Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 101 (March 2000): 48-49.
Most futuristic novels seem out–of–date after a decade or two, but That Hideous Strength is more timely today than when the book was published in 1945. On the day I began to reread the book for this essay, the press reported that a British government agency called the Human Fertilization and Embryological Authority (HFEA) is sounding out public opinion about the use of Pre–implanatation Genetic Diagnosis, which will allow parents to screen their embryos for genetic defects. Critics believe that the HFEA has already decided to go full steam ahead with the procedure, and they don’t believe the Authority’s assurances that this technique (and others to follow) will be used only to screen for genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis and not to produce "designer babies."
My suspicion that the critics are right was bolstered by an article appearing on the Web the same day from the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, titled "What is Immoral About Eugenics?" The article’s bottom line was that the use of genetic technology to produce the kind of children parents want, up to and including "eyebrow shape or freckle pattern," should be allowed if the parents are not coerced and the children are not thereby disadvantaged. The role of ethics commissions in these situations is mainly to legitimate what the technocrats want to happen—namely, a reengineering of the human genome to improve the breeding stock. And why not, if the existing genome is merely the accidental product of mindless material forces? Since our ideas about ethics or the sanctity of life are also assumed to be products of genetic or brain chemistry, there is no reason to let them get in the way of progress.
In C. S. Lewis’ novel, the technological super–agency is the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (NICE), which is empowered to solve all sorts of social and genetic problems without being bothered by "red tape." Mark and Jane Studdock are a young childless academic couple at Bracton College, whose faculty’s Progressive Element is willing to sell its woods and its soul to entice the NICE. Mark and Jane’s marriage is unhappy because, like most modern people, they see marriage as a contract for mutual advantage rather than as a sacred union. Mark’s consuming desire doesn’t even involve Jane. He wants to be a big shot, a member of the "inner ring" first at his college and then at the NICE. He gets his chance because he is good at writing propaganda.
The NICE turns out to be demonic in inspiration, and intends to impose upon England a regime of ruthless social engineering that Joseph Stalin would have admired. The apparent "Head" at the NICE’s mansion at Belbury is the head of a guillotined murderer, kept alive with advanced life support systems, but this gruesome object is merely the conduit for orders from the dark powers. Belbury’s human leaders recruit and flatter Mark, but the human resource they really want is Jane. She is a seer, whose visions involve the return to life of the magician Merlin, long entombed under Bracton Wood. If Belbury can unite its materialist magic with Merlin’s old–fashioned kind, it can achieve its dream of freeing the mind from messy organic life. "In us organic life has produced Mind. It has done its work. After that we want no more of it."
Does that sound far–fetched? Artificial intelligence visionaries are keen to make it a reality. While the biologists make plans to reprogram the human genome, the cybergurus dream of uploading the human mind into advanced computers. Freed of the limitations of biology and possessed of superhuman intelligence, these "spiritual machines" might explore and conquer the cosmos. Or they might not bother to do so, since they could create a virtual reality for themselves that would be better than the real thing. Then "we" would truly be like God. But who is "we"? In real life, as in C. S. Lewis’ fiction, the dark side of the technological utopia is that it implies a huge difference in power between the few who do the programming and the many who are programmed. Belbury’s chief scientist understands that "it is not Man who will be omnipotent, it is some one man, some immortal man." Those who understand what is at stake pursue a murderous rivalry to gain control of the power to program.
Belbury’s plot is foiled and Mark’s soul is saved when the risen Merlin joins forces with a small Christian enclave that is in communication with heavenly powers. Although magic and miracles play their part, in the end it is more the bravery of decent people and the self–destructive hatred of the wicked that decides the outcome.
To me, That Hideous Strength is a thrilling story that I enjoy more each time I reread it, but I have heard others say that the action is contrived, the characters one–dimensional, and the tone didactic. I suppose you could say the same of Paradise Lost. My guess is that those of us who love the book see it less as a fantasy and more as a realistic description of what eventually happens when people make technology their lord instead of putting their faith and love to the service of the true Creator. Like our modern mind–scientists, Belbury employs materialist philosophy to teach that the human mind and spirit are mere epiphenomena of bodily chemistry. Like our government–funded artists, Belbury uses art to mock the sacred and train the mind to see the perverse as normal. That’s not fantasy. That’s how we got where we are.
Phillip E. Johnson teaches law at the University of California at Berkeley.