The fiftieth anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death has come and gone, perhaps little-noticed by many who were busy memorializing John F. Kennedy, murdered by an assassin on the same day, or rereading Aldous Huxley, who passed away hours later. Most of the encomiums to Lewis that were written focused on his apologetics and his children’s fiction, the Chronicles of Narnia series.
But Lewis wrote fiction for adults too. His best novel, That Hideous Strength, was published in 1945 as the third installment in his science fiction Space Trilogy. Whereas the first two novels, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, follow the interplanetary travels of the professor Elwin Ransom, That Hideous Strength takes place almost entirely on earth and stars academics Mark and Jane Studdock, with Ransom playing a secondary role.
The novel was originally subtitled “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups,” but it’s also one of the most prescient and sophisticated dystopian stories ever told. It follows the development of the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, a technocratic organization known by its euphemistic acronym N.I.C.E. As Lewis, who occasionally dips in as omniscient narrator, describes it, “N.I.C.E. was the first-fruits of that constructive fusion between the state and the laboratory on which so many thoughtful people base their hopes of a better world.” Much of the novel follows Mark Studdock, a self-conscious sociologist pulled straight out of a Tom Wolfe novel, as the technocrats batter him into helping them out.
The goals of the N.I.C.E., gradually unveiled by Lewis, are to free man from nature—to throw off his chains—and put science in charge of his destiny. This means not total equality, as Rousseau promised, but slavery: “Man has got to take charge of Man,” one of the N.I.C.E.’s elites says. “That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest.” And not just Man, but every aspect of his life and economy. “Aren’t we going to solve the whole currency question? It’s we that make money,” says another technocrat, sounding like a future Fed chairman.
Early on, in a chapter called “The Liquidation of Anachronisms,” Mark Studdock teams up with a functionary named Cosser and heads to a charming English town called Cure Hardy that the N.I.C.E. intends to destroy so a river can be diverted. Cosser’s comments about the bucolic village, with its farmers and laborers, drip with contempt. The two duck into a dive bar for lunch and Cosser’s snobbery reaches its apex. “Haven’t much use for alcohol myself (read the Miller Report),” he says when offered a drink, “but if people have got to have their stimulants, I’d like to see them administered in a more hygienic way.” Anyone who lives in D.C. has been trapped with this sort of dining companion before, the insufferable technocrat unable to enjoy life for its own sake.
This scientific socialism infects every pore of the N.I.C.E. The institute’s controllers reject political ideology and religion, seeing themselves as pragmatists interested only in that which works, in “ideas whose time has come,” as today’s wonky bloggers might put it. But in eschewing any moral system, it’s gradually revealed that the technocrats have made themselves slaves to a higher power. “Despair of objective truth had been increasingly insinuated into the scientists,” Lewis writes. “From the point of view which is accepted in Hell, the whole history of our Earth had led up to this moment.”
The N.I.C.E., as we learn, is being controlled by devils, their project a modern Tower of Babel construction site. And when their plans are foiled, when they’re no longer useful to Hell, nearly everyone at the institute is slaughtered. It’s bloodletting that will jar readers more accustomed to the Narnia series; this fairy-tale truly is meant for grown-ups.
But it also conveys a grown-up message, one previously discussed in Lewis’s 1943 lecture collection The Abolition of Man, and one that’s conservative by the old-fashioned meaning—not neoconservative or libertarian (capitalism, in the form of the moneyed N.I.C.E. workers who come to town and drive up prices, is portrayed negatively), but conservative in the sense that Russell Kirk defined it, as believing in a transcendent moral order. The N.I.C.E. reject such an order and seek to replace it with themselves. Their resulting oppression is pitted against the simple, traditional English life of places like Cure Hardy, and Cure Hardy wins.
The fairy-tale parts of the book sometimes conflict with its secular message. The subplot involving Jane Studdock, who joins up with the fantastical Elwin Ransom to try to find the ancient wizard Merlin before the N.I.C.E. can, often seems distracting. Only a few years before publishing his own dystopia, 1984, George Orwell wrote of That Hideous Strength:
One could recommend this book unreservedly if Mr. Lewis had succeeded in keeping it all on a single level. Unfortunately, the supernatural keeps breaking in, and does so in rather confusing, undisciplined ways.
The supernatural elements can feel a little slapdash and some of the novel’s weakest passages are spent describing them. But ultimately they’re necessary for Lewis to make his point: Modern technocracies, in trying to displace the moral order, are trying to displace God. This supernatural dimension makes them capable of an evil greater than even Orwell’s most tyrannical Party members.
There’s no denying the literary value of Orwell’s 1984—that crushing sense of oppression, that awful loneliness…these things stay with you. But ultimately Orwell got the big questions wrong. Today government power isn’t wielded by a Stalinist Big Brother, but by those who say they can use it scientifically, progressively, to make us happier, healthier, more equal—to make people better. If you’re looking for the roots of our technocratic state, you’ll find them portrayed with chilling foresight in That Hideous Strength.