Planetary Intelligences

In a book review of Out of the Silent Planet, I mentioned last year that C. S. Lewis had pioneered the science fiction sub-genre of a planetary intelligence or sentient planet which resists outsiders. A planetary intelligence provides a way of exploring colonisation and other issues, while still having a positive ending to the story.

The chart above (click to zoom) shows a timeline of the concept. Although there are many other stories based on the idea, these six seemed particularly noteworthy (star ratings out of 5 are from GoodReads and RottenTomatoes):

Solaris was filmed in 1968, 1972 (★★★★☆), and 2002 (★★★☆). Here are trailers for the last two films:

Readers, how do you feel the various books and films compare?

Piranesi: a book review

Piranesi (2020) by Susanna Clarke

I have been reading a fabulous new book called Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The title of her new novel is drawn from the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and it takes place within an enormous and magical flooded House that is reminiscent of some of Piranesi’s art. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite,” Susanna Clarke writes. Adding to the enjoyment of this wonderful novel has been a series of podcasts by Joy Marie Clarkson (starting here).

The Prisons – A Wide Hall with Lanterns by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1745)

There are multiple references to the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis. One example is the similarity of the Albatross scene to the one in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Another is the way that “Valentine Andrew Ketterley” of “an old Dorsetshire family” (Part 4) suggests Uncle Andrew Ketterley from The Magician’s Nephew: “The Ketterleys are, however, a very old family. An old Dorsetshire family ….”

Working through this novel, I’ve been repeatedly struck with a strange sense of déjà vu. Either Susanna Clarke and I read the same books, or she is revealing to me something that, in an inarticulate way, I already knew. Or possibly both. That said, some of the echoes I see to other books are, no doubt, coincidence.

Some fan art of mine, prompted by the novella Rain Through Her Fingers by Rabia Gale, which is set in a flooded city that Piranesi reminds me of

I am reviewing the novel here on ScientificGems because it has a lot to say about Science, Knowledge, and how to relate to the World: “I realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery. The sight of the One-Hundred-and-Ninety-Second Western Hall in the Moonlight made me see how ridiculous that is. The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.” (Part 2). This recalls something that C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man: “For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men …” Indeed, Susanna Clarke makes us ask “is Science truly our friend?”

More specifically, Susanna Clarke argues against Reductionist views of the world, and the need to approach the objects of study with Love: “It is a statue of a man kneeling on his plinth; a sword lies at his side, its blade broken in five pieces. Roundabout lie other broken pieces, the remains of a sphere. The man has used his sword to shatter the sphere because he wanted to understand it, but now he finds that he has destroyed both sphere and sword. This puzzles him, but at the same time part of him refuses to accept that the sphere is broken and worthless. He has picked up some of the fragments and stares at them intently in the hope that they will eventually bring him new knowledge.” (Part 7)

One may count the petals of a violet, for example, and grind it up to extract the ionones and anthocyanins responsible for odour and colour. But something has been lost in so doing, and the resulting description does not exhaust everything that can be said about the flower. This problem is amplified for those who do not themselves experience the flower, but rely on descriptions by others.

The novel also references Plato and the importance of universals: “You make it sound as if the Statue was somehow inferior to the thing itself. I do not see that that is the case at all. I would argue that the Statue is superior to the thing itself, the Statue being perfect, eternal and not subject to decay.” (Part 6). As Lewis would say: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!

Expanding on a statement by Tertullian (c. 160–225), Galileo famously said: “[Science] is written in this grand book – I mean the universe – which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.” (Galileo, Il Saggiatore, 1623, tr. Stillman Drake)

This is true, of course, but the House does not speak to us only in mathematical language.

Plato in the Musei Capitolini, Rome (photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

There is much more to be said about this wonderful novel. It concludes with a repetition of the words: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” There is a whole philosophy of Science there.

Goodreads rates the novel as 4.3 out of 5, and reviews of the novel are mostly glowing. The Guardian calls it an “elegant and singular novel” while the LA Review of Books says “a work of intellectual intensity.” It made the top ten fantasy novel list for the 2021 Locus Awards (although it did not win). I’m giving it four and a half stars. And let me say to my readers: “may your Paths be safe … your Floors unbroken and may the House fill your eyes with Beauty.

4.5 stars
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: 4½ stars

A Narnian Timeline

I’ve been on a bit of a Narnia binge recently. Continuing that theme, here is a timeline of the Chronicles of Narnia (click to zoom). The Terran time axis has varying scales (although piecewise linear), since 5 of the 7 Narnia books (53% of Narnian history) are set during 1940–1942. For simplicity, I also assume a piecewise linear mapping of Narnian time to Terran time (see graph below), although the text of the books indicate that the mapping is more complex than that. For Narnian events in the chart, only the vertical position has meaning (the sideways curve is only there to create space).

The Crucifixion of Jesus is included as a significant Terran event, since its Narnian parallel is the key event of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Some scholars date this to the year 30, rather than 33.

The chart was produced using R. The curved lines are plotted with colours from colorRampPalette(). Images were added using png::readPNG, as.raster(), and rasterImage(), with circles using For the title, the extrafont package was used.

Planet Narnia: a book review

Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis (2008) by Michael Ward

More than a decade ago, on a blog that no longer exists, I reviewed Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis by Michael Ward (written a few years before Ward converted to Catholicism). Ward’s thesis was that C. S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia based on a secret plan linking the seven novels to the seven classical planets (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). This plan was allegedly so secret that Lewis shared it with none of his friends.

People are still reading Planet Narnia, so it’s worthwhile re-stating my opinions, especially since I’ve done some recent analyses that are relevant.

While Ward’s book has been widely praised, not everybody has agreed with his thesis. In an interview, Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham stated, “A very nice man and a friend of mine, Michael Ward, has recently written and published a book all about how the Narnian Chronicles are all based on the seven planets of the medieval astronomical system. I like Michael enormously, but I think his book is nonsense.

Devin Brown is one scholar who is critical. Brenton Dickieson is another. In fact, in a letter to a child, Lewis himself is quite clear that there was no plan: “The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last, but I found I was wrong.

There is something terribly seductive about correspondence theories like Ward’s. Plato, for example, argued that the atoms of the “four elements” (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water) corresponded to four of the Platonic Solids. Earth atoms were cubes, because cubes can be stacked to form shapes. Water atoms were icosahedra, because water flows and icosahedra are the roundest of the Platonic Solids. Fire atoms were tetrahedra, because fire burns, and that’s obviously a result of the sharp points on fire atoms. And by now we’re basically just assuming the hypothesis, so we simply state that air atoms are octahedra. Plato was a great philosopher, but that isn’t how reasoning is supposed to work.

In a similar vein to Justin Barrett’s “Some Planets in Narnia: A Quantitative Investigation of the Planet Narnia Thesis” (Seven, vol. 27, Jan 2010), I have explored the frequencies of 20 words or word groups associated with the seven planets (I allow for variations in word endings). The 20 bar charts show the frequencies, adjusted for the total word count of each book (but the small white numbers show actual counts). The bars list the seven Narnia books in order of internal chronology (i.e. The Magician’s Nephew first). The stars mark the book that Michael Ward thinks is associated with the relevant planet; the star is black if the relevant bar is indeed the highest.

One might add the exclamation “By Jove!,” which occurs only twice in the supposedly “Jovial” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but 5 times in Prince Caspian and 4 times in The Silver Chair. Looking at the chart, we start well with two “hits” linking the Sun with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but then there are only four more hits (and most of those can be explained purely on the basis of plot). All up, 6 hits out of 20, when we would have expected 20/7, or just under 3. This is not statistically significant.

It is also worth noting that we know how Lewis wrote when he was making connections to the planets. For example, Lewis’s Perelandra is based on Venus, and Lewis throws in 7 references to the metal associated with her: “coppery” (3×), “copper-coloured” (3×), and “coppery-green” (1×). There are no such references in Out of the Silent Planet, and just one in That Hideous Strength (and that is in a reference to Venus: “I have long known that this house is deeply under her influence. There is even copper in the soil. Also – the earth-Venus will be specially active here at present.”). However, there is only one mention of copper in The Magician’s Nephew, which Ward claims is also linked to Venus (“The feathers shone chestnut colour and copper colour.”). That is to say, an important Lewisian reference to Venus is not present in any significant way in The Magician’s Nephew.

Now Ward gets around these and other problems by claiming that Lewis didn’t always follow the plan: “Nevertheless, for all its apparent ungraciousness, we can bear in mind that Lewis was unlikely to have been perfectly successful in carrying out his own plan” (p. 233). But if Lewis didn’t follow the plan, one questions what kind of “plan” it was.

Hope, Love, and Faith (photo: Anthony Dekker)

In his story “The Honour of Israel Gow,” G. K. Chesterton writes: “I only suggested that because you said one could not plausibly connect snuff with clockwork or candles with bright stones. Ten false philosophies will fit the universe; ten false theories will fit Glengyle Castle. But we want the real explanation of the castle and the universe.” In that spirit, I offer an alternate theory (the core of which was developed collaboratively) which I also blogged about more than a decade ago. Not that I think that my theory is necessarily right, just that it’s a better theory than Ward’s, and therefore casts doubt on his proposal. A theory should, after all, explain the facts better than any alternative theory.

And my theory is this: that the seven Narnia stories are linked to the Seven Virtues: Love, Faith, Hope, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice. This fits what we know about composition. Of course, if you thought you were writing just one Christian children’s book, it would be about Love. Of course the next two books written would be about Faith and Hope. Of course the four “cardinal virtues” would come last. So how does this work?

I get 11 “hits.” That’s 11 out of 25, because I discarded 5 options while producing the chart, but the match is still extremely significant, with p < 0.04%. Shields are a common Christian symbol of Faith (Ephesians 6:16) and they are mentioned especially often in Prince Caspian, which I associate with that virtue (and see also the line “We don’t forget. I believe in the High King Peter and the rest that reigned at Cair Paravel, as firmly as I believe in Aslan himself.”).

Anchors are a common Christian symbol of Hope (Hebrews 6:19) and they are mentioned especially often in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (and see also “But Reepicheep here has an even higher hope… I expect to find Aslan’s own country. It is always from the east, across the sea, that the great Lion comes to us.”). The Horse and His Boy is full of bravery in the face of fear, i.e. of Fortitude (e.g. “And now at last, brave girl though she was, her heart quailed. Supposing the others weren’t there! Supposing the ghouls were! But she stuck out her chin (and a little bit of her tongue too) and went straight towards them.”).

The Silver Chair has Puddleglum to demonstrate Prudence, and the final judgement in The Last Battle demonstrates Justice. It is really only for The Magician’s Nephew that I have failed to make my case, but there one can take Uncle Andrew and Jadis as examples of the absence of Temperance (as in “… he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants.”).

Hope and anchors have a long association. This flag was embroidered by Jane, Lady Franklin for one of many expeditions searching for her lost husband (photo credit)

To quote Chesterton again: “Ten false philosophies will fit the universe; ten false theories will fit Glengyle Castle.” Another theory for the Narnia books that has been suggested to me is that they correspond to the seven liberal arts, with the first three books written corresponding to the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, in that order) and the last four books written corresponding to the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy).

We can count words as before, except that the category “long words” (corresponding to Rhetoric) includes all words of 11 or more letters, such as “crestfallen,” “unmitigated,” or “waterspouts.” We get 8 “hits” this way (2 more than for Ward’s theory). Allowing for discarded options, this is statistically significant, with p < 2%. The pairings of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with Grammar and Prince Caspian with Logic are rather unconvincing, but I think that this theory is still better than that of Michael Ward.

One can even find characteristic colours in the books, with the words “green,” “white,” “blue,” and “black” occurring particularly often in The Magician’s Nephew (52), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (59), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (26), and The Silver Chair (39), respectively.

Chesterton (or, rather, Father Brown) concludes with what is really the fundamental principle of science: “But we want the real explanation of the castle and the universe.” And I don’t think that Michael Ward has the real explanation of the Narnia books. Indeed, even if one assumes that the Narnia stories follow a plan, there are better candidates for a plan than the one that Ward suggests.

Goodreads rates Planet Narnia 4.3 out of 5, because (judging by the comments) people largely seem to believe Ward’s argument, which I find so unconvincing. However, I can really only give his book two stars:

* *
Planet Narnia by Michael Ward: 2 stars

Perelandra: a book review

Perelandra (1943) by C. S. Lewis (1996 cover by Kinuko Y. Craft)

Having blogged about Out of the Silent Planet and That Hideous Strength, the first and last novels of the “Space Trilogy” or “Cosmic Trilogy” by C. S. Lewis, I should also mention Perelandra, the middle volume.

While Out of the Silent Planet is science fiction, Perelandra is better described as religious fantasy (with portions of what could be called supernatural horror). However, in a 1962 discussion with Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss, Lewis states that “The starting point of the second novel, Perelandra, was my mental picture of the floating islands. The whole of the rest of my labors in a sense consisted of building up a world in which floating islands could exist. And then, of course, the story about an averted fall developed. This is because, as you know, having got your people to this exciting country, something must happen.” When Aldiss responds “But I am surprised that you put it this way round. I would have thought that you constructed Perelandra for the didactic purpose,” Lewis replies “Yes, everyone thinks that. They are quite wrong.

The basic idea of the floating islands of vegetation on the ocean of Perelandra (what we call Venus) may have came from the novel Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon (XII§4), after mankind has chosen to exterminate the native civilisation of Venus (something that Stapledon seems to approve of, but which Lewis explicitly criticised in Out of the Silent Planet): “Man now busied himself in preparing his new home. Many kinds of plant life, derived from the terrestrial stock, but bred for the Venerian environment, now began to swarm on the islands and in the sea. For so restricted was the land surface, that great areas of ocean had to be given over to specially designed marine plants, which now formed immense floating continents of vegetable matter.

In Chapter 3 of Perelandra, when Elwin Ransom first arrives on Venus, there are some wonderful descriptive passages, which go far, far beyond Stapledon’s bald statement: “It seems that he must have remained lying on his face, doing nothing and thinking nothing for a very long time. When he next began to take any notice of his surroundings he was, at all events, well rested. His first discovery was that he lay on a dry surface, which on examination turned out to consist of something very like heather, except for the colour which was coppery. Burrowing idly with his fingers he found something friable like dry soil, but very little of it, for almost at once he came upon a base of tough interlocked fibres. Then he rolled round on his back, and in doing so discovered the extreme resilience of the surface on which he lay. It was something much more than the pliancy of the heather-like vegetation, and felt more as if the whole floating island beneath that vegetation were a kind of mattress. He turned and looked ‘inland’ – if that is the right word – and for one instant what he saw looked very like a country. He was looking up a long lonely valley with a copper-coloured floor bordered on each side by gentle slopes clothed in a kind of many-coloured forest. But even as he took this in, it became a long copper-coloured ridge with the forest sloping down on each side of it. Of course he ought to have been prepared for this, but he says that it gave him an almost sickening shock. The thing had looked, in that first glance, so like a real country that he had forgotten it was floating – an island if you like, with hills and valleys, but hills and valleys which changed places every minute so that only a cinematograph could make a contour map of it.

It’s a great pity that Venus is nothing like that at all.

Lewis wrote Perelandra while a Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford.

Much of the rest of the book consists of conversations about theology and moral philosophy between Ransom, the scientist Weston (who first appeared in Out of the Silent Planet), and Tinidril, one of the two “people” on Venus. Tinidril corresponds to Eve in the Bible, so that we get a sort of alternate history of the “Temptation of Eve.” Weston is possessed by a “Force” that turns out to be Satan or a demon. As a former academic myself, it is interesting to see Lewis’s ascending hierarchy of potential moral failings:

“RANSOM: ‘Does that mean in plainer language that the things the Force wants you to do are what ordinary people call diabolical?’
WESTON: ‘My dear Ransom, I wish you would not keep relapsing on to the popular level. The two things are only moments in the single, unique reality. The world leaps forward through great men and greatness always transcends mere moralism. When the leap has been made our “diabolism” as you would call it becomes the morality of the next stage; but while we are making it, we are called criminals, heretics, blasphemers. …’
‘How far does it go? Would you still obey the Life-Force if you found it prompting you to murder me?’
‘Or to sell England to the Germans?’
‘Or to print lies as serious research in a scientific periodical?’
‘God help you!’ said Ransom.

The chart below shows a chapter-by-chapter frequency analysis of various names and words in the book (some obvious synonyms were also used in counting words, and characters mentioned but not appearing are included). There is also a chapter-by-chapter polarity (sentiment) analysis at the bottom of the chart.

When one considers the theological subject matter, the conflict with the Un-man, and the underground scenes towards the end, the novel is a little reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, but the final chapters are far more like the Paradiso, and (in a letter) Lewis himself tells us that some of the conversations between Ransom and Tinidril draw on Matilda in the Purgatorio. Aspects of the conflict between Ransom and Weston recall the interaction between Frodo and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, while other aspects of Perelandra are like visiting the Elves. It is not a simple book.

Goodreads rates the novel as the best of Lewis’s trilogy, giving it 3.99 out of 5. I’m giving it five stars, but readers not interested in theology or moral philosophy would no doubt rate it lower.

5 stars
Perelandra by C. S. Lewis: 5 stars

Out of the Silent Planet: a book review

Since Mars is on my mind right now…

Out of the Silent Planet (1938) by C. S. Lewis (1996 cover by Kinuko Craft)

C. S. Lewis is famous for the Narnia novels, but more than a decade before they were written, he published Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis was to write two sequels (I have blogged about the last volume, That Hideous Strength). However, Out of the Silent Planet is essentially science fiction, while the sequels are better described as fantasy.

Considered as a work of science fiction, Out of the Silent Planet was a pioneering novel. It followed (and was influenced by) novels by H. G. Wells, David Lindsay, and Olaf Stapledon, but preceded the work of Brian Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, and other British science fiction authors of the “Golden Age.” Lewis’s novel was one of the first to sound a cautious note about human colonisation of other planets. In his 1958 essay “Religion and Rocketry,” Lewis describes the rather sad results that human colonisation could have: “We know what our race does to strangers. Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps. There are individuals who don’t. But they are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space.

Lewis’s word hnau (sentient being) was borrowed by James Blish in his alien-contact novel A Case of Conscience. In Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis brings colonisation to a halt after three deaths; Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Word for World Is Forest is one of many where exploitative colonisation runs its course. Several ideas in the 2009 film Avatar can be traced back to classic novels that were, in turn, ultimately inspired by Lewis.

In Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis introduces not one, but four, sentient species living in harmony with each other: the hrossa (farmers and poets), the séroni (scientists and philosophers), the pfifltriggi (artists, miners, and engineers), and the eldila (angels, essentially).

The scientist Weston actually recommends exterminating the inhabitants of the planet to make room for humans, claiming “Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and beehive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization – with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower. Life … is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copy-book maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from the amœba to man and from man to civilization.” (this was an idea seriously suggested in the 1920s and 1930s, but one which was perhaps seen for what it was after World War II). The businessman Dick Devine simply wants to exploit the inhabitants for profit. Only the hero, Elwin Ransom, is interested in them for who they are.

Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet while a Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford.

The science in Out of the Silent Planet is surprisingly good, considering that Lewis’s area of expertise was English literature. No doubt Lewis ran his ideas past the scientists at Magdalen College. There are some clangers in Lewis’s discussion of gravity onboard the spacecraft, and he no doubt knew that the theory of Martian canals was obsolete (although Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury were still using the idea of canals in the 1940s and 1950s). Lewis does an excellent job of explaining the impact of low gravity on Martian life, of pointing out that space is not “dark and cold,” and of describing the need for oxygen on the Martian surface.

He learned from the sorn that he was right in thinking they were near the limits of the breathable. Already on the mountain fringe that borders the harandra and walls the handramit, or in the narrow depression along which their road led them, the air is of Himalayan rarity, ill breathing for a hross, and a few hundred feet higher, on the harandra proper, the true surface of the planet, it admits no life.

Bringing in a specialist linguist (Elwin Ransom) to decipher the Martian language is a neat trick (and one repeated in Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade). Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien may have been an inspiration for this character.

Lewis’s naming of the planets. Out of the Silent Planet is set on Malacandra (Mars).

Lewis’s special interest was Mediaeval and Renaissance literature. In Out of the Silent Planet he is taking the cosmology of Dante’s great trilogy (see my discussion of the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) and putting it through a Copernican Revolution, while retaining the Christian worldview. Naïve correspondences with Dante should be resisted, however, since Lewis was not originally intending to write a trilogy. If one absolutely must draw links, Out of the Silent Planet would probably correspond to the Purgatorio, with its emphasis on permissible vs wrongful desires.

Goodreads rates this ground-breaking novel 3.92. I’m giving it four and a half stars.

4.5 stars
Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis: 4½ stars

On fairy tales

“About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale,” C.S. Lewis wrote in 1952. The wiseacre of our time seems to be Richard Dawkins who, two years ago, told the world that fairy tales could be harmful because they “inculcate a view of the world which includes supernaturalism” (he had said similar things in 2008). In a later clarification, he added that fairy tales could “be wonderful” and that they “are part of childhood, they are stretching the imagination of children” – provided some helpful adult emphasises that “Do frogs turn into princes? No they don’t.”

But many scientists grew up with, and were inspired by, fantasy literature. For example, Jane Goodall tells of growing up with the novel The Story of Doctor Dolittle (as I did!). In fact, many science students and professional scientists avidly read fantasy literature even as adults (as they should). The booksthatmakeyoudumb website lists, among the top 10 novels read at CalTech and MIT, Harry Potter, Dune, and The Lord of the Rings. And Alice in Wonderland was written by a mathematician.

This is a science blog, so I have a strong emphasis on scientific truth, which tells us many important ecological and physiological facts about, for example, frogs. Without science, we’d all still be struggling subsistence farmers. But there is actually more than scientific truth out there.

There is also mathematical truth. Are the links in this frog network all equivalent? Yes, they are – but that is decided by mathematical proof, not by scientific experiment. It is in fact a purely abstract mathematical question – the background picture of the frog is actually irrelevant.

And there is ethical truth. Is it OK to eat frog’s legs? Science does not give us the answer to this (although logic can help us decide if our answer is consistent with our other beliefs), but fantasy literature often helps us to explore such ethical questions. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is one superb example. Would you “snare an orc with a falsehood”? Would you attempt to take the One Ring and “go forth to victory”?

There is metaphorical truth. A frog may, in spite of what Dawkins says, be a handsome prince – there’s more to the universe than can be seen at first glance. Or, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Children often learn this important fact from fairy tales.

And there is even religious and philosophical truth. Does the frog-goddess Heqet exist, for example? Does the universe exist? Is there a spoon? The methods of philosophy are different from the methods of science, and some amateur philosophers simply state their beliefs without actually justifying them, but philosophy is actually very important. Science itself is based on certain philosophical beliefs about reality.

Aliens, C. S. Lewis, and the Fermi paradox

A blog post on the Fermi paradox someone linked me to reminded me of an essay by C. S. Lewis entitled “Religion and Rocketry.” In that essay, Lewis gives an interesting analysis of the possibilities for non-vegetable alien life, and the religious implications that such life might have. For example, such aliens (if they exist) might be simply animals.

The xenomorphs of the Alien film series are not evil – they are simply (very) dangerous animals.

Alternatively, the aliens might have “the power to mean by ‘good’ something more than ‘good for me’ or even ‘good for my species.’” Of course, knowing about good does not mean that the aliens are good. They might be irredeemably evil, in which case it is better if we never meet them.

Orcs in the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien are irredeemably evil (artwork: Antoine Glédel).

On the other extreme, there may be alien species that have never turned from good to evil. C. S. Lewis’ own novel Out of the Silent Planet describes three such species, and in “Religion and Rocketry,” he describes the rather sad results that our contact with such species could have: “We know what our race does to strangers. Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps. There are individuals who don’t. But they are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space.

C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet describes three fictional alien species living on Mars: the hrossa, the séroni, and the pfifltriggi. All are free from evil.

The most interesting option is that of aliens who, like us, have tasted both good and evil. Writers of fiction have concentrated on this kind of alien, because they often lead to more interesting storylines, and because they hold up a mirror in which we can see some part of ourselves. However, that does not mean that such aliens exist. And if they do exist, the final resolution of evil in their species, Lewis suggests, may or may not be related to that in ours.

Underneath the makeup, Klingons are creatures much like ourselves. A little too much like ourselves to be truly plausible.

Of course, if we ever meet aliens like ourselves, and those aliens are stronger than we are, things might go as badly for the human race as they did for the Native Americans. One might dream of the opportunity “to interchange thoughts with beings whose thinking had an organic background wholly different from ours (other senses, other appetites), to be unenviously humbled by intellects possibly superior to our own yet able for that very reason to descend to our level, … to exchange with the inhabitants of other worlds that especially keen and rich affection which exists between unlikes.” But perhaps it’s best if that remains merely a dream, and that any (hypothetical) aliens remain far, far away.

The novel Footfall, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, presents a slightly more plausible alternative – aliens that have evolved from herd animals. However, things go badly for the human race when they decide to “stomp” us.

Avoiding any aliens that might be out there is particularly sensible if reality resembles some of the nastier fictional alien scenarios, such as those involving the Borg, Daleks, Berserkers, or Vang. Indeed, some people have suggested that the presence of powerful implacably hostile aliens might explain the failure of SETI to find any extraterrestrial intelligent life. On the other hand, silence might just mean that there’s nobody out there.

If “resistance is futile,” it might be safer to stay very, very quiet.

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: 4 stars

Praising Cambridge

Clare College, Cambridge (my photo)

The University of Cambridge has been mentioned repeatedly on this blog. It is one of the oldest universities in the world – so old, in fact, that nobody is quite certain when it began (it seems to have been up and running by 1226, however). Cambridge is home to the Cavendish Laboratory, where many of the greatest scientific discoveries were made (the electron, the neutron, the structure of DNA, and more). Cambridge is ranked 4th in the world on the Times Higher Education list of engineering institutions. In the humanities, C. S. Lewis moved there from Oxford in 1954.

The university buildings are scattered across the city, which tends to confuse people. I can recall a tourist asking me, on a visit I once made to Cambridge, “Where on earth is the university?”

The Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge (photo: “RichTea”)

The university is also home to the Cambridge University Eco Racing team, which competes in the World Solar Challenge, and which fielded a rather unusual-looking design in 2013 and 2015:

Cambridge University Eco Racing team’s 2015 WSC entry (photo: CUER)