Review: That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis

It was entirely unintentional that I placed That Hideous Strength immediately after The Man Who Japed in my reading schedule. Both novels tackle totalitarianism, but, Lewis takes a stance altogether different from Dick. Of course, in a Lewis novel, there must be a metaphor for God, that absolute which, not being of the power of man, can achieve absolute good.

Mark Studdock is an up-and-coming academic at well-respected university in England of the 1940's, some few years after the end of the Second World War. He looks forward to his placement in the tenure track, up until he is approached by representatives of the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (NICE). These representatives draw him slowly and gradually into their fold, never with outright coercion, but certainly through well-timed manipulation. The deeper Mark becomes embedded with NICE, the harder it is to leave, and the easier it becomes to justify behaviors he would have deemed immoral under other circumstances.

NICE is pitted against St. Anne's, an institution that has aligned itself with Dr. Ransom, the series mainstay. The subsequent conflict involves more biblical allegory than there is room to describe here. NICE takes on the demonic elements, while St. Anne's becomes aligned with the angelic.

Whereas the modern take on totalities is, "never totalize anything," Lewis's take seems more like, "align yourself with the right totality." Lewis's is an ideology that is humanistic at its core, and this contrasts starkly with NICE, which is dominated by mechanization, regulation, and control, and indeed most of science fiction, whose demographic largely would not bat an eye at cybernetic enhancement or life extension. Lewis would be quick to point out that such actions glorify the perpetuation of the scope of power of the self, and remain blind to the damage such change have on an individual's core humanity. What is the purpose of living forever if one's humanity is lost in the process? The joy of the novel is that this very conflict thrives within all of our actions as human beings.

That Hideous Strength deftly explores these actions through the conflict between NICE and St. Annes, and adds a parallel struggle for Mark as he discovers that while he has slipped into an alliance with NICE, his wife has actively chosen an alliance with St. Anne's.

And therein lies another brilliant allegory. Any human group or institution worthy of membership will be picky about selection, and hesitant to accept. Only a toxic group coerces its members inward through manipulation, shame, and fear.

Though Lewis's philosophy is very old, it rings with the truth of the ages, and it is an important ideological weight, one that balances the extremes of our modern age quite nicely.