“Out of The Silent Planet” is a beautiful and haunting science fiction story first published in 1938. In the Preface Lewis admits a debt to H.G.Wells , most notably “First Men in the Moon,” and that is there in the adventure elements of the novel and in certain shapes of the narrative such as the departure from Earth and one of the travellers being set upon his interplanetary voyage completely unawares, as well as in the strangeness of man and alien race meeting.
But there are huge philosophical differences in the world-views of these writers. Lewis was of course writing informed by his Christianity, although to call it a “Christian novel” would be to do an injustice to its universal appeal, as Well’s novel, informed by his scientific humanism, also has universal appeal.
‘Ransom,’ the hero of the novel, a Professor of Philology from Cambridge, is on a walking tour when he is asked by a distressed woman to look up her son, now very late from his work, at a nearby mansion. At the mansion Ransom interrupts a struggle between a “simple” villager, the woman’s son, and two men, who appear to be trying to drag him somewhere. The man runs off and Ransom is invited the mansion belonging to the two men, one of whom he recognises as Cambridge peer called Devine. The other is wealthy industrialist called Weston. Under the guise of hospitality they drug Ransom who awakes on a space-ship on his way to ‘Malacandra,’ aka Mars. He learns he is to be given to an alien race called the Sorns and this understandably terrifies him. He escapes on the surface of the alien world and soon meets other inhabitants of Malacandra; the otter like Hross, the long and slender Sorns, and creatures of light called Eldil. Weston and Devine, who are there to variously strip Malacandra of its gold (there’s a lot) and colonise it in the name of progress, cause a violent death of one of Malacandra’s creatures and Ransom decides to go to the Sorn and give himself voluntarily to them to atone. There he meets the planet’s ruler, Oyarsa, and the outlines of a far bigger adventure begin to be understood. This is to be developed further in the next two instalments of the trilogy of which “Out of the Silent Planet” is the first.
Dated in its scientific elements it may be, but “Out of the Silent Planet” is as much as a timeless classic as the Narnia stories, of which it shares its imaginative re-telling of the Christian worldview.
This should not deter the most cynical and hardened atheist or agnostic reader, as long as they love great writing and stories, told with imaginative verve. Regular readers of Lewis will be familiar with some of his ideas contained in his essays and other work; the idea that there is a spiritual duality, an “enemy” as Lewis often calls it. That our spiritual sickness and great evils arise from the false idolatry of certain ideas, small pieces of a larger picture that we mistake for the whole act itself, and as a result these small ideas become twisted (or ‘bent’ as is described in the novel). So bodily survival is a necessary imperative but when we are prepared to decimate other races, species and lands to preserve the life of our own race and species evil occurs, because we fear and misunderstand death. We see physical reality as an end in itself and not symptomatic or part of something larger. Devine in this story represents humanity’s greed in his lust for Malacandra’s gold, but as Oyarsa says, this is the lesser evil, almost at the level of the animal, next to the evil of Weston which has larger spiritual and cosmological implications. Weston represents the utter pride of humanity in itself, and of the crudest and bluntest and most weapon like understanding of evolutionary science. His is almost the evil of Lucifer before the fall. Weston’s worldview and those he represents, is the desire to be God.
Again I apologise if I am putting you off the novel. If you are a lover of science fiction or old adventure stories, I urge you to read this. The theological implications underpin but do not intrude. This is a novel that nourishes as much as it entertains, which is a pretty fair description of the best of Lewis’s writing.