Published in 1945 as the third volume of a series with Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, Lewis’ novel portrays the clash of two world views that reflect the cultural wars of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries—the civilization of love versus the culture of death. Set in the quiet, rural village of Edgestow shielded from industrialization, the story portrays a beautiful college town that cherishes its legendary history, its traditional way of life in tune with Nature, and its peaceful idyllic surroundings. However, at the heart of university life at Bracton College, an elite group of intelligentsia known as The National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), has a modern agenda that impels them to buy college land to erect a building for their organization. The site, Bragdon Wood, renowned for its venerable past as the burial site of Merlin, soon undergoes a dramatic change that transforms the peaceful village and destroys the harmonious, civilized life that give the town and college its quaint charm and old-world beauty. Known as the “Progressive Element” at Bracton College and calling their opposition the “Obstructionists,” the members of N.I.C.E. have a utopian vision of the future which they camouflage as enlightened, benevolent, humanitarian, and beneficial to the entire human race. They imagine “the world of perfect purity.”
Cultivated and cultured, the members of N.I.C.E. present an image of civility, amiability, and reasonableness when they conduct their business as the acronym “nice” suggests. They publicize as their alleged mission the welfare of mankind: “We expect a solution of the unemployment problem, the cancer problem, the housing problem, the problem of currency, of war, of education.” Publically, they seek progress, the common good, the solution of social and economic problems, and the advance of science and research. Privately, the Institute owns a diabolical agenda that it carefully disguises with its professional façade. N.I.C.E. finds the human condition, the laws of nature, and the state of the world deficient and problematic. They wish to abolish “all organic life,” plant, animal, and human, because it is too teeming and prolific. As Filostrato, one of the members, explains, “Who would work with stallions and bulls? No, no; we want geldings and oxen. There never will be peace and order and discipline so long as here is sex.”
These Progressives especially aim their hostility at Mother Nature’s wild, copious fertility as productive of unnecessary waste and pollution. Its eternal rhythms of birth, growth, decay, and death—a process they deem inefficient, backward, wasteful, and unsanitary—needs man’s scientific intervention to revise Mother Nature’s reckless plan and God’s disorganized world. Filostrato explains further his version of a brave new world: “Birth and breeding and death. How if we are about to discover that man can live without any of the three?” N.I.C.E.’s utopian vision perversely equates sterility and lifelessness with purity, cleanliness, and efficiency and equivocally identifies life and fruitfulness with filth: “But the real filth is what comes from organisms—sweat, spittle, organisms.” The organic and the natural are dirt and the artificial and the man-made are hygienic and spotless. Scientific man must improve Mother Nature’s deficiencies and God’s imperfections with a new design and model,
The diabolical anti-life, anti-Nature, anti-God agenda of N.I.C.E. is a most elaborate scheme with no end in sight. Filostrato thrills at the idea of a “civilized” metal tree to replace the tree in the forest he calls “a weed” because the artificial tree never dies: “No leaves to fall, no twigs, no birds building nests, no muck and mess.” The Progressives are enraptured at the thought of the New Man to replace the Old Man, the fallen sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. Their scientific reconstruction of the New Man, a bodiless creature with only a floating head with “the top part of the skull taken off” is a product of tubes, chemicals, and artificial intelligence. The New Man has been reconstructed from the head of a dead criminal and restored to some semblance of life engineered by the genius of technology. This New Man never grows old or dies but acquires a semblance of eternal life devised by science. The Progressives rhapsodize, “It is the beginning of Man Immortal and Man Ubiquitous … Man on the throne of the universe.”
The utopian vision of N.I.C.E. makes man a god of the universe and advances an intellectual revolution to improve the human race and the state of the world by repairing the flaws of Mother Nature’s order and God’s creation. Man will create man without the need for Nature or God; man will confer immortality in this life and dispense with religious ideas of eternal life; and man will decide who lives and who dies: “Man has got to take charge of man,” Lord Feverstone explains to the newest member of N.I.C.E., Mark Studdock. The intellectual elite must govern the world to eliminate the recurring defects of a failed, backward universe in need of a new creation to purge the world of every form of uncleanness, including human pollution. When Studdock asks Feverstone how exactly man takes charge of man, the prominent member of N.I.C.E. reveals more of the diabolical agenda in the light of progressive social engineering: “sterilization of the unfit, liquidation of backward races (we don’t want any dead weights), selective breeding. Then real education, including pre-natal education…. A real education makes the patient what it wants infallibly: whatever he or his parents try to do about it.”
The diabolical agenda and grisly business of N.I.C.E. that culminate in the New Man recycled from the skull of a dead criminal, however, is not as carefully concealed a secret as the members wish. Mark Studdock’s wife Jane has been experiencing frightening prophetic dreams about a dead man restored to life when she sees the picture of an executed criminal in a newspaper: “There, on the back page … was the Head she had seen in the nightmare.” In her dream the prisoner receives a visitor who unscrews the prisoner’s head and leaves with it. She then sees another head belonging to an old man with a long gray beard (Merlin) buried in the graveyard who comes to life. Mystified, Jane turns to the opponents of N.I.C.E. for comfort who reassure her that her dreams are prophetic and simply verify what they all intuit as the sordid business of the organization when N.I.C.E. purchases Bragdon Wood, Merlin’s burial ground.
Mark Studdock, a young professor of sociology at Bracton College striving to promote his career, feels privileged to receive a flattering invitation to join the selective coterie of N.I.C.E. To associate with prestigious intellectuals earns him a mark of distinction and launches him on the path to academic success. Without any full knowledge of the radical ideology of the organization or any specific information about his specific duties, Mark soon finds himself associating with strange people who never explicitly answer his questions when he asks “When shall I know my fate? I mean, have I got the job?” Currying favor, he spends day and night in the company of the Institute’s members at the expense of his marriage to Jane, a bride who feels neglected and unmarried because of the long separations. Wavering about his decision to join the organization that never straightforwardly answers his questions and complicates his marriage, Mark learns that a decision to leave provokes the wrath of the Deputy Director. The last person who resigned, Walter Hingest, was found murdered. When Mark defiantly leaves, he finds himself arrested.
When Mark, however, earlier learned of his role in the organization, he felt a sense of belonging. Expected to write articles for newspapers about events prior to their occurrence to provide the official version of the story N.I.C.E. has pre-arranged for propaganda purposes, Mark feels important as a journalist whose stories appear in the mainstream press even though he sells his soul to become a tool of the Institute and lets himself be manipulated for their sinister purposes. The organization courts Mark for his rhetorical gifts and Jane for her prophetic dreams, eventually demanding that he bring his wife to live with him at Belbury—a proposal that troubles Mark’s conscience because he foresees his wife’s objections to his association with this collection of weird looking and suspicious eccentrics. When Mark learns from Dimble, one of the Obstructionists, that he is a member of an organization that has arrested and tortured his wife and that “You are (at least in some degree) the accomplice of the worst men in the world,” Mark reconsiders his career choice, asserting “I’ll leave N.I.C.E.” yet still delaying: “But I must think it over.” While deliberating his choice Mark is arrested for the murder of Hingest and placed in a cell to undergo psychological reconditioning—“a planned programe,” “a discipline through which everyone is passed before admission to the Circle,” Professor Frost explains as he then leads Mark out of the cell into a behavior modification room to blunt his normal human sensibilities and accustom him to an abnormal and unnatural world he will uncritically accept. Mark is undergoing “objectivity training,” the last test to pass before full initiation into the darkest secrets of the organization.
Mark finds himself confined to a room with no windows but an electric light producing an illusion of the outdoors. The room is artfully irregular and disproportionate, not a normal-sized room serving some clear purpose. The arch on the door is not in the center but deliberately skewed. The ceiling features strange spots ”irregularly placed” which appear in reverse order to the spots on the table, teasing the mind to notice some pattern of order but always frustrating it. The pictures on the wall violate human sensibility, depicting a woman with an open mouth “thickly overgrown with hair.” Mark sees a praying mantis playing a fiddle and a man with corkscrew arms, and beetles under the table in the Last Supper. This psychological conditioning intended to desensitize Mark to the twisted, distorted, and unnatural dimensions of evil, however, has the opposite effect, one that draws him out of nightmarish hell that has been engulfing him and leads him to all that he is human, natural, and good which his Jane and all who care for her at St. Anne’s embody: life, gardens, animals, marriage, love, and fertility:
As the desert teaches men to love water, or an absence first reveals affection, there rose up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kinf of vision of the sweet and the straight. Something else—something he vaguely called the “Normal”—apparently existed He had never thought about it before. But there it was—solid, massive, with a shape of its own, almost like something you could touch, or eat, or fall in love with. It was all mixed up with Jane and fried eggs and soap and sunlight and the rooks cawing at Cure Hardy and the thought that, somewhere outside, daylight was going on at that moment.