In today’s Tuesday Review, I give you one of my favorite short stories by C. S. Lewis: “The Shoddy Lands”. It’s so short that you can read the whole thing in ten minutes or so. And I’ll keep this review even shorter, so you can read the story right after.
“The Shoddy Lands” originally appeared in the February 1956 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The narrator, a huffy, very 1950s-era scholar, mysteriously gets stuck in the mind of his complete opposite: a boring young woman named Peggy.
He sees the world through her eyes. And what does he see? Not much. Everything is shoddy. There are no trees, only
the crudest, shabbiest apology for trees you could imagine. They had no real anatomy, even no real branches; they were more like lamp-posts with great, shapeless blobs of green stuck on top of them.
There’s not even any grass. Only shapeless stuff with no blades.
I stooped down and tried to find [blades]…the closer one looked, the vaguer it seemed to become.
Pretty horrifying, if you think about it.
Also prescient. Lewis wrote this decades before 3D video games.
He soon finds that people are equally vague. Only certain details stand out: the faces of certain young men and the fancy outfits of certain young women. Those are some of the few things that Peggy actually notices.
Part of the humor/horror of the story lies in how precisely her interests conflict with his. He may as well be trapped in an insane Trekkie convention.
To today’s sensibilities, the story may also seem to line up all the male chauvinist cliches and carefully check them off. But I think it warrants a more careful reading. The narrator is not a hero. The question isn’t how little reality that Peggy, a stereotyped 1950s woman, manages to notice. The question is how much any of us notice.
This story has haunted me for over a decade. But only recently, with my new focus on attention and observation, have I realized how this story illuminates my memory work.
Your attention and interest create your world.
On the negative side, we can sink and slither into pettier and pettier details, until we can barely see any faces but the strange idol in the bathroom mirror.
But on the positive side, our memory work knits new detail into our world. It’s like we co-create whatever we truly see. Or at least re-craft it within our own minds.
In some mysterious way, paying attention and thinking about things makes us more alive.
Obvious? Perhaps. But easily forgotten.
Read “The Shoddy Lands” (in the Google Books preview for Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories).