Out of the Silent Planet (1938) by C. S. Lewis

OutoftheSilentPlanetWhat is it about minorly stressful moments like get-togethers with family and sudden illness that make me want to curl up with 1930’s pulp SF? I don’t know, but it’s not something I’m proud of. Perfect timing, though, because I’m due to read some C.S. Lewis and, not counting an aborted attempt at The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950) when I was twelve or so, this is my first C.S. Lewis novel. This Lewisian deficiency may have something to do with his well-known reputation as a Christian allegorist, of which, perhaps, Mom was aware and, striving to expose me to things outside our Southern Baptist church landscape, opted to omit Lewis from the bedtime reading repertoire. I dunno, I’ll have to ask some time.

Inspired by the philosophical sci-fi writings of David Lindsay (A Voyage to Arcturus, 1920) (an author new to me and why haven’t I heard of him?) and Olaf Stapledon (Star Maker, 1937), C.S. Lewis set out to write his own version of a metaphysical journey in space, yet doesn’t come close to the transcendence he wishes to achieve. Where Stapledon expounds on humanity’s place and purpose within the infinite bounds of the cosmos, Lewis’ effort is limited to the parameters of a constrained and commonplace worldview, resulting in a mere cosmic contrivance, like so many other space tales.

From the beginning, reminiscent of so many before him, (perhaps the worst offender being Wells himself, though Verne and Shelley, yes, even Shelley, come to mind) many pages are spent in contriving and justifying the situation in which our good man Ransom (get it, he’s held against his will in the battle between, well, you know) finds himself on a spaceship rocketing to Mars, though the actual destiny is unknown to him at first, and is actually called Malacandra by its inhabitants, which sounds to me like a severe case of illness anxiety and/or a diseased organelle. I am overcome by the malacandras. (It’s even stranger that this word processor recognizes the word. Malacandra. No red squiggle. Hmm.)

There is a good deal of tension alluded between Ransom and his two kidnappers/shipmates as they hurtle through space, but it’s contrived only for the sake of Lewis’ attempt to pit science and religion against one another, though the tension is neither palpable nor effective. It gets good when we finally get a tour of Malacandra, and this is where I could happily settle without plot or superficial Christian platitudes, just to look around at the lush vegetation that fans the air in ways that “seemed to need water to support them,” (51) and “sheets of dazzling blue soda-water, and acres of rose-red soapsuds” (51) –the color, not an illusion as on Earth, but true to its physiology. Some readers may get bored with all this sightseeing– I normally do– but Lewis’ Mars is beautiful, his prose light and bright and not bogged down by too many adjectives as he warns us that “you cannot see things till you know roughly what they are” (47). It’s “a world lighter than the Earth, where less strength was needed and nature was set free to follow her skyward impulse,” (55) already hinting at the moral superiority of this unfallen world of space angels and benevolent creators and all that. So now the fun’s over and so soon.

Getting to the people, the hnau, (and this is one of those books self-absorbed with its own lexicon– oh joy!) I can’t shake the feeling of an Inkling signature at details like the pfifltriggi who “delight in digging” and “soften [things] with fire,” and the gangly, giant sorn who bring to mind the Ents. Though Tolkien’s famous works were just barely coalescing into something more dense than just-published The Hobbit (1937) at this time, it seems likely that the seeds of these tropish-seeming characters were fermenting in letters and conversations among the Inkling writers, making it likely (and strangely compatible) that cross-contamination occurred between the English-speaking world’s most beloved fantasy saga and one of its more neglected pulp-era space trilogies.

OutoftheSilentPlanet2But more interesting to me than Lewis’ friendship with Tolkien is Lewis’ intellectual feud with Stapledon, which, from the little I have read about the “feud”, I interpret as professional jealousy too close to cognitive dissonance to be a comfort to the either/or-thinking Lewis. His space trilogy seems to be a response to that dissonance, where he depicts this chaste planet full of people delighted with their own innocence and assigned roles, all buoyed by a benevolent ruler who knows exactly where Earth’s humanity went wrong. It’s a Christian fantasy, wrapped up in a kind of pseudo-Stapledon reverence, but this time for a western god. Lewis attempts to achieve something similar to the recently published Star Maker (and older Arcturus? I guess? Why have I not heard of this book?), but misses the magnificence of what an existing, powerful, impersonal universe can inspire. It just doesn’t work when a benevolent ruler can explain everything. Like so many other sci-fi writers before and after him, Lewis doesn’t get that didacticism is what kills the splendor of SF. (Case in point: Lewis dedicates pages to the whole “how I wound up in a spaceship while completely ignorant of its destination” situation, whereas Stapledon is like, “I just went the fuck outside and fucking mind-floated into space, and it was fucking incredible.”) (I’m paraphrasing.)

Despite all that, it’s a relatively enjoyable planetary setting to dally in, but its preoccupation with defining and delineating traditional morality makes it no different from any other western fantasy, fairy tale, or planetary romance.

 

*and now it’s been pointed out to me that I have actually heard of The Voyage of Arcturus, just not in this context or in relation to anything else I have read to make it stand out.

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30 thoughts on “Out of the Silent Planet (1938) by C. S. Lewis

  1. marzaat says:

    Been a long time since I’ve read this one, so I liked the descriptive quotes.

    So, are you going to read Perelandra? I stalled out on the trilogy after that.

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  2. Warstub says:

    “I just went the fuck outside and fucking mind-floated into space, and it was fucking incredible.” Words to live by.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hestia says:

    Lewis and I don’t have anything in common with regards to religion (and never did) but there’s something about his imagination that has always appealed to me, both in this book and the Narnia series. I’m not sorry that OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET was the first real, adult science fiction novel I read, though it’s a little weird that 1930s philosophical SF is what got me started (I was about 13 and had been flirting with the adult mass market science fiction shelves for a few weeks; maybe I chose it because it was short.)

    A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS keeps popping up on my radar, but there’s something about it that just sounds….hard. I didn’t realize it directly inspired Lewis.

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    • That Arcturus tidbit is according to Wikipedia, so my research process *might* be flawed. But I’ve never heard of this book and it seems critically acclaimed. My interest is piqued.

      I always forget to consider books from a younger perspective. I might have enjoyed this one more when I was younger. Space stuff seemed so dry to me back then, but then again, I was completely taken with A Wrinkle in Time.

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      • Hestia says:

        Ironically, I didn’t read A WRINKLE IN TIME until I was 18 or 19…but I’ve always like it. In fact, when I was working at a grade school, I used it in my 6th grade reading groups.

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  4. Joachim Boaz says:

    As I mentioned earlier, I finished A Voyage to Arcturus a few weeks ago. I’m not exactly sure what to think of it as it is, as you point out, from 1920. There are some absolutely bizarre moments, the main character wakes up with strange tentacle organ attached to his body, etc… I read Lewis too long ago to compare the two in any real meaningful way. Alas. Thus, I am not sure if you would like Voyage more or less.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. antyphayes says:

    I loved his Narnia books between 10 and 16. I knew they were Christian at the time and was in the midst of my own fairly restrained struggles with atheism. I sort of would like to read them but they just never get to the top of the pile. It must be the dead weight of his god holding them down!

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  6. Guy says:

    Hi

    I have to agree I liked Mars and the cool aliens Ransom meets, the Sorns and Hross etc so much, that I looked around for early Avon # 195 paperback because it had the best cover illustration of the aliens. I was fine with the Christian allegory aspects of Narnia, I was younger when I read them I think but the next two books of this trilogy I found heavier going. It never occurred to me that Lewis was pastiching Stapledon and Lindsay but I may look into what I can find on this, as I love this type of connection between books. I am happy I read them but they are a bit dated now. Thanks for the great review of this trilogy.

    Happy Reading
    Guy

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    • Hi Guy!

      I love those types of connections too. If he was pastiching Stapledon, he didn’t do a very good job of it, but from what I’ve read, they were “frenemies”: liked to talk and argue. I’m sure Stapledon didn’t take it very seriously and thought CS was a total idiot, but it seemed to bother CS that he enjoyed Stapledon’s books yet despised his worldview. I think he was aiming for “the awe of God” the way Stapledon achieves the “the awe of the cosmos.”

      Of course, this is all conjecture based on a few online things I’ve read. I am very keen to read a Stapledon biography and may have to add it to my reading goals next year.

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