Some time in the 1930s, close friends C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein apparently had a conversation in which they lamented the state of contemporary fiction. The result of that conversation was a mutual challenge: Lewis would write a space-travel story, and Tolkein a time-travel one. Alas, Tolkein’s story exists now only as a fragment, published by his son Christopher in The Lost Road and Other Writings (1987). But Lewis’ story morphed into three books, the first of which I read this month: Out of the Silent Planet.
This is probably best classified as science fiction, or perhaps pulp science fiction, if you want to get technical. It contains the elements of classic science fiction – a voyage in space to another world (Malacandra), an encounter with an alien species. There is no hard science in it, although Lewis does an admirable job in imagining the voyage through the heavens, where the travellers are bathed in the pure light of the sun, as opposed to the “dark” outer space the main character, Ransom, had previously imagined.
Today’s readers might find this part of the book rather primitive and silly. But I think we can forgive Lewis this, seeing as he was writing in the 1930s, long before man actually attempted such a voyage.
The main character is Ransom, a university professor of philology (the study of languages), who is inadvertently kidnapped and taken on this voyage by Weston (a physicist, who considers himself of superior intelligence, mocking any philosophy but that of the supremacy of man over all) and Devine (Weston’s accomplice, later a politician, who is motivated on this journey by the possibility of untold wealth in the acquiring of the “sun’s blood” – gold – found abundantly on Malacandra).
It is soon apparent that Weston and Devine have already been to this planet, which Ransom soon discovers is Mars. The reason they kidnap Ransom, who stumbles upon them in the process of trying to force someone else to go back with them, is because they are under the impression that the ruler of Malacandra, a being called Oyarsa, wished them to bring them another of their kind. They assume Oyarsa has some nefarious purpose such as sacrifice in mind. Ransom quickly understands their intentions for him and resolves to escape at the earliest opportunity.
This opportunity comes soon after they land. The appearance of a hostile creature, something between a shark and a crocodile, attacks them, giving Ransom the chance he needs in the confusion and he escapes.
I love the way Lewis took what was known of Mars at the time – the “red” planet, crisscrossed by canals, and made it into the inhabited Malacandra. He imagined that the canals were hand-carved deep into the Martian surface, where the three Malacandran species, the hross, seroni, and pfifltrigg live, each in their own separate areas. The hross, furry, vaguely otter-like creatures, live along the waterways and are the planet’s poets. The sorn, giant, man-like creatures, the “thinkers” of Malacandra, live near the tops of the canals, close to where the atmosphere fails. And the pfifltrigg, the shrewish, frog-like species, are the Malacandran engineers and craftsmen, who live in the forests.
Ransom finds the gravity lighter, and all the species and the landscape very tall and thin to his Earthly eyes. At first he is terrified, especially of the seroni, fearing that these were the creatures Weston and Devine planned to give him to, and he flees in terror from them, ending up amongst the hross. He quickly realizes they are intelligent beings, and, due to his experience with languages, becomes fairly adept at communication with them.
The climax of the book, and in my opinion, the place where Lewis shows his true genius, comes when Ransom, Weston, and Devine all end up before the planet’s ruler, the being Oyarsa, who rules at the behest of Maleldil, the Creator of all. It turns out that each of the planets in our solar system has an Oyarsa which rules it. Ransom begins to understand that Earth has suffered a cosmic “shunning”, in a sense, due to its Oyarsa becoming “bent” and initiating a rebellion against Maleldil, resulting in the other Oyarsa imprisoning the bent Oyarsa on Earth, which they named Thulcandra, the Silent Planet. Yet, as the Malacandrian Oyarsa says to Ransom, “…we know no more of that planet: it is silent. We think that Maledil would not give it up utterly to the Bent One, and there are stories among us that He has taken strange counsel and dared terrible things, wrestling with the Bent One in Thulcandra. But of this we know less than you; it is a thing we desire to look into.”
But before Ransom has a chance to tell Oyarsa much of Earth, they are interrupted by the arrival of Weston and Devine, brought to Oyarsa by the hrossa. Ransom, due to his greater ability with the language, translates Weston’s purposes for his visit to Malacandra to Oyarsa. However, Ransom is not completely fluent, and he is forced to reduce Devine’s high-sounding principles and ideals to more simple terms. The lofty ideal of keeping mankind alive and thriving upon Earth and beyond, is thus shown what it really is: the ultimate destruction of every other life form so that “man” may survive.
As Oyarsa says to Weston, ” I see how the lord of the silent world has bent you. There are laws that all hnau know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little, blind Oyarsa in your brain.”
There’s a lot of fruitful contemplation to be gained out of that, don’t you think? The killing fields of Cambodia, the gas chambers in Germany, the blood-soaked soil of Rwanda, the suffering Middle East – all show us how we have elevated this love of kindred, of “those like us” over the greater laws of love and compassion.
And this is why I love Lewis. He has as way of making the reader think while telling a great story, and without the reader feeling like he is being hit over the head with a “message”.
The three humans are given the opportunity to go back to Earth, a much more difficult journey as the alignment of the planets are not quite right. But the ending finds them returning safe and relatively sound, and for Ransom, the privations of the journey and the sickness he experiences following the return make the whole episode much like a dream, so much so he is not really sure it really happened at all. Until he gets a letter from Lewis, inquiring of his fellow professor and philologist Ransom, about the meaning of the word oyarses, which Lewis encounters in reading about some of the Platonists of the twelfth century.
I read this book, and the others in the Space Trilogy, a number of times in my younger years. And I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it this time around, too. I’m looking forward to the further adventures of Dr. Ransom in the second book, entitled Perelandra, which many tout as being the best of the three.
Any thoughts? Did you read along with me? What did you think? There’s still time to join me – I’ll be looking at Book Two, Perelandra, on the last Friday of March.