Some time in the mid-to-late 1930s, C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien agreed to each write an “excursionary ‘thriller’”, as Tolkien put it, with Tolkien attempting a story of time-travel and Lewis one of space-travel. Tolkien never finished his (what exists was eventually included in The Lost Road and Other Writings), whereas C S Lewis went on to write a whole trilogy, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet (published in 1938).
Lewis later called it his “Space Trilogy” (it’s also known as the Ransom Trilogy, and the Cosmic Trilogy). One of its main inspirations was David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, which Lewis first read some time between 1935 and 1938. Lindsay “is the first writer to discover what ‘other planets’ are really good for in fiction”, Lewis writes in his essay “On Stories”. Elsewhere, in a 1947 letter to Ruth Pitter, he says that it was from Lindsay he “first learned what other planets in fiction are really good for: for spiritual adventures” (though he found Lindsay’s own outlook “so Manichaean as to be almost Satanic”).
That said, Out of the Silent Planet doesn’t display a great deal of explicit Arcturan influence (for that, you have to look to the second book, Perelandra) beyond the idea that a science fiction adventure needn’t simply pay homage to what Lewis felt was the purely scientific worldview, and could instead be used to present his own spiritual outlook.
The novel begins with philologist Dr Elwin Ransom, on a walking holiday somewhere in Britain, being kidnapped and taken to a planet he at first only knows as Malacandra. He is, it seems, to be a sacrifice to the creatures of that world, whom his human kidnappers want to appease so they can establish a base there, for mining gold and perhaps, in the future, colonisation. His kidnappers aren’t merely ruthless criminals, but a “great physicist” Dr Weston (who has “Einstein on toast and drinks a pint of Schrödinger’s blood for breakfast”), and a schoolboy bully of a businessman, Devine. Of the two, Devine’s main motivator is greed (he just wants Malacandra’s gold), whereas Weston is more idealistic, though not in any good way. Weston is a believer in the Life Force, in human expansion and survival as an end itself. To him:
“Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copy-book maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from the amoeba to man and from man to civilisation.”
Once they touch down, Ransom escapes as soon as he can, and for a while is caught in a state of terror. Fed on a diet of the day’s science fiction, he’s come to expect the inhabitants of any non-Earth planet to be reptilian or insect-like, “alien, cold… superhuman in power, subhuman in cruelty”, combining “monstrosity of form” with “ruthlessness of will”. But what he finds is that Malacandra — or Mars, as he learns it to be — is in fact a harmonious place, home to three intelligent races, the hrossa, the sorns, and the pfifltriggi, and that none of these ever wanted him as a sacrifice. That idea was all down to Weston and Devine’s inability to understand the inhabitants of Malacandra in any way but their own imperialist prejudices.
Away from Weston and Devine, Ransom starts to learn the Malacandran language, and to appreciate Malacandran ways of life. The hrossa have a tribal, hunter-gatherer-style existence, and revere poetry above all other accomplishments. “They are our great speakers and singers,” Ransom is told. “They have more words and better.” The sorns are tall, intelligent and wise, and revere knowledge. The pfifltriggi are “the busy people” who excel in technical skill and making things. There’s a clear parallel between these three races and the three humans, with Ransom (a philologist) being equivalent to the word-loving hrossa; Weston (a scientist) equivalent to the knowledgeable sorns; and Devine (a businessman) equivalent to the “busy people”, the pfifltriggi. (You could also make a looser parallel with Tolkien’s humans, elves, and dwarves.) The difference is, of course, that the three Malacandran races not only live in harmony with one another, but with the cosmos at large.
Even before he reaches Malacandra, Ransom becomes aware of space as something other than the cold vacuum he’d been led to expect: “the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance…” It is, in fact, closer to his idea of heaven. And it turns out that, on every planet in the solar system except Earth, there’s a deep connection with the divine cosmic order. Maleldil (God) made it all, and placed one of his chief representatives (the Oyarsa) on each planet, who in turn are served by the invisible-to-us eldila (angels). Only on Thulcandra — Earth, known to the rest of the solar system as the “Silent Planet” — have we lost touch with this divine order, and that’s because our Oyarsa (presumably Lucifer) rebelled against Maleldil, and has since been known as “the Bent One”.
It’s humankind’s exclusion from a directly experienced connection with this divine order that has led to our “human history — of war, slavery and prostitution”. In effect, Lewis has written a science fiction story in which mankind travels to the stars not to fight evil aliens (a generalisation presumably only true of some of the worst pulp SF of the time) but to learn of its own inherent evil.
(This also makes it the opposite of the sort of cosmic horror being written by Lovecraft. Lovecraft used science-fictional concepts to paint a picture of a universe so chaotic and indifferent to humankind as to be utterly malevolent; Lewis is saying that if only we could see beyond our blinkered view, we’d know the cosmos to be perfect, ordered, and benevolent. As long, that is, as we obey Maleldil. And why Lewis should call the God of his trilogy Maleldil — a name that, to me, screams “ancient evil” — and one of its villains Devine, I have no idea.)
The trouble — and I think this is often the thing with Lewis’s fantasy fiction, for me — is that, when making a philosophical or ethical point about our world, but setting it in a world he’s created, Lewis has already won the debate. Towards the end of Out of the Silent Planet, he has Weston present the “Life Force” viewpoint directly to the Oyarsa of Mars, but Lewis makes what Weston says sound ridiculous because of Ransom having to translate it to Malacandran, whereupon it immediately sounds self-defeating and nonsensical. Not that I’d want to defend Weston at all, it’s just that Weston combines a belief in the survival of the human race with such an utter lack of feeling for his fellow human beings that you can’t say he truly represents the purely scientific worldview, only an extreme caricature of it. So, there’s no debate. If there is a benevolent Maleldil or God, there’s no need for Weston’s worldview, because there’s something better already available. But if you take out that certainty, and Weston’s psychopathic lack of empathy, you’d have a much more nuanced, and interesting, debate which Lewis avoids.
As science fiction, Out of the Silent Planet was probably interesting in its day, as it tried to present its alien races from something of an anthropological (wrong word, I know) standpoint: as intelligent races to be understood as living beings, rather than mere invasion-fodder for a pulp adventure. But the years between then and now have seen the same thing done a lot better by other hands. There’s also not a great deal of story to this book (I prefer the second in the trilogy, Perelandra, which I’ll be writing about in the next Mewsings). Instead, Out of the Silent Planet stands out as a sort of curiosity, Lewis’s attempt at a corrective to the modern, purely scientific science fiction story, presenting the sort of cosmic order a medieval writer might have come up with, and owing more to Swift (Lewis’s pfifltriggi sound very Gulliver’s Travels to me) than to H G Wells (whom Lewis apologises to in his brief preface, for “Certain slighting references to earlier stories of this type”). Which makes it sound as though Lewis-the-enthusiastic-reader-of-stories was in conflict with Lewis-the-Christian-apologist from the start. And that perhaps most sums up my own reaction — I like the bits written by the “enthusiastic reader of stories”; less so the rest.