Monday, January 13, 2014

"Out of the Silent Planet" by CS Lewis: A Review

"Yes," said Oyarsa, "but one thing we left behind us on the harandra: fear. And with fear, murder and rebellion. The weakest of my people does not fear death. It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end. If you were subjects of Maleldil you would have peace." (138-139)

Those new to CS Lewis would be surprise just how massive his collected works are. Lewis' gifted pen touches all literary genres including poetry, fantasy, philosophy, science, theology, and even science fiction. Before he created Narnia and Aslan, Lewis agreed with his good friend J. R. R. Tolkien he should write a work of science fiction in the tradition of H. G. Wells but told from a Christian perspective. That conversation between two of the 20th Centuries greatest writers resulted in the first volume of Lewis' space trilogy (sometimes called the Ransom Trilogy) called Out of the Silent Planet

Although Out of the Silent Planet is not one of Lewis' more known works, it certainly remains influential. Most students of Lewis, after making their way through the Narnia series and the signature classics, may very well turn to the space trilogy next and rightly so.

First, a summary. This work of "theologized science-fiction," as Lewis called it, begins with a philologist named Dr. Elwin Ransom on a walking tour who interrupts two troublesome men, Drs. Dick Devine (an old acquaintance) and Edward Weston, roughing up a young man. The boy is released, but Ransom is drugged and later who discovers he's on a spaceship heading toward a planet the locals call Malacandra. We call it Mars.

Shortly after arriving on the Red Planet, Ransom manages to escape and lives with the planet's inhabitants. Being an expert of languages, he quickly learns the local language. Eventually Weston and Devine track Ransom down and manage to kill a number of the locals in their pursuit. The book transitions with Ransom passing from one people group on Mars to another engaging in various conversation as both Ransom and his friends seek to understand each others world.

The story ends with Ransom before the local sovereign, Oyarsa. His two pursuers are quickly captured and brought before Oyarsa and the climax commences. You will have to read the rest for yourself. It is important to note that what drives the story is not action or suspense, but discovery. The book is rich with graphic descriptions of Malacandra, space (which Lewis aptly describes as "the heavens"), and the inhabitants of Mars.

Ultimately, Lewis is not just interested in a fascinating story, he is making a much broader point. The mythology of the story, like that in Narnia, is clearly Christian. Each of the three planets - Malacandra (Mars), Thulcandra (Earth, the "Silent Planet), and Perelandra (Venus), is governed by a planetary sovereign called Oyarsa who yeilds great influence on the inhabitants of each planet. The people of Malacandra are mostly peaceful and harmonious, reflective of their Oyarsa. Earth, however, has an Oyarsa, if I am understanding the mythology correctly, who is "bent" (corrupted). We would know him better as Lucifer, or Satan. Above each Oyarsa and their respective planets stands a deity identified as Maledil who clearly represents Jesus. We could say that Maledil is the Aslan of Lewis' space trilogy.

In his excellent review of the book, David Downing writes:
They explain that the Field of Arbol (the solar system) is ruled by Maleldil and that each world has its own Oyarsa, or planetary sovereign. However, on the third planet, the Oyarsa and some of his eldils rose up in rebellion against Maleldil, recognizing no authority but themselves. Led by the Bent Oyarsa, this world was now cut off from the others and thus called Thulcandra, “the Silent Planet.” It remains a battleground, though there are rumors in Deep Heaven of wondrous deeds performed by Maleldil to reclaim his lost world.
This mythology is a major theme in the book and one gets the impression more will be revealed in the rest of the trilogy. I look forward to investing in it more. Born out of this mythology is the nature of the inhabitants of each planet (little is said of Perelandra in the book). One great theme of the book regards human nature which currently resembles Satan more than Christ. The more righteous Oyarsa of Merelandra repeatedly describe Weston and Devine as being hurt in their brains (128), wrong in their head (129), wounded in their brain (122), and bent without hope (122). Earlier, Lewis noted how astonished the locals where at what [Ransom] had to tell them of human history - of war, slavery and prostitution (102). Here, the locals converse among themselves why man would be so wicked. "It is because they have no Oyarsa" said one. It is because everyone of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself, said another (102). Both are right.

Oyarsa of Melacandra sums it up best in its monologue with Weston:
You, [Weston], have told me nothing of yourself, so I will tell it to you. in your own world you have attained great wisdom concerning bodies and by this you have been able to make a ship that can cross the heaven, but in all other things you have the mind of an animal. When first you came here, I sent for you, meaning you nothing but honour. The darkness in your mind filled you with fear. Because you thought I meant evil to you, you went as a beast goes against a beast of some other kind, and snared this Ransom. You would give him up to the evil you feared. Today, seeing him here, to save your own life, you would have given him to me a second time, still thinking I meant him hurt. These are your dealings with your own kind. And what you intend to my people, I know. Already you have killed some. And you have come here to kill them all. To you it is nothing whether a creature is hnau or not. At first I thought this was because you cared only whether a creature had a body like your own; but Ransom has that and you would kill him as lightly as any of my hnau. I did not know that the Bent One had done so much in your world and still I do not understand it. If you were mine, I would unbody you even now. Do not think follies; by my hand Maleldil does greater things than this, and I can unmake you even on the borders of your own world's air. But I do not yet resolve to do this. It is for you to speak. Let me see if there is anything in your mind besides fear and death and desire." (133)
Christians call this depravity and it is imbedded in our very nature. This is the greatest theme in this little work of science-fiction. Here Lewis, perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in his works, describes human nature so starkly. Though we have accomplished much in terms of technology and tools, we have yet to conquer the beast inside of all of us.

Devine is motivated by greed in his conquest of Malacandra. Weston's motivation is more sinister: conquest. He plans on killing the inhabitant of Mars and colonizing the planet for humans to take over and continue this pattern to all the other planets. What is important for Weston here is survival, even if it means the genocide of all other creatures. Oyarsa sharply reveals how empty such a worldview is. Eventually Weston will run out of planets to conquer. Eventually his race will die too. He cannot outlive death.

One gets a sense that Lewis is critiquing naturalism and his timing could not have been more prophetic. Darwinism leads naturally to conquest - a social and racial survival of the fittest - which results in war, violence, and death. Out of the Silent Planet was published in 1938. Adolf Hitler would invade Poland one year later. Consider these words from Weston:
"It is in her right," said Weston, "the right, or, if you will, the might of Life herself, that I am prepared without flinching to plant the flag  of man on the soil of Malacandra: to march on, step by step, superseding, where necessary, the lower forms of life that we find, claiming planet after planet, system after system, till our posterity - whatever strange form and yet unguessed mentality they have assumed - dwell in the universe wherever the universe is habitable." (136)
Ransom then explains Weston's meaning to Oyarsa:
"He says," resumed Ransom, "that these animals learned to do many difficult things, except those who could not; and those ones died and the other animals did not pity them. And he says the best animal now is the kind of man who makes the big huts and carries the heavy weights and does all the other things I told you about; and he is one of these and he says that if the others all knew what he was doing they would be pleased. He says that if he could kill you all and bring our people to live in Malacandra, then they might be able to go on living here after something had gone wrong with our world. And then if something went wrong with Malacandra they might go and kill all the hnau in another world. And then another - and so they would never die out." (136)
 A clear indictment against Darwinism.

 In many ways, Out of the Silent Planet is a reminder of what makes Lewis' writings so rich. I have never read a book by Lewis and came away disappointed. The first volume in the Ransom series is no exception. Like in Narnia, there is more here than a mere tale. Aslan is no mere lion - he is certainly not a tamed one - but a picture of Christ. In Malacandra, Lewis is not taking the reader out of our world - Thulcandra - but putting a mirror before us revealing who we really are.


From Lewis' Pen Series
From Lewis' Pen: Screwtape on Marriage
From Lewis' Pen: As the Ruin Falls
From Lewis' Pen: Lay Down Your Arms
From Lewis' Pen: Aslan is on the Move
From Lewis' Pen: Lead us, Evolution, Lead us
From Lewis' Pen: Lead us, Evolution, Lead us
From Lewis' Pen: An Exaggerated Feminine Type
From Lewis' Pen: Theology as a Map
From Lewis' Pen: A Lot of Wrong Ideas
From Lewis' Pen: Children Know Better Than Grownups
From Lewis' Pen: The Historical Jesus
From Lewis' Pen: Aim at Heaven
From Lewis' Pen: Satan Speaks


For more from CS Lewis:
"A Mixture of Fool and Knave": CS Lewis on Theological Liberalism
Theology As a Map: Lewis, Practical Theology, and the Trinity
"Screwtape Letters" by CS Lewis: A Review
The Most Unpopular of Christian Virtues: Lewis on Chasity - Part 1
The Most Unpopular of Christian Virtues: Lewis on Chasity - Part 2
The Most Unpopular of Christian Virtues: Lewis on Chasity - Part 3 
"Willing Slaves of the Welfare State": CS Lewis on Freedom, Science, and Society - Part 1
"Willing Slaves of the Welfare State": CS Lewis on Freedom, Science, and Society - Part 2
He is Not a Tame Lion: Aslan, Jesus, and the Limits of Postmodern Inclusivism  
To Be Undragoned: Aslan, Christ, and the Gift of Regeneration 
Lewis on Practical Theology  
Lewis on the Why of Democracy
From Uncle Screwtape:  Christianity and Politics      
Theologians I Have Been Influenced By - The Dead
"The Magician's Twin: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism" Full Documentary
Beyond Narnia:  A Great Documentary 
"Surprised by Joy" by Lewis
"Jack:  A Life of CS Lewis"  
"The Great Divorce" by Lewis
"Finding God in the Land of Narnia"   
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