This book would make a great movie! It would be like Jurassic Park meets Aliens, with a bit of Predator thrown in. Instead of making endless sequels and prequels and reboots, the movie people ought to try adapting a lesser-known story like this one.
“Okay, Berthold; slow down,” you say. “What’s this book even about?”
Well, it’s set in the 23rd century, and tells the story of Nick Dekker, owner of the reigning champion women’s soccer team, the Los Angeles Hawks. Dekker sees an ad for an interplanetary safari, and decides it would be an excellent off-season activity for his team. Although Britt Jewel, the team’s coach and also Dekker’s girlfriend, is not excited about big-game hunting, he convinces her to go, and the rest of the team soon signs up as well.
Things start off well. The Regulus, the spaceship which transports them across the galaxy, is full of top-tier amenities, including a gym where Dekker spends most of his time fulfilling a promise to Jewel that he’ll get back in shape. It’s almost like a luxury cruise.
Except, not quite. Dekker is troubled early on by the presence of military personnel, most notably Capt. Luke Webb, a veteran of the Deep Space Infantry, who commands a unit of extremely lethal experimental combat robots. Dekker, a former space marine himself, begins to suspect this is something more than just a vacation.
His suspicions prove justified. Not long after landing on the first planet, they encounter a hostile species of intelligent aliens, soon dubbed the “Gorgon.” In response to the threat, Capt. Webb conscripts all the Hawks players into military service under his command.
What follows is textbook military sci-fi: plasma rifles, high-tech combat suits and the aforementioned combat robots get thrown into action against an alien army. Of course, I loved it.
Moreover, though they’re both fighting the aliens, there’s some real tension between Dekker and Webb. Dekker distrusts the dictatorial officer’s motives, given his repeated withholding of important military intelligence from the rest of the group, while at the same time treating them as his own fighting force.
I do have some criticisms of the book. First, there’s a little too much exposition at the front. Now, I don’t mind a book that slowly builds up a world, and I hate the modern trend of having to start every story off with a bang. So, I don’t mind this too much, but some readers might find it slow going.
Second, I have a few problems with how the dialogue is written. It feels very stilted at times, like a bit too much explanatory matter for the reader has been included. Also, Dekker has this habit of telling everyone to call him by his first name, to the point that with every person he talks to, he seems to have a conversation like this:
“Hi, I’m Nick Dekker.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Dekker.”
“Please, call me Nick.”
This got a bit repetitive after a while.
But, I enjoyed the story so much that I could readily overlook these issues. Like I said, I can easily imagine this being a movie, and it would be a really good movie. The problems with exposition would disappear, as that sort of material can be conveyed much faster with film. And, this book is the first entry in a series, so the movie folks can rest assured they have plenty of sequel material lined up already.
If you enjoy military sci-fi adventures, give this one a try.
One of the things that gets much discussion in the writing community are so-called “rules of writing” that go around on social media. Like Moses bringing the tablets from Mount Sinai, people are all the time posting quotes from famous writers like Stephen King or Elmore Leonard, telling writers to do or not do various things.
Foundation is the greatest rebuttal to this I’ve ever seen. You’ve been told that a book shouldn’t have too many points-of-view? Foundation has at least five; more like ten. You’ve heard that books need to have description? Foundation has next to none. And above all, you must have heard that you’re supposed to show, not tell. Foundation laughs in your face. The whole book is nothing except telling.
Whether Foundation might have been better had it followed these rules can be debated. But Isaac Asimov was the Vice President of Mensa and Foundation is a classic of science-fiction. It at least proves rule-following is not essential to success.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The book begins with Hari Seldon, a scholar in the field of psychohistory, which is a science that makes sweeping predictions about the fate of civilizations over the course of millennia. Seldon foresees the collapse of the Galactic Empire he lives in, and has made a plan to manipulate events such that a Second Empire can be restored in a thousand years, give or take.
The later parts of the book follow various political figures, religious leaders, merchants and scientists, many of whom are carrying out the pseudo-religious duties laid down by Seldon’s foundation. Periodically, a “Seldon Crisis” will occur; that is, a major inflection point in the re-development of civilization that Seldon foresaw in his detailed models of how the future would play out.
The book is actually a series of short stories compiled together, and in some ways, that shows. None of the different characters are around long enough for them to be really fleshed out, but the dilemmas they face are interesting, as are their ways of resolving them. In a way, it feels to me like a forerunner of the original Star Trek, in that each situation presents some moral or ethical situation for the characters to work through. (Another reason this book is perfect for Vintage Science Fiction Month!)
The book does have a detached, maybe even downright cynical view of history. And of course, it’s materialist through and through. Don’t look for larger-than-life heroes here. It’s really more like science fiction as conceived by the Hanseatic League.
Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has said that what first interested him in the field of Economics was that it was the closest thing to Hari Seldon’s “psychohistory”: a science that tries to synthesize knowledge about how populations behave and use it to make predictions about the future. This concept appeals to me as well. I have a Bachelor’s in Economics.
Of course, not many people look for excuses to talk about economics when they’re reading escapist fiction. They call it “the dismal science” for a reason, after all. Partly, this is due to an early association with the work of Thomas Malthus. Malthus was the Hari Seldon of the 19th century, in that he too tried to use models to predict the fate of civilization. Unfortunately, his model wasn’t quite right.
And thus, the fundamental problem with economics: models are never perfect. As Paul Samuelson once remarked, “the stock market has predicted nine of the last five recessions.” And so, the question nags at me: would this work? Given sufficient computing power, could you actually predict events the way Seldon does? It seems theoretically possible, I think. Or does it? Because after all, we don’t know what we don’t know. You may think you have accounted for every possible variable, but there are always other variables you didn’t even know were variables.
One of the frequent assumptions made in simple economics models is perfect information, meaning everyone in the market knows everything about the relevant market at all times. Of course, this is never, ever true, which means the models themselves are not in fact accurate; just approximations of what “should” happen.
If someone actually had perfect information, they would be, effectively, a god. I think that’s actually Asimov’s point in Foundation, since Seldon’s plan becomes essentially a religion after a certain amount of time. “If God did not exist…” etc. Arthur C. Clarke’s famous observation that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” also applies.
The problem with trying to map out the future like this is much the same as the problem with laying down rules of writing like those I mentioned at the beginning of the post: it leaves no room for things that organically just work, even though by all accounts they shouldn’t.
So, what is my final verdict on Foundation? Er, well, sorry to disappoint you, but… I haven’t got one. H.R.R. Gorman has convinced me that I need to read more of the series before I form an opinion. All I’ll say is this: the book was interesting enough that I’m going to read more.
If you’re like me, you know C.S. Lewis mainly as “that guy who wrote the Narnia books.” Most people probably remember them fondly from childhood. I was unusual (what else is new?) in that I really didn’t care for them. I was about nine years old and I couldn’t stand The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I thought it was just weird. My dad agreed with me; I remember him saying that the author of these books “must have been on drugs.” (My dad has never been a big fan of the fantasy genre.)
But I was interested to learn recently that Lewis had also written science fiction. That Hideous Strength is the third book in his “Space Trilogy,” but in the foreword Lewis promises that it can be read without reading the other two books. I have chosen to test this assertion, for reasons which I hope will become apparent.
And, of course, this is Vintage Science Fiction Month! What a perfect excuse to review a relatively obscure book by a relatively famous author. I hope that if nothing else it piques your curiosity. If you’re new to this site, please forgive my rather long-winded reviewing style; I tend to go on at length about books that I find interesting. And I’m afraid I’m usually unable to refrain from discussing plot spoilers. Normally I don’t feel so bad about that, since I’m reviewing older, classic books, but since you may not have read this one before, please be forewarned that I’ll be giving away the ending.
That Hideous Strength follows a couple, Mark and Jane Studdock. Mark is a fellow at Bracton College in Edgestow, England. He has been busy with college business, and Jane has a sense that she and her husband are drifting apart, as he spends nearly all his time on his work. Jane is also troubled by strange dreams, such as a vision of the disembodied head of a recently-guillotined criminal named Alcasan.
The college business that Mark is involved with has to do with a scientific outfit called the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E., which is in the process of purchasing land from Bracton College. N.I.C.E. is a prestigious and powerful body of scientists, and Mark is delighted when a colleague recommends him for a job there. Mark eagerly goes to the N.I.C.E. headquarters in Belbury.
Meanwhile, Jane goes to a town called St. Anne’s seeking treatment for her dreams. However, she is told that her dreams are in fact visions of real events, and that she is a seer. The people at St. Anne’s are a mysterious and mystical bunch, whose chief is a man called “Mr. Fisher-King” and who has a wound in his foot.
This is a reference to the Fisher King of Arthurian legend. The whole St. Anne’s group is very much associated with the legends of King Arthur and his court. Mr. Fisher-King, whose real name turns out to be “Ransom,” is himself the “Pendragon,” which, if you are familiar with Arthurian legend, effectively means belonging to the family of King Arthur.
I, by the way, am not really familiar with Arthurian legend, but I got something of a crash course in it by reading this book. Lewis was a professor of Medieval Literature, so I guess he’s a good source.
Anyway, if you think that’s weird, wait until you find out what’s happening at Belbury. In addition to the office political jockeying that will be familiar to anyone who knows anything about academia, the N.I.C.E. has its own private police force, headed up by Major Fairy Hardcastle. We have to pause to talk about Miss Hardcastle.
On the one hand, she’s clearly meant to represent a type of “modern” woman that Lewis dislikes. She smokes, she swears, and she even <gasp!> sits with her legs uncrossed. I think just by telling us these facts, Lewis felt he had adequately communicated that she is a Bad Woman.
So, not a whole lot of feminism going on here. On the other hand, I have to give Lewis some credit because she’s probably my favorite character in the whole thing. I don’t mean she’s likable. Not at all. She’s unquestionably a villain, as shown by the sadistic pleasure she takes in tormenting captives brought in by the N.I.C.E. police. But she’s memorable. It’s the same way Darth Vader isn’t a good guy, but who could deny he’s the most iconic character to come out of Star Wars?
“The Fairy,” as she is sometimes called, also has most of the best lines. Like this, when she’s ordering Mark to write newspaper articles to polish N.I.C.E.’s image, and he wonders if they’re to appear in the Right or the Left-wing papers:
“‘Both, honey, both,’ said Miss Hardcastle. ‘Don’t you understand anything? Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and a fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done. Any opposition to the N.I.C.E. is represented as a Left racket in the Right papers and a Right racket in the Left papers. If it’s properly done, you get each side outbidding the other in support of us–to refute the enemy slanders. Of course we’re non-political. The real power always is.'”
She has a coarse, slangy way of speaking that, again, I think Lewis meant to show how evil she is, but this makes her scenes some of the most vibrant, especially the way Hardcastle’s bluntness contrasts with Mr. Wither, the Deputy Director of N.I.C.E., who speaks in a mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy fashion, always trying to avoid committing himself too far to anything.
To get back to the synopsis, Mark gradually realizes that he is being manipulated and coerced into staying at N.I.C.E. This is not difficult, as Mark is not a steadfast or resolute type, and his cravenness makes him easy for them to play upon.
The book bounces back and forth between Jane at St. Anne’s, where Ransom and his assistants are interpreting her visions to discover what their enemies are doing, and Belbury, where the scientists of N.I.C.E. are shown engaging in increasingly depraved practices as part of their plot to conquer the world.
Ultimately, it comes out that both groups are attempting to capture the re-awakened wizard Merlin. The land that N.I.C.E. was buying at the beginning of the book housed his resting place where, (rather like Cthulhu), he has lain in a state of suspended animation, waiting until the time is right to rise again. That time comes about halfway through the book, and from there, the rival groups are fighting to recruit him.
This is where I question what Lewis said about it not being necessary to read the other books in the series. The story gets seriously bizarre at this point, bringing up stuff that Ransom did on other planets, and something called “eldila” that are basically angels and devils. Also, there’s a bear named Mr. Bultitude. I hadn’t thought about it for decades, but after reading the third act of this, what my father jokingly suggested about Lewis’s use of drugs seemed quite plausible.
The ending is a mess. Merlin works his magic during a banquet scene at Belbury that feels incongruously comical. It’s not quite Gussie Fink-Nottle at the Market Snodsbury prize-giving, but it’s close. And while that works in a light comedy, here it’s just… odd. It feels unsatisfying and anti-climactic. I guess the best way to say it is that Merlin is very deus ex machina.
And speaking of Deus Ex… well, before that, here’s a bit of dialogue from some N.I.C.E. personnel:
“And so,” said Straik, “the lessons you learned at your mother’s knee return. God will have power to give eternal reward and eternal punishment.” “God?” said Mark. “How does He come into it? I don’t believe in God.” “But, my friend,” said Filostrato, “does it follow that because there was no God in the past there will be no God also in the future?” “Don’t you see,” said Straik, “that we are offering you the unspeakable glory of being present at the creation of God Almighty? Here, in this house, you shall meet the first sketch of the real God. It is a man–or a being made by man–who will finally ascend the throne of the universe. And rule forever.”
And here’s the last line of the intro to the 2000 video game, Deus Ex:
We’ve had to endure much you and I, but soon, there will be order again. A new age! Aquinas spoke of the mythical city on the hill; soon that city will be a reality, and we will be crowned its kings. Or better than kings… Gods!
This isn’t just some freak coincidence, either. Both That Hideous Strength and Deus Ex are about evil, quasi-mystical conspiracies by shadowy organizations of madmen bent on achieving superhuman powers.
More fun facts: Deus Ex includes multiple passages from G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday. A contemporary reviewer for the Manchester Evening News wrote that
“In general outline, and to some extent in atmosphere, [That Hideous Strength] rather resembles G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Man Who Was Thursday.’ Mr. Lewis probably owes something to Chesterton as a writer, and certainly shares his horror of modern machine civilisation (the title of the book, by the way, is taken from a poem about the Tower of Babel) and his reliance on the “eternal verities” of the Christian Church, as against scientific materialism or nihilism.”
Indeed, a major focus of the book is how the scientists at Belbury, mad with power, are trying to create a new, scientifically efficient world. For example, they see World War II as an excellent blueprint to follow:
“[E]very advance in industry and agriculture reduces the number of work-people who are required. A large, unintelligent population is now becoming a deadweight. The real importance of scientific war is that scientists have to be reserved. It was not the great technocrats of Koenigsberg or Moscow who supplied the casualties in the siege of Stalingrad: it was the superstitious Bavarian peasants and low-grade Russian agricultural workers.”
And their schemes aren’t confined to massive wars of annihilation. They’re out to remake every aspect of life. As one of them says, even the trees are going to have to go:
“At present, I allow, we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently, we find a chemical substitute. And then, why *any* natural trees? I foresee nothing but the *art* tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet.” “Do you mean,” put in a man called Gould, “that we are to have no vegetation at all?” “Exactly. You shave your face: even, in the English fashion, you shave him every day. One day we shave the planet.” “I wonder what the birds will make of it.” “I would not have any birds either. On the art tree I would have the art birds all singing when you press a switch inside the house. When you are tired of the singing you switch them off. Consider again the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt.” “It sounds,” said Mark. “like abolishing pretty well all organic life.” “And why not? It is simple hygiene. Listen, my friends. If you pick up some rotten thing and find this organic life crawling over it, do you not say, ‘Oh, the horrid thing. It is alive,’ and then drop it?”
Like his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis clearly loved the folkish and organic, and hated the mechanical and the industrial. Speaking of Tolkien, there are also references in the book to “Numinor,” which, Lewis mentions in the foreword, will be discussed further in a forthcoming manuscript by Tolkien. (Does anyone know if that ever got published? ;))
The Manchester Evening News reviewer, though generally favorable about the book, agrees with me on the ending, writing:
The book ends in a way that is so preposterous that it does not even succeed in being horrible in spite of much bloodshed.
Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader’s sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance. When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which side is going to win.
Even this kind of understates it, in my opinion. The book would have been more satisfying if God Himself appeared and said, “I condemn all you evildoers of Belbury to eternal Hellfire.” That might have been predictable, but it would feel less random and bizarre than all this rigmarole about Merlin.
I remember reading once that Frank Herbert said of his novel Dune that the book had many layers, such that the reader could re-read it multiple times and each time find a different layer to follow. I think the same could be said of That Hideous Strength. There are at least three different threads to it:
Mark and Jane trying to save their failing marriage.
N.I.C.E.’s conspiracy to create a scientistic dystopia.
Whatever this stuff about Merlin is.
The first two layers fit together nicely. The third feels like it’s part of some other book and clumsily tacked on.
I’m serious, there are parts of this book where I have no idea what is even happening. Some of the visions Jane has towards the end are just too bizarre, and I have trouble understanding what they’re supposed to mean. There’s clearly some sort of symbolism going on, but it’s over my head.
On a more basic level, I just didn’t feel that Mark had grown enough over the course of the story to deserve Jane. Yes, he kind of redeems himself, in that he’s not the complete wimp he was at the beginning, but he’s still far from a truly brave or heroic character.
Actually, maybe that’s what the book is really lacking: an actual hero; someone who counter-balances the gleeful villainy of Miss Hardcastle & co. Merlin isn’t one; he’s just a plot device. Ransom is implied to be heroic, but he never really does anything; just gives speeches. Mark is right out. Jane seems like she could be heroic, but she never gets much of a chance. The most heroic character is Mr. Bultitude. Yes, that’s right: the bear.
The result is that the ultimate victory never feels earned. The show just goes on until the climax, when everyone transforms into who they’re supposed to be, like a bloody harlequinade.
I’ve been withholding some information from you, though. Our reviewer from the Manchester Evening News is not just some random critic. He’s George Orwell, of Nineteen Eighty-Four fame. The review was written in 1945, when Orwell had just begun work on what would become the quintessential dystopian novel. I wonder if That Hideous Strength influenced him at all. Some of the interrogation scenes reminded me of the Ministry of Love scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Actually, I guess the use of the acronym N.I.C.E. to describe the malevolent organization is itself what would come to be called an “Orwellian” phrase.
It’s surprising to me how positive Orwell’s review is, and how many similarities there are between Nineteen Eighty-Four and That Hideous Strength. After all, Lewis was a Christian conservative and Orwell was an atheist socialist. But clearly, both of them must have seen some of the same trends in the world they lived in. Namely, the rise of what James Burnham called “the managerial class.”
On balance, I’m with Orwell that the book would have been stronger if the supernatural element were toned down. I wouldn’t be in favor of removing it entirely, but I’d have liked it better as a subtle thing, lurking in the background.
Still, there are some effective occult horror scenes in here. Like this description of the art that is used to gradually indoctrinate people into the inner-circle of N.I.C.E:
There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skillfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could almost feel the hair; indeed you could not avoid feeling it however hard you tried.
Isn’t that creepy? I like this much better than if it had just been a scene of something mindlessly horrific. It’s just a touch off, and so it sticks with you more.
Okay, now we come to the big question, which I’ve been putting off as long as I can: is this book any good or not?
Well… it’s a mixed bag. A seriously mixed bag. Apart from the supernatural stuff and Arthurian legendry that just doesn’t fit with the rest, there are also some really slow stretches. There were parts that were just one committee meeting after another. This is probably an accurate depiction of an academic institute, but it doesn’t make it any more entertaining to read.
But then there are other things that seem strikingly fresh. Indeed, some scenes hit harder than most modern dystopias do. Also, while he seems like he wandered in from Narnia, I really do like some of the parts about Mr. Bultitude. Lewis tries to write him as a truly non-human character, with a whole way of perceiving the world that is unlike our own, but with which the reader can still empathize. I liked that.
And of course, Fairy Hardcastle. Everyone should read this just for the Fairy alone. Of course, if that actually happens and she becomes popular enough, the next thing we know, she’ll be getting her own spinoff prequel movie series starring Emma Stone. Oh, well; it’s just a chance we’ll have to take.
Like a lot of old sci-fi books, this didn’t strike me as an outstanding book, and at times it’s slow moving and old-fashioned. But also like a lot of old sci-fi books, it does contain plenty of interesting ideas for the reader to chew on. I can understand both why someone might love this book and why they might hate it, but either way, I think it’s worth reading.
Anyway, the story itself is very short. It’s about a ten-minute read. But Turpeinen packs a lot into those ten minutes. It begins with the title character transporting a captured killer. The killer tries to flee, causing their small plane to crash in the middle of the desert. They make their way to a ghost town, where the criminal begins having strange visions.
I won’t spoil the rest, but as it’s so short, and you don’t have to pay for it, there’s no reason not to give this book a try. I love weird westerns, and I love sci-fi, and this story contains a blend of both. It makes for a wonderful setting.
Now, obviously, the nature of the story precludes any major character development. The author openly admits that this was written as an experiment, and the book ends with a request to readers for feedback on whether it should be expanded into a longer story. My answer: yes, it absolutely should. There’s so much potential here; it is just crying out to be made into a fully-fleshed out world.
Read it for yourself. It won’t take long, and it’s a fun story.
My three pieces of feedback for the author are these: first, I see from his bio that he is a pilot. Very cool! Given that, it would be nice to have a longer scene with the bounty hunter and the criminal on the plane. I’m sure Turpeinen knows all sorts of details about flying that could make that into a really gripping part of the story.
Second… and this is a pet peeve of mine, but I see it all the time, including in books by big name authors and Hollywood movies. I may have even made this mistake myself, early in my writing career. But, when talking about firearms:
clip ≠ magazine
Now, I know–sometimes you want a short, one-syllable word, not a mouthful like magazine. In that case, I suggest “mag.”
That’s a super nit-pick, of course, but it’s something that always jumps out at me.
And finally, my last piece of feedback is simply “MORE!” I want to read more about these characters and this world. I know I said it before, but it bears repeating: this could be built upon in all sorts of ways, and there are a ton of interesting concepts teased here. I would be thrilled to read a novel or short story collection in this setting.