Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

“The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably on his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut tree into the middle of the road.”

During a hike in the English hills, Elwin Ransom stumbles across a boyhood acquaintance, Devine, and his friend Weston, a scientist.  Secretly these two men drug Ransom and take him in a spaceship to the planet, Malacandra, known in earth language as Mars.  When he revives, Ransom overhears that he is to be offered as a human sacrifice for an alien race called the Sorns, and he plans his escape.  Finding himself alone on this strange planet, he eventually encounters creatures called the Hrossa.  Initially very simple and traditional in their ways, Ransom begins to realize that they have an intelligence that may surpass earthly intelligence.  Quickly he learns their language and begins to value their ways, yet all too soon he is sent on a mission to the Oyarsa, the ruling being of Malacandra.  His adventures not only throw him once again into conflict with Devine and Weston, where blind scientific ardour and unconscionable greed clash with humanity’s better nature, but Ransom is finally able to discover why Earth is considered the “silent planet”.

Malacandra is presented as a rather simple society, with the Hross being like shepherds and poets, and the Sorns the intellectuals, imparting wisdom to the community.  Yet, in spite of the obvious higher intellect of the inhabitants, Devine and Weston perceive them as being primitive and unintelligent because they do not have the scientific advances of Earth.  Weston, in particular, grasps onto his pre-conceptions like a drowning man, refusing to believe that such primitive appearance could ever understand or grapple with his vision of a new type of man.  His ingrained perceptions, that have been formed by science, make him blind to the beauty and intricacies of Malacandrian culture, and even worse, his grandiose plans for the needs of man, allows him to view the Malacandrians as sub-human and therefore, expendable.

source Wikipedia

Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet as a deliberate critique of Evolutionism, in particular in response to two written works, one by Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men, and an essay by J.B. Haldane, published in a volume titled Possible Worlds.  Both saw men evolving into a divinity that could jump from planet to planet, a being stripped down to pure intelligence.  Lewis felt that each, while on one hand portrayed man as a fascinating and beautiful creature, nevertheless showed man’s littleness.  To him these views held a potential danger, opening the door to options of experiments on humans and animals. (Interestingly, Lewis was a firm anti-vivisectionist and he would never set traps for the mice who inhabited his rooms at Oxford.)  He stated that the trilogy was less a tribute to earlier science fiction than a kind of exorcism of some of its ideas.  At its heart, the trilogy is anti-Wellsian and to its conception, Lewis credited a one-of-a-kind novel, David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus.  To his friend, Ruth Pitter, he wrote:  “From Lindsay I learned what other planets in fiction are really good for: for spiritual adventures.  Only they can satisfy the craving which sends our imaginations off the earth.  Or putting it in another way, in him I first saw the terrific results produced by the union of two kinds of fiction hitherto kept apart: the Novalis, G. MacDonald, James Stephens sort and the H.G. Wells, Jules Verne sort.  My debt to him is very great.”  Lewis was trying something new!

A wonderful start to The Space Trilogy.  When I first read the trilogy, this book was my favourite, probably because it was the least complex.  Even so, Lewis weaves in views of how medievals saw the universe and angels, as well as sprinkling elements of classicism throughout.  The next book is Perelandra. Hang on to your seats because “you ain’t seen nothing yet”!

“The weakest of my people does not fear death.  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 Maledil you would have peace”

13 thoughts on “Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

  1. I have read all of CSL's Space Trilogy at least twice and will go back eventually for more. I love and cherish all three, and I also think "Out of the Silent Planet" is my favorite, mainly because it expresses some ideas that have always been simmering below the surface of my mind. I like how it exposes the arrogance of the whole notion that the space and other planets exist as potential places for humans to expand human civizalization with our limited ideas and limited grasp of true morality. But my favorite thing about this book is its ideas about our relationships with other animals – that longing not to be the only sentient beings around, the desire to communicate with something other than our own species. I did not know the background information you included and found it fascinating. I definitely want to look into reading Voyage to Arcturus.

  2. Your review was the last thing I read last night 0030 am but was too tired to type. While I follow your enthusiasm for C.S. Lewis and that of Carol Apple ( see comment) I still am not ready to read any of his books. I think the only way to help this situation is ….find a biography of Lewis. Once I know the author….perhaps it will inspire me to read the Space Triology!

  3. Good heavens, I'm having trouble with my comments tonight. Okay, let's try this again:

    You hit on a good point; I'd forgotten the respect with which Lewis portrays other beings. Even what would be consider "only animals" by us is elevated.

    While Lewis praised Voyage to Arcturus for the aspect of the book that I mentiioned above, he did not care for its theme at all, labelling it, " on the borderline of the diabolical ………. so manichean as to be almost satanic." Only Lewis could on one hand highly praise a book for one aspect of its creation, and be disgusted by another aspect!

  4. I think Lewis is an author where you could dive right in! His works are so layered that it is difficult to plumb the depths of them in one reading. It's like an education in fine wine where you have to take the time to discover the characteristics, subtleties and structure. Each time a read a book of his I discover something new!

    I would recommend his autobiography, "Surprised by Joy". You will find many ideas in this book that Lewis carries over to his other works. Some other biographies that I've read/skimmed, I haven't been impressed with. Because Lewis lived a relatively "clean" life, authors like to speculate about him. As a biographer, I think you have a responsibility to your subject; you can tell the truth but you shouldn't fabricate something without proof, which is what a few of them do. I've heard George Sayer's biography is a good one but I haven't read it yet. Lewis' letters are great as well. I read them on and off and he's startling honest in them. They're quite fascinating.

    In any case, I hope you get to enjoy some of Lewis' works in the near future. (This is my fourth attempt at posting this comments, so I hope it's a charm!)

    P.S. What were you doing up at 03:00 am?!

  5. Thanks for your suggestions about further reading C.S. Lewis. I was up late after reading Veyne ALL day and trying to piece together a few thoughts for a blogpost. 1044 pages of history sprinkeled with Veyne's comments and opinons is a lot to cover. This is my 2e chunkster in 2014 …and my last!

  6. Yes, you are doing some heavier reading at the end of the year. Reviewing non-fiction terrifies me. I find it so difficult and I suspect that it's more important to take notes as you go, which I haven't been very good at lately because of the huge number of books I'm reading. Sigh! I must get a grip! 😉

  7. This is the only book in the space trilogy I've read to date (someday…) I had no idea Lewis was writing this as a direct response to Evolutionism. With my vague memory of the story, I can see it, though. Certainly, I found it a lot different than my expectation of what "typical" science-fiction is. Of course, with Lewis, it always seems as if there's more there than the first glance may suggest.

  8. I think there was this particular aspect of Evolutionism that he particularly disliked and because it was quite prevalent during this time, he wanted to do something to counteract it. Haldane, in particular, saw "man taking his own evolution in hand" and wanted our species to conquer the cosmos. Lewis felt danger in this philosophy of making men like gods, as he felt the idea of man helping evolution along could open the door to all kinds of atrocities. The idea echoes Hitler's concept of a master race, so it's no wonder Lewis was unsettled by it.

    You're so right that there's much more to Lewis' works than is on the surface. This series is not really science-fiction ….. more like science fantasy and the last book, That Hideous Strength, is subtitled "A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups". Lewis certainly didn't pay attention to genre or let himself get boxed in, did he? 😉

  9. Great review, as always. Interesting how the main character's last name is "Ransom" and he gets drugged and kidnapped by his school chums. Poor guy, guess he never saw that coming. I've said it before but I really need to read this novel and it would be fitting for sci-fi month this November.

    I can't help but think of the Iron Maiden song of the same name whenever this novel comes up. Of course, it's inspired by the book and goes to show that not all music from the metal genre is hopelessly derivative. It's rare to find a band that you can rock out to and actually learn something at the same time. The band has written many songs influenced by authors and pieces of literature over their long career including Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Poe, Huxley, Lord Alfred Tennyson, just to name a few. Heck, the album where "Out of the Silent Planet" is from is called "Brave New World".

    I would be curious to know what you think of the song. Here's a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbSxzqA8QrA

    Rock on. m/

  10. I'd love you to read it and hear your thoughts. I really don't know what to make of this series. Each book is so vastly different and it's actually a very different Lewis than I'm used to. I'm just reading the last one so I'm keeping my thoughts until I finish.

    I listened to the song ……… um, well, I can say that everyone left the room but me, and the rabbit was running! 😉 They certainly didn't let you forget the song title, did they?. ;-P Thanks for the education! I've learned that I need to brush up on my heavy metal appreciation skills!

  11. I'll get to it one of these days…it's getting bumped up on my never-ending reading list.

    Lewis was such a prolific writer and its a shame that he is mostly remembered for Narnia. He was also a great literary critic in his day and wrote extensive papers on Milton's Paradise Lost (which you are likely aware of).

    Yeah, Iron Maiden is definitely an acquired taste to say the least. My apologizes to your rabbit. 😛

  12. I'm going to keep my C.S. Lewis Project going into 2015 because I've enjoyed reading his works so much. I bought quite a few books of his scholarly works, so I'll most likely concentrate on those because I've read most of his works on theology. I would like to re-read The Abolition of Man though …… it went completely over my head the first time and I was even in a university course. Scary. Hopefully I'm smarter now ….? I did read his Paradise Lost commentary and have a review here: http://cleoclassical.blogspot.ca/2014/03/a-preface-to-paradise-lost-by-cs-lewis.html Never mind the review, but read the quote in it about "The Unchanging Human Heart". Being a literature enthusiast, I think you'll appreciate it.

    Oh, the rabbit is a hardy fellow ……. he's already lived twice as long as he should have, but I'll pass on your regrets. 😛 (back)

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