With the recent release of the big screen version of C.S. Lewis' best-known novel, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, much has been made of the author's well-known predilection to lace his fiction with Christian references. Those references are certainly conspicuous in Out of the Silent Planet, his first novel published in 1938, but it would be shortsighted reader indeed who took exception and refused to look at this book out of any preconceived bias. Yes, there are characters who are obviously analogous to Christ, God and even Satan, but these are entirely in the eye of the beholder. You can choose to interpret these characters as you wish, as Gods or Aliens, without ruining your enjoyment of what is a very well written and important piece of Martian science fiction.
As the story begins, we meet its hero, Elwin Ransom, a professor of Philology (the study of ancient languages) who is on a walking holiday in the wilds of England. Stuck in the middle of nowhere without hope of securing lodgings for the night, he chances on a secluded house and is surprised to find he knows one of the residents, an old (and loathed) school acquaintance by the name of Devine. As he arrives, he finds Divine and his colleague Professor Weston in the apparent act of imprisoning a young man in their employ. Despite disbelieving their explanation (that the boy has fits and must be restrained) Ransom is persuaded to stay the night, but is swiftly drugged and incapacitated.
When he recovers, he finds himself sealed into a speeding spaceship with Devine and Weston and bound for the planet Mars, or as his kidnappers name it, Malacandra. His chance arrival saved the young man from the same fate, but to his horror, Ransom learns that the pair plan to offer him up as a sacrifice to the inhabitants of Malacandra. Upon arriving on the planet, Ransom gets his first terrifying glimpse of the Sorn, huge stick-figure like aliens who appear ready to take possession of their sacrifice. Breaking free of his captives, Ransom hides himself in the nearby forest where he meets more bizarre inhabitants of the planet and discovers that nothing is as he supposed.
Malacandra is a fascinating Mars. Lewis wrote the story at a time when the idea of the planet as home to a dying super-scientific race (the canal builders popularised by Percival Lowell) was on the wane, but then he makes little acknowledgement to any prevailing scientific trends or arguments in the novel, apart from a few lines of description near the end that recall the canals. His Mars is like Lowells, a world in decline, but in this case one ravaged at the hands of an intelligent agency. Life only perseveres in special areas called Handramits, but unlike other novels that had sought to portray the Martians as warlike, his Malacandrians enjoy a perfectly organised and harmonious existence, a stark contrast to the chaos and constant upheaval of human life. It is Earth in this novel that is the heart of darkness, a world the Martians know as The Silent Planet.
Lewis makes much of this distinction, but the novel is at its best when he lets his imagination run wild in creating his Mars rather than offering a moral compass to the reader. The creatures and societies that Ransom encounters are beautifully realised and as such I think this must rate as one of the first novels to really succeed in breathing effective life into an alien world, be it Mars or otherwise. Others of course had attempted the feat beforehand, such as Burroughs in his John Carter novels, but while his Mars was full of high melodrama, monsters and daring escapes, Lewis opts for a far more reasoned and measured approach, populating the planet with believable inhabitants who have something to say to the reader. That he succeeds in making this connection is to be applauded.
I have seen it suggested that the characters are a little too black and white in their positions, but I would debate this? Even when Devine effectively goes toe to toe with an angel-like being in a moral and philosophical debate, his argument that the human race must expand and survive at any cost are not necessarily the act of an evil man, but rather one driven by what he sees as an essential and unstoppable imperative of sentient life. I imagine Lewis intended him to sound like evil personified and an apostle of the devil, but the passage in question is so well written, that the broad and open minded reader will find themselves listening to his abhorrent arguments with an uncomfortable little shiver of understanding. You may not agree with him, (I hope you don't) but you can see where he is coming from. Science fiction seldom strays into this kind of moral minefield so blatantly, and the philosophical, religious and ethical dilemmas posed by Out of the Silent Planet set it apart from others in the genre by a considerable margin. That it succeeds on so many levels marks it out as a great work of fiction, and no matter your personal leanings on the moral and religious debate, this is a Mars you should take time to visit.
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