The third and final science fiction novel written by CS Lewis, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, is touted by some as a fantasy novel. I hesitate to go deeper to explain why that might be, for fear of spoiling, but let’s just say that the story takes place on Earth, not in space, and one of the key characters who acts in a miraculous and decisive way to defeat the enemy, is a wonderfully fantastical character.
As I have talked with friends who have read all three, I get different answers about which is the “favorite” in the trilogy. There are individuals who love Out of the Silent Planet. I personally like it for its length…it is as short as a novella and a tight little narrative. Others love Perelandra. I appreciate Perelandra, but there are portions where reading was a chore. For me, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH is the true novel. It is my favorite of the three.
The Short Review: 5 Reasons I Recommend THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH
- Compelling main character(s) both grappling with interior life, particularly with identity and faith
- A rich setting, a modern academic world and progressive (Lewis’ words) university leadership that feels creepy, yet familiar
- An amorphous and terrifying villain, well written and historically relevant
- In the midst of the horror, a comedic twist that feels like a Shakespeare switch-a-roo
- A companion novel to 1984. Many minds in this era of the 20th century understood the tyranny of government control. Lewis and Orwell were cut from that same cloth. Warnings that are relevant today and always.
For me, the young married couple, Mark and Jane, makes this story compelling in a way that is unique among the three novels in the trilogy. Jane is a crucial player and well developed. In the previous novels Lewis did not present the reader with a compelling female lead who was relatable. The Perelandra Queen is wonderful, but otherworldly. Jane, in this book, is utterly relatable. Her discomfiture with domestic life, her struggle with a husband who is caught up in his own professional world, felt deeply real. Mark is also real. Lewis highlights his hubris and insecurity, showing the reader how one might choose to align oneself with a horrific community. Mark’s longing for belonging, his hope for recognition are powerful human motivators and have the capacity to diminish the moral spine, especially if that spine is wobbly (as Mark’s is). Despite Mark’s poor choices, I got the feeling that Lewis, like the deity he knows and loves, has not given up on this lost soul. When Mark sinks low enough and faces the worst of himself, there is a promise of redemption.
THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH is a story with complex layers. The deeper conversation about nations and their “haunting” is a topic I will not cover in this review, but in case you’re wanting to understand more, an article in The Imaginative Conservative called America’s “Logres”: The Mythology of a Nation helped me muse on what might be the American Haunting. That conversation is a crossover of the spiritual and the literary and takes the reader deeper into the mind of CS Lewis and those who were writing in like spirit, JRR Tolkien being one of those writers.
PERELANDRA is the second installment in CS Lewis’ space trilogy. Below is my no-spoiler short review, but the longer review that follows the image of PERELANDRA’s cover, will contain spoilers…beware. This is not a children’s book, but I recommend this novel to all ages who like the story. For all readers, taking the time to discuss after or along the way will deepen philosophical and theological understanding.
Link to OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET for a review of the first book in the trilogy.
5 Reasons to Read PERELANDRA, A Classic Science Fiction Story
- One of the more unique portrayals in literature of paradise and/or a pre-fallen world
- Beautiful CS Lewis prose
- The ideas are put forward clearly and by someone well acquainted with 20th century ideas
- Finally…a strong female character (there were none in the first novel)
- Read all three to make sense of what Lewis was trying to accomplish in the longer narrative arc
3 Reasons PERELANDRA is My Least Favorite of the Trilogy
- There are so few characters and the villain does not arrive until about 1/3 of the way into the book
- Not a lot of drama…there is a slow build and eventually, high drama, but it takes the novel a while to arrive (see #1)
- A lot of speech-making in the final pages. Interesting ideas, but coming at me in my least favorite non-dramatic package
The Longer Review (With Spoilers)
While PERELANDRA is my least favorite of the three books Lewis wrote in the scifi genre, it does have its merits.
For one, anyone who has read his Narnia books, knows how well CS Lewis puts his imagination on the page. He has the ability to create a world both strange and fabulous and took on a bold task to put before the reader a paradise, a pre-civilization and pre-fallen planet with only two human-like people. Basically, he created an Eden. And how would one write this in a convincing way?
This excerpt, one of many examples…just gorgeous.
Now he had come to a part of the wood where great globes of yellow fruit hung from the trees–clustered as toy-balloons are clustered on the back of a balloon-man and about the same size. He picked one of them and turned it over and over. The rind was smooth and firm and seemed impossible to tear open. Then by accident, one of his fingers punctured it and went through into coldness. After a moment’s hesitation, he put the little aperture to his lips. He had meant to extract the smallest experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight. It was, of course, a taste, just as his thirst and hunger had been thirst and hunger. But then it was so different than any other taste that it seemed a mere pedantry to call it taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasure, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant. For one draught of this on earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed.
Elwin Ransom, a professor of philology, is the narrator here. He was also the protagonist in Out of the Silent Planet. In this excerpt, he is telling his tale to a fictionalized version of CS Lewis after returning from his mission to the planet Perelandra. Ransom was sent to Perelandra by the angelic ruler of Mars (Malacandra). The reader is acquainted with this ruler from the previous book. In Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is kidnapped and brought to Malacandra. That is where he meets Oyarsa, the ruler of Mars. Oyarsa does make an appearance in this novel, as does Weston, one of the academics who kidnapped Ransom in the first story. Weston, the primary rival to Ransom, acts as the tempter in this narrative. He does this not by his own cleverness and strength, but by something more frightening. Weston has given himself over to the bent angelic ruler of Earth, Satan. After Weston arrives on Perelandra in his space vessel, Ransom comes to understand his mission, that he has been sent to thwart the bent Oyarsa by thwarting Weston.
In the story, Weston is an academic with the worst intellectual vices; hubris combined with a flamboyant humanism that borders on narcissism. Tragically, he falls under a true evil in his search of spiritual answers to the mysteries he experienced on Malacandra. Weston’s journey into evil reads like something out of a horror novel (or the Bible).
“Idiot,” said Weston. His voice was almost a howl and he had risen to his feet. “Idiot,” he repeated. “Can you understand nothing?…This is the old accursed dualism in another form. There is no possible distinction in concrete thought between me and the universe. In so far as I am the conductor of the central forward pressure of the universe, I am it. Do you see, you timid, scruple-mongering fool? I am the Universe. I, Weston, am your God and your Devil. I call the Force into me completely…”
Then horrible things began happening. A spasm like that preceding a deadly vomit twisted Weston’s face out of recognition. As it passed, for one second something like the old Weston reappeared–the Old Weston, staring with eyes of horror and howling, “Ransom, Ransom! For Christ’s sake don’t let them—” and instantly his whole body spun round as if he had been hit by a revolver-bullet and he fell to the earth, and was there rolling at Ransom’s feet, slavering and chattering and tearing up the moss by the handfuls…
I was in my thirties the last time I read PERELANDRA and I did not remember how clearly this Weston character gives himself over to evil. Nor did I remember that Ransom comes to the realization that he will have to destroy Weston in hand to hand combat if he is to defeat him.
That Ransom believes he must assassinate his rival provoked my horror. Moreover, the scenes of his battle with Weston are brutal. Lewis does not hold back on that reality, but the idea of this existential battle brought to mind Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Lewis might never have known Bonhoeffer personally, but the ideas Bonhoeffer was writing about and preaching about (in Hitler’s Germany) were likely familiar to him…as they were to every thinking Christian of the time.
Bonhoeffer, while struggling to be a faithful clergy member under Nazi rule in Germany, came to terms with the idea that it was in fact a righteous or just act to kill a man who had fully given himself over to evil. That is why Bonhoeffer was executed in the end, as he played a role in an assassination attempt against Hitler. Below is an excerpt of a sermon on Colossians 3:1-4, a sermon he gave most likely after he had made the decision to collaborate with a part of the resistance determined to assassinate the Fürher.
“Instead, and precisely because our minds are set on things above, we are that much more stubborn and purposeful in protesting here on earth… Does it have to be so that Christianity, which began as immensely revolutionary, now has to remain conservative for all time? That every new movement has to blaze its path without the church, and that the church always takes twenty years to see what has actually happened? If it really must be so, then we must not be surprised when, for our church as well, times come when the blood of martyrs will be demanded. But this blood, if we truly have the courage and honour and loyalty to shed it, will not be so innocent and shining as that of the first witnesses. Our blood will be overlaid with our own great guilt.” (DBW 11, 446) (Schlingensiepen, Kindle Location 2427)
Bonhoeffer’s words evoke the idea that a conservative church is potentially an anemic one. His mention of our great guilt in the sermon I took two ways. One, the church is guilty when it does not act (or waits too long) to stand up to evil. Two, if it does join the revolutionaries, it potentially falls under the guilt of questionable acts. When evil can only be defeated by an act that lays outside of the norm of Christian ethics, there is plenty of guilt to go around. However, Bonhoeffer did not shrink back from taking on that guilt for what he (and history) thought to be the greater good. Moreover, his writings on this remain strong pillars in just-war theory and the Christian struggle with realism versus pacifism.
Lewis travels a similar line of reasoning in this novel and it should not surprise the reader that when the character Ransom leaves the planet Perelandra, he leaves having accomplished his task, but with a wound on his foot that refuses to heal this side of heaven.
OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, by CS Lewis came about as a result of a coin toss between JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis in the 1930s. The understanding between the two men; one side of the coin would mean writing a science fiction novel, the other side would mean writing a time travel novel. The coin was tossed, Lewis was assigned the scifi novel. Tolkien was assigned the time travel novel. Tolkien never wrote his. Lewis did, published in 1938, twelve years before Narnia. In fact, he wound up writing three books of science fiction. OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, which I will review here, was the first. This story is sophisticated, but there is no reason a YA reader or a very learned middle grade reader cannot take on this story. For educators thinking about assigning this book to a young person, a solid discussion on the story would make the experience a profound one.
The Short Review: 4 Reasons to Read OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET
- Superb writing and because this is CS Lewis, when you’re finished reading, your brain will have expanded
- Scintillating ideas that awaken the conscience…Plunge yourself into the mindset of a WWI veteran and a brilliant observer of history and soak in Lewis’ crucial critique of pre-WWII Europe
- Absorb Lewis’ Christian concept of God/Creator…the beauty and the moral implications
- Gain a vision for the power of fiction (imaginative science fiction in particular) as a way to change hearts and minds.
A Few More Details:
When Lewis and his friend and colleague, JRR Tolkien, both veterans of WWI, decided to toss that coin, they had been musing together about the sad state of fiction. They believed that the godless universe theory unleashed to some degree by Darwinists and proponents of the Hegelian superstate/superman, was giving rise to real beliefs (like eugenics which both understood as dangerous and evil) inside academia and government. More troublesome, these theories were making their way into fiction and infecting the broader population through story.
Americans fought in WWII and helped to defeat Hitler, so my nation (I am a US citizen) often forgets how the eugenics movement in the US was accepted and backed by some of our highest state actors, like President Woodrow Wilson. We in the US forget, maybe conveniently so, that we too were traveling on a similar road as the Nazis. This is how pervasive these ideas were and back in that day, they were considered progressive. It turns out, anything can be labeled progressive. A cautionary and hopefully humbling reminder to us in the 21st century.
Marxist ideology was also suspect in Lewis’ eyes. Both Marxism and Fascism preached an exercising of power where the end justifies the means. That idea was an abomination to Lewis and Tolkien, the rejection of which made its ways into the Lord of Rings trilogy, as it did into all of Lewis’ writings. As Christians (Lewis, an Anglican, Tolkien, a Catholic), they challenged the idea that the state has permission to sacrifice an individual for some greater good, not without that individual willingly giving up her/his life, soldiers willing to fight to defeat the existential enemy of a free state being one example of this proper sacrifice, something both of these men witnessed first hand.
In regard to reading OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, knowing a little 20th century history and philosophy definitely helps the reader enter into the world of Elwin Ransom, the hero of the story, but even without that knowledge, this is a fascinating and well written tale. Ransom, a philologist, is on a walking tour of rural England. He is kidnapped and taken to Malacandra (the planet Mars). What unfolds is a story about relationship and curiosity (Ransom’s journey) versus dominance exercised by violence (the journey of his kidnappers). The narrative provides a resolution that exemplifies the idea that there is a standard of justice that is literally universal.
This is my third time reading OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET (notice my beat-up copy in the image above…not sure it will survive another read-through) and after finishing the book this round, I found myself dreaming about grace and kindness and goodness while I slept…something that doesn’t often happen for me after reading science fiction before bed.
ALL SYSTEMS RED is a story, entertaining and well-written, that one can read in about 4 hours. Rated PG-13 for adult themes. I read this novella on a flight from Minneapolis to Seattle. I flew on Delta and none of the airline’s tv/film options seemed very thrilling to me. I often try to see HBO or Showtime options when on a flight because I don’t subscribe to either of those services in real life. Thank goodness I had taken this book with me, hardback, but thin, lightweight and easy to pack because it’s only 127 pages.
And now, for my Short, No-Spoiler Review
I highly recommend ALL SYSTEMS RED for these 5 reasons.
- Original voice…the narrator has the appeal of an innocent, he/she is like a child, yet holds the capacity to narrate a futuristic society inhabited by humans and AI living and working together
- Genre bending…science fiction merged with mystery…in other words, a page-turner
- Thought-provoking ideas about AI and how future humans might understand morality/humanity in regards to AI
- Interesting world-building and a great set-up for subsequent stories
- ALL SYSTEMS RED would make a great audiobook. See the longer review for more
Martha Wells has created a fascinating universe of humanity working and living off Earth, in space, in places that can only be reached via light-speed travel. She doesn’t fixate on the physics of the issue (regarding traveling across vast distances) but focuses on the gritty work life of humans and their bots. In the author’s futuristic world, full AI exist as sex workers and security units (SecUnits) and other helps in life. Also, some humans adopt robotic parts (augmented humans). So, there is a mix of how humans have integrated with tech and within the story world, there is little “judgment” about these realities.
While this is all true, the AI mind that narrates this story has a judgment about itself and humans. The view is not completely skewed toward disgust for humans, though there is some leaning in this direction. Granted, I’ve only read the first 1.5 novellas. But what works in the narrative is that Wells has put forward a more dispassionate, yet charming view of the world the way it is. I highly recommend these novellas as entertainment and am slowly discovering how they speak into deeper moral questions around humanity’s race toward the future, a future in which robots and artificial intelligence will be embedded. These books might appeal to the YA reader because the narrator is endearing and “young” feeling. The value in their education would be the discussion around tech and humanity’s future.
Regarding the narrator. The voice is absolutely charming. I did not listen to the book, but can imagine the voice. This book would be a pleasure to listen to.
To buy the first book, click on All Systems Red
Four of the series in hardback can be bought together. Click on Murderbot Diaries
For the least expensive version to try out novella #1, click on Kindle version: All Systems Red
For the audio version of novella #1, click on Audio of All Systems Red
Five Reasons I recommend WIDOWLAND, by C.J. Carey
- Excellent pacing and page-turning tension
- A young female hero who comes into her agency in a believable way
- Legit world-building of a bleak UK governed by Nazis
- The writing around the sexual relationships feels vital and true (more on this in the longer review)
- Given the consistent point of view and straightforward timeline, I’m guessing this would make a great audiobook
To purchase WIDOWLAND, click here
The Longer Review…
To control the past, they edited history. To control the future, they edited literature.
WIDOWLAND is an alternative history novel, set in London, 1953. This story would probably carry a PG-13 rating because of the sexual relationships although none of the sex scenes were explicit. For this reason, I wavered on the rating. Overall, the main sex scene was tastefully, even beautifully handled in terms of the emotional weight it carries within the story. Mature teens could handle this book. In fact, it might appeal to many female YA readers because the protagonist is a woman in her twenties.
For educators, WIDOWLAND provides a unique picture of what a society imagined by the Nazis might look like and feel like. Great fodder for discussion. Moveover, it portrays (accurately so) literature as a disrupter of those who broker power.
In this alternative history, Germany has invaded the UK and Hitler rules over it as a protectorate. The coronation of Edward the VIII (Queen Elizabeth’s uncle) and the American divorcee, Queen Wallis, is taking place soon. Significant because The Leader, Hitler himself will descend on London for the celebration. The soon-to-be King and Queen of England are collaborators with the Nazis, based on an actual historical and private meeting that took place between the Edward and Hitler at the Berghof in 1937. (No record of the meeting has survived).
The story, told in close third person by the main character, Rose Ransom, opens with a description of London preparing for the coronation. Through Rose’s eyes, the world unfolds. The reader quickly understands, that although Rose holds little power in the system, she sits at the top of the subjugated population as a Geli. She is young and her view of reality is sometimes naive and not always reliable, but the discoveries she makes along the way are a part of how Carey maintains tension in the story. The reader senses the danger she does not.
This is a story about a woman and about women living under Nazi occupation. Carey could have gone overboard painting the world, but deftly focuses the reader’s attention on the kind of oppression that exists in England for the vulnerable. The elderly, women and widows in particular, suffer under the yoke of the Nazis. She highlights the caste system which categorizes the “utility” of women. In this early excerpt, the reader begins to understand Carey’s 1953 London.
Members of the first and elite caste were popularly called Gelis after the woman most loved by the Leader, his niece Geli. Klaras–after the Leader’s mother–were fertile women who had produced, ideally, four or more children. Lenis were professional women, such as office workers and actresses, after Leni Riefenstahl, the regime’s chief film director. Paulas, names after the Leader’s sister, were in the caring professions, teachers and nurses, whereas Magdas were lowly shop and factory employees and Gretls did the grunt work as kitchen and domestic staff. There was a range of other designations–for nuns, disabled mothers and midwives–but right at the bottom of the hierarchy came the category called Friedas. It was a diminutive of the nickname Friedhöfefrauen–cemetary women. These were the widows and spinsters of over fifty who had no children, no reproductive purpose, and who did not serve a man.
There was nothing lower than that.
Rose first runs into trouble when the Cultural Commissioner of the UK Protectorate asks that she help him solve a mystery. She is to venture into Widowland and spy on a group of Friedas. An uprising is bubbling to the surface in London right as Hitler is set to arrive. These disempowered women are the suspected Nazi resisters. The clock is ticking and Rose’s big boss makes known to her that more than just her job is on the line if she fails.
What unfolds is a story of discovery for Rose and choices that will impact many.
One comment about the sexual relationships in this novel. The sex is not explicit. There is an implied disorder to the relationship between Rose and her lover, who is twenty-five years her senior. The power dynamics and how German men use power to procure beautiful young women is a part of the world these characters inhabit and is taken for granted in the novel world. However, the author adds a scene that is emblematic of sex within a loving relationship. The revelation that comes to Rose and the writing around this encounter are so poignant and beautiful, I will remember this passage of writing for a long time.
This is my second time reading DUNE, with probably about twenty years in between readings. My first took place as a fan, consuming for pleasure. This time, I re-read DUNE as a writer of science fiction. It was still a thrilling ride.
DUNE, the novel holds up well to post-modern scrutiny and the writing is mostly perfect.
This is a PG-13 story, for sexual and violent themes, although those scenes are not explicit in this novel.
The Short Review
5 Reasons the Science Fiction Fan Needs to Read this Book Now
- DUNE, the film will be released in 2021…at least the first film of two will be released…unless pandemic interferes. In this case as in most, I recommend reading before viewing
- Compelling villain and compelling hero, with complex motives for each
- Dynamic characters around the main character, including a number of strong females
- Among the best world-building you will find in science fiction
- Without simplifying the complexity of good versus evil, this story gives the reader a vision of truth, goodness and honor
The Longer Review (mini spoilers below):
When George Herbert created the character Paul Atriedes, he stumbled upon a savior-type, a hero, a character who could embody a kind of leadership that most of humanity longs for. Hero stories are nothing new, certainly not new to the science fiction audience, but great ones are to be treasured.
In the case of DUNE, Paul is not the only treasure. The people of the planet Arrakis, the Fremen, also embody an ideal. They are oppressed, but intelligent, pushed to the margins of society, but resourceful and willing to sacrifice for the cause. Their discipline is akin to the greatest armies of literature and history. They are as creative as tenacious as a Roman legion, as fierce as Khan’s Mongols and as disciplined as the Spartans.
(Spoiler here) So what is supposed to get under our skin about DUNE? How can one argue with a story where the overly confident and utterly powerful Emperor is outsmarted, out-gunned and defeated by an honorable and humble tribal people? That feels so right and good.
But there are complexities that go along with this storyline. Paul is not as pure a hero as he might seem. His role as Messiah is an idea that plagues him throughout the novel because he knows he is not simply fighting for the Fremen. He is also motivated by vengeance and honor. He uses the Fremen to avenge his father, so his victory is an uneasy one. Even as he negotiates a marriage to the Emperor’s daughter for status and honor, but keeps his Fremen lover as concubine, the audience sees the inherent politics that will inhabit Paul’s governing. How Paul will rule the Empire is a story for later books, but the seeds of the struggle are sown well and deep in the original novel. So, even as the audience breathes relief at the victory over injustice, there is more to ponder.
To purchase the novel, click DUNE
There is also an amazing graphic novel version which is being released book by book. Dune is made up of three sections, called books. The first installment in graphic novel form is available here. To purchase, click DUNE, Graphic Novel The second installment will be released in the Spring of 2022. No date yet on the third and final.
Lastly, the 2021 theatrical trailer is out and worth a view, perhaps best seen after reading the novel…but then, maybe not.
Click here to see DUNE, film trailer
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, by Michael Crichton, was the first novel published by Crichton under his actual name. He had published previously under a variety of pen names. His reason for publishing under other names…he was a medical student at Harvard and was actually thinking he might practice medicine someday and didn’t want his patients to know that he was writing on the side. This must have been a “thing” in that era because it strikes me that wouldn’t phase anyone now.
However, Crichton soon after became a best-selling author and gave up the idea of practicing medicine.
I read this novel because of a recommendation by a friend during Covid19…
Do I recommend this novel? No, I don’t and here are 5 reasons why:
- The novel puts forward an interesting premise, but not fully baked (I am pretty sure this novel would never get published today)
- Bland main characters. It’s hard to keep them straight, they all seem like the same guy (except they attended different Ivy League schools and have slightly different occupations)
- So-so tension, but nothing like one of his better books, Jurassic Park, for example
- Characters are all white dudes in lab coats and even the non lab-coat characters are all white dudes. *note…when THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN was turned into a film in 1971, the screenwriter changed one of the dudes to a female…even in the 70s the character line-up was thought to be way too monochromatic.
- Too much data and exposition and not enough heart. I felt nothing for all the people (except for the infant…who seems to be completely neglected)
So…this novel became a best-seller and gave rise to a film that bears the same title. Both were hits/made a lot of money. In fact, this book catapulted Crichton’s career. I can only surmise that there was a great hunger for techno-thrillers at the time and that Crichton scratched an itch that had be itching for a long time.
The funny thing is, immediately following this read, I’m consuming Philip K. Dick’s, DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP and I am so wowed by the writing and how different it is from Crichton’s. Dick knew how to flesh out a character. Crichton did not, at least he didn’t yet. He got much better at it in subsequent novels, many of which I have enjoyed.
So, let me just nit-pick a little…
If I was ever to teach a writing class on the development of a writer…I might choose Crichton and force my class to read this book and then give them the pleasure of Jurassic Park as examples of how one gets better at the craft. THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN almost feels like a “freshman novel”, that novel written by an aspiring author who has one great idea, but can’t quite figure out how to tell the story.
In that class, I would also ask the students to read DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, by Philip K. Dick, written in the same era.
There is a reason that BLADE RUNNER, a brilliant film and subsequent franchise, emerged out of Dick’s novel, published in 1968, one year before THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN.
The character of Rick Deckard is brilliantly written, fleshed out. The reader feels his pain, his angst, his story as he/she reads. Not only that, the secondary characters are complex, mysterious and full of emotion even when Dick writes about androids. His androids seem more human than Crichton’s actual human characters.
I do believe that Crichton saw his errors and improved immensely, but it will be a mystery to me for a long time that this book, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, was published and was sold and was read by so many, including me!
If for some reason you want to buy this book, click here.
To watch the film via Amazon Prime, click here.
This morning, I finished reading the classic science fiction novel, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ. I rate this novel PG for violence.
First, the short review…
To purchase the novel, click A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ.
5 Reasons I Recommend A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ
- If you are a science fiction fan and want to be fluent in the genre’s history, Leibowitz is on many lists of must read sci-fi.
- The novel’s world is depicted plainly and purposefully, capturing the tragedy of a post nuclear holocaust world without sentimentality. The prose is often lovely and the story becomes more and more gripping as it unfolds.
- Especially for the philosopher and the theologian, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ puts forward some of the most profound ideas around human evil and our propensity for self-destruction.
- Even if you’re not a philosopher, the characters and ideas come together in a way that does not allow the reader to ignore our society’s seeming dance toward self-destruction.
- In a similar vein as On The Beach, by Nevil Shute, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ is a story that has the capacity to change our minds about nuclear arms and warfare.
A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ was originally published in three parts.
Fiat Homo…Let there be man
Fiat Lux…Let there be light
Fiat Voluntas Tua…Let thy will be done
The first two section titles refer to the Biblical account of creation, when God spoke the earth and humankind into being. The third section’s title refers to the Christian New Testament. Not that the idea lacks foundation in the Hebrew Bible, but the phrase itself is taken from The Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane before his death. “And he went forward a little, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass away from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
A fair amount of Latin is spoken in this novel and I did not understand all of it, but most phrases are translated within the story or the context makes the meaning clear. All of the main characters and narrators are associated with a religious order, the monks of The Leibowitzian Order, that was established following what the novel calls The Flame Deluge.
The monks, much like Irish monks during the Dark Ages, copy, preserve and make available ancient knowledge to those who will have it. For the most part, the barbarians who dwell around the monastic fortress, whose setting is the old American West, hate this knowledge and see it as the reason destruction came to the planet.
An excerpt from the novel:
“After the bombs and the Fallout came the plagues and the madness. Then, in the bloodletting known as the Age of Simplification, the people – those few who remained – rose up against their teachers, their scientists and their rulers, those they held responsible for turning the world into a barren desert…”
A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, published in 1959, channels the zeitgeist of an era when people were genuinely terrified of and preparing for nuclear war. For many readers, especially, younger readers, that period of history can feel like a long time ago in a galaxy far far away…but given Covid19, the economic shock that has hit the globe through the shutdown as well as the rise of a belligerent Communist China and a perpetually divided United States, war and/or chaotic one-upsmanship between two superpowers seems less far distant than it has since 1989, when the Soviet Empire collapsed. If World War III were to happen today, what would be the fallout?
Many of the questions posed by Miller in A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ are relevant today. There is wisdom and a degree of sobriety that can be gained by our society paying closer attention to stories like this one.
THE CALCULATING STARS, by Mary Robinette Kowal
A Short Review
I highly recommend reading or listening to this novel. Below are 4 reasons why I loved it…
- Lots of dynamic female characters, told in first person by a female pilot/mathematician
- Well-written prose, making it easy to read and enjoy
- The characters are well drawn and realistic, despite the fact that they’re intellectual superstars
- It portrays a healthy marital relationship (for once!). Sometimes, you just want the husband to not be a jerk, and in this novel, that is absolutely the case. *Elma and her husband also enjoy a dynamic sex life, which is why I give the book a PG-13 rating. Nothing terribly graphic, but there are a few heated encounters between husband and wife.
THE CALCULATING STARS is a part of the Lady Astronaut Series, by Kowal, which includes a short story, The Lady Astronaut of Mars and another novel, The Fated Sky.
These stories emerge in an alternative history of Earth, focusing on the US Space program after a meteor plunges into the ocean off the coast of Maryland. The disaster strikes on March 3, 1952 and kills nearly all of the inhabitants of the Eastern Seaboard, including DC and most US government officials.
Kowal quickly frames the narrative from here. A meteorite of this magnitude will change the climate of the Earth forever. It is a matter of time (5-10 years) before the Earth becomes uninhabitable. Nations must work together to relocate to another planet and on this front, women have to be trained alongside men, don’t they? That is the question around which the book pivots. This is the 1950s and not only does racism rear its head in the space program, so does sexism.
The main character, Elma York narrates the story in first person, and I liked her as narrator. She is ambitious and brilliant, but flawed enough to give the story tension.
Elma is not only a renowned mathematician, she is also an experienced pilot, having flown for the WASPs in WWII. Her husband becomes the lead engineer of the new space program. Elma is recruited as one of the computers, seemingly an acceptable “role” for women in the new space venture (think Hidden Figures), but her real hope is to convince the NACA bosses that women are just as able to fly into space as men.
THE CALCULATING STARS won the 2019 Nebula for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Scifi Novel, the 2019 Hugo for Best Novel and the 2019 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.
Click here to purchase THE CALCULATING STARS
I love science fiction, dreaming about the future, imagining what our life in outer space might look like someday, but my passion for the genre has as much to do with the past as it does with the future. Science fiction shows us the future but also has the ability to teach us about our past and often does so without the baggage of politics and biases. The stories below are launch pads. Their portrayals of history through story are not by any means comprehensive, but rather snapshots into the lives of people encountering challenges that may be imagined by the author, but mirror history.
Here are a handful of scifi stories that bring the reader face to face with the past:
- Superman Smashes the Klan
- The Man in the High Castle
- An Excess Male
History Lesson #1. SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN. Launch a discussion about the Ku Klux Klan (it’s inception and impact on US race relations).
In this three-issue Superman Comic, Gene Luen Yang gives historic tidbits at the end of each issue. You can read my review of the series here.
In issue 1,Yang highlights the 13th amendment to the constitution (abolition of slavery) and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act
Following issue 2, Yang discusses the Jewish immigrants who created Superman.
Following issue 3, Yang discusses the challenges of his own parents, both of whom were immigrants from Taiwan
History Lesson #2. Watch or read, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (book by Philip K. Dick. The Amazon Prime TV series was produced by Dick’s daughter, Isa Dick Hackett). Discuss and learn about World War II.
This series is a great way to understand the Axis powers and that tentative alliance that almost took over the globe. You’ll find yourself or your student understanding the world that was inhabited by those who lived under occupation during that war. The French, The Koreans, and many others were forced to survive under Nazi or Japanese rule. Some made compromises, others rebelled. Can you imagine who you would have become to survive an occupation? That question is a great way for students to enter into and understand history.
History Lesson #3. Watch COLONY on Netflix to begin to grapple with the reality of living under occupation.
In the case of COLONY, the true enemy is an alien race that has invaded Earth, but some of the darkest villains are the human beings who have allied themselves with this conquering force.
Living under occupation, whether under the Greeks, Romans, The Islamic Caliphate, the Brits, the USSR, it requires turncoats, or those who will help to subdue the masses for the sake of the little bits of power and privilege that are doled out by the occupying power. The tv series COLONY does an amazing job of capturing this reality. A longer review can be found here.
History Lesson #4. Read AN EXCESS MALE, by Maggie Shen Chen, to begin to understand 20th century Chinese history.
Although this book imagines a future China, this story highlights what is perhaps the most disastrous public policy mandate of all time, THE ONE CHILD POLICY. For my review of this novel, click here. To read my guide for educators, click here.
History Lesson #5. KINDRED, by Octavia Butler. Read this book (fictional) and one of the other historic slave narratives like, MY LIFE AS A SLAVE, by Frederick Douglass. Discuss the ways slavery dehumanizes all those who participate in its reality.
KINDRED, by the late and great Octavia Butler, gives the reader a taste of the slave-inhabited South of yore. The brutality is evident and palpable. Lessons are brought so close…it’s hard to read this book, yet it is valuable for those trying to understand slavery in 18th and 19th century US. Here is my longer review of Kindred