Book Review: “Out of the Silent Planet” by C.S. Lewis

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The first book in C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy depicts a fictional world almost as thoroughly-realized as the Middle Earth of the author’s good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien. What’s more, it presents us with a hero who seems to be based on Tolkien himself. But the appeal for modern readers is the beginning of an odyssey full of adventure, beauty, danger, and cosmic significance-even a spiritual odyssey that resonates with Christian images and concepts.

In a way it is old-fashioned science-fiction, from the school of H.G. Wells (see the latter’s The First Men in the Moon, from the turn of the 20th century, which merits a reference in this book), with views about the sort of life that might exist on Mars that later discoveries have put out of date. And yet in another way it is prophetic stuff, pointing out what would happen if people who hold views like those of Professor Weston steered the course of our future, at a point when such people dominated the “intelligentsia” of the Western World. (Intelligentsia is a word you’ll learn as you read this book. It is, after all, sort of the grown-up’s answer to The Narnia Chronicles.)

Another thing this story challenges– I promise, I’ll tell you in a bit about what happens in it– is the basic theme that runs through most literature about man’s first contact with beings from another world. Take the movie Independence Day, for instance. Or Battlefield Earth. Or Signs, etc., etc. These stories typify the idea that if aliens came to Earth, they would destroy us and take the planet for themselves. This book proposes that if we were the visitors, we would do the same thing. It challenges us to examine human nature and see whether it is something that really ought to be turned loose on other worlds, just as it challenges us to view what lies between the worlds as Heaven rather than Space.

Dr. Elwin Ransom is our hero. Later in the trilogy you will find out just how appropriate his name is. For now, it is enough to know that he is a philologist (which, as Maline will tell you, is a student of the science of language), and he is on one of those cross-country walking tours which only a British native can explain. He has no family, no one knows where he is, and he isn’t expected anywhere; so he turns out to be the ideal victim for kidnappers.

One of the kidnappers is Ransom’s old school acquaintance, Devine, who is in it for the money. The other is Weston, a physicist with a headful of modernist philosophy, who wants to plant the flag of man’s manifest destiny on another planet. That planet, we later find out, is Mars. But to the people who live on it, it is Malecandra. And against his will, Devine and Weston take Ransom there. On the way there Ransom learns he is to be sacrificed to the gods of whatever savage creatures live on the planet. So as soon as possible after landing, Ransom runs away in terror.

Soon Ransom falls in with a village of giant otter-like creatures called hrossa who teach him their language and customs. He lives with them and learns to love their way of life. But a tragedy, set in motion by Devine and Weston, sends him on a journey in which he meets two other races of hnau or intelligent beings: the sorns who are like really tall people, and the pfiffltriggi who are like giant frogs, only really handy with tools. Finally Ransom comes before the Oyarsa-who is like the Genius of Mars (in the classic sense of an intelligence that represents the life of the whole world). He learns that the Oyarsa and the invisible eldil-who I suppose are like angels-fill all the Heavens and protect the worlds and the lives on them, under the command of an even greater being called Maleldil.

But Earth is the “silent planet,” whose own Oyarsa rebelled long ago, and after a war in the heavens was cast down and confined to Earth’s atmosphere. Since then none of the other Oyarsas have heard a peep out of Earth, until now. Earth’s genius is bent, so most everything that comes out of earth’s atmosphere is either bent or broken. The results, when such people come to Malecandra, could be horrid. So the story ends with Ransom, Devine, and Weston giving an account of themselves before Oyarsa, and their fate being decided. But as the last chapter points out, the men’s return to Earth is not the end of the story by a far cry.

Prepare to be stunned by the beauty and excitement of this story, with its wealth of detail about the life that, in Lewis’ fertile imagination, might have lived on Mars. Prepare for a parable laced with references to Christianity-filtered through Lewis’ idiosyncratic doctrinal leanings (such as “theistic evolution” and “postmillennialism”-if you really want to know about them, drop me a line and I’ll try to explain). These things do not make this book a religious tract, but like many a great science fiction yarn they challenge your assumptions; only in this rare case, from a point of view that does not reject the existence of God. Prepare for a moving experience that shows the vanity of much that calls itself “science” and/or “fiction”-but one that is thoroughly entertaining and convincing on its own account.

But also prepare to have all the classic sci-fi/fantasy assumptions shaken to their foundation. Written in on the eve of World War II and set only a few years after World War I, this story challenges the prevailing philosophies of its time: modernism, existentialism, even fascism, which were really quite fashionable before the Hitler and his allies showed the world exactly what they led to. Boiled down to the nitty-gritty, this philosophy is approximately what Quirrell said to Harry in Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone:

“There is no good or evil, there is only power, and those weak to seek it.”

It is also the philosophy espoused by Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew. And in a real world that has cut itself loose from moral moorings based on belief in God, you will hear more and more people saying the same thing, in total seriousness. So this book remains a parable for our time.

Here you not only hear words like Quirrell’s coming out of a Weston’s mouth, but in a brilliant “speaking through an interpreter” scene you hear what those words translate to when you examine what they are actually saying-you have a chance to think about what it would be like to have such ideas used against you-and finally, you see what the verdict on them will be if, after all, we have a Judge who cares.

It would be a perfect book if Lewis had left well alone and ended the book at the last chapter, rather than adding a long and tiresome postscript. I think he wanted to use up the fascinating details of the world he had invented, but that hadn’t gotten into the book. Really, the postscript adds nothing except to muffle the impact of the end of the book, though there are two more books in the trilogy. Read the postscript, if you are interested in “more about Malecandra”– as one might read the appendices to The Lord of the Rings. Or don’t read it, if like me, you simply enjoyed the story and want to remember it in its perfection.

But whatever you do, I advise against reading a Scribner Classics Edition unless it has been corrected since 1996, because I have never seen such an inept job of book editing/typesetting. This goes for the whole trilogy. So sue me, Simon and Schuster, owner of Scribner Classics, but you brought it on yourselves. A bad imprint can really distract you from the enjoyment of a good book.