J.B.S. Haldane was one of the last renaissance men. A polymath, writer, and public intellectual, his Possible Worlds helped give C.S. Lewis a model for writing theological fiction. While Lewis relished in the model–science fiction as a platform for thinking about God, humanity, and the nature of the universe–he disagreed with Haldane’s “scientism.” In unpublished notes, Lewis wrote that scientism is:
“the belief that the supreme moral end is the perpetuation of our own species, and that this is to be pursued even if, in the process of being fitted for survival, our species has to be stripped of all those things for which we value it—of pity, of happiness, and of freedom” (now in Of Other Worlds 77).
Haldane, with H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon, were in Lewis’ mind an oligarchy that tyrannized social thought, transforming the science of Darwinism into a cosmic myth with frightening moral consequences. Embedded in the Ransom Cycle is a war of worldviews, a narrative that puts pressure against the philosophical fiction of Wells-Stapledon-Haldane.
As it turns out, neither Lewis’ idea of humans made in the image of God nor scientism’s philosophy of humanity as the ultimate of evolution prevailed. But their stories have remained, and where they were good stories as stories, they are still read by lovers of literature and fans of early science fiction. This was something they recognized in each other. Lewis was clearly a lover of this scientistic Triumberate, and Haldane speaks highly of Lewis’ skill.
It is this latter move–Haldane’s praise of Lewis–that provides a bit of fun. In “Auld Hornie, FRS”–a witty, sarcastic reference to the devil in a Screwtapian mode–J.B.S. Haldane says of Lewis’ science fiction books, the Ransom Cycle:
“The tale is told with very great skill, and the descriptions of celestial landscapes and of human and nonhuman behaviour are often brilliant. I cannot pay Mr. Lewis a higher compliment than to compare him with Dante and Milton…” (Mark R. Hillegas, ed., Shadows of Imagination, 16).
It sounds like an impressive response to pretty humble books, but it is also a backhanded compliment. Haldane would go on to shred Lewis’ understanding of science.
However, Haldane did miss the import of what Lewis was about. First, Lewis’ interest wasn’t in science but scientism. He was fine with science, from the pen he was using to the cancer treatments his wife would one day receive and his mother did not. Haldane said of Lewis that, “The application of science to human affairs can only lead to hell” (Shadows of Imagination, 18). This misses the point. Second, Lewis’ interest wasn’t in science, but in story. He admitted the theoretical framework of his science fiction was weak (Of Other Worlds, 87). This may have been something that Arthur C. Clarke saw as a weakness in Lewis’ work. Clarke worked so hard at tight, consistent fictional universes; Lewis’ universes leaked.
But something of that correspondence between Clarke and Lewis highlights Lewis’ view. It was (probably) Lewis’ first letter to Clarke. He wrote:
I don’t of course think that at the moment many scientists are budding Westons [the evil proponent of scientism in Ransom]: but I do think (hang it all, I live among scientists!) that a point of view not unlike Weston’s is on the way. Look at Stapledon (Star Gazer ends in sheer devil worship), Haldane’s Possible Worlds and Waddington’s Science and Ethics. I agree Technology is per se neutral: but a race devoted to the increase of its own power by technology with complete indifference to ethics does seem to me a cancer in the universe (Walter Hooper, ed., Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Volume 2, 594).
I agree with Haldane (and Clarke would agree too) that Lewis’ story would have been stronger if his science was better. But there are a lot of gaps in Haldane’s essay. I want to leave the reader, though, with a great quotable: a four-paragraph sarcasta-summary of the Ransom Trilogy.
Mr. C. S. Lewis is a prolific writer of books which are intended to defend Christianity. Some of these are cast in the form of fiction. The most interesting group is perhaps a trilogy describing the adventures of Mr. Ransom, a
Cambridge teacher of philology. In the first volume Ransom is kidnapped by a physicist called Weston and his accomplice, Devine, and taken in a “spaceship” to the planet Mars, which is inhabited by three species of fairly intelligent and highly virtuous and healthy vertebrates ruled by an angel. Weston wants to colonise the planet, and Devine to use it as a source of gold. Their efforts are frustrated, and they return to earth, bringing Ransom with them.
In the second volume the angel in charge of Mars takes Ransom to Venus, where he meets the Eve of a new human race, which has just been issued with souls. Weston arrives, allows the devil to possess him, and acts as serpent in a temptation of the new Eve. Ransom’s arguments against the devil are inadequate, so he finally kills Weston, and is returned to earth by angels, with thanks for services rendered.
In the final book two still more sinister scientists, Frost and Wither, who have given their souls to the devil, are running the National Institute of Co-Ordinated Experiments. Devine, now a peer, is helping them. The only experiment described is the perfusion of a severed human head, through which the devil issues his commands. They are also hoping to resurrect Merlin, who has been asleep for fifteen centuries in their neighbourhood. Their aim appears to be the acquisition of superhuman power and of immortality; though how this is to be done is far from clear, just as it is far from clear why a severed head perfused with blood should live longer than a normal one, or be a more suitable instrument for the devil. However, Mr. Ransom is too much for them. He obtains the assistance not only of Merlin, but of the angels who guide the planets on their paths, and regulate the lives of their inhabitants. These angels arrive at his house, whose other inhabitants become in their turn mercurial, venereal (but decorously so), martial, saturnine, and jovial, but fortunately not lunatic. Merlin and the angels smash up the National Institute and a small university town, Frost and Wither are damned, and Ransom ascends into heaven, bound for Venus, where he is to meet Kings Arthur and Melchizedek, and other select humans who escape death. One Grammarian’s Funeral less, in fact.
You can find this article in a number of places. My thanks to Arend Smilde, who transcribed the entire article here, as well as gave a good introduction and included another anti-Lewis article Haldane wrote. Arend Smilde’s Lewisiana website is a singularly useful resource.