Saturday, March 19, 2011

Out of the Silent Planet

This post is part of the C.S. Lewis book club hosted at the Quiet Quill - stop by there to read other discussions on this book. Next month we'll be discussing the sequel, Perelandra.

Given that Out of the Silent Planet came out in the 1930's, I think it is a spectacular SF book. No one does descriptions like C.S. Lewis to make you feel as if you are actually there, on another planet; a masterful blend of up-close details and broad-scale views. His spaceship and description of space travel are fascinating, too.

Here's a quote that embodies Lewis' way of turning your pre-conceived, earth-bound views inside out - we conceive space as darkness and void but Lewis painted as them as brilliance and life:
He wondered how he ever could have thought of planets, even of the Earth, as islands of life and reality floating in a deadly void. Now, with a certainty which never after deserted him, he saw the planets - the 'earths' he called them in his thought - as mere holes or gaps in the living heaven - excluded and rejected wastes of heavy matter and murky air, formed not by addition to, but subtraction from, the surrounding brightness.

And yet, he thought, beyond the solar system the brightness ends. Is that the real void, the real death? Unless... he groped for the idea... unless visible light is also a hole or gap, a mere diminuation of something else. Something that is to bright unchanging heaven as heaven is to the dark, heavy earths.... Things do not always happen as a man would expect. The moment of his arrival in an unknown world found Ransom wholly absorbed in a philosophical speculation.
Let me pick out the crux of that last paragraph:

unless visible light is also a hole or gap, a mere diminuation of something else

Shivers up my spine! I think he's hinting about God.

The planet Malacandra has three very distinct intelligent species that live in peace under one all-powerful (but not tyrannical) ruler, a Christian allegory for the Kingdom of God. There's a little bit of subtle satire that pops up here and there in the book. For instance, here's Ransom trying to describe the alien culture before he really understands it - he's actually describing human culture:
It would be a strange but not an inconceivable world; herosim and poetry at the bottom, cold scientific intellect above it, and overtopping all some dark superstition which scientific intellect, helpless against the revenge of the emotional depths it had ignored, had neither will nor power to remove.
The height of satire is at the end of the book, the famous conversation where Ransom (who is a philologist, a studier of languages) acts as translator between the other two humans and the ruler of Malacandra. (Check out Wikipedia's article about the book for great discussion of that conversation).

The satire had me smiling, as well as other conversations between Ransom and the aliens where they are trying to figure each other out - both sides are respectful, but delightfully perplexed.

Here's a scene where one of the natives is trying to describe the eldil, a fleeting being that is allegorical to angels, to Ransom:
Ransom tried to give the sorn some idea of the terrestrial terminology of solids, liquids and gases. It listened with great attention.

"That is not the way to say it," it replied. "Body is movement. If it is at one speed, you smell somehting; if at another, you hear a sound; if at another you see a sight; if at another, you neither see nor hear nor smell, nor know the body in any way. But mark this, Small One, that the two ends meet."

"How do you mean?"

"If movement is faster, then that which moves is more nearly in two places at once.... But if the movement were faster still - it is difficult, for you do not know many words - you see that if you made it faster and faster, in the end the moving thng would be in all places at once, Small One.

"...The swiftest thing that touches our sense is light. We do not truly see light, we only see slower things lit by it, so that for us light is on the edge - the last thing we know before things become too swift for us. But the body of an eldil is a movement swift as light; you may say its body is made of light, but not that which is light for the eldil. His "light" is a swfter movement which for us is nothing at all; and what we call light is for him a thing like water, a visible thing, a thing he can touch and bathe in - even a dark thing when not illumined by the swifter. And what we call firm things - flesh and earth - seem to him thinner, and harder to see, than our light, and more like clouds, and nearly nothing.

"To us the eldil is a thin, half-real body that can go through walls and rocks: to himself he goes through them because he is solid and firm and they are like cloud. And what is true light to him and fills the heaven, so that he will plunge into the rays of the sun to refresh himself from it, is to us the black nothing in the sky at night. These things are not strange, Small One, though they are beyond our senses."
I was particularly fascinated about how the alien ruler, Oyarsa, calls the human visitors from earth "bent" - the closest word the aliens have for selfish or greedy (Ransom's companions have kidnapped him to make an "offering" to pacify the aliens; they have come not to study the planet but to exploit it for gold).

Here's a conversation between Ransom and Oyarsa that tells of an epic galatic (and spiritual war) that isn't hard to place with its Biblical equivalent. (Here  is also where the term "the silent planet" comes from).
"Thulcandra [Earth] is the world we do not know. It alone is outside heaven, and no message comes from it."

Ransom was silent, but Oyarsa answered his unspoken questions.

"It was not always so. Once we knew the Oyarsa of your world - he was brighter and greater than I - and then we did not call it Thulcandra [their name for Earth]. It is the longest of all stories and the bitterest. He became bent. That was before any life came on your world. Those were the Bent Years of whcih we still speak in the heavens, when he was not yet bound to Thulcandra but free like us. It was in his mind to spoil other worlds besides his own. He smote your moon with his left hand and with his right he brought the cold death on my haranda [planet surface] before its time; if by my arm Maleldil [God] had not opened the handramits [deep canyons] and let out the hot springs, my world would have been unpeopled. We did not leave him so at large for long. There was a great war, and we drove him back out of the heavens and bound him in the air of his own world as Maleldil taught us. There doubtless he lies to this hour, and we know no more of that planet: it is silent. We think that Maleldil would not give up utterly to the Bent One [Satan] in Thulcandra. But of this we know less than you; it is a thing we desire to look into."

"I see now that the Lord of the silent world has bent you. There are laws that all hnau [humans and aliens] know, of pity and staight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them expect this one, which is not one of the greaest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little blind Oyarsa [god] in your brain.... He has left you this one because a bent hnau can do more evil than a broken one. "
I kept expecting to find the allegorical reference to Christ, but I couldn't, which leaves me excited to see if the allegory of Christ's sacrifical death is covered in the next two books in the trilogy.

I don't think Oyarsa is a picture of Christ. The closest I could come to placing him was a ruling angel (eldil), though are several places, such as above, where it's infered that he's a god.

The ending where Ransom leaves the planet to return to earth - watching Malacandra grow smaller and the change of perspective - is just one of many vivid images/scenes that I'll remember for a long time

This is as far as my commentary goes; but I'm sticking a few more quotes in here at the end because I want to remember them.
"There must be rule, yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by hnau and hnau by eldila and eldia by Maleldil. These creatures have no eldila. They are like one trying to lift himself by his own hair--or one trying to see over a whole country when he is on a level with it--like a female trying to beget young on herself."
"But one thing we let 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 [death]. If you were subjects of Maledil you would have peace."
 ... the stars, thick as daisies on an uncut lawn, reigned perpetually with no cloud, no moon, no sunrise to dispute their sway. There were planets of unbelievable majesty, and constellations undreamed of: there were celestial sapphires, rubies, emeralds and pin-pricks of burning gold; far out on the left of the picture hung a comet, tiny and remote: and between all and behind all, far more emphatic and palpable than it showed on Earth, the undimensioned, enigmatic blackness.


  1. A wonderful article on this book. Isn't it amazing how much "ahead of his time" Lewis was?

    I am just back from Ireland and hoping to re-read this book and post on it later this week or next.

    Glad I read your review. Good stuff! God bless you - Marsha

  2. Oh my! How did I miss this? Please accept my apologies. I put a link to this post right away!

    I know what you mean. The descriptions are so vivid.

    I too thought the reference to humans as "bent" was fascinating.

    Yeah, I kept looking for straightforward allegories/connections too. In some cases, it seems clear, but in others, I'm not sure there is meant to be an outright allegorical connection. I'm hoping to find some more answer in the next two books as well.

  3. Yay! I ordered this book, and I just got it in the mail TODAY! I think God wants me to enjoy a good Christian book tonight! Thanks for the article. I'm going to bookmark it and come back again when I'm done!

  4. This sounds like a great book, thanks for sharing.