Camelot 3000

Camelot 3000 issue 1, art by Brian Bolland

I remember this series feeling really special when it came out in the early 1980s. But it was meant to feel special. Camelot 3000 was DC Comics’ first “maxi-series”, a 12-issue story printed on higher-than-normal quality “Baxter” paper (which also resulted in stronger colours, I seem to recall), intended to be sold solely through specialist comic shops. This last point meant it wasn’t subject to the Comics Code Authority’s stamp of approval, so could contain, as writer Mike W Barr says in his introduction to the Deluxe Edition, “a transsexual knight, lesbianism, incest and various other Code-breaking plot points” — though nothing as graphic as that might make it sound to modern ears.

It’s set in a technologically advanced future which has recovered from nuclear war to, somehow, return to pretty much the 1980s’ version of world political power-balance, with a communist China and Russia in uneasy relations with a caricature cowboy President of the USA, and a psychopath dictator in charge of the African country of Rakmaburg. Aliens from the tenth planet are invading Earth, and have taken over England, while the rest of the world struggles to work out what to do. Tom Prentice, an archaeological student working at Glastonbury, accidentally reawakens the Once and Future King whilst fleeing aliens, and Arthur immediately grasps the situation: England, and the world, need him once more.

His first step is to free a grumpy Merlin (the series’ best character) from Stonehenge, then recover Excalibur (whose lake resting place is currently inside a nuclear power plant). Merlin then awakens six of Arthur’s knights from their current reincarnations: Sir Lancelot is Jules Futrelle, the world’s richest man (who has a handy castle-like home in orbit round Earth, all ready to become this future’s new Camelot); Guinevere is Commander Joan Acton, head of the Earth’s defence forces; Sir Kay is a minor criminal; Sir Galahad a dishonoured samurai; Sir Gawain a black South African family man; Sir Tristan, meanwhile, has been reincarnated as a woman, Amber March, and is awakened to her/his true identity just before she’s about to be married; finally, Sir Percival is reawakened the moment before he’s turned into a “Neo-Man”, a super-strong, near-invincible dumb giant, used by this future’s governments for law enforcement, created from criminals as a punishment for their crimes.

When it’s revealed, later in the series, that one of the crimes that can get you turned into a Neo-Man is “dissent”, it underlines how generic this book’s vision of the year 3000 is. It’s presented as a future version of the 1980s, but it’s also post-nuclear, technologically advanced, and overpopulated, and it’s also, evidently, from this need to punish “dissenters”, dystopian, though it’s never made clear how or why it is dystopian, aside from the selfishness of its leaders. The future, in Camelot 3000, has laser guns and flying cars, a hint of dystopia, a hint of post-nuclear holocaust, a hint of looming population crisis, a hint of satire, as well as a lack of the sort of technology that would actually help the characters (Tom Prentice’s laser burns can only be healed by the Holy Grail, Sir Tristan’s desire to be turned into a man can only be achieved through sorcery, not surgery). All in all, this future feels a little bit like the sort you’d find in 2000A.D., though more Mega-City Lite than the full Dredd.

The setting, though, isn’t the point. This generic future is there to be a background against which we see a sword-wielding King Arthur and his reincarnated knights fight insectoid aliens and a vengeful Morgan Le Fay. One of the things I remember liking most about the series was the knights’ individual struggles between their current incarnations and their mythic “real” identities. (In this way it could be said to tie in, though very lightly, with Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.) Writer Mike W Barr updates some aspects of the original Arthurian myths with modern, or futuristic, equivalents. For instance, Tristan and Isolde’s love in the original is frustrated by the fact that Isolde is promised to another man and Tristan has been charged on his knightly honour to bring her to him; in Camelot 3000 that frustration comes from Tristan’s being a woman. (And many modern reviews pat the series condescendingly on the head in a “nice try” manner for addressing such outside-the-gender-norm issues without today’s nuances, but I remember this being a really surprising and original-feeling plotline at the time.) Meanwhile, Sir Percival was, in the original myths, the most perfect and innocent of Arthur’s knights; in Camelot 3000, he’s perfect and innocent because he’s been turned into a dumb, giant Neo-Man.

Some things, though, don’t change, and everyone has a doomed acceptance of the inevitable adultery between Lancelot and Guinevere, though it nearly tears New Camelot apart before it can face the alien threat. But ultimately, Camelot 3000 isn’t about the constrictive patterns of myth (as with The Owl Service), it’s about King Arthur and his knights being a symbol of hope in a future very much in need of it. So, the reliving of past mistakes provides interesting storylines, but ultimately the series is about our heroes’ triumphs despite their flaws, not the dark undertow of a bleak mythic destiny.

Camelot 3000 was intended to come out monthly, and did, for the first nine issues, after which it slowed down. In his introduction, Mike Barr says he warned DC they should stockpile issues before launching the series, knowing penciller Brian Bolland wouldn’t be able to stick to a monthly schedule, but they ignored him. As a result, although the first issue came out in December 1982, the last (with almost a year between it and issue 11) came out in April 1985.

It’s a fun series, feeling a little 2000AD-ish in places with its touches of anarchic satire, but no way near as dark as 1980s comics would become. Brian Bolland’s art remains one of the main selling points, though he’s not inking his own work, and it looks a little cruder than we tend to get from him now (particularly in the last issue, making me wonder if it was perhaps a little squeezed in between other projects). And I like the idea of how King Arthur’s return is handled. According to Barr, this was the first story to address the actual return of the Once and Future King — though Merlin pops up all the time in 1970s and 1980s UK kids’ TV; and one series at least, Raven (1977), is about a reincarnation of King Arthur, though not of the swords-versus-aliens type.

That Hideous Strength by C S Lewis

The third book in Lewis’s “Space Trilogy” is very different from the first two. Out of the Silent Planet was about a trip to Mars, Perelandra was about a trip to Venus, but That Hideous Strength (published in 1945) is set entirely on Earth. It’s subtitled “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”, which makes me think of another book for adults that came out in the same year, also subtitled “A Fairy Story”: George Orwell’s Animal Farm. One of the things that surprised me while reading That Hideous Strength was how closely it comes, in its presentation of the aims and methods of the evil organisation the N.I.C.E., to Big Brother in Orwell’s last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (which came out in 1949). (And Orwell actually reviewed That Hideous Strength, but I’ll come back to that.)

Another way to look at the three books of the Space Trilogy is that Out of the Silent Planet presents us with a world (Malacandra) where the key battle against evil was won long in the past; Perelandra presents us with a world at the moment that battle is fought; That Hideous Strength presents us with a world where the battle with evil was lost long ago. Earth, Tellus, Thulcandra — all names for the same place — is in the hands of the Bent One, Lewis’s version of Lucifer, and what we witness in this novel is the fight-back against his tightening grip.

Pan paperback. Art by Sax.

The novel starts by following two characters, Jane and Mark Studdock, a recently married, modern-minded couple whose marriage is already starting to show cracks. Mark is a sociologist, currently placed in Bracton College at the University of Edgestow, and has just managed to get himself accepted into the inner circle of the “Progressive Element” of the university. But along comes an invite (from Lord Feverstone, a.k.a. Devine from Out of the Silent Planet) to become part of an even more progressive element: the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, whose sinisterly unspecific name hides (behind a camouflage of almost Kafkan levels of bureaucratic obfuscation) a plan to transform humankind into “the most efficient animal” — in fact, the only animal, because this plan includes ridding us of all “our rivals on this planet”: insects, bacteria, animals, and plants. At the same time, the N.I.C.E. want to realise the Kingdom of God, but through entirely scientific means, to create a world where:

“The Son of Man — that is, Man himself, full grown — has power to judge the world — to distribute life without end, and punishment without end.”

Even death will be conquered. And, to literalise their idea of making this world (to them, the only world) the Kingdom of God, they are also creating their own God, or “the Head” as they call it, and which turns out to be just that: a human head, separated from its body, kept alive by a whole roomful of machinery. It is immortal, but, really, it is dead. And we know from Perelandra’s Un-Man that an undead body becomes, in Lewis’s universe, a mouthpiece for evil spirits, and most probably the evil spirit, the Bent One.

The N.I.C.E. believe their intention is entirely scientific, but they are simply serving the Bent One using different terms. (And the misuse of language to political ends — something that’s so important in Nineteen Eighty-Four — is clearly on display here, with the N.I.C.E.’s police being called its “Sanitary Executive”, and torture — which, of course, the Sanitary Executive employ — “Scientific examination”.)

Another Pan paperback, cover by S R Boldero

Meanwhile Jane, an academic herself but frustrated by her new role as a housewife, has been having a number of vivid but horrific dreams. She gets advice from a couple who lead her to a nearby house that becomes, as the N.I.C.E. takes over the city of Edgestow, a refuge for those prepared to resist this evil organisation. And it’s here, nine chapters into a 17-chapter novel, that we finally get our first hint of this book’s link to the previous two in the Space Trilogy, as we meet Ransom again. Only, this is a Ransom transformed. Known at first as Mr Fisher-King because of the unhealing foot-wound he received in the previous novel, he seems to have stopped ageing, grown a transplendent golden beard (it instantly reminds Jane of King Arthur), and has retained his links to the eldil. Jane’s prophetic dreams allow the mixed group that surrounds Ransom (including a friendly bear, Mr Bulstrode) to discover the N.I.C.E.’s plan, which involves using the power of Merlin — who’s not dead, but has been held suspended in a “parachronic state” since the 5th century — to achieve its evil ends.

I found That Hideous Strength a bit of a mixed novel. (It’s also about as long as Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra combined.) It’s certainly not what you expect as the third in a trilogy that began with two interplanetary adventures (though its setting on Earth makes perfect sense). Its tone is very different, veering into absurdist satire in its depiction of the N.I.C.E.’s internal workings, and feeling at times like Kafka, like Orwell, and (with its inclusion of Arthurian myth in a modern setting) like Charles Williams’s occult thrillers, but at the same time, it’s never anything but C S Lewis.

The philosophy of the N.I.C.E. had already been addressed by Lewis in a non-fiction book, The Abolition of Man (three lectures on education, published in 1944), in which he projected what he saw as the modern trend of regarding our core human values as merely subjective judgements, into a future where morality has been replaced entirely by the whim of a manipulative elite. For Lewis, this “modern” tendency formed a sort of dark circle: first, the abandonment of God leading to the “Despair of objective truth”; then, “a concentration upon mere power” until power itself is deified; finally, “the old dream of Man as God”, and human whim replacing divine order.

As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the N.I.C.E. aim to achieve this through, among other things, manipulating the press, the use of euphemistic terms for terrible deeds, and keeping even its own employees in a constant state of terror, as when the Deputy Director gives one of his subordinates advice on how to behave:

“On the one hand, anything like a lack of initiative or enterprise would be disastrous. On the other, the slightest approach to unauthorised action — anything which suggested that you were assuming a liberty of decision which, in all the circumstances, is not really yours — might have consequences from which even I could not protect you.”

The key difference between Nineteen Eighty-Four and That Hideous Strength is that Orwell only presents the horrible extreme of how things might be, while Lewis presents both what might go wrong and the thing that must, in his opinion, replace it. This means that Orwell was arguing for freedom, but Lewis, as in the other books of the Space Trilogy, is arguing for obedience.

…Whilst also arguing against obedience. The N.I.C.E., after all, demands obedience (“Your line is to do whatever you’re told and above all not to bother the old man,” as Mark is instructed). But when Jane sees Ransom, she’s told that lack of obedience is why her marriage to Mark is failing. It would be easy to deliberately misunderstand Lewis, particularly when he has Ransom say, “No one has ever told you that obedience — humility — is an erotic necessity,” which sounds like it’s heading into John Norman/Gor territory, but Ransom says he’s not talking about obedience to Mark. The trouble is, he doesn’t really say what the obedience is to. (I assume it’s to the marriage, with both Mark and Jane subordinating themselves to that, but Lewis doesn’t actually say so.) “Obedience” seems to have become, throughout this series, a magic word for Lewis, not so much a thing you do, as a state you’re in. He means, of course, obedience to Maleldil — God — and makes it clear this isn’t a strict obedience to an exact course of action, but something more pliable, and fitted to each individual, or at least every culture:

“Of course, there are universal rules to which all goodness must conform. But that’s only the grammar of virtue… The whole work of healing Tellus depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every real people, and different in each.”

But Lewis never gets into the nitty-gritty of how, as an individual, you tell the difference between obedience to Maleldil and obedience to the Bent One. (As readers, it’s easy, because we can see behind the scenes to what they’re trying to do. One is clearly evil, one is clearly good. But it’s less easy for the characters.) Because, obedience surely means putting what you’re told to do above your own idea of what you should do. If what you’re told to do aligns with your conscience, then no obedience is necessary. It only becomes obedience when you have to overcome yourself in order to obey. And we don’t ever get a representation of that inner struggle. Jane has to be convinced to join Ransom and co., but only because she doesn’t want to accept that her dreams are prophetic (because that, to her modern mind, makes her worry she might be mentally unbalanced). It’s the reality of the supernatural she has difficulty accepting, not what’s good and what’s bad. In Mark we get a far more convincing portrait of a man being led astray (“For he now thought that with all his life-long eagerness to reach an inner circle he had chosen the wrong circle”). Mark’s involvement with the N.I.C.E. comes in small, deliberately deceptive steps — too small and unexplained for him to realise what he’s doing till it’s too late. As readers we can see he’s doing wrong from the start, because the author lets us know. But for Mark, somewhat weak-willed, un-idealistic, and wanting to get on in the world, it’s harder. And this, surely, is the point: many people fell into line with pre-War fascism in a similar way. So, what we need is a way to know what to do, from Mark’s point of view, as a weak, muddled, peer-pressured human. But we don’t get that. So, it seems to me, neither Mark’s corruption nor Jane’s correction really gets to the core of how to tell right from wrong.

As I say, it’s easy for readers to tell right from wrong in That Hideous Strength, because the right is supernaturally good, and the wrong is supernaturally evil. And this was Orwell’s point in his review of the book, where he says that “it would probably have been a better book if the magical element had been left out”, as, in actuality, the “whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid”.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, cover by Pauline Baynes

Lewis was, of course, writing a fantasy, but fantasy works better from a clear vision than a rational argument. And I can’t help feeling what he was doing in That Hideous Strength he went on to do better in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There, we have the White Witch’s rule of Narnia (like the N.I.C.E.’s take-over of Britain) opposed by Aslan (whose golden mane recalls Ransom’s “gold hair” and “gold beard”), as well as the corruption of Edmund (paralleling Mark’s corruption in That Hideous Strength), the recourse to “Old Magic” (Merlin in That Hideous Strength, “Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time” in Lion) and both novels even end with a lot of recently-freed animals running about. By throwing out the more explicitly philosophical parts of That Hideous Strength, that first Narnia book gains a lot in power and clarity. Story is more convincing than even the most rational argument, and symbols (the Lion, the Witch, the sacrifice and so on) have much more power to convince than abstract ideas. I don’t feel Lewis ever lets go of things enough, he’s always subtly telling me what to think. But by doing so less explicitly in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he at least makes it more accessible, and a better read.

I get the feeling that, in That Hideous Strength, Lewis was ready to move on from his Space Trilogy setting but perhaps hadn’t worked out where to go. Narnia, though, was beginning to show itself. This is from the final chapter of That Hideous Strength:

“That same afternoon Mother Dimble and the three girls were upstairs in the big room which occupied nearly the whole top floor of one wing at the Manor, and which the Director called the Wardrobe. If you had glanced in, you would have thought for one moment that they were not in a room at all but in some kind of forest…”

Perelandra by C S Lewis

In the second book of C S Lewis’s Space Trilogy, the protagonist from the first, Dr Elwin Ransom, is taken to a different planet in our solar system, the one we know as Venus — Perelandra to the rest of the solar system. This time, he’s not taken for evil ends, but sent for good, his mission having been given him by the eldila (the angels of Lewis’s cosmos). Perelandra, it turns out, is a young world, just about to enter its Adam-and-Eve stage. An ocean planet, where all but one of the lands are ever-moving carpets of matted reeds that flex over the waves, it has two humanoid inhabitants, the Green Lady and her King, who are to found a new race. Shortly after Ransom arrives, another visitor from Earth turns up, Ransom’s old enemy Professor Weston, only he may not be Weston, except in body. He seems possessed by some sort of demonic entity, who has come here to persuade the Green Lady to do the one thing Maleldil (God) has forbidden: to sleep on the single, unmoving Fixed Land of this world. (She’s allowed to visit it, just not spend the night there. And if that sounds like an arbitrary rule, that’s the point.) Ransom, then, finds himself witness to what may be a replay of the Biblical Fall, with a young and innocent Green Lady being persuaded by the wiles of the Tempter, Weston (or the Un-Man, as Ransom comes to call him, once his evil and inhuman nature becomes undeniable), into a disobedience that will have catastrophic consequences for generations to come.

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

Two things struck me when I first read this book more than twenty years ago. The first was how similar it was to a book I had recently discovered and become obsessed with, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus. Lewis first read Lindsay’s novel somewhere between December 1935 and the end of 1938. (Perelandra was published in 1943.) The thing that leapt out at me was that at the end of both books the main character is given a vision of the cosmic order, a vision described in abstract terms (in Arcturus, we get “tiny green corpuscles” vying with “whirls of white light”; in Perelandra, there’s “minute corpuscles of momentary brightness” and “ribbons or serpents of light”) all accompanied by a sort of explanatory music (a clash of conflicting rhythms in Arcturus, the music of the Great Dance in Perelandra). After spotting this it became obvious to me that, for most of the book, Perelandra wasn’t just replaying the story of the Biblical Fall, but the “Barey” chapter of Arcturus, in which two characters (effectively the Devil and God of Lindsay’s world) argue for the soul of the protagonist — just as, in Perelandra, Ransom and Weston, as mouthpieces for Lewis’s God and Devil, argue for control of the Green Lady’s conscience. Eventually, in Lindsay’s novel, the trio of characters, finding themselves passing through an increasingly watery landscape, get onto a floating island and drift out to sea — which could be the origins of Lewis’s entire Perelandran environment. There are a lot of other minor similarities between the two books, but those are the most striking.

The other thing I thought on my first read was how disappointing it was that, rather than out-arguing the Un-Man, Ransom eventually decides the only way he’s going to win this battle is with a fist-fight. I felt, at the time, that this was a failure on Lewis’s part — any writer’s part, and particularly a Christian apologist’s part — to give up on words and say it can only be solved by violence. I still felt the same on this recent re-read, but to a lesser extent, once I remembered this book was published in 1943, and is lightly sprinkled with references to the Second World War and the sacrifices so many young men were making at that moment in the name of defending their countries. Perhaps Lewis was making a point that sometimes only aggression will work with an enemy so wily and evil.

Paperback. Cover art by Bernard Symancyk

And one of the best things about the novel, from a purely imaginative standpoint, is how evil the Un-Man is. He rips the spines out of frogs for pleasure. When Ransom is trying to sleep, the Un-Man says, “Ransom… Ransom…”, and when Ransom says, “What?”, the Un-Man says, “Nothing.” Then goes on saying, “Ransom… Ransom…” It’s petty schoolboy stuff, but combined with a death-like grin and a sense that, behind those dead eyes, there’s something fundamentally inhuman, or perhaps just unfeeling, it really feels evil — in the same way Stephen King does evil, in characters like Randall Flagg in The Stand. (I did wonder why Ransom didn’t show the Green Lady all those frogs the Un-Man had been ripping up, as that would surely have convinced her of his inherent evil.)

But Lewis goes one better than King in representing the human roots of evil. In my review of Mr Mercedes, I said that King’s villain Brady Hartsfield was given a bunch of second-hand nihilisms as a justification for his evil. Here, Lewis presents us with a much more convincing glimpse of the sort of despair that perhaps led to Weston’s becoming the Un-Man. I think Lewis is saying that Weston has actually died and descended into Hell for a brief time before being plucked out and brought to Perelandra. As a result, his soul was admixed with something else — the Un-Man — and it’s that which mostly does the talking. Weston, however, has retained enough of his humanity to feel despair at the thought of returning to a state of Godless damnation. What makes Weston’s despair so convincing is that it’s not a bunch of statements like Brady Hartsfield’s “Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage,” and so on, but something confusing, unresolved, and nonsensical, something without any sort of centre or ultimate meaning. It sounds badly thought-out, and this makes its despair all the more convincing as a thing that Weston is feeling, not merely justifying:

“Picture the universe as an infinite glove with this very thin crust on the outside. But remember its thickness is a thickness of time. It’s about seventy years thick in the best places. We are born on the surface of it and all our lives we are sinking through it… When we’ve got all the way through then we are what’s called Dead: we’ve got into the dark part inside, the real globe. If your God exists, He’s not in the globe — He’s outside, like a moon. As we pass into the interior we pass out of His ken. He doesn’t follow us in… He may be there in what you call “Life”, or He may not. What difference does it make? We’re not going to be there for long!”

Set against this is Ransom’s realisation that he is the only person who can act against the Un-Man. The scene where Ransom realises he’s been waiting for a counter-miracle to defeat the Un-Man and isn’t going to get one, so it’s up to him, made me wonder if this wasn’t a glimpse of Lewis’s own inner moment that led him to become a Christian apologist. (I’m sure Lewis will have written about this, but I haven’t read any of his autobiographical non-fiction.)

Cover by Kinuko Y Craft

I’m left with mixed feelings about Perelandra. As an imaginative writer, Lewis can be superb — he creates a very interesting fantastic world, and makes it convincing as a fresh, vivid new creation. And his depiction of the Un-Man’s evil is perhaps the best thing in the book. But the one thing that always leaves me feeling Lewis is cheating me as a reader is that his good characters seem to have an innate sense of what is right and wrong. They may struggle to do what’s right, but they have a sense, even in unfamiliar situations, of what is right — and it always turns out to be right. (For instance, when Ransom first finds Perelandran fruit and eats one and is tempted to eat another, but somehow knows he shouldn’t.)

A Voyage to Arcturus, on the other hand, is about how hard it is to really know what’s right and wrong, and how hard-won such knowledge often is — and that, on the way, you find yourself doing things that are very wrong, even shameful, things you regret, as learning experiences. And as this is a fundamental part of human experience, it needs to be a fundamental part of fiction — particularly if that fiction is, as Lewis’s books are, about doing right in the face of wrong. And yes, the fact that it was written during the Second World War complicates things, but that complication, I think, should be the point. There often is no simple right or wrong in a war: it’s one massive wrong, brought about to counter a worse wrong. That eternal compromise — that inherent Fall — is perhaps an essential part of the human experience, and I can’t help feeling that the strengths in Lewis’s writing makes his failure in this regard come across as a sort of dishonesty, a fudging of the rules. I can’t help feeling, reading a book like this, that Lewis, as a thinker, is better than this, and could be capable of producing something of greater complexity, if only he weren’t so intent on conveying a particular conclusion. It’s the struggle that ought to be the subject of a book like this, not the particular prize at the end of it.