Out of The Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis

Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy, Book One)It's been so long since I read anything by C.S. Lewis, I wasn't sure what to expect from this. Though I've much more recently seen the latest film adaptations of the first two Narnia books, I don't remember much about reading them, except that I enjoyed them, so it shouldn't be too difficult to restrict my comments to this book and refrain from (always tempting) comparisons with his better-known work. This short book was brought to my attention when my son read it for his 10th grade English class, and I probably never would have read it if he didn't recommend it to me, and/or it wasn't already in the house- but I'm glad I finally got around to it.

This fictional story is told as if it were a factual account of the experiences of an Englishman called Ransom (though it is eventually "revealed" that names have been changed throughout to protect identities). Ransom is forcibly kidnapped, taken aboard a spaceship by two unscrupulous men, to the planet Malacandra. For their own purposes, as Ransom discovers en route, they plan to hand him over to indigenous aliens, for sacrifice. Ransom's mind conjures plenty of horrific alien creatures for the remainder of their interplanetary trip, and he resolves to escape at the first available opportunity. Soon after they arrive on Malacandra, the expected aliens come for him. Ransom, terrified, manages to escape his captors afoot, fleeing into the strange wilderness. He eludes pursuit long enough to overcome his initial fear of the unknown and come to terms with his situation, eventually discovering the true nature of the world on which he's stranded and of the creatures that inhabit it. By contrast, he also comes to some conclusions about our own world, and about humanity.

Overall, the story is a sort of "manifest destiny" parable, written in 1938. It's actually a surprisingly short book for the scope of story Lewis attempts, and to his credit he does a remarkable job of creating a reasonably realized portrayal of Malacandra. In 1938, with the atom yet un-split, and 30 years before the onset of manned space travel, it was an order of magnitude more plausible that intelligent life might exist on other planets in our solar system, and though this is by now obviously false, it would be a shame if potential readers allowed pesky facts to dissuade them from discovering or enjoying this work of science fiction. Many older science fiction books suffer from this type of outdating, but this one doesn't. The technical details of space travel are largely left out of the narrative to begin with, leaving only the actual conditions on a certain (subsequently visited) solar neighbor to require suspension of readers' disbelief. For me, this required surprisingly little effort.

I haven't read enough of Lewis's stuff to know for sure, but judging from this book and the spiritual references present throughout the Narnia series, I suspect he displayed a lifelong inclination to bring a touch of the metaphysical to his stories. I think it would also be a shame to discount his work on those grounds. I'm a lifelong atheist, but I find these references indispensable in terms of the stories he's telling. These references aren't necessarily the whole point, but the stories would be considerably diminished in substance and scope without them, as they seem somewhat integral to both plot and theme. I look forward to seeing if the entirely unique (in my experience) metaphysical system present in this story continues in the following two books of the series, known alternately as Lewis's "Space Trilogy" or "Cosmic Trilogy".

Out of the Silent Planet is an interesting book, well worth reading, and good enough that I intend to get my hands on the following two books.

Cover of the Scribner paperback edition I read (in which, incidentally, I noticed no editorial errors):

This is another cover, which I find a bit more accurate to Lewis's descriptions:

Some other covers, which touch on some of the other elements in the book, and are just fun to look at:

More info and reviews at amazon.com

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