Sometime in the 1930s, C. S. Lewis and his friend J. R. R. Tolkien were complaining about the state of contemporary English fiction. “Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories”, Lewis said to Tolkien, “I am afraid we shall have to write some ourselves”. After some discussion on the subject, the two writers agreed that Tolkien would write a time travel story while Lewis would try his hand at a space travel story.
The results were typical of the very different styles and personalities of the two men. Tolkien was a perfectionist who was never satisfied with anything he wrote and his proposed story was never finished. Lewis was more energetic and managed to write the three novels that make up his “Space Trilogy” in less than a decade.
Out of the Silent Planet is the first book in the trilogy. The story begins when Elwin Ransom, a philologist who is spending his vacation walking around the English countryside, comes across two men, Weston and Devine, trying to force a retarded young man into some structure. Ransom rescues the young man, only to be taken himself on what turns out to be a space ship traveling to a planet called Malacandra, or Mars. Along the way, Ransom discovers that Weston and Devine intend to deliver him as a sort of human sacrifice to the Malacandrans and as soon as they land, he escapes.
Ransom quickly encounters the Malacandrans and learns that they are not the savage, primitive monsters he had been led to believe they were. There are three species of Malacandrans; the seal like Hrossa, the tall, wise Sorns, and the handy Pfifltriggi. A fourth race, the invisible Eldili live in space and are more like spirits or angels. All three races are unfallen and thus lack the inclination to evil that the inhabitants of our Earth or Thulcandra, the Silent Planet. The only word in the Malacandran language that Ransom can find to express the concept of evil is “bent”, perhaps the most apt word to describe the problems or humanity that I have ever heard.
There is not much action in Out of the Silent Planet, and there are slow places, but the plot is far from dull. I think the depictions of the extraterrestrials are among the best I have read in science fiction. The science is badly dated, though Lewis made the best use of contemporary theories and knowledge about Mars available at the time. In the climax, Ransom is brought before the ruling eldil of Malacandra, the Oyarsa. He discovers that the Oyarsa of Earth is bent and confined to Earth’s immediate region in space. As a result, Earth is inaccessible to the Eldil and is named Thulcandra, the Silent Planet. Ransom answers the Oyarsa’s questions about life on Thulcandra and affirms things are very bent indeed. Weston and Devine are brought forward, but they insist on treating the Malacandrans like ignorant savages, even speaking in a ridiculous pidgin. This scene is a send up of modern man’s pretensions of superiority over “primitives”, and Ransom’s translation of Weston’s speech asserting Human superiority over the Malacandrans is priceless.
Out of the Silent Planet seems to be a promising beginning to the Space Trilogy and can stand on its own. I am not sure if it can really be classed as properly science fiction so much as a theological fantasy, or an up to date medieval romance, but however you might classify it, it is worth the effort of reading.
- Hell on Earth? (The Space Trilogy, Part 2) (eternalwordchangingworld.wordpress.com)
- Seroni and the Hrossa (letterstolewis.wordpress.com)
- Tolkien and Lewis at the Movies: An Interview with Dr. Richard Purtill (insightscoop.typepad.com)