This week's reading:
Daddy's Girl, Lisa Scottoline
Consent to Kill, Vince Flynn
Act of Treason, Vince Flynn
Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis
Perelandra, C. S. Lewis
That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis
Foundation, Isaac Asimov
Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov
Second Foundation, Isaac Asimov
Northwest of Earth, C. L. Moore
The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis
American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Chris Hedges
Black God's Kiss, C. L. Moore
Go forth, my friends! Go forth and read C. L. Moore as soon as you can possibly manage it, thanks to the Planet Stories reissue collections of her short stories. I'm very torn as to whether I preferred Black God's Kiss, featuring Jirel of Joiry, or Northwest of Earth, featuring Northwest Smith. Jirel is a seriously badass medieval French warrior woman, who has to cope with all sorts of black magic in the course of her average day. She's fierce and bloody-minded and ruthless and profoundly determined, and if only I were a redhead I might have to set out to be her right now. Northwest, on the other hand, is a smuggler and thief of the spaceways - think Han Solo crossed with Roland Deschain - who generally gets his ass handed to him but looks damn good doing it. Both collections feature the heroes getting involved with Lovecraftian horror, and one story even gets them together thanks to a magical dimensional gateway.
My favorite single story is probably the Northwest Smith "Mountains of Madness" homage, in which Northwest and his partner get sent to the remote mountains of Mars in order to retrieve the magical dust of the black god Pharol. In a Lovecraft story, they'd come back gibbering; in a Moore story, they end up having to face the question of whether they're actually willing to hand over vast mystical power to the kook who's offering to pay them. It's really terrific, and I'll be reading any more of her reissues I can get my hands on.
As you can tell, I also spent a bunch of time reading C. S. Lewis. I was cataloging books and came across my old copy of "Out of the Silent Planet" that I'd read in fourth grade, and not again since then. My impressions were of being terribly excited by them, and also of being rather afraid of space aliens showing up in my bedroom afterwards. Clearly I had to read them again as an adult.
Sadly, they did not survive re-reading particularly well. Part of it is that not all that much happens, at least not in the first two books. Ransom's trips to Mars and Venus, respectively, seem like a would-be anthropological text and a travelogue. Dramatic suspense was, shall we say, limited? The third book had the advantage of being a remarkably funny satire of academic and business life, set against Lewis's theological warfare, and it was actually quite a good read.
I could have simply enjoyed the books for what they were, even the slower-paced first two, if I had found them less profoundly disturbing. They were pretty clearly written with a theological message, but I'm okay reading books that are about a religion that isn't mine. My problem was the content of the message. I'm hardly the first one to say so, but I found Lewis's moral and theological approach to be really problematic.
For example: in the middle of Perelandra, Ransom encounters a guy who seems to be trying to tempt another character into doing a bad thing. He hangs about, trying to prevent it by argument. Okay, fine, good - I can even tolerate the sexism expressed by both characters toward the female tempt-ee. But then one night, he's lying in bed when he has this idea that he ought to kill the other guy. Kill him! And through the whole internal dialogue that follows, the message is "Follow your feelings," not "Do what is right." In order to prevent a harm that Ransom only guesses at because of his internal feelings, we-the-readers are meant to believe that it's acceptable for him to murder another human being. Worse, Ransom ends up not even feeling conflicted about it because of the "sense of rightness" that washes over him once he decides to kill. In my world, only a psychopath decides to kill someone in the absence of evident harm because of how it makes him feel inside; I hate that Lewis wants us to admire this guy for making that choice.
The worst part is that Lewis combines his poisonous ideas with moving and profound ones, particularly in The Screwtape Letters. He alternates between being very wise and very hateful. I don't understand how, in the same book, he shows profound wisdom about how people can love each other without sacrifice, and also makes it clear that he thinks it is better to die than to live. I just wanted to rip out about a third of the letters and pretend they didn't exist.
Anyhow, I then had to go read Hedges' book on the fascist tendencies of the Christian right, and the stories he cites are pretty frightening, so I'm all freaked out here. On the bright side, Hedges' book got me thinking about what I can do to preserve what I love about America - its pluralism, its openness, its optimism - and fight against those who want to make it a religious state. I've had what I think is a rather good idea ... sufficiently good that I'm debating taking some time off grad school to pursue it. I'm not really ready to talk about it in public, but I'm hopeful that I might actually be able to put my talents to use in the service of causes I believe in, someday.