Out of the Silent Planet: Subtle allegory

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOut of the Silent Planet by C.S. LewisOut of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

You probably know that C.S. Lewis was a Christian apologist who wrote many popular books — both fiction and nonfiction — which explain or defend the Christian faith. His most famous work, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, some of the most-loved stories in all of fantasy fiction and children’s literature, is clearly Christian allegory. Likewise, his science fiction SPACE TRILOGY can be read as allegory, though it’s subtle enough to be enjoyed by those who don’t appreciate allegorical stories and just want to read a thoughtful science fiction adventure with an intelligent hero.

In Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in the trilogy, Dr. Elwin Ransom, a Cambridge philology professor, is kidnapped and taken by spaceship to Mars, which is called Malacandra by the alien species that live there. Suspecting that he’s about to be offered as a sacrifice, Ransom escapes from his captors and must survive by himself on the strange planet. There, he is enchanted by the beautifully foreign scenery, meets aliens who are nothing like humans, learns about the origin of the species on Malacandra and Earth and, finally, morosely reflects on the fallen nature of mankind.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI liked everything about Out of the Silent Planet — the descriptions of the spherical space ship and the planet of Malacandra, the idea that space is full and living instead of empty and dead, the development of Ransom from a conservative college professor to a daring space traveler, the interesting metaphysics and the ideas about the perception of light and movement, the allegorical explanation of humanity’s greed and selfishness which suggests a spiritual origin for social Darwinism. Best of all was Ransom’s translation of one of his captor’s speeches about human destiny for aliens who previously had no concept of human ambition and aggression.

It’s easy to see that C.S. Lewis loved language, mythology and knowledge, and that he was ashamed of much human behavior. The Christian allegory is easy to see, too, if you’re willing, but discussing that here would require spoilers and remove all the mystery, so I will leave that for you to discover.

Out of the Silent Planet was written in 1938, long before we knew enough about Mars to realize that Lewis’s story is impossible. However, Lewis did his best with the knowledge he had, settling his Martians in the trench-like canals and leaving the surface dead. Generally, the story doesn’t feel as old as it is.

I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version, 5½ hours long, which was read by Geoffrey Howard who I liked very much. I look forward to listening to him read the next book in the SPACE TRILOGY, Perelandra.

~Kat Hooper


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOut of the Silent Planet by C.S. LewisBefore he published his celebrated children’s high fantasy series THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, C.S. Lewis tried his hand at science fiction with a series of three books called THE  SPACE TRILOGY or, sometimes, THE COSMIC TRILOGY. First published in Britain in 1938, Out of the Silent Planet is the first book in the story and introduces us to Dr. Elwin Ransom, the Oxford don who leaves earth and travels to another planet.

Ransom is going on a walking tour over the summer holiday when he is abducted by a mad physicist and a former school-mate. They bring him aboard a space ship the physicist has invented, intending to take Ransom to a planet they have visited before and offer him as a sacrifice. Once they land on the planet of Malacandra, Ransom escapes and makes his way through a strange landscape, filled with water that is blue – not sky-colored, but actually blue – and always warm; through forests of vegetation that look at bit like trees and a bit like giant vegetables, against a vista of strangely elongated mountains. Ransom soon meets the natives of the place, in particular encountering three different sentient species, and learning their habits and culture.

Lewis uses the adventures of Ransom to give a critique of the western assumption of superiority during contact with other cultures. Ransom assumes that the beings he meets are animals; when he realizes that they are intelligent, he thinks that they must be primitive because they do not choose to use a lot of high technology. When the hrossa, the first race he meets, ask him where he is from, Ransom abruptly discovers that he has misjudged them.

In answer to their questions be began by saying he had come out of the sky. Hnohra immediately asked from which planet or earth (handra). Ransom, who had deliberately given a childish version of the truth in order to adapt it to the supposed ignorance of his audience, was a little annoyed to find Hnohra painfully explaining to him that he could not live in the sky because there was no air in it; he might have come through the sky but he must have come from a handra.

Despite this evidence, Ransom continues to apply Western-centric interpretations to what he experiences on Malacandra. Unlike his two abductors, though, Ransom can learn, and at the end of the book he has already begun to question the taken-for-granted tenets of colonialism, unlike his two human adversaries.

Lewis is clear that the travelers do not leave our solar system, and Malacandra is the natives’ name for the planet we call Mars. The surface of Mars is unlivable and the natives exist in the deep crevices that look, to us, like canals. Lewis’s  imagination and his powerful, highly visual writing skill overcome implausible world building and the somewhat simplistic relationships among the three races he meets.

Despite the formal language and a certain quaintness (for example, Ransom’s stiff-upper-lip politeness to his two abductors on the space ship), this is still a powerful first contact story that forces us, as readers, to challenge our own assumptions about life. Like most of Lewis’s work, Out of the Silent Planet has a strong spiritual theme. Lewis struggled deeply with his faith and in this book it isn’t used as a superficial, one-size-fits-all solution. It is a discussion that continues beneath the surface of the story all the way through.

I thought I had read this book when I was in high school, but as soon as I read the first page I figured out that I hadn’t. I’m not sure seventeen-year-old me would have fully understood it. I’m glad I waited, and I’m glad I read it now.

~Marion Deeds


Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. LewisI wholeheartedly agree with Marion and Kat on this one. Out of the Silent Planet is a surprisingly warm, often funny adventure with a much deeper, thought-provoking core. I had a soft spot for Ransom’s innocent naivety and his upper-class politeness that borders on the ridiculous. I particularly enjoyed the time Ransom spends living with the large otter-like aliens called hrossa and the brotherly relationships he builds across the divide between two different species. It didn’t matter to me that the world Lewis created is obviously impossible. I still found that his attempt to explain the planet scientifically, in terms of its air, light and physical structures, lent credence to the story. Lewis is known for Narnia, and rightly so, but I’m glad I strayed from that well-trodden path to try something a little different.

~Katie Burton


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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KATIE BURTON (on FanLit's staff September 2015 -- September 2018) was a solicitor in London before becoming a journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren't human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

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