Universe Column, August 19th 2007
The climax of C.S.Lewis’s brilliant novel “That Hideous Strength” takes place at a banquet held in Belbury.
For readers unfamiliar with the story, Belbury is the centre of operations for the not-so-nice National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments.
A group of pseudo-scientists – Wither, Frost, Filostrato and others – believe that their self-appointed mission is to make the world “a better place”. To ensure that the outcome is not in doubt, they subvert an ancient university and join forces with a peer of the realm, Lord Feverstone.
Early in the story, Feverstone seduces a young academic with promises of advancement. The naïve Mark Studdock throws in his lot with Feverstone and his compatriots: the self styled “Progressive Element”. Anyone rash enough to question the methods and ethics of the Progressives is dubbed a “Diehard”, ridiculed and, in extremis, disposed of.
Lord Feverstone clinically describes the mission of NICE as “Quite simple and obvious things at first – sterilisation of the unfit, liquidation of backward races, selective breeding.” Ultimately, he declares, they will create “a new type of man: and, he tells the impressionable Studdock, “It’s people like you who’ve got to begin to make him.”
Lewis weaves together a rich and masterly account: Studdocks’s loveless marriage to Jane; their decision not to let children get in the way of their lives; the emaciation of their relationship as he is increasingly sucked in to Belbury’s evil. As the tale unfolds we follow Jane’s brave decision to confront it.
It all seems so reasonable to begin with – wanting to eliminate aliments and raise levels of intelligence – but it ends up with coercion and the imposition of martial law; the suppression of ancient liberties; the collaboration of newspapers in concealing the truth; the appearance of quisling theologians to give it divine approval; and the supine acquiescence of Parliament.
At Belbury the scientists begin with gross experiments on animals and end by worshipping the “new man” they have created – a gross hybrid made from a decapitated head. They begin by insisting that their motives are the highest and end with actions that are the basest.
The Diehards are a motley crew led by Dr.Ransom, Dr.and Mother Dimble, MacPhee, and Ivy Maggs. They are joined by Jane Studdock (and Mr.Bultitude, a bear that has escaped from Belbury). They triumph through their weakness; and, ultimately, by power that lies beyond themselves.
It is that power that manifests itself at the Belbury banquet.
The assembled multitude have gathered to celebrate their achievements, but the dinner’s denouement ends in a chaotic blood bath. Things start to go wrong as the pseudo-scientists and the conniving politicians find that their own words have become mangled and garbled. Try as they may, their carefully honed vocabularies and cleverly crafted words – used so often to deceive – become a jumble of disconsonant ravings. It ends in a tragic orgy of violence as they turn on one another.
“That Hideous Strength” was the third book in Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy – following “Out of The Silent Planet” and “Perelandra”. It was written more than half a century ago, in 1945. It’s title was take from a poem about the Tower of Babel.
That year, George Orwell wrote a review of the book in the Manchester Evening News. He said that the purpose of the Belbury scientists was to wipe out life deemed to be “superfluous” to turn “common people into slaves” and to turn the “ruling caste of scientists ” into our rulers “who even see their way to conferring immortal life upon themselves. Man, in short, is to storm the heavens and overthrow the gods, or even to become a god himself.”
In every generation we see the temptation to become a god ourselves.
Orwell said that Lewis’s “description of the N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments),with its world-wide ramifications, its private army, its secret torture chambers, and its inner ring of adepts ruled over by a mysterious personage known as The Head, is as exciting as any detective story.”
But he also saw that this wasn’t just a good yarn.
Writing just after the atomic bomb had been dropped in Japan, Orwell wrote that: “There is nothing outrageously improbable in such a conspiracy. Indeed, at a moment when a single atomic bomb – of a type already pronounced “obsolete” – has just blown probably three hundred thousand people to fragments, it sounds all too topical. Plenty of people in our age do entertain the monstrous dreams of power that Mr. Lewis attributes to his characters, and we are within sight of the time when such dreams will be realisable.”
Orwell was, indeed, right to see That Hideous Strength as a prophetic book foretelling a time when man would once again seek to become a god.
This summer, as scientists and politicians tell us they want to create animal-human hybrid embryos – and to add to the 2 million human embryos that they have already destroyed or experimented upon – and before returning to their own Towers of Babel, they should quietly sit down and read “That Hideous Strength”.