Science fiction asks a lot of “What if?” questions. But C.S. Lewis asks one of those in Perelandra that has rarely been explored: “What if God created a race that didn’t fall?”
With Out of the Silent Planet, we were introduced to Dr. Ransom, a philologist who is kidnapped and taken to the planet Malacandra (Mars), and introduced to a fascinating world of connections between cosmic forces and theology. The lattermost of those was the conclusion rather than the setting, however. Most of the book is spent simply exploring the fascinating alien life and the implications of that for the universe. It isn’t until the end of the book that we learn of the supreme Maleldil, his eldila, and the villainous eldil of Thulcandra (Earth), who has kept his domain cut off from the rest of Maleldil’s cosmic universe.
As the natural next step in the Space Trilogy, Perelandra tackles head-on the theological implications of a Jehovah who created more than one species in his image. Ransom lands on Perelandra (Venus), to find that he has been sent as Maleldil’s representative against the Enemy, who comes to tempt Perelandra’s Eve. What ensues is not just a fascinating description of paradise in a land with floating islands and green people, but a captivating dialogue of philosophy and theology. In that sense, this book is really like the meeting place of fantasy and theology, two of Lewis’s greatest strengths. It’s like he combined The Chronicles of Narnia with The Great Divorce.
It’s hard to speak highly enough of this middle section of the book. Lewis brings out several things to combat common notions of God and Satan, while challenging many assumptions orthodox Christianity has made. Lewis’s Satan figure, for instance, is every bit as much a petty devil as an intelligent mastermind. Evil is described here as having the appearance of substance, but underneath all shallowness and emptiness, the intelligence of the devil being a mere tool he has no desire in once its usefulness is gone.
Then there are those pesky assumptions. Just how long was Eve tempted? What arguments did Satan use? Was it really just one encounter, or did the snake use several different moments to wear her down? Some of the Enemy’s arguments look really good on the surface: Maleldil is letting you make your own decisions and become your own person, shouldn’t you want to be able to teach the King (the Adam of this world), and a strong woman would make this decision for yourself and isn’t that what Maleldil would want?
The strongest part of Lewis’s writing in this part of the book is in his maintenance of conflict. Conflict is key in any story, and the Unman continues to outwit Ransom in rhetoric and argument, turning what Ransom brings out as negatives to be, from a certain perspective, really positive in infuriating “gotcha” questions. Lewis is writing from the perspective of a devil, and yet he never does it in a sort of “straw man” sense. That is, he doesn’t present obviously flawed arguments that would be easy to cast down. It seems almost impossible that one man could be writing the lines of both of these characters. Lewis has a much better grasp of the nature of evil than many writers (as is evident from The Screwtape Letters if nothing else), and here it shows with flair.
The downside to all of this, however, is that it feels like a genre-hopping sequel. The theological elements of this book flow naturally out of its predecessor. But on the other hand, we have gone from an exploratory cosmic encounter not far removed from space opera to a Socratic Dialogue that is science fiction primarily in its setting, rather than main story. To the theologically minded that makes this book more interesting and useful than the last, but not all who enjoyed the first book will necessarily enjoy that transition.
Those heavier science fiction elements do come into play, however, later in the story. Unfortunately that also provides a conclusion to the climax that’s rather simplistic, especially in comparison to the intellectual framework presenting in the early and middle portions of the story. The richness of the book seems to taper off towards the climax rather than rise, which can be a problem for overall story structure. That said, this is one of the better science fiction novels you’ll ever read. Dr. Ransom’s tussle with the demonic and the explorations of providence and the will of the divine bring this story to a level far too few Christian fiction books ever reach.
Consensus: 9/10. The theology is thought-provoking, the conflict captivating, and leaves the reader wishing there were seven of these books, as well.