“It was all there in that little disc–London, Athens, Jerusalem, Shakespeare. There everyone had lived and everything had happened; and there, presumably, his pack was still lying in the porch of an empty house near Sterk.”
-Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet
Well this is a strange phenomenon.
The Well-Red Mage returns to his roots by writing a book review, ever so briefly taking the focus off of gaming. This has been an aspect of our blog for some time now, thanks to the Midnight Mystic Mage (of Sublime Reviews). While this marks the first time I’ve written a literary review here, which is odd considering the pun in my moniker, we’re certainly open to reviews of all kinds. In fact, I’ll go so far as to state that we’re on the hunt for more reviewers and contributors specifically dedicated to literature. If you or someone you know would like to write for a blog without going through the hassle of creating and maintaining one themselves, and they’re hungry to write for an established readership, then definitely check out our Join the Party page and send me an electronic transmission. We would welcome you aboard starship W.R.M.
That’s somewhat misleading. I actually don’t own a starship of any sort. Sorry to disappoint. The statement merely references my perennial love of science fiction. Now that’s not the cheap, trendy, blockbustery, watered-down mashed potatoes we might call “sci-fi”. I’m talking about real science fiction: stories exploring concepts and ideas, thought-provoking, engaging, complex, imaginative stories.
Science fiction isn’t perhaps the genre that we best remember the beloved British author C.S. Lewis for. The most famous of his works is undoubtedly the Chronicles of Narnia series, with his heartfelt and rather casual theological explorations coming in a somewhat distant second (Mere Christianity, The Four Loves, The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain), which I recommend. But, truth be known, he also penned a unique and obscure science fiction trilogy comprised of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. The series concerns a scientist’s adventures exploring other planets in the solar system and combating spiritual evil there. Lewis called it “theologized science fiction”, a new genre with a very limited sample pool which emphasized the profundity of the deepest questions we as human beings can ask and an exploration of the answers within Lewis’s view of Christianity.The trilogy begins with an author’s note reading: “Certain slighting references to earlier stories of this type which will be found in the following pages have been put there for purely dramatic purposes. The author would be sorry if any reader supposed he was too stupid to have enjoyed Mr. H. G. Wells’s fantasies or too ungrateful to acknowledge his debt to them.” The notation aptly frames the context of the book in that of late 19th and early 20th century science fiction. It bears the flavors of the grandfathers and fathers of the genre, particularly H.G. Wells (whose Time Machine is a must read). There’s a little bit of Arthur C. Clarke’s sense of galactic grandeur and Isaac Asimov’s fascination with minutiae, though both men wrote the bulk of their works after Lewis’s. It has been said of Out of the Silent Planet, however, that it “resembles an H. G. Wells novel in its plot, but it couldn’t be more anti-Wellsian in its themes.”
There is even more literary history surrounding this book than that. When Out of the Silent Planet was published in 1938, Lewis was an Oxford fellow and a member of a literary discussion society known as the “Inklings”. As if that weren’t cool enough, one of the members of the circle and a close friend to Lewis was none other than J.R.R. Tolkien. I can’t even begin to imagine the kind of conversations these great thinkers had while (forgive me for using the term) “nerding out” over their favorite books and hobbies. What I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall.
The story goes, according to Tolkien, that Lewis said to him one day in typically adorable British fashion: “Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to write some ourselves.” The thought of those two intellectual giants lamenting the state of storytelling in their day gives me some reflection upon what they’d think of the state of storytelling today, what with the slavery to agendas and identity groups in literature and appealing to the lowest common denominator in film.
The two authors established a pact between themselves to remedy what they perceived to be a negative trend in modern fiction. It was to be a return to legend, fantasy, and fairy tales. They agreed that Lewis would attempt to write a tale about space travel and Tolkien would write a story about time travel. Tolkien’s work, called the Lost Road, went unfinished before his death but a fragment of it has been posthumously published and edited by his son Christopher in The Lost Road and other writings. Yeah, somewhere in the world there’s an unfinished time travel story written by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Out of the Silent Planet was Lewis’s take at keeping up his end of the bargain with his friend. The first book of the so-called space trilogy has always been out of the spot light. Would it be too much to ask for a film trilogy, or even better, a game series? Very few people have even heard of his trilogy so it would practically seem like new material. I’ve met only one person who has read all three books, and it’s not me. I’ve yet to finish the third one. So when I found the books stashed among sci-fi rubbish in a cheapo dollar-bookstore, I was ecstatic. Nearly as ecstatic as if I had visited another planet myself…
Out of the Silent Planet concerns a philologist (a doctor who studies linguistic history) by the name of Elwin Ransom. Allegory anyone? Ransom quite by accident suffers the intense experience of being drugged, imprisoned in a spaceship, sent hurdling headlong through the outer heavens, and landing upon a distant planet inhabited with ghastly creatures: sorns, hrossa and even pfiffltriggi. Say that ten times fast.
What Ransom discovers is a world called Malacandra, a planet wholly unlike Earth with inhabitants that challenge everything he’s known about physics, biology, intelligence and even religion. The honesty of that last challenge to the intellect is one which makes Lewis’s science fiction writing so robust. Of course discovering life on other planets would either conflict with or deepen religious convictions! This was something I found extremely beautiful about Out of the Silent Planet: its blending together of the scientific and the sacred. Even though Lewis lived in a modern time of academia and science, he clearly considered that theology remained the Queen of the Sciences, a rational, systematic presentation of fundamental beliefs about the world, humanity, existence, and Deity based in evidence and logic. Lewis was far removed from the parlor trickery and smoke and lights of today’s ritzy Christianity, a Christianity which is itself very far removed from its own biblical origins.
Reading his works, it’s evident that Lewis was no irrational man. He didn’t compartmentalize his Christian beliefs separately from his science in studying and reinvigorating discussion concerning historical literature, medieval allegory, language, and poetry. It bugs me to no end when we hear in movies all the time: “Oh you’ve just gotta have faith”, as if faith were ever classically or biblically defined as the mere fairy tale belief in things without evidential basis. That was not Lewis’s brand of faith.
His kind of rationalized theology, a Pauline-esque theology, is peppered throughout this work. An example, without being too detailed, are the creatures which Malacandrians call eldil, beings with bodies of such speed that they exist in two places at once, so the alien explanation goes. Readers will have the sneaking suspicion that Lewis is attempting to physically explain the meta-biology of supernatural messengers: angels, to whatever degree Lewis actually believed they exist or not. To Ransom, his protagonist, they visually appear hardly at all, only as plays of light and shadow or a movement of wind where there is no wind, always just out of the corner of his eye.
Out of the Silent Planet occupies a style of literary genre which is all but extinct: classic science fiction. Lewis published this first book in 1938. How much more do we know about space now? A lot. We know that there aren’t people on the moon, but does that make Voyage Dans La Lune any less visionary? We know now that Mars has no incredible civilizations of slimy Martians, but does that make The War of the Worlds any less frightening? We now know that a portion of the works of Jules Verne is scientifically inaccurate, but does that render them any less great in terms of storytelling?
There may be no DC Comics Martian Manhunter society on Mars, but the setting of Lewis’s book in the science-fantasy of his youth is a setting which is subservient to his point, no less claiming accuracy than Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I’m fairly certain Lewis didn’t actually believe his imaginative topography and ecosystem of Malacandra (Mars) was correct: entire forests and giant monsters on other planets. In my opinion, this lack of reality, this element of fantasy, enriches the literature in comparison with modern science fiction which is so… well, it’s blah sometimes, ordinary, mundane, mathematical, hugely tedious. Of course we appreciate stories like Interstellar and The Martian, and 2001: a Space Odyssey, you monsters, but who doesn’t love Star Wars: A New Hope? Nobody cares about the fantastical elements of Star Wars because it’s such a good movie and a good story with powerful emotional beats, memorable characters, and great conflict. Its setting is subservient and doesn’t pretend to accuracy (ahem, the Force = space magic).
That said, this book has more “scientific” tedium in it than an average adventure does and there may be little in the way of climax or emotional depth. Lewis often concerns his writing with explanation, even over-explanation, a habit which riddles the work of Tolkien his colleague. There’s a lot of Ransom trying to make sense of his surroundings, rationalizing how the lesser gravity allows for huge, spire-like waves on the sea, and so on.
I was fascinated with the careful world Lewis crafted and the way in which he tied alien culture together with Earthly spirituality while at the same time avoiding the allegorical exactitude we saw in Narnia, replacing it with mysteries sure to be resolved in the sequels. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. This alone made it truly unique and I recommend this quick and easy read.
What else should be expected from one of the greatest writers of last century?
The 8-bit Review
C.S. Lewis is one of the most famous British writers to come out of the first half of the 20th century. Often a household name due to his fantasy works, he was also an accomplished academic, apologist, and teacher whose contributions to the development and discussion of modern theology cannot be overlooked. His particular use of the English language is one marked by warmth, insight, a casual voice, and characteristic humor. Out of the Silent Planet is not his best written work, as it seems he consciously attempted to navigate around his own relaxed style for a more sterile and observational one. That’s befitting his protagonist but it isn’t the norm for the author and that’s apparent. Still, Out of the Silent Planet is all Lewis. A more adultish and less child-like Lewis but one which still holds the universe and beyond with a sense of awe. And yes of course there’s that classic, poetic Lewis style in his dialogue:
“When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it, what will it be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then – that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it. You say you have poets in your world. Do they not teach you this?”
Being very much like Wells’s The First Men in the Moon, and also very much like other science fiction adventures of the time, the narrative will seem familiar. Or if perhaps you don’t read much old science fiction, maybe the story will seem quite new to you. As it is, there is an emphasis on explanation and not really on characters. As such, the environments and themes stand out more than do any members of the book’s cast. The way the story is told, leading up to what is essentially a giant conversation, is indulgent for the intellect without being satisfying in the sense of a real climactic confrontation, though the journey there is exceptional. This is a literary sin which unfortunately made its way into the sequel, Perelandra, where it took root and multiplied in size.
Despite having a fairly straightforward plot, Out of the Silent Planet contains some interesting themes. Redefining biblical events like the fall of Lucifer and equivocating them with the “bent” Oyarsa of the Silent Planet, Thulcandra, is a mark of Lewis’s unique imagination and talent for metaphor and allegory. Spirituality and space aren’t totally alien elements from each other, though we rarely see them so paired. Take the reports of quiet serenity and a sense of spiritual welcome during the moon landings as an example.
But science fiction is truly valuable when it is futurist and not merely escapist entertainment. Some of the best science fiction in history are those books which have predicted social, economical, scientific advances or regresses in the real world. Bearing in mind that Lewis wrote this book in 1938, one year before Nazi Germany invaded Poland, he addresses what he foresaw as a fatal flaw in the ideology of atheistic “evolutionism”, a Wellsian concept, which purported that humanity would transcend Earth and evolve beyond itself to travel across the stars. Lewis saw in this the old temptation by Satan, “you shall become like gods”, and more contemporaneously he saw the rising philosophy of the idea of a “master race” stemming from “evolutionism”, one which could justify murdering “inferior” species for the eugenical good of the race just like the book’s villain Weston does with his proposed invasion and conquest of Malacandra and its “inferior” species on his progress of evolution for Man. This idea of superfluous or “extra” people isn’t something that died with the Nazis’ National Socialist German Workers’ Party and their use and abuse of a scientific concept, unfortunately. The fact that themes as significant as this went into Out of the Silent Planet speaks highly of the author’s foresight. We often get a cheesy monologue at the end of works today which drone predictably about how “all life has value”, yet Out of the Silent Planet takes on that fundamental truth with integrity and decision against a then-rising regime which said otherwise.
Much more accessible than its sequel while still a book for adults and not a childrens’ story, Out of the Silent Planet is a quick and fairly easy read. Its high concepts take some mulling over, though this is a benefit of its lasting appeal rather than a detriment to its readability.
Dr. Ransom’s adventure on a foreign planet is one which starts out rough but ends timidly enough. Ransom himself has little to do with resolving the conflict of the story and he’s well taken care of after reaching a certain point, but the thought of being a lone fugitive on an alien world is one which the book makes great use of early on to highlight a real sense of anxiety.
Most of this book was a page turner. Some of the lengthier conversations and exposition can get burdensome, fascinating as its subject matter is. The handling of its themes is less apologetic or polemic than curious about the universe and its mysteries, so I think that this book would appeal to non-Christians, even as Lewis’s others works have, and this book is much less overtly preachy in its influences. Ending with what is essentially an anticipation for a coming conflict, I think Out of the Silent Planet has enough “replayability” to push one to read the sequel.
It ought to already be abundantly clear that Out of the Silent Planet is a unique book. If it could be adapted to film today, it’d be unlike any science fiction film we’ve seen in recent history. It would certainly be a welcome change from the often thematically nihilistic, despairing, and hopeless portrayal of an atheistic universe that we generally see in the crossover of science fiction with horror and monster movies. Can we ask the question via entertainment: Is there some meaning or some Mind behind the physical, an Infinite behind the finite?
My Personal Score: 7/10
I enjoyed this read. Out of the Silent Planet kept me up later than I thought it would as I read into the night. Here, Lewis maintains his pleasure of examining the human condition. Even the value of death as it gives value to life is pondered: “And I say also this. I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, nor love so sweet, if there were no danger in the lakes.” I’d love to talk more about this book and its ideas with people who have actually read it, so go out and find your own copy and become one of those people!
Aggregated Score: 7.6
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Categories: Book Review