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Book Review: From Narnia to a Space Odyssey

By Delirium in Culture
Mon Aug 20, 2007 at 01:17:25 AM EST
Tags: book review, space (all tags)

From Narnia to a Space Odyssey is a collection of the infrequent correspondence between noted authors Arthur C. Clarke and C.S. Lewis. I didn't even know they had corresponded, so I picked the book up from a bargain shelf for $4, and it turned out to be a fairly interesting if not particularly substantial bit of history, focusing mainly on their disagreements over space travel, and mainly initiated and driven by Clarke's attempts to engage Lewis in debate on the matter.

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The correspondence

The correspondence starts with a 1943 letter from Clarke to Lewis. Clarke was at the time a 25-year-old nobody, who had published a few sci-fi stories in fanzines. Lewis was a fairly well known Christian apologist and Oxford academic who had started dabbling in science fiction (not yet fantasy).

The occasion of the letter was the publication of Lewis's Perelandra, which had as a principal character a rather diabolical spacefaring physicist, and an undercurrent (at least as Clarke read it) suggesting that proponents of space travel were generally galactic imperialists bent on overturning the natural order of things. Clarke objected ("somewhat violently") that this is a bit of an exaggeration: "Because stories of interplanetary imperialism and destruction are the stock in trade of the hack writer, you seem to imagine that there exists a considerable body of people looking forward with over anticipation to vast wars of conquest over the surface of an expanding sphere centered upon the earth". He then goes on to defend what he sees as the much purer motives of the interplanetary societies advocating space travel that were then quite common.

Lewis wrote back with a short reply, in a very bizarrely abbreviated and emphasized style of writing that apparently is how he writes letters, that he agrees most scientists are not really like the Professor Weston of his book, but that the glorification of science and technology above all would inevitably lead in that direction.

The rest of the correspondence is somewhat intermittent. In 1946 Clarke invites Lewis to one of his lectures and is turned down, though Lewis adds, "I wish your lecture every success except a practical realization of space travel!"

In 1953, now chairman of the British Interplanetary Society, Clarke invites Lewis to a meeting of that Society, but is again turned down, though Lewis professes not to be put off by the possibility of being a rather unpopular minority if he were to come. He adds a similar benediction: "convey my good wishes to them as regards everything that but interplanetary travel" (particularly amusing as interplanetary travel is really the only purpose of the Interplanetary Society).

They do have a flurry of interesting discussions through 1953 and 1954 in lieu of ever actually meeting, and Lewis makes a number of comments on stories of Clarke's that Clarke sends him copies of. Lewis remains staunchly of the opinion that space travel brings out the worst in man and will harm the rest of the galaxy too, especially if it has life in it. Clarke tries to convince him otherwise, but is not too successful. On a side note, it's interesting to realize that 50 years ago both sides seemed to assume that widespread interplanetary travel in the forseeable future was quite likely.

The volume itself

The correspondence is interesting, but the volume it's published in is really kind of bad. There's an obvious reason this correspondence wasn't published until over 50 years later: there's less than 20 pages of it. To pad out the volume into something publishable, the publisher has included another 150 pages of filler, some of it worthwhile but most of it subpar. There is a long and rambling introduction about the process of editing and publishing this volume, which apparently went through some false starts: all well and good but I really don't care. There are 10-page biographies of each of Clarke and Lewis, which is okay I guess but I can get better biographies elsewhere, probably even on Wikipedia. Of somewhat more note, there's a two-page preface by Arthur C. Clarke, which gives a few 50-years-hence comments on the correspondence. Finally, there are reprints of a bunch of short stories from both authors to pad the volume out.

More problematic than the filler though is that the editing job is horrible. Clarke's letters are for the most part fine, but Lewis appears to have written in a strangely nonstandard sort of English filled with shorthand and abbreviations, and the editors have done a very bad job dealing with that and informing the reader which bits are original versus typographical errors on the part of the editor (the latter not only a theoretical possibility, as there are several in the introduction). In particular, a handful of "(sic)" annotations are infuriatingly thrown in after things that aren't particularly surprising, while pages of strange spellings and what might or might not be typos are unremarked upon. There are fascimiles of a few of the handwritten letters, but printed so small that they serve no use but to take up space. I suppose this is what you get when you let a company named "ibooks" print books instead of running Web 2.0 sites.

That said, the book is still worth picking up. The publisher has gone out of business, the book is now available from lots of places as a remainder for under $4, and it documents an interesting tidbit of history not published elsewhere, giving in the process a bit of a window into the interplanetary societies and such of that era.

ISBN 0-7434-7518-6, published 2003


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Book Review: From Narnia to a Space Odyssey | 18 comments (14 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
Exactly what this place needs more of (3.00 / 4) (#1)
by i1n3k on Sat Aug 18, 2007 at 11:35:24 PM EST

You can tell this is well-written because nobody is saying anything about it.

Well done.  This is written to a level sites like this one are coming dangerous close to forgetting.

I have nothing else to add.

Libenter homines id quod volunt credunt. — Julius Caesar

did you read (2.00 / 3) (#2)
by guidoreichstadter on Sun Aug 19, 2007 at 01:59:21 AM EST

that hideous strength?

you are human:
no masters,
no slaves.
Lewis and Clarke (3.00 / 3) (#6)
by b1t r0t on Sun Aug 19, 2007 at 04:15:00 PM EST

Didn't they discover a river or something?

-- Indymedia: the fanfiction.net of journalism.
I think I missed that episode. (none / 1) (#9)
by daveybaby on Mon Aug 20, 2007 at 09:10:32 AM EST

Is that the one where Lex Luthor is hiding in the jungle or something?

[ Parent ]
Terrible Sci Fi (none / 1) (#8)
by MythMoth on Mon Aug 20, 2007 at 08:27:44 AM EST

The space trilogy is mediocre writing and awful science fiction. Lewis makes various goofs in the scientific content that he would never have countenanced (and his peers would never have let him get away with) in historical, literary, or theological matters.

I'm surprised that there wasn't more vehement criticism from Clarke on these grounds.

oh yeah? (none / 1) (#22)
by Gallamine on Sat Dec 22, 2007 at 10:22:38 PM EST

Based on your supplied evidence, I could just as well say, "the space trilogy is the best science fiction EVER WRITTEN BY MANKIND."

The statement is useless without reasoning. Please explain your sweeping statements.

[ Parent ]

I'm just amused... (3.00 / 7) (#10)
by dissonant on Mon Aug 20, 2007 at 04:23:27 PM EST

...that two people named Lewis and Clarke were debating the merits of exploration.

10 comments!? /nt (none / 1) (#11)
by achievingfluidity on Mon Aug 20, 2007 at 08:36:10 PM EST


on a side note (none / 0) (#12)
by zenofchai on Tue Aug 21, 2007 at 03:34:23 PM EST

On a side note, it's interesting to realize that 50 years ago both sides seemed to assume that widespread interplanetary travel in the forseeable future was quite likely.

Firstly, s/forseeable/foreseeable -- but I digress.

Yes, it certainly seemed safe to assume this would be the case. Advancements in technology, the race for space, Sputnik, Glenn, the Moon!

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re: (3.00 / 5) (#14)
by zenofchai on Tue Aug 21, 2007 at 04:38:40 PM EST

From a friend to whom  I forwarded this article:

The reviewer is ignorant of some things. Lewis had a "bizarrely abbreviated" writing style for two main reasons. One is that he suffered from osteoporosis which pained him when writing. Another is that he felt it his "Christian duty" to offer assistance to every honest seeker who wrote him if he felt it within his power. In other words, he hand wrote many thousands of responses to the many thousands of inquiries out of a sense of moral obligation (and good will) while suffering from a bone disease. His autobiography and letters state quite plainly that the quantity of letters he received were an incredible burden. He often politely asked frequent senders to pace themselves and write less often. When on several occasions Lewis detected that some of his correspondents were in financial distress and unable to provide for themselves, he went so far as to give monthly stipends from his book royalties, some of which were maintained till his death.

The minor criticisms in this review are quite like an idle spectator who observes Pheidippides along those last few miles from Marathon to Athens and complains, "Some runner that is. He really ought to watch his form and fix that awkward gait."

As for Lewis' stance on the ills of space travel, he is rather hard to refute. He simply felt that humans would do to other planets and other indigenous peoples what we have done to this planet and each other.

I have no kiroshin acct. You can post if you'd like.

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lol what (none / 1) (#16)
by Delirium on Tue Aug 21, 2007 at 06:17:05 PM EST

My criticisms were almost wholly of the publisher's shoddy editing job and book padded with mediocre "new content", not of Lewis. I mentioned Lewis's writing style as a matter of fact, not critically. And I took no position on whether Lewis or Clarke had the better argument.

[ Parent ]
lol what (none / 0) (#17)
by zenofchai on Tue Aug 21, 2007 at 09:42:02 PM EST

You just said:

> I mentioned Lewis's writing style as a matter of fact, not critically.

Yet the article said:

> in a very bizarrely abbreviated and emphasized style of writing that apparently is how he writes letters

sounds critical, not matter of fact. had you taken the time to actually look into his style of writing, you would have quickly seen why this was so, instead of waving it off as his "apparent" writing style.
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[ Parent ]

yeah, I hadn't looked into it (none / 0) (#19)
by Delirium on Wed Aug 22, 2007 at 01:16:40 AM EST

All I was pointed out was that: 1) his writing style is unusual (bizarre, even), and 2) judging from these letters, that seems to be his usual writing style. I don't see how that implies it's a bad writing style, just highly atypical, for whatever reason that I didn't care enough to investigate further, because it didn't matter much either way. And for the record, your friend's answer doesn't really explain it either; it explains the abbreviations perhaps, but not the excessive use of emphasis (rendered as italics in the transcript).

[ Parent ]
dictionary (none / 0) (#20)
by zenofchai on Wed Aug 22, 2007 at 10:57:08 AM EST

add Pheidippides
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[ Parent ]
Book Review: From Narnia to a Space Odyssey | 18 comments (14 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
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