Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis
After Narnia Week, I was getting curious about Lewis’ novels for adults. While I’ve had Till We Have Faces on my reading list for a while, I’ve had The Space Trilogy recommended to me—specifically, Perelandra, the sequel that deals with a planet in the throes of its own creation myth. But y’all know how I am about series; I have to start at the beginning. (I am getting better about this, however, but when it comes to old-school speculative fiction, I have to.) So Out of the Silent Planet passed into my hands as required reading. Which it pretty much stayed.
Out of the Silent Planet opens with Dr. Elwin Ransom, the eminent philologist, being abducted by an old schoolfellow and his partner in crime. When Ransom wakes up on a spaceship, his entire worldview changes. Weston and Devine, his captors, bring Ransom to the planet of Malacandra to hand over to the mysterious sorns, but the fearful Ransom flees and falls in with the hross, whose language he learns. The more Ransom learns about the planet, the more he comes to love it—but the villainous Weston and Devine are still on the loose, and Ransom is soon summoned to the mysterious Oyarsa…
When I write up the blurbs for books I’m reviewing, I do my best to try and make the plot sound punchy. That above summary cuts pretty far into the novel, because not a lot happens. To be fair, this is because Out of the Silent Planet is a novella at best—at 158 pages, the covers of the 1996 hardcover edition I’d rented from the library weighed more than the actual text. But it’s also because not much really happens in the book. It ends with a postscript from Lewis, talking about his own correspondence with Ransom (presented as a pseudonym for an actual Oxford don, which is quickly dropped in Perelandra), and an excerpt from a letter of Ransom’s, where he talks about how his visit with the hross is, to him, the entire pinnacle of his visit to Malacandra, and how sad he is that Lewis couldn’t just dedicate the novel to it. But, in a way, he does. Lewis is so enamored with the world he created that a lot of time is spent on Ransom’s delight in discovering a new culture, and the actual narrative isn’t focused on too much.
In fact… well, let me back up. I was lucky enough to have a chance to attend a short workshop with Benjamin Percy when he was here for the Agnes Scott Writer’s Festival. His workshop focused on the structure of a story and the tension between the emotional arc and the narrative arc of a story. I’ve been finding this very useful; in fact, I might write up a Sunday Salon post on the subject, because it’s been helping me sort out my eternal pet peeve, the concept of “literary fiction”. (One of my professors, God bless her, expresses nothing but serene confusion when the phrase floats into her line of sight.) While Out of the Silent Planet is light on the narrative arc (man is kidnapped to planet, man comes to love planet…), it’s also light on the emotional arc. It’s something I noticed in The Chronicles of Narnia; the internal turmoil the kids should be feeling over becoming children again and discovering the Narnia they loved is dead and gone is completely glossed over. I was really hoping that was a function of the audience he was writing for—Out of the Silent Planet was published before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. To be fair, he does; Ransom’s experience of space as a sea of light instead of the usual cold dark of deep space is spiritually buoyant.
But for the most part, it’s a philosophical exercise in an alien culture instead of a story. (To be fair, I confused this with Perelandra in the beginning, but I think the comment still stands.) There’s some business with a corrupted angel having some control over Earth, but it’s hardly presented as urgent. Malacandra, which Lewis details exhaustively, boasts three sapient species, and their interaction with one another and with Ransom lead to thoughtful commentary. Hyoi, the hross Ransom becomes especial friends with, talks about how death gives life meeting; Ransom ponders the demonic and angelic aspects of the hross; and one alien tells Ransom that humans are so corrupted because they have no other species to compare world views. Given the Lewis I know from The Chronicles of Narnia and The Magician’s Book, that last one was particularly affecting.
But I still don’t know if I can push through the general disappointment to Perelandra.
Bottom line: Out of the Silent Planet is more of a philosophical exercise in an alien culture than a story, with little focus on Ransom’s emotional life and less on the overarching narrative. Not awful, but certainly not very engaging.
I rented this book from the public library.