CS Lewis once wrote a poem entitled “An Expostulation: Against Too Many Writers of Science Fiction”. In it, he complains that science fiction writers transport us light-years away, only to give us “the same old stuff we left behind…stories of crooks, spies, conspirators, or love.” He then asks why he should leave the Earth unless “outside its guarded gates, long, long desired, the Unearthly waits.” It’s easy to see his point. Most of the science fiction written during his lifetime were twice-told tales set on rocket ships with ray-guns instead of revolvers. Lewis was looking for something that was truly unique, something never before captured in a work of science fiction; the genuinely alien. Though I have no proof of this, it strikes me that, since he could not find anything that fit the bill, he decided to go ahead and write it himself. “Out of the Silent Planet” is the result.
Though not science fiction in the strictest sense (there is no hard science to be found in Lewis’ Space Trilogy), “Out of the Silent Planet” certainly qualifies as science fantasy, and is one of the best examples of the genre. Its protagonist is Dr. Elwin Ransom, a philologist and Cambridge professor. While alone on a hiking tour through England, Ransom is kidnapped by two men, Richard Devine and Professor Edward Weston. Weston, a physicist, has invented and built a spaceship, and together with Devine they force Ransom to join them on a trip through space to a planet they call Malacandra. During the long voyage, Ransom deduces from the conversations of the other two men that the planet to which they travel is inhabited, and that he is being taken there to be offered up as a sacrifice of some sort. Though not the typical SF hero, Ransom has no intention of being offered up without some sort of resistance, and shortly after touching down on the new planet’s surface he is able to evade his captors and effect an escape.
This is where Lewis’ imagination takes flight. Ransom encounters flora and fauna that bear no relationship whatsoever to anything Earthly. At first it is a tremendous shock; the world is so alien that Ransom literally does not know what he is looking at. He is like an infant, newborn from the womb of space. He possesses all of the faculties of a grown man, but like a baby he has no vocabulary for what he sees around him. The world is new. There is vegetation, he sees creatures that move on four legs, others that swim in the waters, but has no categories in his mind in which to hold any of them. In spite of his peril, all that he beholds is beautiful and wondrous. Lewis does an amazing job of capturing the sense of awe that Ransom feels as he learns more about the new world he has crossed space to enter.
Eventually, and quite by accident, Ransom stumbles upon an intelligent alien. Though surprised by each others appearance, they do not fly, and Ransom’s contact with sentient life on Malacandra begins. It is a meeting like few in science fiction. The two beings recognize each other as alien, but intelligent, and proceed from there. There is no malice, no suspicion, no hostility, only curiosity and hospitality. Ransom is taken in by the alien, a Hross named Hyoi, and, given that Weston and Devine are not likely to take him back to Earth, settles in for what appears to be a long stay.
His training as a philologist serves him well and it is not long before he is able to converse with the Hrossa, a water-loving race who bear a faint resemblance to giant otters. As he learns more about them, he discovers that their society is completely unlike any on Earth, which of course addresses the complaint of Lewis about SF authors. The Hrossa, and the other sentient races on Malacandra, live in a state of innocence, untouched by the fall of man. Evil does not exist there. There is no crime, no war, no injustice. The three sentient races who populate Malacandra live in peaceful, amicable co-existence. At the same time, it is not some dry, sterile, idyllic utopia. Malacandra is a rich world with a complex past and an unsettling future that its inhabitants seem to accept without fear. The more Ransom discovers about Malacandra, the more we discover how thoughtful an author Lewis was. He never violates the internal logic of his setting. The whole hangs together as neatly as if the place were real and the reader is drawn in and invited to love Malacandra as much as any reader loved Narnia or Middle-Earth.
But “Out of the Silent Planet” is far more than an alien travelogue. Sadly, Weston and Devine do not give up on finding Ransom. He is found, blood is spilled, and the innocence of Malacandra, though not spoiled, is deeply shaken. When this happens, it begins to look like Lewis will fail to achieve his goal after all and the book will turn out to be nothing more than a sermon on how civilized man corrupts the noble savage. Nothing could be further from the truth. The end of “Out of the Silent Planet” is as surprising as everything that has gone before and sets the stage for even greater delights to be found in the second book of the trilogy, “Perelandra”.
“Out of the Silent Planet” is easily one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. Lewis successfully creates the appearance of a world that is not fallen. In it, he explores numerous themes that only another book could analyze fully. It is a meditation on what alien intelligences might truly be like, particularly if they are not affected by the fall of man. It is an homage to and working out of medieval cosmology and natural philosophy. It is an exploration of language and its original source. It is a critique of modern science divorced from a moral compass. And yes, given that Lewis was a devout Christian, it is a deeply spiritual work. Hopefully, that last point will not discourage any from reading “Out of the Silent Planet”. It contributes more to the excellence of the whole than can be imagined. One could no more remove Lewis’ Christianity from his work and retain its genius than Bunyan’s from “Pilgrim’s Progress” or Milton’s from “Paradise Lost”. I highly recommend it to all.