Sunday, April 14, 2013

Out of the Silent Planet (book)

image(1938)
By C. S. Lewis
Wikipedia Entry

C. S. Lewis today is known for his epic fantasy Chronicles of Narnia, but before he started with the series, he tried his hand at science fiction, with spectacular success.  Out of the Silent Planet is one of the forgotten classics of the genre.

The first book in his “Space Trilogy,” the story features Elwin Ransom, a philologist who while on a walking tour of the UK, falls in with a mad scientist and is taken to the planet Malacandra – known to humans as Mars.  Thinking he’s to be sacrificed to the scary-looking humanoids, the Sorns, he runs off and falls in with a different race of Malacandrans, the Hrossa.  The Hrossa bring to mind otters and slowly integrate Ransom into their tribe.  But he eventually had to face meeting Oyarsa, the ruler of the world.

The portion with the hrossa is the book’s biggest strength.  There is no universal translator, so the book is one of the few that concentrates on the progress Ransom makes in learning the language, which Lewis did a conscientious job of constructing.  There are three races on Malacandra, the Hrossa, the humanoid Seroni (Sorns), and the Pfifltriggi (I seem to recall they are froglike).  It’s very unusual even today to populate a planet with more than one alien, and Lewis was also one of the first to show a well-thought-out alien society. I also love the fact that he keeps the Pfifltriggi offstage – because there’s no reason to show much of them.*

Lewis does use the novel to introduce Christian theology, of course, but it never cloys.  On the surface, it’s a great SF adventure novel, just like the Narnia books are great fantasy adventures.

Lewis followed his friend J. R. R. Tolkien by making this the basis for a trilogy.  The sequel, Perelandra, was set on Venus as a water world.  The plot, however, is a retelling of Eve being tempted in the Garden of Eden.  Even Lewis thought the plot was secondary to his description of the world and the book is a drop down from the first.  The final book in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, I found unreadable. 

In any case, the weaknesses of the other two books is one reason why Out of the Silent Planet** is not as well known as it should be.  The books are still available, but they are footnotes compared to the success of Narnia, and very few people alive today are introduced to him through his space trilogy.

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*At the end, Ransom talks about being able to describe life among them, but that since he never went there in the course of his adventures.

**The title refers to Earth, known on Malacandra as Thulcandra, which means “The Silent Planet.”

2 comments:

ZZMike said...

I have that very paperback here at home. I've read the lot.

Mahatma Randy said...

I felt like he was going for a Dante's Inferno thing. Mars was hell, Venus was Purgatory. That Hideous Strength might have been Paradise, I can't tell, because like you I found it unreadable.