar” was the reason he was chosen for the mission); but he is puzzled that, apart from the color of her skin, the Lady seems perfectly human. Human-looking aliens in science fiction are usually explained by things like Parallel Evolution, or a Common Ancestry from a Precursor Race, or Cheap Make-Up Budgets, or in many cases Lazy Writers. Lewis, naturally, gives a reason fitting with his theology: the natives of Perelandra have a human form because that is the form Maleldil assumed when he became a mortal on Earth.

It occurs to me in this reading that the color of the Lady’s skin might be symbolic both of her innocence and of the unfallen nature of her world, full of life and potential. I hadn’t thought of it before simply because, well, green-skinned aliens are something of a cliché. But I think it might be significant here, if for no other reason the comparison with Ransom’s own skin. He was carried to Perelandra in a box of a translucent material; as a result, half of his body has a bad sunburn from the solar radiation and the other half remains British pasty white. The Lady calls him Piebald Man because of his half-and-half appearance, which she found amusing when she first saw him; but this appearance might also signify Ransom’s own imperfect nature: good intentions mixed with uncertainty and doubt; the desire to do what’s right conflicting with sinful impulses.

Sex does not seem to be one of those impulses. He arrived on Perelandra naked, and the Lady is naked as well; but he is so self-conscious about his own appearance – he is, after all, no Adonis: a sedentary, middle-aged college professor with a ludicrous sunburn to boot; and she, despite her peculiar coloring, is overwhelmingly beautiful – that desire does not come into the picture.

We do not learn until the very end of the story that the Lady’s name in Tinidril. It’s possible that, being this world’s first woman and newly-created, she has not yet felt a need to take a name or to be given one. In any case, Ransom thinks of her as The Lady, and as she is this world’s Eve, I suppose she cannot avoid being an Archetype. She is innocent, but not unintelligent, and has a great desire to learn. She and Ransom have several conversations in which he learns as much from her as she from him.

But eventually, you know the Serpent is going to show up.

NEXT:   Enter Weston; a Belief in Higher Powers; the Terror of the Un-Man and Moral Conflict

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