After H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, around the time of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and the science fiction movement of the late 1930s, C. S. Lewis, a professor and author of The Chronicles of Narnia, published the first book in his science fiction trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet. In it, an unsuspecting traveler finds himself on another planet and must choose how he will react to his strange surroundings, the planet’s inhabitants, and his murderous travel companions.
Out of the Silent Planet
Originally published: 1938, UK
*Fun Fact: The idea for this trilogy was born out of a shared distaste of modern literature with Lewis’ friend J.R.R. Tolkien. They agreed that Lewis would write a space novel and Tolkien would write a time travel novel.
Rating: 4 – Recommended Reading
After finding shelter with an old colleague during a walking tour, Ransom finds himself waking from a drugged sleep and on board a spaceship moving quickly away from Earth. After overhearing his companions’ plans to sacrifice him to aliens upon arriving to another planet, he plots escape as soon as they land. Ransom runs into the wilds of the planet, Malacandra, and must learn to survive, which he is only able to do by befriending a hross, one of the native species. Through his journey, Ransom learns a great deal about Malacandra. When he unexpectedly meets up again with the men who brought him to the planet and is then summoned to the planet’s leader, he does not know what to expect. Will he be punished? Sent back to Earth? And how will he explain this planet if he returns?
Having read a fair bit of C.S. Lewis’ other writings, I was not surprised at the beautiful descriptions in Out of the Silent Planet. The reader experiences the plot through the main character, Ransom. What impressed me more than the descriptions of Ransom’s experiences on Earth, was the evolution of the descriptions of Malacandra as Ransom begins to understand the planet better. When he first lands on the planet, Ransom’s descriptions of it are vague, and as he tries to understand his surroundings he compares them to what he knows—Earth. As Ransom travels around the planet and gets to know the planet’s inhabitants, however, his descriptions of Malacandra become clearer and more accurate. Lewis’ beautiful descriptions aid the reader in not only relating to Ransom but in sharing in his experience as a human on a strange planet.
The novel’s main character is Ransom, a philologist and an everyman character. When he is brought to Malacandra against his will, he reacts very naturally and is afraid for his own life. However, when Ransom later encounters a Malacandra inhabitant called a hross, he is curious about the creature and much less afraid of it than he had been of the humans. Ransom has a natural curiosity, supplemented by his interest in languages, which makes him relatable to the reader as well as the perfect vehicle for the reader to come to understand Malacandra. While some find Ransom to be a hallow everyman, I think that Lewis’ choice to make Ransom a more generalized person helps the reader to better adapt to and learn about Malacandra. Also, Lewis is known for including these types of generalized characters in his fiction to help guide the reader through unfamiliar settings like this one.
Much like Mr. Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia series, Lewis includes a guide character in this novel who serves to explain this new world to the main character, and therefore the reader as well. In the first book of The Chronicles of Narnia (in the original publication order, not the current chronological order), The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Lucy is the first to discover Narnia in the wardrobe and is introduced to this new world by a faun named Mr. Tumnus. Although his motives are questionable, Mr. Tumnus does explain to Lucy and the reader what Narnia is and a bit about the situation there. Likewise, Ransom finds his guide in Hyoi, a hross he meets during his flight from his captors. Like Mr. Tumnus, Hyoi helps to teach Ransom about this new world he finds himself on and explains the setting and offers some background. Also like Mr. Tumnus, Hyoi is a character the reader doesn’t know for long until tragedy strikes. I actually had to put down the book for a couple of days when Hyoi’s event happens because I suddenly found that I cared about his character more than I had expected.
One of the big focuses of the novel is on how Malacandra works, or the mythos of the planet. Lewis is known for his theological writings, and a great deal of his fiction also includes theological themes (like the supposal of The Chronicles of Narnia). Out of the Silent Planet and the rest of the space trilogy are no exception; however, Lewis does a good job of not creating an obvious allegory, and the book feels more like science fiction than theology. The elements of space travel and understanding a new culture, society, and world help secure this novel’s classification science fiction. Malacandra does, however, include somewhat of a spiritual (or at least, mysterious) side; there are beings that barely exist in this dimension who have power over the way that the planet functions. The main one is called Oyarsa and the others are eldil who are not given individual names. There are connections between Oyarsa and the other planets, including Earth, as well as questions about a higher power, but it is all described the way a religious system would be explained to a traveler. The mythos of Out of the Silent Planet is complicated and interesting and is further discussed in the rest of the trilogy.
What Didn’t Work:
Some readers may become frustrated with the unbalanced pacing of the action in this novel. Although there is an air of mystery from the beginning, there isn’t really any exciting action until the kidnapping of Ransom. This is followed by the space journey, which is more about the science of the ship and the journey than any real action. There is a bit of peril when they land in Malacandra, and then a lot of description of the planet and the creatures. Actually, most of Ransom’s time on Malacandra is spent learning about the language, the inhabitants, the planet’s history, and the connections between this planet and others. Really, the big action sequences are towards the beginning and the end of the novel. While the unbalanced action of the plot makes sense—because really this is a novel about cultural ideas and philosophies—it may bother some readers looking for a science fiction adventure novel.
Out of the Silent Planet is a very C.S. Lewis-style novel. Don’t expect a typical science fiction novel and be open to ponder the reasons behind our human actions, and you’ll really enjoy it.