The Shallower the Better

I recently read someone who complained of the shallowness of Dr. Ransom in Lewis’ science fiction novels.  It seems that Lewis kept him shallow on purpose.

In his essay “On Scieperelandraimagence Fiction,” Lewis says that, in a good sci-fi story, the character needs to be shallow.  In fact, the more shallow the better!  He says that good writers know that, if you are going to have your character in very unusual circumstances, then the character needs to be an ordinary sort of person.  Otherwise, the character clashes with the odd circumstances.  The result is too much oddity.

It makes good sense.  If you are reading a story about a strange world, your imagination is interested in the strange world.  You don’t want to be having to deal with a strange character at the same time.  This is especially the case when you are wondering what it would be like for any normal fellow to be in the strange world.  If the character is too odd, your imagination is not satisfied.  You are left still wondering what it would be like for a normal person to be there.

A logical counter that Lewis uses against an objection is that, if you want a novel with character development, then look for it in a novel which is written to tell the story of characters, not of far off strange environments.

I keep thinking about how this applies to Star Wars.  There is a real sense in which the Star Wars universe is not that strange.  The planets are not shockingly different from the varied environments on our own planet.  Indeed, they just shoot in different locations here.  They often are environments on our planet!  The means of transportation – the various ships and so forth – are not too very strange.  They are like our own battleships or destroyers – indeed, our own nautical names are given to them.  The fighters are like our “fighters.”  They look different and are fit for space travel – itself not a novel idea with us anymore – but we know what these things are and are for.  We are not confronted with some technological item that is completely foreign.  The primary difference of the universe is of distance and time.   It is long ago and far, far away.  That adds a feeling of strangeness and fascination to it.  But the actual circumstances are more “cool” than strange.

This being the case, while we are fascinated – especially at the beginning – with the technology of the Star Wars saga, we are comfortable enough with it that we are ready for some character development.  And, indeed, that’s what Star Wars becomes for us.  It’s a universe with which we quickly become familiar, wherein characters are developed that interest us.  Thus Star Wars stories quickly become stories of characters instead of strange worlds.  It seems Lewis would think that fitting.


Feel free to share this post
  • Great thoughts, David! That’s an interesting discovery – but consistent with other thoughts on Lewis – that he actually had good and deeper reasons behind the creation of his fiction, and the characters and the scenes therein, then some deduce from quick observations.

    I wonder, if the Space Trilogy were ever to turned into film(s), do you think Ransom and co. would work well on the big screen? Does our modern-day cinematic taste demand ‘spicier’ characters from our epic stories?

    Perhaps film-versions of the Trilogy would fit well in an Indy genre, where the modus operandi is to buck the trend of the big studio blockbusters. I don’t know … I don’t even know if I want to see the books attempted as films! I think they could be done really well, *if* the right director and team came onboard. Thats a big *if*!

    • David Beckmann

      Really interesting questions, Jonathan. I confess that I’m a bit detached from the movie-going world. But from the trailers….. hm. It does seem like – invariably – the movie producers won’t leave original characters alone. But I agree that real quality casting and scripting is always appreciated, even if the book is “adapted” a bit.
      Boy! Thinking back over those books, you can pretty easily see That Hideous Strength in film, but the others?
      Frankly, I’m pretty content with the books alone. 🙂