Satan’s Science (That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis)

One of the more interesting novels by C. S. Lewis (though far from being his best) is That Hideous Strength, published in 1945:

That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength contains what may be the first mentions in fiction of hypertext (“… they’ve got a wonderful gadget – I was shown the model last time I was in town – by which the findings of each committee print themselves off in their own little compartment on the Analytical Notice-Board every half hour. Then, that report slides itself into the right position where it’s connected up by little arrows with all the relevant parts of the other reports.”) and of cybersex (“There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them…”).

The main interesting feature of the novel, however, is that Satan sets up his own laboratory in Britain, the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.). That’s right – Lewis describes the Devil’s own scientific institute. Lewis’s goal was to portray evil in an academic setting, which was the setting he knew best (Lewis was himself a respected academic, a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, specialising in Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature).

Magdalen College, Oxford

So what does the Devil’s own scientific institute look like? First, and most obviously, all the work is aimed at an evil goal. George Orwell, in his review of the novel, puts it this way: “A company of mad scientists – or, perhaps, they are not mad, but have merely destroyed in themselves all human feeling, all notion of good and evil – are plotting to conquer Britain, then the whole planet, and then other planets, until they have brought the universe under their control. All superfluous life is to be wiped out, all natural forces tamed, the common people are to be used as slaves and vivisection subjects by the ruling caste of scientists, who even see their way to conferring immortal life upon themselves. Man, in short, is to storm the heavens and overthrow the gods, or even to become a god himself. There is nothing outrageously improbable in such a conspiracy. Indeed, at a moment when a single atomic bomb – of a type already pronounced ‘obsolete’ – has just blown probably three hundred thousand people to fragments, it sounds all too topical.

The details of the programme are reminiscent of Huxley’s earlier Brave New World, or of Nazi Germany: “Quite simple and obvious things, at first – sterilization of the unfit, liquidation of backward races (we don’t want any dead weights), selective breeding. Then real education, including pre-natal education. By real education I mean one that has no ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ nonsense. A real education makes the patient what it wants infallibly: whatever he or his parents try to do about it. Of course, it’ll have to be mainly psychological at first. But we’ll get on to biochemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain…” Some of the better parts of the novel describe the main character’s flirtation with these horrific plans.

Dachau concentration camp, Germany

Second, and perhaps surprisingly, science itself (particularly pure science) very much takes a back seat to the political programme. An elderly chemist says at one point: “I came here because I thought it had something to do with science. Now that I find it’s something more like a political conspiracy, I shall go home. I’m too old for that kind of thing, and if I wanted to join a conspiracy, this one wouldn’t be my choice… And if I found chemistry beginning to fit in with a secret police … and a scheme for taking away his farm and his shop and his children from every Englishman, I’d let chemistry go to the devil and take up gardening again.

“I fear I could not persuade the Committee to invent
for your benefit some cut and dried position in which
you would discharge artificially limited duties”

And third, Satan has a particularly savage management style. This is described rather well by Lewis, I thought. Satan tends to leave duty statements disturbingly vague: “There must be no question of taking ‘your orders,’ as you (rather unfortunately) suggest, from some specified official and considering yourself free to adopt an intransigent attitude to your other colleagues. (I must ask you not to interrupt me, please.) That is not the spirit in which I would wish you to approach your duties. You must make yourself useful, Mr. Studdock – generally useful.

Performance criteria are equally vague, and expressed in terms that are in fact impossible to satisfy: “My dear young friend, the golden rule is very simple. There are only two errors which would be fatal to one placed in the peculiar situation which certain parts of your previous conduct have unfortunately created for you. On the one hand, anything like a lack of initiative or enterprise would be disastrous. On the other, the slightest approach to unauthorised action – anything which suggested that you were assuming a liberty of decision which, in all the circumstances, is not really yours – might have consequences from which even I could not protect you. But as long as you keep quite clear of these two extremes, there is no reason (speaking unofficially) why you should not be perfectly safe.” I hope that none of my readers work in an institution run on those lines!

As to the novel, it has flaws, but it is definitely, as Orwell says, “a book worth reading.”

That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis: 3.5 stars


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