Book Review: That Hideous Strength

Literature, at its best, is an exploration of the human condition which lays bare deep truths about life and human nature that cannot easily be put into plain language. By this standard, C. S. Lewis‘ 1945 science fiction novel That Hideous Strength can be counted as a success. Although technically the final part of a trilogy, That Hideous Strength works well as a stand-alone work (to which I, not having read the other two books, can testify). Apart from telling a relatively engaging story of adventure, romance, and politics rooted in Christian, Greco-Roman, and Arthurian myth, the book is a scathing critique of progressivism and sociology, and, among other things, an exploration of class and of gender roles from a Christian and traditional conservative position. Tha fact that I enjoyed it in spite of being neither a Christian nor a traditional conservative is a testament to Lewis’ skill as a writer.

The novel’s two main characters are Mark and Jane Studdock, a young couple in a strained marriage. Mark is a sociologist working at a small college who is consumed by his desire to become an insider, a member of the inner circle – any inner circle. This makes him easy prey when he is offered a chance to join the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), an organisation that ostensibly pursues scientific progress for the betterment of mankind, but has hidden sinister motives. Meanwhile, Jane is haunted by strange prophetic dreams and deeply dissatisfied with her marriage. As the story progresses, the two of them are simultaneously and seperately drawn into a grand conflict between superhuman forces.

Perhaps my favourite character in the book is John Wither, the enigmatic Deputy Director of the N.I.C.E. He is the perfect embodiment of what makes the N.I.C.E. so scary: there is a lack of official hierarchy and explicit rules, which gives unlimited power to those who know how to work the system. Accordingly, the Deputy Director, who is the real centre of power at the N.I.C.E., never commits to anything and has a penchant for using vague and non-commital language. Here is an example of Wither’s style:

‘One moment, Mr Studdock,’ interrupted the Deputy Director. ‘It is so important to be perfectly clear what we are doing. You are no doubt aware that in certain senses of the words it would be most unfortunate to speak of my offering anyone a post in the Institute. You must not imagine for a moment that I hold any kind of autocratic position, nor, on the other hand, that the relation between my own sphere of influence and the powers–I am speaking of their temporary power, you understand– of the Permanent Committee or those of the Director himself are defined by any hard and fast system of what–er–one might call a constitutional, or even a constitutive, character. (…)’

The only thing scarier than a big, powerful bureaucratic organisation is a big, powerful organisation that is not bound by bureaucratic rules. Aside from the description of the inner workings of the N.I.C.E., Lewis is at his most delightful in the observations about sex differences and gender roles that he has various characters make throughout the novel. Consider, for example, the following gem:

‘The cardinal difficulty,’ said MacPhee, ‘in collaboration between the sexes is that women speak a language without nouns. If two men are doing a bit of work, one will say to the other, “Put this bowl inside the bigger bowl which you’ll find on the top shelf of the green cupboard.” The female for this is, “Put that in the other one in there.” (…)’

What makes Lewis’ oberservations on gender roles so enjoyable to read is that they break out of tired stereotypes and are provocative without ever becoming mean-spirited. I feel like this is an art we have mostly lost in the intervening decades. Far too often in today’s atmosphere, discussions about sex differences are either predicated on the absurd assumption that all sex differences are pernicious and the result of oppressive cultural structures, or else they devolve into a discussion about which sex is superior.

Lewis also makes poignant obeservations about the arrogance of intellectuals and the hypocrisy of many of those who perceive themselves as champions of the down-trodden, such as when Jane boards a train with a bunch of lower class people:

Jane hardly noticed them: for though she was theoretically an extreme democrat, no social class save her own had yet become a reality to her in any place except the printed page.

I could keep quoting delightful passages like that for pages, but I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of discovering them for yourself. The only slight let-down about this book is the over-reliance on supernatural forces in the last third, which offer a bit of an easy way out (I won’t go into any detail here, lest I reveal too much of the plot). On the whole, however, I thoroughly enjoyed That Hideous Strength and can warmly recommend it.

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