This was originally printed on https://apilgriminnarnia.com/. If you haven’t visited that blog, you really should.
As a lifelong reader of C.S. Lewis’s and his Space Trilogy, in my estimation, the first novel Out of the Silent Planet was enjoyable but the most “slight” of the trilogy: an initial foray into themes that Lewis would develop more fully in the subsequent novels. Recently on my podcast we decided to read through Out of the Silent Planet chapter by chapter. Once we began, I realized I had been wrong. Lewis’s “slight” first novel is a subtle but piercing critique of enlightenment ideas, a master example of world building, and a meditation on the fear of death, all packaged up as a ripping sci-fi adventure.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that existential dread looms in the psyche of Westerners since dawn of the 20th century. From the threats posed by nuclear bombs, and global warming, to the terrifying ambitions of states like Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany most of us in the west have grown up with the suspicion that if bombs didn’t kill us quick, the planet would kill us slow. It’s unsurprising that this dread dominates our speculative literature, perhaps best exemplified in “Lovecraftian Horror” where characters regularly encounter powerful, dark, alien forces that are vastly beyond their ability to defeat or even comprehend.
The human characters in Out of the Silent Planet (Ransom, Weston and Devine) also face existential dread and encounter powerful alien forces beyond their comprehension but with a surprising twist: The alien “gods”, or eldila, in Lewis’s universe are benevolent and bright, not evil and dark. The Martians of this story don’t rampage on mechanical tripods but write poetry. And instead of humans grappling with physical and technological inferiority (à la Battlefield Earth) they must battle their moral inferiority. By spiriting humanity to an alien world, Lewis cunningly turns the mirror back on ourselves. Our problem, Lewis suggests, is not powerful forces outside of us, but our own “bent” nature and fear of death. As Oyarsa says, humans are “wise enough to see the death of their kind approaching, but not wise enough to endure it”.
Perhaps this is best exemplified in the character of the great physicist, Weston (a very evocative name choice by Lewis) and his mission to “save humanity”. He builds the spaceship to Malacandra not for personal gain but so mankind will survive past our extinction date. But for all his talk of saving humanity, Weston doesn’t love any humans. He desperately wants immortality for nobody in particular. Weston’s final comeuppance is soundly delivered when he refuses to recognize Malacandra’s inhabitants as anything more than “savages” for conquest and we see that the great westerner is only running from his fear of death. He is revealed to be nothing but a savage himself, babbling in pidgin English, no less.
Ransom also spends most of this novel literally running from death. He’s especially terrified of the Sorns, convinced of their evil intentions. The irony is that, despite his terror, nobody on Malacandra means Ransom any harm. He enters Malacandra struggling for survival amidst abundance, fighting against “enemies” that only wish his well-being. The difference between Weston and Ransom is that Ransom finally surrenders himself to “the enemy” and becomes far better for it. He ends the story humbled but braver and more like a noble Malacandran.
“Men must endure their going hence” is written on C.S. Lewis’s gravestone. This idea dominates Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis isn’t advocating a fatalistic, suicidal embracing of death but rather a Christian surrender to the life that comes by dying; the paradox epitomized in The Gospel. In the universe that Lewis presents, mankind’s greatest problem is not being overcome by forces greater than ourselves, but our vain refusal to be overcome. As Lewis later would remark in the Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
If you’d like to hear more of our discussion on Out of the Silent Planet, you can listen to our podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. And if you have any comments, please send us your thoughts on Twitter at @czoopodcast.