Retrospective: Out of the Silent Planet
Check out the Review and as a heads up, retrospectives are filled with spoilers, so please only read if you have finished the book!
Out of the Silent Planet opens with us meeting Ransom, our intrepid hero, as he travels the England countryside on holiday. This early sequence involves a large amount of inner dialog and in my opinion was not a strong start for the book. Thankfully the pace quickly picks up as Ransom happens upon an old colleague, Mr. Devine and his partner Professor Weston who are clearly up to no good. The interaction between Ransom and these two has a nice flow to it, albeit it goes on for a page or two too long. A not so sudden (to the reader at least) turn of events leaves Ransom a captive of Devine and Weston and hurling through space.
We reach one of the more significant and interesting parts of Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis does a great job describing the spaceship as they fly towards their destination. While, nothing is ever explained in great detail technology wise, there is a fair amount of detail given in terms of what it “feels” like to be in a spaceship in outer space. I liked, in particular, how Ransom describes space as the complete opposite of darkness and void. That the sun and the stars would give off so much light and vibrancy as to make you feel blanketed in the warmth of life. Lewis lays the concept of outer space being similar to heaven a little thick. I would have preferred that his embellishment of this concept to be toned down a bit, but regardless I found the description and the concept to be enticing and enjoyable.
As our trio arrives on Mars, Ransom’s worst fears come true as he see’s the creatures that he is to be ransomed to. Ransom’s escape from his captors and exploration of Mars provides a nice introduction to Lewis’s vision of the world with far less gravity than our own. The animals and plants appear unnaturally elongated compared to earth creatures. This section of the book primarily focuses on a monolog of discovery for Ransom and the reader. I enjoyed this part quite a bit and likewise the other sections in the book that feature this kind of inner discovery and translation.
The first meeting between the hrossa and Ransom is well written and flows quickly enough to keep things moving along. As Ransom learns the way’s of hrossa and how they interact with Mars and the other species on the planet, Lewis takes this as his first opportunity to juxtapose human and alien societies. This part in particular feels like Pocahontas or more recently Avatar. As Ransom understand’s the culture and people he quickly grows to love them and what they represent. While this story trope is well worn, Lewis makes it work.
The most significant juxtaposition that Lewis showcases is the perspective of Life and Death for the hrossa’s. Accepting the “circle of life” is typically linked with this kind of story trope but Lewis provides a much more robust explanation of why they think this way. It is clearly guided by the understanding that a omnipotent higher being is the creator and the controller of this cycle of life and death.
The introduction of the eldil open’s the story up and gives Ransom, and the plot in general, some needed direction. The eldil are clearly meant to be thought of as angels, as they seem to be almost messenger’s and being’s of conscious. Ransom’s encounter with the eldil leads him in search of Oyarsa, the elder eldil, whom is best compared to an arch-angel from a biblical standpoint. Shortly after Ransom leaves the hrossa on the next leg of his journey, he meets a sorn, the creature in which he feared so much when he first landed on Mars.
It is clear that while the sorn are quite different than the hrossa they are very similar as well, especially in their understanding of Oyarsa and the eldil. A lot is learned about the planet, the nature of the interactions between the three core races on the planet (sorn, hrossa and pfifltrigg) and the difficulty of the journey ahead. Lewis once again takes the opportunity to juxtapose human nature and society with the way the sorn live. I found it particularly interesting when the sorn deduce things about human’s from the way Ransom answers seemingly unconnected questions. It provides some nice insight and thought about humanity.
Another great moment during this section of the book, is when the sorn explain more about how the eldil exist in our plane, but not entirely. It’s a great example of Lewis describing his interpretation of the Bible in a unique way. At this point, Ransom makes the final part of his journey to see Oyarsa. The journey takes them out of the canyon where the air is breathable and into a part of Mars that has become inhabitable because of war brought on by Earth’s own Oyarsa. We learn that the Earth’s Oyarsa became “bent” and tried to take over other planets and in doing so destroyed a large portion of mars and caused the “fall” of humans. If this part doesn’t smack you in the face with biblical correlations, then I don’t know what will.
This perspective on Christianity as a Universal truth and story, not just a Global (more traditional, Earth based) one is really intriguing. The Bible has little to no exposition about the idea of alien life on other planets, but the concept that perhaps other planets and life forms were given the same opportunity, as we were, to live in paradise with God is interesting to think about. It would seem unlikely, given what we know from our own understanding of space and from the Bible, but Lewis does a great job of unraveling this idea to the reader.
The final showdown of Ransom, Devine and Weston interacting with Oyarsa is where Lewis lays it all out theologically. Oyarsa and Weston go toe to toe in arguing about the purpose of life and mankind’s goals. Lewis presents a Darwinian view, via Weston, and a more traditional Christian theological view, via Oyarsa. It is a interesting debate, while it demonizes Weston a bit, you can still relate to Weston’s perspective and line of thinking. It’s selfless, but perhaps inappropriately so. As Ransom translates the debate between the two, it is clear that Lewis is using Ransom as a way of distilling the ideas and concepts of the argument down to it’s bare form. I enjoyed the debate quite a bit and thought, while not your typical action oriented modern day climax, it was a great high point for the book.
Oyarsa decides after the debate that Devine and Weston must return home and Ransom may choose to stay or leave. Ransom decides to return back with his fellow men and Oyarsa promises him protection throughout the journey. In a kind of contrived story twist, they will only have 90 days to return back before the space ship will disintegrate from when they left. This does add some suspense to the return journey, but honestly it wasn’t needed.
After returning home, Ransom doesn’t think anyone will believe his journey so he tells no one about it until, our author C.S. Lewis asks him about the meaning of the word “Oyarses”. Ransom then spills all, in which we find out that the book we just read was Ransom’s story as told by C.S. Lewis. This twist at the end wasn’t needed and kind of muddled up the story.
C.S. Lewis takes a stab at some unique ideas and ways of explaining theology in Out of the Silent Planet. While I wasn’t completely enraptured with the book, it left me wanting to read more. I will definitly move on to the next book in this trilogy.
- A few good thoughts by Gavin Ortlund from his personal blog Soliloquium
- War of the Worlds.co.uk provides some insight and general description of the story
- The Literary Omnivore has a review from early 2012 that highlights some of the major short comings of the book.
- For a little insight into a possible connection between J.R.R. Tolkien and Ransom see Tal Cohen’s Book Shelf’s thoughts on the story.
- Squeaky Clean Reviews.com provides a nice breakdown of the in’s and out’s of the book.
- Che Tibby on her blog Object Dart approaches the book with little expectations and a women’s point of view.
- Aaron Pound reflects on the hrossa saying sex is only for reproduction in his blog Dreaming About Other Worlds
- Lauren from her personal blog Click Clack Clunk bemoans the lack of a solid ending.