Thursday, December 8, 2016

Out of the Silent Planet

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C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both agreed that Lewis would write a story about space travel and Tolkien would write about time travel.  Unfortunately, Tolkien's story wasn't completed (he was busy with a few other small books...) and only exists in part in the Lost Road and Other Writings.

The story of Out of the Silent Planet follows a man named Ransom (or at least called Ransom in the story) as he is kidnapped by his old school chum Weston and sent to a planet called Malacandra.  

Ransom overhears Weston and his friend chatting about how they are going to sacrifice Ransom to the mysterious Malacandrian creatures known as sorns.  Ransom takes a knife and runs away--only to fall himself lost on a planet he's never encountered.

He meets a creature called a hross who teaches him the language of his people and helps Ransom along.  Eventually Ransom is freed from the planet and returns home.

The beginning of this book was super well-written and I found it really entertaining.  Towards the middle I felt that some of the explanation of different creatures and scenery dragged just a bit and though there was a nagging sense of tension in the back of my mind, for a few chapters not much was happening other than Ransom was getting acquainted with the planet.

I do enjoy C.S. Lewis writing for the most part, this book more so than the Chronicles of Narnia (in writing style only pretty much).  

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One part I particularly liked was when Ransom asked Weston what was going on and Weston kind of refused to explain what was happening:

"I suppose it will save you trouble if I deal with these questions at once, instead of leaving you to pester us with them every hour for the next month.  As to how we do it--I suppose you mean how the space-ship works--there's no good your asking that.  Unless you were one of the four or five real physicists now living you couldn't understand: and if there were any chance of your understanding you certainly wouldn't be told.  If it makes you happy to repeat words that don't mean anything--which is in fact, what unscientific people want when they ask for an explanation--you may say we work by exploiting the less observable properties of solar radiation.  As to why we are here , we are on our way to Malacandra..." (pg. 28)

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AndromedaRoach - DeviantArt

A couple things I like about this passage is that first of all, it kind of confronts the annoying idea that the only way of knowing things is through science and that the rest is "words that don't mean anything".  I mean, really if you think about it, is it possible to scientifically prove that the only way to know things is through science?  Of course not--it's an epistemological idea which is philosophical. The very idea contradicts itself.

I also like how Lewis cleverly kept the exact idea of how the trip was managed relatively vague.  This is something I am trying really hard to do in les livre because I am certainly not a physicist, and even if I was, science is changing and expanding all the time.  Any explanation I (or Lewis) could give would likely be outdated in short order.

Plus, it's not really the how that counts, it's the why in this story.

Another one of my favorite passages shows just how great Lewis is at describing things and creating surreal images in a reader's mind.  Take a read of this:

"The Earth's disk was nowhere to be seen; the stars, thick as daisies on an uncut lawn, reigned perpetually with no cloud, no moon, no sunrise to dispute their sway. There were planets of unbelievable majesty, and constellations undreamed of: there were celestial sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and pin-pricks of burning gold; far out on the left of the picture hung a comet, tiny and remote: and between all and behind all, far more emphatic and palpable than it showed on Earth, the undimensioned, enigmatic blackness." (pg. 33)

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Story Warren

I've been trying to think of creative ways to describe space for my own story, and this is a prime example of how to do it.  What metaphors!

In Chapter 22 Lewis explains how he acquired all this information from Ransom, and reveals that Ransom is not actually the professor's real name.  I found this pretty fascinating because I always love when authors give a reason for their books' existence.  The Lord of the Rings, for instance, supposedly exists because the Hobbits wrote down their adventures.  I did like how C.S. Lewis tied this in.

The other thing that struck me about this book was how similar to Tolkien it was.  First of all, the character of Ransom reminds me greatly of Tolkien.  He's a philologist, older, a don at the university, and sort of booky.  The other Tolkien-esque element of this book is the idea of rediscovery.

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Tolkien wrote extensively on the idea of using fantasy to rediscover elements of our own world that we've forgotten about.  He commented on this in Mythopoeia and other writings, and I've always found it fascinating.  I've have written on this topic multiple times.  In this story, Lewis shows the same idea because Ransom comes to appreciate everything on Earth much more when he returns and to look at it with renewed interest.

In summary, I recommend this book to anyone looking for a quick but thoughtful and deep read.  Let me know what you think of C.S. Lewis' attempt to write about space travel.

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The Space Review


  1. Ransom was modeled after Tolkien on purpose, which I find absolutely delightful. The Space Trilogy is pretty much right under Tolkien's work for me.

  2. One of my favourite books!

    Like The Author said, Lewis based the character of Ransom off Tolkien (and in return Tolkien put Lewis into LOTR as... a talking tree).

    1. Awesome; who wouldn't want to be an Ent??