The first volume of Lewis's Cosmic Trilogy, the book Out of the Silent Planet takes us to the planet Mars -- and into the meaning of “human”.|
The plot looks simplistic at first: a man rushes to the aid of an innocent victim and ends up being kidnapped by a mad scientist (Prof. Weston) and his greedy accomplice. He is then taken, unwilling, to the planet Mars in a space vessel invented and secretly built by the scientist. Once on Mars, the victim, Dr. Ransom, discovers that he is to be given by his kidnappers as a human sacrifice to the native Martians. He manages to escape from his captives, and learns to survive on the red planet.
This plot might make it look like the book would be perfectly at home with many other “adventure” science fiction works written, like it, in the 1930s. However, while most other SF adventures written back then are of no interest today, and few of them are actually remembered (most would be classified today as “pulp” science fiction), Out of the Silent Planet stands out as a sustaining work. The similarities between this book and most of its contemporaries end on the surface level.
C. S. Lewis was, much more than a fiction writer, a Christian thinker. He wrote many non-fiction books dealing with Christianity, and his fiction books really deal with the same subject too. Out of the Silent Planet and its two sequels are no exception. The book is loaded with Christian symbolism and references. But among many other things, I found the book's most important aspect to be the discussion on the meaning of being hnau -- a conscious, intelligent being (human or otherwise).
In its writing style, Out of the Silent Planet is an easy and enjoyable read. During Ransom's travels on Mars (called “Malacandra” by its natives), a level of suspense is always kept and the reader would probably find himself interested in the plot. The characters, however, are somewhat lacking. In this book, Lewis seems to create characters that are easily classifiable as “good” or “evil”. Prof. Weston is Lewis's “stock evil professor”: in his general behavior, in his attempt to use others as Guinea pigs, and even in his loss of sense and dignity in front of higher truths, Weston is remarkably similar to Uncle Andrew from The Magician's Nephew. Compare, for example, Andrew's denying behavior on the land of Narnia in front of the talking animals to Weston's behavior in front of the Oyarsa.
An interesting aspect of the book, from a science fiction point of view, is that our hero, being a linguist, learns the language of the natives. In most other books, old as well as modern, if there is any verbal communications at all it is the aliens that learn our language (invariably English). The alien language is also actually discussed in the book, with a few words being used constantly for lack of English alternatives. A partial explanation is that Dr. Ransom is a philologist, and some people suggest that he was modeled after J. R. R. Tolkien (of Lord of the Rings fame), Lewis's close friend and a philologist himself.
(Continued in review of Perelandra.)
What do they call this trilogy, anyway?
The trilogy formed by Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength is called by different people “The Cosmic Trilogy”, “The Planets Trilogy”, “The Dr. Ransom Trilogy”, “The Interplanetary Trilogy” and “The Space Trilogy”. There are probably several other names that I've missed...
The edition that I have read is a British one-volume print, titled “The Cosmic Trilogy” (published by Pan Books in 1989), which is why I chose to use that name. But I have seen at least one other name (“The Space Trilogy”) used in print.
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