Recently, I reread C.S. Lewis’ 1945 novel, “That Hideous Strength,” the last book in his Space Trilogy, and since I wrote about aliens last weekend, it seems like a good week to talk a little bit about the novel’s contemporary relevance.
For those who haven’t read it, the book is a curious hybrid, mixing the anti-totalitarian style of dystopia familiar from Lewis’ contemporaries such as George Orwell and Aldous Huxley with a blend of supernaturalism and science fiction that anticipates Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” among other works. (Lewis’ preferred subtitle for “That Hideous Strength” was “A Modern Fairy Tale for Grown-Ups.”)
The story introduces a near-future Britain falling under the sway of a scientistic technocracy, the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (NICE), which looks like the World State from Huxley’s “Brave New World” in embryo. But as one of the characters is drawn closer to NICE’s inner ring, he discovers that the most powerful technocrats are supernaturalists, endeavoring to raise the dead, to contact dark supernatural entities and even to revive a slumbering Merlin to aid them in their plans.
I’ll say no more about the plot mechanics except to observe that they boldly operate in the risky zone between the sublime and the ridiculous. But just from that sketch, I’ll draw out a couple of points about the book’s interest for our own times.
First, the idea that technological ambition and occult magic can have a closer-than-expected relationship feels quite relevant to the strange era we’ve entered recently — where Silicon Valley rationalists are turning “postrationalist,” where hallucinogen-mediated spiritual experiences are being touted as self-care for the cognoscenti, where UFO sightings and alien encounters are back on the cultural menu, where people talk about innovations in artificial intelligence the way they might talk about a golem or a djinn.
The idea that deep in the core of, say, some important digital-age enterprise there might be a group of people trying to commune with the spirit world doesn’t seem particularly fanciful at this point. Although like some of the characters in “That Hideous Strength,” these spiritualists would probably be telling themselves that they’re just doing high-level science, maybe puncturing an alternative dimension or unlocking the hidden potential of the human mind.
Then, too, the book’s totalitarian dystopia is interesting for being incomplete, contested and plagued by inner rivalries and contradictions. Unlike in “Brave New World” and “1984,” we don’t see a one-party regime holding absolute sway; in Lewis’ story, we see a still-disguised tyranny taking shape but still falling prey to various all-too-human problems, blunders and failures that contrast with the smooth dominance of Orwell’s O’Brien or Huxley’s Mustapha Mond.
No less than Orwell and Huxley, Lewis feared the rise of what he dubbed the “controllers” — basically a hyperintelligent, omnicompetent bureaucratic caste granted extraordinary powers by modern science and technology and bent on reshaping human nature to fit some ideal of stability or ideology or both. And that vision still informs a lot of contemporary anxieties, from COVID-era fears about biosurveillance and digital censorship to more recent anxieties about what the invention of superintelligence might mean for human equality and freedom.
But the relative incompetence of the would-be controllers in Lewis’ novel, their prideful overestimation of their faculties and their reckless spiritual gambles seem better fitted to the world we inhabit — in which powerful institutions seeking global mastery are constantly frustrated by the blowback to their stratagems, and our elites are storm-tossed by social, political and psychic forces they don’t expect or recklessly unleash.
The novel’s emphasis on the limitations of any attempted secret government, finally, connects specifically to our peculiar UFO discourse, where we suddenly have a government whistleblower claiming knowledge of a 90-year conspiracy and, apparently, a chorus of anonymous sources encouraging belief.
If there were an alien cover-up, though, I would imagine it would look more like the secrets held by NICE in “That Hideous Strength.” Crucially, almost nobody in Lewis’ invented organization has any idea that in the inner ring they’re contacting the dark powers. Most people think they’re working for humanitarianism and progress; an inner layer has fewer illusions about the authoritarian nature of the project, but even once you get close to the center, there are still layers of delusion and denial about what’s really going on.
An equivalent scenario for UFOs would involve some secret program within the U.S. government that possesses, let’s say, a recovered craft or a weird piece of alien technology or even some means of communion with ET — but only a tiny, tiny cadre knows what’s really going on. Meanwhile, all the others working on it, scientists and military personnel included, think they’re just working on entirely normal classified projects involving, say, Russian or Chinese tech or a new space station or a mystery element or what have you.
That’s not the story our supposed UFO whistleblower is telling, though. In his account, and the one that’s implied by other anonymous leaks, you don’t have to get that far up the chain of command before somebody will take you aside and say, Look, we’ve got alien ships, lots of alien ships, you wouldn’t believe how many alien ships. Which seems like a pretty odd way for such a fraught conspiracy to function, and not a pattern that would survive decades and decades without somebody figuring out how to play Edward Snowden and actually getting some documents or compelling photos to the world.
I’m a defender of conspiracy theorizing as a legitimate form of speculation — because conspiracies and weird secrets really are part of the fabric of existence, official knowledge goes only so far, and if you leave certain kinds of speculation to the paranoid, you’ll be constantly surprised when it turns out they were on to something. But a typical folly of conspiracists is to leap from a weird pattern (which the UFO phenomenon certainly presents) or a scattering of bizarre details to a scenario that requires everyone to be in on the secret, at least aware of the mind-blowing truth if not participating in the plot.
That’s where “That Hideous Strength” feels especially realistic (as fairy tales go), postulating a truly outlandish situation, a literal pact with the devil at the highest reaches of the technocracy, but at the same time a mechanism whereby the larger system remains defiantly bland and normal-seeming, and only a crazy person would ever think there’s anything hidden at the heart.