From Narnia to a Space Odyssey: The War of Ideas between Arthur C. Clarke and C.S. Lewis
ed. Ryder Miller © 2003
First of all, reader, understand that the title of this book is overstated. It is not a series of letters, a debate held in your hands. The first quarter of the book follows the exchange between Lewis and Clarke — one pensive, one optimistic — about mankind’s seemingly imminent conquest of space, but this is then followed by essays and SF short stories by both Lewis and Clarke. Both men were interested in science fiction as a genre, having witnessed it erupt from obscurity within their own lifetimes. Although Lewis is remembered more as a medieval literature scholar and a Christian apologist. his letters to Clarke evidence a deep familiarity with the SF of the day, from serious novels to pulp trash.
The spirit of the letters is intended to serve as a theme for the stories and essays that follow, though frankly I found it a collection of miscellany. The correspondence begins when Clarke reads Perelandra and takes offense that the scientists are portrayed as grasping imperialists, wanting to subject the whole of the poor solar system to mankind’s vices and ambition. He protests to Lewis that the proponents of rocket societies, both laymen and scientists, are among the most pacifistic and philanthropic people in society. Lewis’ response is that while there may be no “Westons” (his technocratic imperialist character) in the rocket clubs as of yet, they will quickly follow once idealistic explorers have broken the ‘quarantine of space’. The two then chatter about science fiction.
The bulk of the book consists of odd stories and essays by Lewis and Clarke, ostensibly related to the argument. The only real trace I saw of that was in Clarke’s stories, though: in one, “Meeting with Medusa“, an airship probing Jupiter’s oceans of cloud discovers a new kind of life. While not sure it is intelligent, the characters immediately put into effect the “prime directive”, protocols regarding the circumspect treatment of intelligent life — specifically, do no harm. The term prime directive brings Star Trek to mind immediately, and so does Clarke’s optimism that man will learn from his mistakes. In one of the last pieces of the book, Clarke rebuts an enthusiastic essay from an American military personality that the United States should lay claim to the Moon in its entirety, and Clarke appears so disturbed at the naked avarice and nationalistic aggression that he muses that perhaps it would be better for the galaxy if man were kept inside Lewis’ quarantine of space for a while longer.
I’m the odd bird who enjoys both Lewis and Clarke, whose own mind is divided between the hope of Star Trek and the sad wisdom of history, and so I found this collection odd but fun. If nothing else it is an example of two men who — to borrow from Lewis — can argue without quarreling.