The Loss of Atmosphere: A Literary Conspiracy by Larry Niven & C.S. Lewis?

Susan Narnia bow_battle Anna PopplewellPerhaps the essay that C.S. Lewis took the longest to write is “On Stories.” It began as an Oxford talk in 1940 called, “The Kappa Element in Romance.” After Charles Williamsdeath 70 years ago this week in 1945, Lewis went back to the material and wrote a longish essay called “On Stories,” published in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947) with J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous essay, “On Fairy-Stories.” “On Stories” didn’t get much traction at first, and Lewis went on to work some of the same ideas into his late-in-life book, An Experiment in Criticism (1961).

“On Stories” is now recognized to be some of the earliest critical thinking about fantasy writing, and a precursor to the study of “story” and “atmosphere” as important to literature. The atmosphere idea is pretty intriguing. The most important part of a Story is not its plot, or in a romance (i.e., adventure story), its ability to create “excitement.” Lewis explains:

If to love Story is to love excitement then I ought to be the greatest lover of excitement alive. But the fact is that what is said to be the most ‘exciting’ novel in the world, The Three Musketeers, makes no appeal to me at all. The total lack of atmosphere repels me. There is no country in the book – save as a storehouse of inns and ambushes. There is no weather. When they cross to London there is no feeling that London differs from Paris.

If we think of Lewis’ own work, they are truly “atmospheric.” The Malacandrian aliens in their vertigo-inducing landscapes, the floating islands of Perelandra, the melting snows in the Narnian hills, the dreamy fog of the Wood Between the Worlds—Lewis is a sensual painter of the story’s imaginative environment.

Ringworld  book coverI have just picked up Larry Niven’s SciFi classic, Ringworld (1970). The first character we meet, Louis Wu, is a bored interplanetary playboy of the future. He has been to every party, conquered every elite circle on every world, and even started most of the social trends back on earth. Look at the way Niven describes this earth of the future as Wu teleports from city to city:

For a few moments, he watched Beirut stream past him: the people flickering into the booths from unknown places; the crowds flowing past him on foot, now that the slidewalks had been turned off for the night. Then the clocks began to strike twenty-three. Louis Wu straightened his shoulders and stepped out to join the world.

In Resht, where his party was still going full blast, it was already the morning after his birthday. Here in Beirut it was an hour earlier. In a balmy outdoor restaurant Louis bought rounds of raki and encouraged the singing of songs in Arabic and Interworld. He left before midnight for Budapest….

In Budapest were wine and athletic dances, natives who tolerated him as a tourist with money, tourists who thought he was a wealthy native. He danced the dances and he drank the wines, and he left before midnight

In Munich he walked.

The air was warm and clean; it cleared some of the fumes from his head. He walked the brightly lighted slidewalks, adding his own pace to their ten-miles-per-hour speed. It occurred to him then that every city in the world had slidewalks, and that they all moved at ten miles per hour.

The thought was intolerable. Not new; just intolerable. Louis Wu saw how thoroughly Munich resembled Cairo and Resht … and San Francisco and Topeka and London and Amsterdam. The stores along the slidewalks sold the same products in all the cities of the world. These citizens who passed him tonight looked all alike, dressed all alike. Not Americans or Germans or Egyptians, but mere flatlanders.

In three-and-a-half centuries the transfer booths had done this to the infinite variety of Earth. They covered the world in a net of instantaneous travel. The difference between Moskva and Sidney was a moment of time and a tenth-star coin. Inevitably the cities had blended over the centuries, until place names were only relics of the past. San Francisco and San Diego were the northern and southern ends of one sprawling coastal city. But how many people knew which end was which? Too few, these days.

Pessimistic thinking, for a man’s two hundredth birthday.

But the blending of the cities was real. Louis had watched it happen. All the irrationalities of place and time and custom, blending into one big rationality of City, worldwide, like a dull gray paste. Did anyone today speak Deutsche, English, Francais, Espanol? Everyone spoke Interworld. Style in body paints changed all at once, all over the world, in one monstrous surge.

narnia wardrobeWhat a tremendous fictional illustration of C.S. Lewis’ concern about atmosphere. Wu exists as a listless figure in front of a green screen of all the cities of the world, each shifting one by one in the background behind him. All the cities look the same: “there is no feeling that London differs from Paris,” as C.S. Lewis said.

Is it a coincidence that Niven so poignantly fictionalizes Lewis’ critique, and does so in such a close way, using cities in exactly the way that Lewis did?

And… the protagonist’s name is Louis (=Lewis). Coincidence? Or conspiracy?

We know that Larry Niven has read Lewis. I blogged last week about how The Great Divorce inspired one of his projects, and he used Lewis’ characters in some stories (see Niven’s Rainbow Mars).

My vote is that this is a literary conspiracy, and no accident on Larry Niven’s part. What do you think?

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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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16 Responses to The Loss of Atmosphere: A Literary Conspiracy by Larry Niven & C.S. Lewis?

  1. wanderwolf says:

    I don’t know abut conspiracy, but what you write strikes a cord in me, as I’m studying the narration of the metropolis and the loss of differences in atmosphere between these narrations is interesting, but that doesn’t mean that the atmosphere needs to disappear. It’s just the need for someone to step out of the mold.. There are multiple kinds of similar “styles” and one could say that any time authors do the same thing that has been done before is a kind of conspiracy.

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    • That’s really intriguing. Is it a decay in genre–when things have been done and done again, the background fades?

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      • wanderwolf says:

        I don’t think decay is the right word, unless the process is as respected as the decay of an atom’s nucleus. No, I think it’s more about the layers of same thing that produces a harder shell to break through to present something else. The background fades because it’s become so pervasively defined as the background.

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Fascinating! (You’re getting me to think I need to read Niven: oh, the classic science fiction I have not yet read…) One thing that struck me was the fairly delicate touch in showing Wu seeking out either remaining differences or focusing on what (if now universal) used to be characteristic somewhere – “Louis bought rounds of raki and encouraged the singing of songs in Arabic” in Resht, “He danced the dances and he drank the wines” (Csárdás, Bikavér (‘Bull’s Blood’!), and Tokay, perhaps? – or their descendents), even the clean air of Munich makes me think ‘scrubbin’d Dutch’ (as we used to call one immigrant strand, including various forebears and family) – some kind of rearguard action at least, on his part. (Maybe too tangentially, I just finished Dymer for the first time, and all the vivid , sensory, atmospheric detail is striking and deligthful: but I had not clearly thought of that as Lewis practicing what he liked in other writers, till I read this!)

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    • Every time I read one of the classics in SF or Space Fantasy or Fantasy, I almost wonder how I ever did without it! Last year I binged on the 1980s fantasy. What a treat.
      I’m glad things rhymed for you in reading this. Yes, I am poking a little fun here. It is probably an accident of history. But Niven’s work makes a nice parable of what Lewis liked in others–and tried to emulate in his own work.

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  3. Larry GIlman says:

    The evidence is too thinly circumstantial to pull me very far in the direction of a deliberate Niven homage. “Probably an accident of history,” as Mr. Dickieson says: “Because, as we know, almost anything can be read into any book if you are determined enough. This will be especially impressed on anyone who has written fantastic fiction” (CSL, Reflections on the Psalms, Ch. X).

    In fact the passages seem to me to be about somewhat different things. Niven writes of the homogenization of culture, extrapolating from an actual trend in modernity. American tourists flock in droves to Mexican resorts where they expect to find (and do find) exactly the same mixed drinks and toilet facilities that they left at home, only more expensive and sun-drenched. London is the same as Paris or Beirut or Cancun to the extent that they really have become the same — entirely (Niven’s vision) or partly (today’s reality).

    Lewis, on the other hand, was describing a type or condition of literary imagination which does not even desire atmospheric differences, which ignores that whole side of things. London is the same as Paris in the Musketeers not because the two cities are really indistinguishable but because Dumas was uninterested in the many-splendored atmospheric differences between them.

    Two things, then: despairing of differences that no longer really exist vs. being tone-deaf to differences that really do exist . . .

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    • Thanks for the comment. I do like the Reflection quote, which I haven’t thought of.
      They are different things. I do think that the Ringworld set up does make a nice parable of the literary experience. Both authors are despairing of the background uniformity, aren’t they? In one, it is a cultural phenomena that threatens to remove cultural distinction. In the other, it is a style of writing.

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  4. [Hm, tried posting this once — not showing — my apologies if this is a repeater! — LG]

    “Probably an accident of history,” as Mr. Dickieson says. “Because, as we know, almost anything can be read into any book if you are determined enough. This will be especially impressed on anyone who has written fantastic fiction” (CSL, Reflections on the Psalms, Ch. X).

    In fact the passages seem to me to be about pretty distinctive things. Niven extrapolates from our world’s homogenization, where Americans flock to Mexican resorts expecting (and finding) the same mixed drinks and toilet facilities they left at home, only more expensive and sun-drenched. London and Paris and Cancun are the same because they have really become the same, either entirely (Niven’s vision) or partly (our reality).

    Lewis, on the other hand, describes a type of literary imagination which does not even begin by desiring “atmosphere” — is not interested in it, ignores that whole side of things. London is the same as Paris not because they’ve really become indistinguishable but because Dumas is not interested in their differences.

    So it’s two different things, I think: (1) in Niven, a uniform world perceived as uniform despite one’s best efforts to flog the corpse of exoticism back to life, vs. (2) in Dumas, as Lewis describes him, a richly variegated world whose variegations are ignored.

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  5. Joe R. Christopher says:

    I like Larry Niven’s fiction, and have read some of his stories and novels several times, but I don’t think he’s usually an atmospheric writer–he’s too interested in the idea. Lewis’s fiction usually moves more slowly, with paragraphs spent on description. In Northrop Frye’s terms, Niven writes anatomies and Lewis, romances.

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    • Niven certainly isn’t in that British vein of writers who give us all the detail–down to the dew on the roses. He zips through space at high speed, only slowing down to narrow the camera upon a single point.
      What about the Inferno book? It is far less atmospheric than Dante, of course, but as 1970s literature, does it have that active background?

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