A Sarcasta-Review of the Ransom Trilogy by J.B.S. Haldane

JBS Haldane smoking jacketJ.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 In unpublished notes, Lewis wrote that scientism is: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.

Of Other Worlds by CS LewisAs 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.

HG Wells smilingHowever, 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.


JBS Haldane possible worldsMr. 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. 

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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22 Responses to A Sarcasta-Review of the Ransom Trilogy by J.B.S. Haldane

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I wonder if his saying “it is far from clear why a severed head perfused with blood should live longer than a normal one” is a concrete example of Haldane missing “the import of what Lewis was about”. Green and Hooper refer to Lewis admitting his debt “to a chance reading in the newspaper of a German experiment in keeping a dog’s head alive by artifical means”. Maybe rereading will correct me, but my memory is that keeping the head alive is the first priority, upon which applications can follow. It seems the kind of thing some scientists just really do, down the decades: I’ve got a citation somewhere for a (post-war) scientific article by some Finnish scientists reporting on attempting it with the head of an aborted baby (or was it, series of babies?). Reading about the new Kyushu University exhibit including the surgical experiments performed on Captain Marvin Watkins’s downed crew members leaves me thinking the ease with which the NICE guys go from trying to keep the first head alive to procuring fresh ones as serviceable (as they think) to hosting the ‘macrobe’ is not improbable, either.

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    • Hi David. I had heard the dog’s head thing before, though I am just starting Hooper & Green for the 1st time–I read most of Lewis’ own work before I started the biographies. Just finished “Jack” by Sayers, which was fun.
      I wonder, though, if Haldane does miss the point. I don’t think that the scientists at NICE really are scientists. They are social programmers; their science is accidental to their project. There were scientists at the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda: they could have been effective if they were dancers or coin collectors instead.
      What Lewis proposes is a spiritual force that is, for the moment of this apocalyptic entree, a measurable force: macrobes. The demonic energy looks like the functioning of the machine, but the machine masks the true power beneath or beyond it.
      The “head”, then, is as helpful as a disembodies voice or automatic handwriting or whatever. The point is disembodiment, the severing of spirit, soul, and body. Phil Pullman captures it well in His Dark Materials.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I enjoyed Sayer’s Jack, too! He was working on a biography of Warnie to follow it up (which would also include ‘Jack’-related things not included in the biography mainly devoted to him). Sadly, I got out of contact, and don’t know why it never appeared, or where his papers might be since his death. Have you read Green’s Henry Treece, C.S.Lewis and Beatrix Potter (Bodley Head Ltd 1969) with Margery Fisher and Marcus Crouch? I saw a copy once and stupidly did not buy it and have never caught up with it since!

        However significantly the folks at NICE are appliers of science as a means to the ends of their project, I don’t think it is accurate to say ‘the scientists at NICE really are [not] scientists’ too comprehensively. I think the novel in part coincides with things touched upon in the third chapter of The Abolition of Man, as when he speaks of a “repression of elements in what would otherwise be our total reaction to it [“a thing”] [which] is sometimes very noticeable and even painful: something has to be overcome before we can cut up a dead man or a live animal in a dissecting room”; and goes on to speak in terms of “a price [which] is exacted for our analytical knowledge and manipulative power” – not only the latter, but the former, too – “our analytical knowledge” which (I would emphasize) is the product of ‘real science’ achieved by ‘real scientists’. He does, indeed, put “things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious – such as digging up and mutilating the dead” in the context of “applied science” and the “practice” of a “technique”. But in going on to say, “I hardly know what I am asking for”, he almost immediately ventures, “The regenerate science which I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself.” That reminds me of “the green blood of the silent animals” and “Why should Salt suffer?” in the first chapter of Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill, but also of the fact of what, 18 months after The Abolition of Man was first published, was done to a ‘mineral’ in the New Mexico desert.

        Trying to keep “the head” alive in the context of pursuing “disembodiment” can be interestingly compared with Hans Jonas’s discussion in “Against the Stream: Comments on the Definition and Redefinition of Death” in Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).

        The ‘macrobe’ is not only interesting to NICE in its relevance to pursuing “disembodiment”, but an example (in the beginning) of nothing more intrusive or manipulative than ‘scientific observation’, yet an ‘observation’ where the methodological assumptions determine the scope of ‘reflection’ (in the words of Sherlock Holmes, “No ghosts need apply”, and a ‘discovery’ is designated a ‘macrobe’ because all possible demonologies are treated as bunk by definition). In The Abolition of Man, Lewis asks, is it “possible to imagine a new Natural Philosophy, continually conscious that the ‘natural object’ produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view, and always correcting the abstraction?” The construing of the ‘macrobe’ by the NICE folk is an imagination by Lewis of an utter failure to do anything of the sort.

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        • I didn’t even know the Potter-Lewis book existed! I will have to track it down sometime, though it might be mere indulgence by that point.
          You may be right on my comment about “real scientists.” I will have to ruminate on that. What I’m trying to communicate on that first point is that science that has End is not science for science sake, but science for _______ sake (whether that _________ is Nazism, curing cancer, or making washing machines more efficient). In this case, the NICE scientists serve whatever social engineering job is at hand. I think Pure Science would care less whether the head worked, and stayed with why it worked. Well, it is likely that the demonic macrobes never would have been present there. As Screwtape says–if you have to go with science, go with social science, like sociology or economics. I think NICE is brilliantly Screwtapian there.
          Have you read George Orwell’s critique of THS? It might connect with your last paragraph here.
          You are right to push back against my reductionism.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Thanks, in turn, for getting me to try to think further about this! I often return to Tolkien’s remarks in Letter 186 (from 1956) (q.v., but which include) “Nuclear physics […] need not be used at all” in the context of “what seems to me the most widespread assumption of our time: that if a thing can be done it must be done. This sees to me totally false. The greatest examples of the action of the spirit and of reason are in abnegation” and, “surely it is clear that there will have to be some ‘abnegation’ in its [atomic power’s] use, a deliberate refusal to do some of the things it is possible to do with it, or nothing will stay!” In the Abolition of Man passages I quoted from, Lewis seems to be going further to try also to consider the (possibly) problematical in pure(r) scientific analysis, and abstraction, perhaps even in observation, even where there is no obvious moral or ethical objection to carrying them out. I tend to be preoccupied with applied science, technique, and George Grant’s pondering whether ‘technology’ is distinct from, and more problem-fraught than, ‘technique’. So I am glad to try to think about pure(r) science when ‘not being used at all’.

            The Screwtapian of THS is something I have not thought enough about (if at all?)! Would the demon have tried to exploit the head to move to staging the discovery of itself as ‘macrobe’ in more purely (less already urgently ‘loaded’) scientific circumstances? If not, what might it have done, instead?

            By the way, I just ran into this:

            http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/292306.php

            (I’d seen something about it lately, but did not mention it before, because I couldn’t think how to try to search for that conveniently.)

            I need to reread Orwell’s THS review – I think 1984 is indebted to THS, variously. (I’ve also read an article about Orwell and Lewis – in Mythlore? – but can’t find it, again; I also read a very interesting article in the 1970s about Swift’s Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels and Tower of Babel imagery, but don’t know how, easily, to search for it, either.)

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Brooding on the Psalm-versions in The Great Divorce in their scenes and all that in relation to Ikey and the “Water-Giant” earlier, which in some sense involve, if not “minerals”, still that mysterious ‘chemical compound’, water, and plants, and animals, I suddenly wondered if Lewis’s imagination of the “Nature or Arch-nature” there had something to do with his thoughts in The Abolition of Man about “regenerate science” and “a new Natural Philosophy”.

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          • I had always read those in a Screwtapian framework–the materialist magician, or the muddle-headed self contradictory philosopher. Your suggestion is more elegant!
            Do you have a post for me on the Psalm-Psalter in Great Divorce? 😉

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Wow, yes! I should reread/browse THS with Marlowe’s Dr, Faustus in mind: what Faustus thinks he’s doing and how things are working and how Mephistophilis enlightens him, compared with what the NICE honchos think and what in fact seems the case.

            How about a not-too-scary deadline (and word limit) by way of encouragement for ‘Menippean Satire, Psalms, and The Great Divorce’ (or whatever it ends up being called)?

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            • I publish typically Monday & Wednesday. I’m doing a bit about THS later this summer, and some stuff for the week Charles Williams died. Otherwise I’m pretty open. A couple of weeks?
              I have done everything from 110-3200 words here. People actually read 800-1500 words, with a 800-1200 word sweet spot.
              I do like crazy titles, but whenever I have one, I put a subtitle that makes sense. Neologisms are encouraged!

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Great, thanks! I’ll e-mail it to you, when I’ve got what looks like a plausible draft.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. A nice summary of the Space Trilogy in the context of Lewis’ contemporaries. I believe that it really deserves the spotlight, especially nowadays. Who knows? Perhaps a film adaptation?

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    • You are right, Levi–I think there is room for this recovery. It is a slow recovery, but fans of early SciFi read it, and Lewis fans, and Charles Williams readers.
      I have toyed with outlined the screenplay, but haven’t found the connection–the sweet spot–just yet.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I’d second that “really deserves the spotlight, especially nowadays”!

      About film adaptations, I’m torn. I’m a sucker for dramatizations of any sort, but how likely is it that the work would be well done?
      .
      By way of comparison, I was a Lovecraft fan before I ever tried anything by an Inkling. (I knew of The Hobbit but the emus, etc., on the American paperback cover put me off!) And I enjoy both the as-if-contemporary-with-first-publication silent film version of The Call of Cthulhu (2005) and the much freer, more original Out of Mind (1998) – they delight, variously, as much as The Shuttered Room (1967) disappointed in my science fiction and horror film-loving youth. But when I see how much has been done since 2005, I can’t help fearing there may be a lot of rubbish amongst it. What if Lewis became a part of pop culture the way Lovecraft has? Would that include more desolation than ways past watchful dragons? Or make it likelier to find dramatization diamonds in a dunghill? Or both, or what?

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      • I haven’t seen any Cthulhu adaptations at all, so I’ll take your word for it. But the question is good: would adaptations help or hurt. I think the 3 new Narnia films variably bad–Lion was a good kids film, Dawn Treader butchered–but they did inspire new Lewis readers. Maybe there is a greater good?

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          This puts me somehow encouragingly in mind of Lewis’s discussion of “iconoclasm” in the last part of A Grief Observed. If bad adaptations both lead to their sources (or ‘inspirations’), and have to have their own specific deficiencies and distortions got out of the way, well, that’s how the (fallen) universe works in any case (as long as they do not succeed in eclipsing or replacing what they should lead to). There are (I think) even kinds of ‘irreverence’ one can properly enjoy – like (in my experience) the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s musical, A Shoggoth on the Roof, or Tom Smith’s Return of the King filk song. (I do wish the BBC television Narnia adaptations had had more of the budget of the films: the same level of fidelity with better ‘effects’ would be hard to beat – and I still prefer them, cheaper ‘effects’ notwithstanding.)

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  3. What a fascinating piece on Haldane & Lewis. What strikes me is both Haldane’s brilliance and/but also his blindness. He really does successfully identify a speck in Lewis’s eye (his weak science) while entirely missing the beam in his own eye (his Weston like scientism). Or is this deliberate, being the tactic of controversialists to turn the specks in the eyes of opponents into beams in order to turn attention away from their own beams?
    Can I also ask you some time to develop further your comment that “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”? Surely it would be as accurate to say, “As it turns out, for the time-being…”?
    Finally, if Haldane had lived to see the age (temporary, I hope) of Islamic State I hope that he would realise that whereas IS use modern science as a means to their ends, the end they claim they hope to achieve is to return the world to a pre-modern condition. My hope is that he would realise that Lewis did not share that desire. Or am I missing something here?

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    • Great comments Stephen. Last to first.
      If Haldane were here today, I don’t know we would know he existed. The age of public intellectuals is over, and we only know those who are uber popular. Haldane was just a genius. So whatever he would say about the return to the pre-modern world, we might not hear it.
      Lewis used a pen and chopped wood and took the car to work and liked the train. He was far behind on technology, but the technology he used was very important to him.
      His objections to the modern world were not the development of science, but the things we imply by it:
      -that today is better than yesterday
      -that the use of technology is morally neutral
      -that all progress is progress
      -that human evolution presumed moral evolution
      Things like that. Haldane didn’t see that subtlety because he didn’t read Abolition of Man. So Lewis becomes a caricature here (as Weston was in Ransom books).
      On the middle comment about prevailing ideas. Yes, I think you are right about the “not yet” comment, that we don’t see the end of the story yet. Both Christian theism and colonial evolutionism (scientism) could return. If I were a betting man, I would bet more on theism than scientism.
      But something has shifted in our culture, but not really theology proper. Our anthropology has changed after Michel Foucault, and our epistemology has changed in the the postmodern era. I think the excesses of materialism and the orgasm-separated-from-relationship will pass, but I think, like in times past, the Western church needs to negotiate new foundational understandings of what it means to be human.

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  4. Is it even necessary for the N.I.C.E. to have an entirely coherent program? I can quite easily imagine that the organization of the N.I.C.E. was a trifle loose, with various department heads within it having freedom to carve out their own fiefdoms, and therefore that Filostrato’s experiments in keeping severed heads alive was just his pet project that he was allowed to work on and not originally part of any central N.I.C.E. plan.

    Also Haldane says: “…it is far from clear why a severed head perfused with blood should…be a more suitable instrument for the devil.” It isn’t. As the final act of the novel makes clear, the dark eldils can work just as well with a severed head not perfused with blood, and they’re also able to control to an extent the bodies of living men (who are however able to fight that control.) Clearly the dark eldils lit upon the idea of using Alcasan’s head as a mouthpiece only out of convenience, not out of some special suitability.

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    • No, NICE could be a mess. But I think that would have moved it from spoof to complete farce, and Lewis lacked the timing for farce I think. Notice he wrote no stageplays, despite having written in 2 dozen genres.
      The “severed head” makes a good metaphor for our culture, I think. Or look at “Abolition of Man”–the castrated geldings.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Alice P. Kenney had an interesting article looking at THS and Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head together: I think it’s “The Mythic History of a Severed Head,” Modern Fiction Studies, 1969.

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