Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review - Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Short review: A character named Ransom travels to Mars where he discovers that humans are awful, aliens are filled with the light of goodness, and sex is something you should only have once in a lifetime.

English walking tour
Shanghaied by villains to Mars
Confronting angels

Full review: C.S. Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931, under the influence of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien (and if Tolkien's biographer Humphrey Carter to to be believed, Lewis was converted by just about the most facile argument possible). Lewis then set about trying to advocate for his new-found faith by writing a pile of apologetics dressed up as novels. Among his earliest attempts at this were his "Space Trilogy", starting with Out of the Silent Planet, which was supposedly written to counteract the 'dehumanizing" trend in the science fiction of the day. Given that the science fiction of the day consisted primarily of books about action hero characters like John Carter, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon and some self-conscious attempts to promote a love of science among younger readers, without reading the "Space Trilogy" it is hard to figure out exactly what bothered Lewis (and Tolkien) about the science fiction of his day.

But when one starts reading Out of the Silent Planet one begins to realize that what apparently bothered Lewis was that science fiction had too much science in it, and not enough theology. The story, such as it is, centers around Dr. Elwin Ransom, a philologist and thinly disguised version of Tolkien, who begins the story on a walking tour of Britain. Lest one think that Ransom is as interesting as Tolkien, other than his love of walking and his profession as a philologist, Ransom has almost no other personality traits in the book, serving essentially as a stand in for the reader so that the other characters can make long philosophical speeches. His ramblings are interrupted when he is shanghaied by an old school acquaintance named Devine and a supposedly noteworthy scientist named Weston and bundled off on a voyage to Mars. Ransom makes his voyage with his two abductors in a ship that seems to essentially work by magic, and it is on this trip that the first indications that mysticism is the path that Lewis thinks humankind should follow. On the journey, Ransom goes from seeing the space between worlds as, well, space, and begins to think of it as glorious heaven, whereas the planets are transformed in his mind to mere motes of insignificant corruption in the living heavens. And with that, Ransom abandons reality for the fantasy world that Lewis has imagined for our solar system.

Eventually the travelers reach Mars, or as its inhabitants call it Malacandra. Along the way, proving that they are some of the dumber villains in written fiction, Devine and Weston let Ransom know that they abducted him in order to turn him over to the natives as a sacrifice to what they presume to be their primitive deity. Upon landing, this coupled with the inhumanly talsl and slender appearance of the Martians, Ransom flees, managing to evade capture and wind up lost and alone on the surface of an alien planet. After wandering about a bit, discovering that the water is somehow warm (which seems odd for something on the surface of Mars), Ransom comes across a native alien hross - a race of seven foot long otter-like creatures. Ransom has a fit of human hubris and at first assumes that the hross is an animal, but is quickly convinced  of their rationality. He is taken in by Hyoi, as the friendly hross is called, and puts his philology skills to good use unraveling their language. From Ransom's perspective, it seems that all that has really happened is that his walking tour has moved from England to the surface of Malacandra.

It is the interaction between Ransom and the hross, and later the sorns (a third race, pfifltirggi, also lives on Malacandra but Ransom barely interacts with them) that is where the meat of the book lies. The hrossa live an apparently primitive lifestyle of fishing and farming valuing poetry and song above all things. Ransom learns that the three races of Malacandra live in a sort of symbiotic socialist society overseen by the heavenly eldil who oversee everything. The hrossa are tasked with producing all the food on Malacandra and hand it out to all who need it. It is at this point that Lewis begins to establish what he seems to have considered to be the ideal society, and which he also reveals his somewhat less than comfortable relationship with women and sex. In interacting with the hrossa Ransom learns that they live in a kind of idyllic symbiosis with the other races on Malacandra, serving to provide food to the others on an as needed basis in exchange for the products of their labor, also on an as needed basis. Everyone only takes as much as they need, and contributes as much as they can - a very Marxist sounding system, with the only wrinkle being that it is a divinely guided one. Given the love many conservative Christians display for Lewis, one wonders if they realize that endorsing the Randian style free-for-all that so many of that mindset seem to favor, Lewis seemed to think that the only reason socialism doesn't work on Earth is that it simply doesn't have enough divine influence in it.

But when Ransom attempts to figure out what would happen if one group or another wanted more than was available, the conversation founders somewhat. Greed and lust and other similar sins don't seem to exist on Malacandra, and to even discuss these issues requires that Ransom explain evil, a concept that the Malacandran language is ill-equipped to address, resulting in the use of the word "bent" to describe someone who is violating the divine order. Given the later revelation that the language spoken on Malacandra is the universal language of the heavens, this inability to address sin seems strange, especially when one notes that the disobedience of the eldil's of Earth is a commonly known story among the inhabitants of Mars. But this exchange reveals that Lewis apparently had a rather less than comfortable relationship with women and sex. (And it seems somewhat revealing that there are no female characters in Out of the Silent Planet, because apparently females, human or otherwise, are simply not relevant). When Ransom asks Hyoi what would happen if the sorns or the pfifltirggi had so many children that they overwhelmed the ability of the hross to produce food and they had to fight over resources. After overcoming the difficulties of communicating the concept of war to Hyoi, Ransom learns that overpopulation is entirely absent from Malacandra, because no couple ever has more than enough children to replace them, and they accomplish this by the simple expedient of only having sex a handful of times in their lifetime. According to Hyoi, one should be satisfied with the memory of having had sex with a loved mate, and that should be sufficient for anyone.

Although not Catholic, Lewis seems to be toeing the Catholic line and advocating not merely abstinence for unmarried couples, but abstinence for life for all purposes other than procreation, but with the added wrinkle that couples should not "be fruitful and multiply", but should rather limit their sexual activity to the two or three times necessary to have a pair of children to carry on after their own passing. While many religious organizations today, including the Catholic church, loudly deny that overpopulation could ever be a problem for humanity, Lewis appears to have been painfully cognizant of it in the 1930s. Unfortunately, his putative solution for this problem is almost ridiculously comical, and after this apparent moment of clarity in Out of the Silent Planet, he appears to have abandoned this view by the time he got around to writing That Hideous Strength, and has gone back to telling women that their purpose in life is to have babies. But in Out of the Silent Planet he was concerned about overpopulation, and his chosen solution reflects the thinking of a man who seems to have been distinctly uncomfortable with women, and even more uncomfortable with the messiness of sex.

Eventually, Ransom's idylls among the hrossa comes to an end during a hunt for a large fish called a hnakra in which he accomplishes the apparently praiseworthy act of killing the fish when Devine and Weston kill Hyoi with a rifle shot. After having been stalled to provide theological musings the story lurches out of the mire that it had gotten stuck in and ambles forward as Ransom resumes his walking tour of Mars, heading off to meet the sorns and the chief eldil, or Oyarsa, of Malacandra. On his way, Ransom passes into the Martian highlands and is nearly asphyxiated by the thin air before being rescued by a sorn named Augray. Ransom has a brief sojourn with Augray during which the reader is subjected to more theology in which Ransom is ashamed of humans for behaving like humans and not like the idealized creatures Lewis created to inhabit Mars. But in the fictional reality that Lewis has created, humanity is "bent" because our Oyarsa rebelled against the divine order and cast our planet into silence in the celestial symphony (leading to the appellation "Thulacandra", the "silent planet" being applied to Earth). The virtuousness of the Martian inhabitants seems to be directly tied to the benevolent shepherding influence of their Oyarsa, a form of influence denied to the inhabitants of Earth. Not only that, according to the story the Oyarsa of Earth actively worked to subvert the minds and lives of Earth's inhabitants. Ransom is ashamed, it seems, because humanity didn't live up to the example set by aliens that had supernatural assistance denied to us and actively undermined. Lewis' it seems, wants to berate humanity for being flawed, but also wants to include the Miltonian myth of the fall of Lucifer in his story, which requires there to be a supernatural source for humanity's flaws. Throughout the Space Trilogy this contradiction is never resolved, and it makes Lewis' attempts to make theological arguments as part of his story  almost incoherent as he asserts that the problems of human civilization are the result of human venality, but cannot seem to decide if human venality is the result of our unworthiness, or if human venality is the result of supernatural forces.

Eventually Ransom finally meets up with the Oyarsa of Malcandra, who it turns out is who Weston and Devine had unwittingly brought him to Mars to meet. Shortly thereafter, Weston and Devine also arrive, having been brought by an irate band of Malcandrans after they had killed a number of natives. After an extended exchange with the Oyarsa it turns out that Weston and Devine had come to Mars in search of gold (or as the natives call it "sun's blood"), and the Oyarsa had wanted to meet these interlopers into his domain and summoned them to its presence. Because Devine and Weston are "bent" they misinterpreted the request that had been passed through the sorns as being a demand for a human sacrifice, leading them to abduct Ransom for that purpose. After Ransom endures the obligatory berating by the Oyarsa for the failings of the human race, Weston and Devine are brought to face the immaterial being and mistakenly assume that it is a trick played by a local witch doctor. The pair are haughty and arrogant, more or less lampooning the attitudes displayed by many European explorers who had forayed out among "primitive" tribes in Africa, South America, and so on, boasting that they are not only interested in looting the planet for gold, but also want to conquer it and repopulate it with humanity. As usual, the fallen nature of humans is contrasted to the gloriously perfect nature of the alien inhabitants of the red planet. In the end, the Oyarsa banishes Devine and Weston and magically bars them (and all other humans) from ever returning to Mars.

At the end of the book, Ransom elects to return to Earth with Weston and Devine, having been guaranteed divine protection for the hazardous journey. Once they arrive back in England, their now magically powered space ship disintegrates into nothingness, leaving no evidence of their travels save for their own memories. Ransom, no longer protected by the eldils of heaven, avoids Weston and Devine and resumes his walking tour of England. Although Out of the Silent Planet is only 160 pages long, it is turgidly slow as events proceed at a glacial pace and nothing much happens for most of the book. In some ways it is not so much a novel as a vehicle for Lewis to expound upon his personal theology - and at this point in his career, his theological thinking was both very basic and internally contradictory. With cardboard characters, a slow and almost pointless story, and limply unconvincing theological polemics, Out of the Silent Planet is mildly interesting as a piece of science fiction history and as an early look at Lewis' apologetics, but isn't much more than that.

Subsequent book in the series: Perelandra

1939 Retro Hugo award Nominees

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  1. I sort of liked C.S. Lewis's thinly disguised polemics, despite being Jewish. He tried hard to stick religion into science fiction and fantasy - with some success. The idea that he tried always interested me.

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: Lewis' thinly disguised polemics were sometimes enjoyable to read - his Narnia series was quite fun despite being laden with heaping helpings of Christian lessons for children. But in Out of the Silent Planet (and Perelandra and That Hideous Strength) there isn't much story other than the thinly disguise Christian polemics, and it gets kind of tiresome.