CS Lewis is best known for being the author of the Narnia series of novels (written between 1949 and 1954) and also for being a Christian apologist. What is not so well known outside of the science fiction fraternity, if such a one exists, is that he wrote a highly influential trilogy of science fiction novels, starting with Out of the Silent Planet in 1938.
It is alleged that Lewis decided to write the story after reading David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), but must surely also owe a debt to A Martian Odyssey (1934) by Stanley G. Weinbaum and A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912). However, in the edition I read, the 2001 Voyager Classics edition (which is combined with the follow up – Perelandra – which I haven’t read as yet) the introductory note from Lewis indicates that the debt of creativity belongs with HG Wells. Which unfortunately gives the game away regarding the plot, to some extent.
The story of Out of the Silent Planet begins with a gentleman walking in the countryside. Before long he has found himself, significantly via his own acts of kindness, in the house of a scientist, and intervening on behalf of a poorly educated boy. The gentleman is Professor Ransom, a middle-aged man on a walking sabbatical. The scientist is Weston. With him is an old adversary of Ransom’s, an adventurer called Devine. Before he realises, Ransom is drugged and aboard some kind of space-ship, somehow in space. He finds himself on a planet known as Malacandra. Apparently he is an appeasement or sacrifice for the natives, known as sorns. On arrival, however, Ransom escapes his human captors. He then has a series of short and almost perfunctory adventures where he meets two other intelligent races of the planet; the hrossa and the pfifltriggi. Each of the species has particular characteristics.
The sorns are very tall and very slender humanoids, and which are surely the origin of the pseudo-scientific aliens in modern culture known as the Greys. They are the scientists and thinkers of the planet. The hrossa which resemble stretched otters, with their love of water and boating. They are poets and musicians; the creators. The final race, the pfifltriggi, are the builders. The resemble insectile frogs. Ramsom is introduced to another race, while being pursued by his erstwhile captors, the Eldils – who are beings apparently made of light. They have a prime, or leader, called Oyarsa who summons Ransom to explain himself and his presence on what we by now know is Mars.
So not much of a plot, it would seem. However, the making of this story is the writing, the characters and the allegory. It certainly has a place in the pantheon of respected and influential science fiction stories for a number of reasons.
Despite only brief appearances, Weston is a reasonably interesting character and symbol of the scientific and potentially godless world that Lewis perhaps foresaw. Devine is less so, more of an in-between character. While Ransom is the decent everyman, explaining to the reader the morals and dilemmas of the story. Oyarsa, towards the conclusion of the novel, describes Weston has having “the mind of an animal,” and his mind is filled with “fear and death and desire”. And this is perhaps key. Weston, fearing for his life, argues that the advancement of human civilization justifies any action that would conventionally be termed “immoral”. Even his death would be fine providing it would eventually lead to the conquest of Mars and the eventual population of space by humankind. Lewis is possibly showing that the blind following of scientific progress is immoral and salvation is found in a god, or spirituality at least. For it is a thinly veiled symbol that Oyarsa is an angel, and a high one too. Oyarsa describes space as heaven and that all the planets have a guardian angel such as he. Only Earth does not, as there was once a battle between the ‘bent one’ (Satan) and the ‘old one’ (God), and that since Maleldil the Young (Christ) no-longer rules. So now Earth is the Silent Planet, with no god, but amoral man who will take another’s life as easy as he would take some food.
The allegory is an obvious one, especially from the viewpoint of history. The good follow a spiritual, inclusive path, while the immoral pursue science at any cost. Lewis wasn’t shy about promoting Christianity and morals. Out of the Silent Planet is possibly the first true science fiction story to address the issue head on. Certainly, the giants that Lewis’ stood upon almost always avoided it, with the exception of those describing religious systems within potential utopias.
And it definitely is science fiction. Unlike the tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs on Barsoom, there is no fantasy or mystery here. The human travellers arrive on a space-ship, which while it is not specifically explained, is the product of science and not magic. Even the angels are just another species in the heavens and not supernatural beings. What is interesting, however, that even now, even in an established genre in the late 1930s, and almost without exception (Lindsay, Voltaire and Stapleton notwithstanding) the science fiction writer’s imagination had not escaped the terminal velocity of Mars.
Lewis is an eloquent writer, as his subsequent success perhaps proves. The characters, both human and non- are interesting. There is a complete lack of female characters of significance, which is always sadly to be expected from the male authors of this time. Perhaps Lewis and others simply didn’t know or understand enough about women to write about them properly, or perhaps I’m being too much of an apologist for outright sexism. The descriptions of the Martians and the planet itself are noteworthy. The three main species find themselves in other stories by other authors in time. Meanwhile, Ransom’s descriptions of being on a strange planet and how he felt about the aliens are unusual and evocative.
On reflection, the world building and universe mythology that Lewis creates, while thinly disguised, is complex and engaging. The language and writing draw you in. It is only the simple and to be honest, not very interesting, series of mini-adventures that Ransom undertakes (albeit rarely of his own choosing) that really lets the story down. Lightweight narrative clashing with heavy moral preaching leads to an unbalanced and unsatisfactory literary science fiction meal.