Thursday, 25 August 2016

"How Does It Work?"

Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson are primarily hard sf writers who always explain how a spaceship works, whether it is a kind of rocket inside the Solar System or a faster than light craft venturing beyond the System. Ray Bradbury and CS Lewis are soft sf writers, not interested in technology. Bradbury has rockets taking off from Earth towards Mars melting snow and causing Rocket Summer. His version of an FTL drive is just to write, "...their speed was the speed of a god." (Quoted from memory.)

In the previous post, I discussed one novel in which Anderson imagines interplanetary travel that is based on the fantasy premise of magic rather than an sf premise like rocketry, solar radiation, gravity control etc. I compared Anderson's magic with Wells' Cavorite and ERB's planetary rays and wondered about CS Lewis' Weston, whom I have since checked up on. Lewis' approach provides an interesting contrast to Anderson's. Lewis does not understand technology:

Lewis' unfamiliarity with technology is shown by his use of the word "...gimmicks.." for the instruments that Jenkin must use. (5)
-copied from here.  

Consequently, Lewis imagines a Classics scholar like himself contemptuously addressed by a hostile physicist:

"'As to how we do it - I suppose you mean how the spaceship works - there's no good you asking that. Unless you were one of the four or five real physicists now living you couldn't understand: and if there were any chance of your understanding you certainly wouldn't be told. If it makes you happy to repeat words that don't mean anything - which is, in fact, what unscientific people want when they ask for an explanation - you may say we work by exploiting the less observed properties of solar radiation.'"
-CS Lewis, Out Of The Silent Planet (London, 1963), p. 27. 

Perfect. This passage:

establishes the characters of Ransom and Weston and the interaction between them;
absolves Lewis of any responsibilty to write a scientific explanation;
nevertheless, informs the reader that not rocket science but solar radiation is involved.

Poul Anderson does not do it this way but that is why we value both approaches.

1 comment:

  1. Kaor, Paul!

    I have to admit I find the soft SF written by Lewis to not be quite satisfactory. I think Lewis did better in his fantasies, such as THE GREAT DIVORCE, THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, and the Narnian books. No shame in that! Some writers ARE better in some genres than others.

    JRR Tolkien wanted to try his hand at writing an SF novel--THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS. But that work was never finished and he seemed to have concluded his natural bent or forte as a writer was in fantasy, not SF.