Sunday, 29 September 2019

“Out of the Silent Planet”: A Retrospective

Mr Birzer takes a look at CSL's Out of the Silent Planet, the first volume of Lewis's venture into adult science fiction.

From The Imaginative Conservative

By Bradley, J. Birzer
It would not be an exaggeration to claim that C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, along with Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, made science fiction respectable, elevating it from what many had perceived—wrongly but sincerely—as pulpish trash to high literary art. While a few scholars, proponents, and practitioners of science fiction have dismissed Lewis’s works as fundamental Christianity disguised as science fiction, others have correctly noted Lewis’s high style in The Space Trilogy.[1]

The Space Trilogy revolves around, mostly, the Cambridge professor-philologist, Elwin Ransom, a not-so-disguised version of J.R.R. Tolkien in the first two novels, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, but with a serious amount of Charles Williams added in the third, That Hideous Strength. A bachelor scholar with only a sister living in India, Ransom is on a hiking tour at the beginning of Out of the Silent Planet. Through a strange but quick succession of events involving a local, rural family and a mentally-retarded young man, Ransom finds himself the captive of his old, despised, and estranged schoolmate, Devine, and Devine’s more scientifically-minded partner, Weston. Originally and tellingly, Weston had wanted the local young man as hostage. “The boy was ideal,” he explained in a manner anticipating Eugenics-obsessed 21st century Iceland or, then, Nazi Germany, “Incapable of serving humanity and only too likely to propagate idiocy. He was the sort of boy who in a civilized community would be automatically handed over to a state laboratory for experimental purposes.”[2]

After his kidnapping, Ransom, as prisoner, rides in a space capsule—its actual mechanics and construction only understood by four or five of the earth’s greatest physicists—to the planet Malacandra, Mars. Not surprisingly, Weston justifies the enslavement of Ransom on utilitarian grounds.
We have learned how to jump off the speck of matter on which our species began; infinity, and therefore perhaps eternity, is being put into the hands of the human race. You cannot be so small-minded as to think that the rights or the life of an individual or of a million individuals are of the slightest importance in comparison to this.[3]
When Ransom offers disagreement, Weston snaps. “All educated opinion—for I do not call classics and history and such trash education—is entirely on my side.”[4]

En route, though disoriented by his change in fortune, Ransom stoically accepts his situation and even comes to realize the majesty of space, which he believes a blasphemous term for “the heavens.” Far from a vacuum, he realizes, space is full of life; indeed, the heavens are teeming with it. Planets, rather than being islands and sanctuaries of life, must actually represent the voids in the solar system. Still, Ransom worries about landing on Mars, wondering exactly what kind of hideous, alien, tenebrous, and Cthulhic life might reside there. Obsessed with the terrors that await him, Ransom begins to plan his suicide.

Upon landing on Mars, Ransom does his absolute best to make something of all that he sees, smells, touches, and hears, but he finds that he has no vocabulary for it at first. In a very Barfieldian way, therefore, he cannot quite make sense of it before intellectually and sensually acclimating to it.
The air was cold but not bitterly so, and it seemed a little rough at the back of his throat. He gazed about him, and the very intensity of his desire to take in the new world at a glance defeated itself. He saw nothing but colors—colors that refused to form themselves into things. Moreover, he knew nothing yet well enough to see it: you cannot see things till you know roughly what they are. His first impression was of a bright, pale world—a watercolor world out of a child’s paint-box; a moment later he recognized the flat belt of light blue as a sheet of water, or of something like water, which came nearly to his feet. They were on the shore of a lake or river.[5]
As he adjusts to the new planet, he slowly puts away thoughts of suicide and realizes the landscape about him—no matter what terrors it might contain—is beautiful. Still, he wonders in the manner of Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, is he really on a new world, or has he gone raving mad?

Yes, he understands, he might be mad, but not in the conventional sense. After all, he thinks, “the love of knowledge is a kind of madness.”[6] If he could learn the languages spoken on Mars, he thinks wildly, “the very form of language itself, the principle behind all possible languages, might fall into his hands.”[7]

After escaping from Weston and Devine, Ransom encounters the various sentient species of Malacandra, befriending them and even, in some odd way, becoming one with them. While contemplating evangelizing his new companions in Christianity, he learns that the species of Malacandra regard Earth as “Thulcandra,” the “silent planet” corrupted by the “bent one.”[8] Soon, Ransom realizes that the god of Malacandra, Maleldil, is simply another name for Jesus Christ, and he finds himself rather embarrassed by earth’s history as “he did not want them to know too much of our human wars and industrialisms.”[9] He discovers the artistic, contemplative, and poetic sides of the Malacandrans, deeply admiring their ways, their cultures, and their abiding desire for justice in all things. He is especially taken with how integrated all of life is on Mars.
The old dreams which he had brought from earth of some more than American complexity of offices or some engineers’ paradise of vast machines had indeed been long laid aside. But he had not looked for anything quite so classic, so virginal, as this bright grove—lying so still, so secret, in its colored valley, soaring with inimitable grace so many hundred feet into the wintry sunlight. At every step of his descent the comparative warmth of the valley came up to him more deliciously. He looked above—the sky was turning to a paler blue. He looked below—and sweet and faint the thin fragrance of the giant blooms came up to him. Distant crags were growing less sharp in outline, and surfaces less bright. Depth, dimness, softness and perspective were returning to the landscape. The lip or edge of rock from which they had started their descent was already far overhead; it seemed unlikely that they had really come from there. He was breathing freely.[10]
When Ransom finally does reveal earth’s history, the Malacandrans are astonished. “It is because every one of them wants to be a little” god, in and of himself.[11] Critically, Ransom also learns that his arrival on Mars was not completely circumstance but that he had been called by the ruling power of Malacandra, the Oyarsa (a cross between a pagan god and Christian archangel).
Out of the Silent Planet reaches its climax when Weston and the Oyarsa confront one another through the medium of Ransom in a massive village meeting that resembles something out of a 1930s adventure movie. Weston justifies his own actions.
To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race. Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and beehive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilisation—with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower. Life—[12]
The very principle of life, Weston insists, trumps all over principles, including morality. Thus, as life is the highest of all things, it must discover a way to conquer death itself. The superior forms of life have the right—if not the outright duty—to trample upon all other forms of life in an effort to reach toward eternal life.[13]

Stunned and disgusted by Weston’s justifications and philosophy, the Oyarsa declares a fear of death to be not just childish, but evil. “The weakest of my people does not fear death,” he says. “It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end. If you were subjects of Maleldil you would have peace.”[14] When Weston decries this as defeatism, Oyarsa rules that the three men must return to earth, whether their ship can handle the journey or not.[15] Further, Oyarsa asks Ransom to watch Weston and Devine when back on earth, preparing for a battle to come with the Bent One.

The three men make it back to earth, but just barely. Ransom then tells his story to his friend and colleague, C.S. Lewis.

In his seminal study of the genre of science fiction, Brian Aldiss passed judgment on Lewis’s work. “With the possible exception of Huxley,” he claimed, “C.S. Lewis was the most formidable and respected champion of science fiction the modern genre has known.”[16]


[1] For those thinking Lewis’s science fiction another form of “mere Christianity,” see Sam Moskowitz, Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction (New York: Ballantine Books, 1967), 407-408; and John Clute, Science Fiction: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (New York: DK Books, 1995), 215. Robert Heinlein thoroughly enjoyed Lewis’s space trilogy, but he considered them fantasy, not science fiction. See Robert A. Heinlein, “Science Fiction: Its Natures, Faults, and Virtues,” in The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism ed. Basil Davenport (Chicago, IL: Advent, 1959), 24-25. Margaret Atwood considers the Space Trilogy as a modern Divine Comedy. See Atwood, In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination (New York: Doubleday, 2011), 64.

[2] CSL, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 19.

[3] CSL, Out of the Silent Planet, 27.

[4] CSL, Out of the Silent Planet, 27.

[5] CSL, Out of the Silent Planet, 41-42.

[6] CSL, Out of the Silent Planet, 55.

[7] CSL, Out of the Silent Planet, 55.

[8] CSL, Out of the Silent Planet, 67ff.

[9] CSL, Out of the Silent Planet, 70.

[10] CSL, Out of the Silent Planet, 105.

[11] CSL, Out of the Silent Planet, 102.

[12] CSL, Out of the Silent Planet, 135.

[13] CSL, Out of the Silent Planet, 136ff.

[14] CSL, Out of the Silent Planet, 140.

[15] CSL, Out of the Silent Planet, 140-141.

[16] Brian Aldiss, Billion-Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (New York: Doubleday, 1973), 196.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “A cozy corner of the Universe…” by ZXDemon is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

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