This past week, I read Out of the Silent Planet (pub. 1963), by C. S. Lewis. You may know him as the author of the Narnia books, or as a writer of Christian non-fiction and friend of J. R. R. Tolkien. It may be a surprise to some, however, that he wrote a good science fiction trilogy, continued in Perelandra and concluding in That Hideous Strength. As a Christian writer, even his fiction is touched with the theological, but this aspect was more thinly veiled in the space trilogy than it was in the land of Narnia. All of that background information aside, Out of the Silent Planet, follows the kidnapped Dr. Ransom–conveniently, a philologist (one who studies languages)–and his captors as they journey to the Red Planet. One captor is Dr. Weston: professor of astrophysics, and self-proclaimed champion of the human race, protector of progress, and superior genius, who sees it as his duty to ensure the continuation of humanity into eternity, even if that means making possible the habitation of other worlds. Mr. Devine is the other captor: a man with a repugnant personality, yet capable of amassing enormous wealth and business contacts, who is the financial backer of this expedition and one who sees the potential for profit in this journey. Ransom gets mixed up in this whole thing because he was in the area, and doing a favor for a woman whose son works for these two men. This employee of theirs was to be the sacrificial lamb, so to speak, on the second journey to Mars (called Malacandra by the inhabitants), but Ransom’s intervention puts him in the boy’s place on this journey.
The bulk of the story takes place on Malacandra, as Ransom first escapes his captors and the creatures to which they were giving him, and then finds help among other creatures of the planet. What he finds out is the real journey. He learns, through the aid of his profession, that Malacandra is a world populated by three distinct rational species. There are the hrossa, whom he lives with for several months, and who teach him the language and some cultural points of the planet. Then, there are the seroni, whom he feared before reaching the planet, due to overhearing a conversation between Devine and Weston on the spaceship. The pfipfltriggi are the third species, of whom Ransom, and the reader, only see a little. Each has a skill set important to Malacandrian society, and they aid each other with these skills. There is no war, either intraspecies or interspecies. In fact, there does not seem to be a word for it. There is no word for evil either, and Ransom has to make do with describing his captors as “bent” men. All three species have a single entity they view as leader of their world: Oyarsa. Oyarsa has agents that do it’s bidding on Malacandra, spiritual things that exist on a different plane than the physical beings, but which still interact with them. They are like smaller version of Oyarsa. Oyarsa, in turn, owes allegiance only to Maleldil, the creator and ruler of the universe, and a greater being than the ones under it. The religious motifs are obvious here, when it comes to the hierarchy of spiritual beings. Earth is the titular Silent Planet, because it is cut off from the rest of the heavenly bodies due to a “bent” Oyarsa that rules there.
Although sci-fi in style, the physics utilized is shaky at best, but that can be forgiven because that is not the chief end and purpose of this story. It is to show how broken humanity is when we depend soley on our own strengths and power, and how we were intended to be as creatures of God, and how we could be if we returned to trusting in him. The problem with Devine and Weston was the prejudice they brought with them to Malacandra. They were blinded by their worldly pursuits. Devine was corrupted by the idol of greed, and Weston poisoned by the twin gods of science and progress. In the name of wealth, one wanted to strip the world of all it was worth in metal, and in the name of posterity, the other wanted to strip the world of its current inhabitants. Weston was actually the worse of the two because he had good intentions but bad practice. He could not see that even as he preached the preservation of rational beings, he was excluding the very thing he wanted to protect (the three rational species of Mars) in favor of his own small-minded and quarrelsome species (us humans). C. S. Lewis is commenting on society in this book, not on the possibilities of space travel. He is an astute observer when it comes to the human condition, especially when it comes to faith or a lack thereof. I highly recommend this book even if you are wary of the religious undertones echoing throughout. It is a good story about grace and the nature of humanity, as well as space and adventure.