Topic #11: Read a book set more than 5000 miles from your location
Book: Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis
Publisher: John Lane, The Bodley Head (1938)
Dr. Ransom, a renowned British philologist, is enjoying a quiet holiday hiking in the English countryside when a chance encounter with two of his fellow academics sends him careening through outer space, against his will, on what may be the greatest journey any human being has ever taken. His holiday, originally intended to span a hundred miles at the most, brings him more than thirty million miles from home. Lost and terrified on an alien world, if Ransom is going to survive long enough to find a way back home, he will have to rely on something far greater than his intelligence or instinct; he will have to rely on his capacity for change.
Originally published in 1938, more than two decades before any human being ever left earth’s atmosphere, C.S. Lewis’s science fiction journey embodies a childlike wonder about the possibilities that the world above our skies might offer. Like a lot of space travel fiction of the era, it benefits from being written after the theoretical science of space travel was decently understood but before it had been achieved. The awe-inspiring beauty of outer space and extraterrestrial landscapes are not simply a pleasant background detail in a story concerned with other things; awe-inspiring beauty is the whole point of the story. It is the driving force behind most of what the characters do, and whether or not Ransom, humanity’s overburdened surrogate, is even capable of making sense of the beauty surrounding him is the central dramatic question. This is not an adventure story. It’s the story of one man, faced with what is plainly impossible and forced to confront the fact that it is real nevertheless.
Because the book is so much about discovering a new and startling world, it’s appreciated that the planet of Malacandra and the creatures that live on it come off as fresh and original even after the better part of a century. The planet’s unique ecosystem, along with its considerably weaker gravity, has produced lifeforms that could never survive on earth, but who are well-adapted to the jagged hills and balmy rivers of their own planet. Thanks to the expertise of our philologist protagonist, the story is concerned with not just the biology, but the language and culture of the intelligent aliens Ransom meets. While it may strain my suspension of disbelief that he can pick up extraterrestrial languages in a matter of weeks, the alien ethnographies that his language proficiency allows are a highlight of the book.
While Ransom may catalog the phenomena he can understand, the story’s gaze is always turned skyward, toward things that he might never understand. How is it that the eldila, the invisible, yet omnipresent inhabitants of the stars, can exist in all places at once? How can Oyarsa, the revered ruler of the planet, be older than human civilization? Most importantly, why is planet Earth spoken of in such, hushed, worried tones, as the “Silent Planet,” where nobody has been for eons? Ransom gets a few answers, but when it comes to the true nature of the universe, he is left mostly with questions that an extraterrestrial journey will never be enough to explain.
Reading the book as Christian allegory fills in some of the gaps in the world that Lewis has built, but never in a way that interferes with the fundamental sense of mystery that hangs over Ransom’s journey. This is a more original and bold allegory than Lewis ever pulled off in his Narnia series, so going into the book with a basic understanding of the author’s theology allowed me to enjoy it far more than I might have ordinarily. By fusing the strangeness of science fiction with Christian theological concepts, he successfully re-mystifies a religion that might, to some, feel mundane. I can only speculate on how it would be perceived at the time of its publication, but for me in the present, this book swept away stale images of haloed and winged figures in white robes living in white-marble buildings on the top of the clouds, and replaced them with surprising and eerie strangeness that sticks with me after the last page.
In his pursuit of a perfectly constructed allegory, he allowed his protagonist, Ransom, to remain fairly forgettable. His arc of interplanetary and self-discovery could have been much more engaging if it ever felt like he was have trouble with it, but it seems more like it was only a matter of time. Regardless of what Lewis is trying to say about religion, just doesn’t grab the reader like a more deeply-flawed character.
Final Grade: A-