Hello dear reader,
Here, finally, is my book review of Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in C. S. Lewis' Space Trilogy and the 10th book on my list of the best sci-fi books of all time. I really enjoyed this novel because of its creative world-building, alien interactions and spirituality. So what is Out of the Silent Planet about and what are the main science fiction concepts in it? Let's find out!
Plot and Narration
Out of the Silent Planet is about a man named Dr. Elwin Ransom, a philology professor, who gets kidnapped and taken to another planet. There he meets one of the alien races and learns to appreciate their language and culture. His kidnappers on the other hand, don't care one whit about the natives or their beautiful planet other than for resource reasons.
The novel is narrated in the third person past voice, and the narrator is not a character in the novel (except when we find out at the end that he kind of is).
Silent Planet is actually the first story on my list that takes place in space! What a milestone! Lewis does a great job describing the spaceship Ransom and his kidnappers travel in.
"The core of the ship is a hollow globe...and the surface of that globe is the floor we are walking on...As the centre is always 'down,' the piece of floor you are standing on always feels flat or horizontal and the wall you are standing against always seems vertical."
So Lewis' spaceship seems to make use of artificial gravity via centrifugal and centripetal force. This is all we get about how the spaceship works, and that it runs by "exploiting the less observed properties of solar radiation." This, of course, is the same type of spaceship design seen in popular films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar. However, based on Lewis' description, it seems his spaceship is a little too small for successful artificial gravity, as explained in this video about creating artificial gravity. The diameter of the spaceship would have to be huge, many kilometers long in order for an acceptable rate of rotation to create an acceptable force of gravity for humans without spinning too fast, causing us to get sick. But anyways, I think it's amazing that C. S. Lewis made use of artificial gravity back in 1938.
I also think it's amazing that Lewis has a sentence quite similar to Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" speech.
"It was all there in that little disk - London, Athens, Jerusalem, Shakespeare. There everyone had lived and everything had happened, and there, presumably, his pack was still lying in the porch of an empty house near Sterk."
It is this type of distance from our own planet, problems, life, etc., that effects a profound change in perspective, as it does so for Ransom.
Another sci-fi concept in this novel is alien beings. Ransom is fascinated with the native races of the planet on which he finds himself. He learns many valuable lessons about another culture and comes to realize how strange human culture actually is.
"At last it dawned on him that it was not they, but his own species, that were the puzzle."
We first saw aliens on my list in The War of the Worlds. But those aliens were menacing, destructive, and though they were highly intelligent, could not, or would not, communicate with humans in any meaningful way. Lewis' aliens, though, are quite the opposite. And I really like this. So much of our science fiction features aliens hell bent on destroying humanity, especially in movies. It's a nice change of pace to get something that, I hope, is a little more realistic. Ransom, I would argue, is fundamentally changed by his encounters with these aliens.
General Themes and Symbols
Out of the Silent Planet also has two main general themes/ideas that I'd like to discuss in this post: exploitation colonialism and human nature. Of course, there's a lot to talk about with this book, but I think these are the main themes.
The book starts off with your classic exploitation colonialism. This is the main theme at the foundation of the story. It's why there's a story in the first place! Ransom's kidnappers journey to the planet Malacandra in order to mine the gold on the planet and also to spread humanity's reach far and wide. Weston and Devine, the kidnappers, don't care about the local races or the beautiful environment. They just want the gold. They can't see the beauty of the people, the land, the language, for their own greed and fear of the unknown.
"The darkness in your mind filled you with fear." -Oyarsa, the spiritual ruler, to Weston.
Obviously there are many ties to the real world here. Getting into that would require a dissertation in its own right. So for now I'll just mention that the spiritual ruler of Malacandra asks Ransom if Weston is "wounded in his brain," so primitive and illogical does Weston's colonial thinking seem.
I'm not sure how much Out of the Silent Planet is about human nature and how much I'm reading into it, but I think it's worth spending a few sentences on. The contrast between Ransom and his kidnappers is like night and day. We very much get the two types of people represented here: the kind, curious, respectful academic; and the colonial, humans-are-the-best-ever-we-are-entitled-to-everything guy. The difference manifests itself in a willingness to understand in Ransom, and in an ugliness of the heart in Weston that is very apparent, especially towards the end of the book.
What's interesting here is that Weston is also an educated man, a physicist, a man of science, and yet he still has this darkness in his heart. And he's convinced he's right. He's convinced humanity must forge ahead with space travel, using up whatever it needs to survive. I'm all for the space travel, less so for the maniacal resource consumption.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Finally, Silent Planet has two main strengths, world-building and theology, and one main weakness, character development (though in this particular novel that certainly doesn't bother me).
"He knew nothing yet well enough to see it: you cannot see things till you know roughly what they are. His first impression was of a bright, pale world - a watercolour world out of a child's paint box."
Lewis is a master of world-building. The novel is a great read for the creativity and imagination displayed in the world-building alone. Lewis paints a wonderfully vivid picture of this alien planet that I could truly see in my mind's eye. 50 points for Gryffindor!
Here's another great example:
"The purple mass looked for a moment like a plump of organ-pipes, then like a stack of rolls of cloth set up on end, then like a forest of gigantic umbrellas blown inside out. It was in faint motion. Suddenly his eyes mastered the object. The purple stuff was vegetation: more precisely it was vegetables, vegetables about twice the height of English elms, but apparently soft and flimsy."
The native races of Malacandra have their own mythology that is explained in detail in the novel. It is very spiritual and results in a deep respect for all living beings, something that humans have not yet mastered. This aspect of the novel is truly beautiful and worth thinking about. Everything has its place in the spiritual system.
Here's one nice example of the locals' way of thinking:
"A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking...as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another....You say you have poets in your world. Do they not teach you this?" -Hyoi to Ransom.
Weakness: Character Development
Now, I'm including character development as a weakness because character development is really what is supposed to drive a story and there is no huge character development present in Silent Planet. HOWEVER, I don't really see this as a problem in this particular novel because the characters do drive the story, it's just that each character remains the same throughout the story. Ransom does have some development because he learns to truly appreciate the alien cultures to which he is exposed, but there's no classic development, such as the coward becomeing the hero, or the troubled dude learning to let go of his troubling past, etc. There would be no story if it weren't for the characters here, that's for sure, but Silent Planet is as much a philosophical exposition as it is a novel. The focus is on the clash between humans and the alien races and that's what Lewis highlights throughout.
Out of the Silent Planet is a brilliant science fiction novel about cultural differences and respect for all living beings. It's imaginative, creative and beautifully written. This is one that'll stay with you long after you've read it.
One of the reasons I love science fiction is because it explores where we've been, where we are and where we can go, not just physically but emotionally, mentally and culturally. With this in mind I'd like to designate Out of the Silent Planet as a where we are novel.
Stay tuned for my review of the next book in Lewis' Space Trilogy, Voyage to Venus: Perelandra.
Author: C. S. Lewis
Publisher: John Lane
Quotations: Lewis, C. S. Out of the Silent Planet. Business and Leadership Publishing, 2014. Kindle Edition.