Contrasting The Styles of CS Lewis and William Gibson Using Neuromancer and That Hideous Strength
Length: 1996 words (5.7 double-spaced pages)
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Style is one of the most important elements in any written work, perhaps as much so as content. The old saw "It's not what you say, it's how you say it" seems to directly apply. Many novels have told us a story we've heard before- many stories seem universal to human experiences, locked in our collective racial memory. These stories are told over and over, in every age and every language. But that is another paper entirely. What matters is that these stories can be written in ways that make them fascinating and beautiful to read; whereas a story written badly, without style, will not hold a reader's attention even though the story may be new and original. Style is what makes a story readable.
Style: Webster's dictionary defines style as "Style (1 syl.) is from the Latin stylus (an iron pencil for writing on waxen tablets, etc.). The characteristic of a person's writing is called his style. Metaphorically it is applied to composition and speech. Good writing is stylish, and, metaphorically, smartness of dress and deportment is so called."
Style involves such factors as use of language, cadence, evocation of mood, diction, and even sonic patterns- the way the words on page sound.
Lewis, best known for his fantasy opus The Narnia chronicles, wrote THS in 1943, while the Second World War was still going on. This almost certainly influenced his storyline, as we see echoes of the war throughout THS, in the Fairy Hardcastles's interrogation methods, in the ominous, "secret society" feeling that surrounds N.I.C.E. and in the riots and disappearances throughout the countryside, caused by N.I.C.E.'s coup in the University.
Lewis's style of writing is very British; not easygoing but stilted and oddly formal for a writer of one the best known children's series of all time. His writing is polished and invokes images of Morality plays: "There is a Faustian element in [THS], but I would be hard put to link it any one century (Lobdell, 111)" He is the generator of what is called "Arcadian science fiction", what he often referred to as "scientifiction".
He mixes the fantastic with the supernatural so well that one doesn't even flinch when one is asked to accept corporations who animate heads and Greek-Godlike, angelic creatures in the same book.
Gibson, who created the Cyberpunk genre, wrote Neuromancer in 1984, when computers were not yet as mainstream as they are now. They were considered mysterious and often incomprehensible by most people. I doubt Gibson knew he had fathered a new genre- one that made computer geeks very happy. Computers were both the good and the evil in a sleek new Discordia- redemption and salvation and most of all, cool. Gibson was an American and his writing style shows it- it is concise and not at all formal. He wasn't afraid of sex- in fact this is the only book we have read in class- and I've no doubt one of the first- to make direct reference to sex, without euphemism; indeed include it as part of the storyline.
Gibson uses different cultural influences and slang; he invents new slang and writes almost phonetically- it is possible to hear the lazy, nasal Sprawl voice, the cloying, world-weary tones of the agents, and of course the loping, musical sounds of the Rastas Case meets in Zion- the most genuine people in the book.
In Lewis's voice all characters, though given distinct personalities and different modes of speaking, have a sameness about them. This may be simply because they are all from the same area, in the same country, and Gibson's novel spans many different areas. However, this variety gives the readers of Neuromancer something to hold on to in a story that is less easy to follow than Lewis's Arcadian tale.
Ironically, though both setting and style could not be more different, both stories involve takeovers from merciless beings that would change the nature of humanity. The twisted eldil and the Tessier-Ashpool hive mind are surprisingly similar.
Below is the beginning text from THS. I firmly believe that the beginning is the second-most important part of any novel, superseded only by, of course, the end. Each author has a completely different way to get his book off the ground. Lewis starts off slowly, making one wonder what kind of "Modern fairy tale" this is going to be; he makes his first word an important one and it is an underlying thread through the whole story.
"Matrimony was ordained, thirdly," said Jane Studdock to herself, "for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other." She had not been to church since her schooldays until she went there six months ago to be married, and the words of the service had stuck in her mind.
Through the open door she could see the tiny kitchen of the flat and hear the loud, ungentle tick of the clock. She had just left the kitchen and knew how tidy it was. The breakfast things were washed up, the tea towels were hanging from the stove, and the floor was mopped. The beds were made and the rooms "done". She had just returned from the only shopping she need do that day, and it was still a minute before eleven. [ ] Almost certainly Mark would ring up about teatime to say that the meeting was taking longer than he had expected and he would have to dine in College. The hours before her were as empty as the flat. The sun shone and the clock ticked.
Lewis makes a choice to start his book out in the realm of the mundane, the totally ordinary, and the tedious. Indeed, tedium seems to be a major element of this book, frequently juxtaposed alongside the moments of wonder and terror that occur throughout THS. Very much the way warfare has been described: "80 percent sheer boredom and 20 percent mind-numbing terror." He immediately starts off by showing us Jane Studdock's dissatisfaction with her life and her husband, and by telling us that she is not an original thinker, but a thoroughly ordinary person. He opens us up on bright, sunny, reassuringly dull provincial England.
Through the very ordinariness of Lewis's opening he leaves the reader to make their own inferences about the plot. It's not immediately clear in the first paragraph whether Jane is to stay a central character or be shunted aside for someone more interesting. Most of the main characters in the novel are not great geniuses or warriors (Merlin excepted), but ordinary people to whom extraordinary things happen. While plot is left unclear, however, Lewis does not force the reader to make inferences about character. All characters are shown immediately as either white hat or black, pure intentions or wicked. In both Neuromancer and THS, however, the names given to characters are symbolic or indicative in some way; something that seems to occur in many Sci-Fi novels.
From Neuromancer, we derive a completely different beginning. Gibson drops us straight into his world of "high-tech lowlifes" without regard for our sensibilities:
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
"It's not like I'm using," Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crow around the door of the Chat. "It's like my body's developed this massive drug deficiency." It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke. The Chatsubo was a bar for professional expatriates; you could drink there for a week and never hear two words of Japanese.
Ratz was tending bar, his prosthetic arm jerking monotonously as he filled a tray of glasses with draft Kirin. He saw Case and smiled, his teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay. Case found a place at the bar, between the unlikely tan on one of Lonny Zone's whores and the crisp naval uniform of a tall African whose cheekbones were ridged with precise rows of tribal scars. "Wage was in here early, with two joeboys," Ratz said, shoving a draft across the bar with his good hand. "Maybe some business with you, Case?"
From the beginning, Gibson does not attempt to lull us into a sense of false security. Within the first page, we are aware of a stark, bleakly different environment. Not the complete dystopia of Orwell's 1984, but no illusions about Arcadian England, either. In his first sentence, the tone of the book is set. He uses a brilliant metaphor and we can clearly see the color the sky must be. Lewis and Gibson both see things differently and their writing styles reflect that. To use an art metaphor Gibson is an Expressionist. He shows us what his mind's eye sees, using hard, sharp, concise imagery and a keen sense of plotting and dialogue. Lewis by comparison is almost certainly an Impressionist, using a kinder and more gentle style to let the images formed in our minds come partly from his words and partly our own imaginations.
Both authors are surprisingly similar in their eye for beauty and detail. Gibson certainly has more of an ear for language, using intelligent and realistic dialogue to make fantastic situations sound ordinary. This opening scene without its visual cues could be just another seedy bar in any city. But because of what Gibson describes to us we see a new and fairly sinister society, diverse and slick. In terms of visualization, Lewis's world is seen in Technicolor- even the dull College meeting evokes tints of rich, dark carpets and tables, mellow sunlight coming in through the clerestory windows. Gibson's world is seen through a silver film, like neon on rainy sidewalks, with the occasional splash of red blood.
Their worldviews are implicit in their fiction. Lewis has more faith in his fellow man than does Gibson- from the way he manipulates his characters, in their interactions and dialogue with each other, Neuromancer's world is not one of ultimate trust. No gods come down from the heavens to make everything right.
Lewis's ending is rich, full of balance and promise. Gibson's ending is technically optimistic, but doesn't deviate from the tone of slightly cynical realism even as he describes Linda and Wintermute's final surrealistic cameo.
Essentially, though they share the same genre and the same top rank in the echelon of great Sci Fi, Gibson and Lewis occupy two very different spaces in the literary world. Necessarily so, because had they not created such dissimilar subgenres, we might still be reading the novelistic equivalent of tin-can flying saucers and little green men.
The Scientificition Novels of C. S. Lewis: Space and Time in the Ransom Stories
Jared Lobdell, 2004
Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson
Dani Cavallaro, 2000
The Scientist Takes Over: review of C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength
George Orwell (1945)
Manchester Evening News, 16 August 1945
Reprinted as No. 2720 (first half) in The Complete Works of George Orwell