Friday, February 12, 2016

Out Of The Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis

Source of book: I own this

Re-reading a book is usually rewarding, often like comfort food, except with a bit more richness each time. There are always things you see for the first time. I suppose our brains can only absorb and process so much in one reading. But I would say that on average, when I have re-read books, I haven’t been particularly startled before. I have a decent memory, and I try to pay attention the first time, so I don’t miss stuff. For example, while I see delicious lines each time I re-read A Christmas Carol, I can’t say I have had any shocking revelations.

This book was a definite exception to that general rule. 

I first experienced Out of the Silent Planet in elementary school, when my dad read it to us. I honestly cannot remember if it was before or after The Hobbit, but it was at a similar time. I later re-read it, probably in early high school, before reading Perelandra immediately thereafter. (I never did make it to That Hideous Strength.) So I read it with a rather different mindset than this time, and I further realized that I had completely missed some very interesting things.

There were a lot of things that I did remember correctly. I think I got most of the central idea of the fall of man affecting the other planets, and most of what I would (when I was younger) have considered “theology.” These things and themes were no real surprise. Neither was Lewis’ general distrust of technology - and to a degree science. I probably didn’t pick up as well on the colonialist themes, but they weren’t exactly a surprise. (I’ll discuss those below.)

Furthermore, my impression of his delightful world-building and wide-eyed wonder at the prospect of other worlds was correct. This is a fun book for those reasons. (On a related note, it is always fascinating to read science fiction written before the Space Age. What is now known is amazing in different ways than what was imagined.)

There were some things, though, I must admit, that I did not really notice. I think this was due in some cases to my age, and in others, to the theological paradigm I had back then which I have since moved away from.

First, with the good.

Over the last several years, I have been exploring the relationship of myth and history, as readers of my blog can attest. Recently, of course, I read The Hero With A Thousand Faces, but even before that, with Lewis’ own Till We Have Faces, it became obvious that the lines between myth and history and truth are not what we tend to demand in modern times. Lewis clearly loved the old myths, and believed they held truth of a different sort than history, although they overlapped.

I was surprised, then, while not surprised, to find a great line in this book about this. Ransom (the protagonist and narrator) thinks over the “history” of Malacandra, the name for the planet Mars in this book. Malacandra is an older planet than Earth in Lewis’ tale, and has had epochs of history that are now faded into legend. Ransom cannot decide for certain just how much is “true” history, and how much is myth. He finally concludes that “the distinction between history and mythology might be itself meaningless outside the Earth.” He might have added that to the inhabitants of Earth in the past, the distinction was indeed meaningless, and it is our modern tendency to insist on a definitive difference that often leads us to misunderstand the writings of the past.

Another thing which I found exceedingly interesting this time around was Lewis’ concept of mortality. Malacandra represents an unfallen world. One in which sin has not really penetrated. (Although the fall of Mankind on Earth has damaged Malacandra physically, its inhabitants remain unspoiled.)

And yet, the inhabitants are mortal.

I cannot believe that I didn’t note this before. I have an idea why, however. At the time, the Evangelical circles we ran in were fanatically “Young Earth.” I don’t think my dad ever really was, but other than that, I was drenched in that particular philosophy. Along with that came a whole bunch of theological baggage.

The belief was that, prior to the Fall, everything was immortal, and that death only came after Adam and Eve screwed everything up.

This clearly would not fit with an old earth belief, because all those fossils were, shall we say, dead. So things died.

Lewis, as I later came to learn, was quite open to the idea of evolution. This was rather hushed up in our circles, as was Lewis’ non-Evangelical positions on things such as the nature of hell and salvation. They wanted so badly to claim Lewis as an Evangelical that they were less than honest about his beliefs.

So whether I didn’t notice or just forgot, it was a bit striking to read his view of the unfallen world.

Everyone still dies.

But they die in a predictable manner and age - except for things like hunting accidents. Likewise, there were other creatures who evolved and went extinct, and a whole cycle of life. Indeed, the planet itself was not designed to last. As one of the characters explains, “[A] world was not made to last forever, much less a race.”

The thing that was missing was not death, but the malevolence that humans harbor. Sentient beings before the Fall did not kill other sentient beings. Lewis may have noticed - as I did recently - that the story of the human race in Genesis after the fall is one of increasing violence.

This leads to what I think is the central truth of the book, and its greatest line. The “Oyarsa” (essentially the angel in charge of the planet) has conversed with Ransom about Earth, and the evil guys who kidnapped and brought Ransom to Malacandra - Devine and Weston - have made fools of themselves with talk of plundering and conquering the planet. Weston in particular has tried to explain why he wants to have mankind conquer other planets, slaughter the inhabitants, and thus give mankind a form of immortality. The Oyarsa responds:

I see now how the lord of the silent world has bent you. There are laws that all hnau [sentient beings] know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little, blind Oyarsa in your brain. And now you can do nothing but obey it, though if we ask you why it is a law you can give no other reason for it than for all the other and greater laws which it drives you to disobey.

The saddest thing about this is that right now, the one thing so abundantly apparent in modern American Christianity is this naked tribalism. This “love of kindred” which does not extend to pity of those outside the nationality, the race, the tribe, the family. C. S. Lewis saw it, but it seems to have been forgotten in Evangelical culture. The results can be seen manifested in our rhetoric about the poor, the brown skinned, the foreigner, and anyone who isn’t “us.”

All those “universal” laws, if you will, and we will break all of them to love only those like us. No wonder Christ taught so strongly against it.

Moving on from those, there were some things that grated on me this time as well. The first, and really the worst, is the Colonialist assumptions which sneak in, even though Lewis doesn’t seem to notice them.

Just as an example, there are three sentient species in Malacandra. They are different enough that they clearly cannot intermarry. However, it is telling that the one that most resembles humans - the Sorna -  are a certain way. They are the most rational of the species, and they are...wait for it...white. And likewise, the Hrossa are more “animal” or “primitive.” They are fur-covered, have an oral history of poetry and song, and are more feckless and less given to foresight. One might think of stereotypes of Native Americans or Africans, perhaps. The third species are more exotic, not really resembling anything recognisable, and do not come into the story much anyway. So they are harder to classify.

But the line between the Hrossa and the Sorna does get uncomfortable. As a Sorn explains, the Hrossa do not fear death - and they are right not to - but they could prevent deaths if they just thought ahead a little bit, and availed themselves of technology. Yep, the race that has the dance and song and poetry, loves to hunt, but doesn’t take on the White Alien’s Burden…

So that one really grated, just like Kipling’s books [link] have those colonialist ideas that just sneak in.  

The other thing that bothered me is one that I had completely failed to notice the first time.

Ransom first experiences Malacandra through the Hrossa. He learns the language and the history and culture. Coming from the human experience, he asks about why the inhabitants of Malacandra do not fight each other over resources. (This is particularly interesting since the book was written in the run-up to World War II, during the time when Germany and Japan were eying Russia and China, respectively, as sources of food and land. By displacing and starving the current inhabitants, naturally.)

One of the Hrossa explains that there are always sufficient resources, since each race (and tribe within the races) reproduces at a replacement level. Thus, there is never a need to compete for resources.

Now here is where it gets interesting. In Lewis’ account, the pre-Fall sentient beings enjoy sex. But they also have it solely when they need to procreate, and then stop. For the poetic Hrossa, they re-live the joys of their lives through song and poetry as memory, long after the experience.

Now seriously, this is somehow the sort of thing that would be written by a nearly lifelong bachelor who would not marry for another 18 years after he wrote this book. The idea that the ideal of sex is for procreation isn’t unique to Lewis, of course. It has plagued Christianity since the beginning. Although, to be fair, Saint Paul at least seems to have contemplated sex existing beyond procreation. Still, it is obvious that Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs, if you prefer) has been the awkward cousin among the books of the Bible, one that has been ignored, deliberately turned into an allegory having nothing to do with sex, and hidden from the kids. The idea of sex existing for pleasure and bonding and not just babies has been an uncomfortable one for the church for millennia, and Lewis is just one in that long line.

I’d just chalk this down to Victorian hangups, but I think that there is a bigger point to make about this particular version.

If indeed, sentient beings prior to the fall had sex only to procreate, then non-procreative sex is sinful. Let that sink in for a bit. And also, failure to reproduce only the “right” amount, whatever that is, is sinful too.

And I’m going to go there.

It is an idea that I have heard too freaking many times in Evangelical culture, and particularly from the religious right: the reason the poor (particularly brown and black skinned people) are poor is that they just have too damn much sex. You hear it from people like Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, who has said that we are “awash in the disastrous social consequences of people who rut like rabbits.” Yep, if “those people” would just realize that they do not have the money that would allow them to have sex, everything would just be better. I’m sorry, this is a bit of a sore point for me. I have 5 kids. Which is okay, I guess, because I am a middle class white male. But for African Americans, who on average have fewer kids than me, they “rut like rabbits.”

So yes, I kind of see what Lewis is saying, which is that overpopulation can indeed cause conflict. But the idea that one just has sex a few times in one’s lifetime - and that this is somehow the most virtuous state of being - seems a bit rich. And also inexperienced. One does indeed wonder if Lewis would have written that differently after his marriage.

I’m sure I have completely ignored important themes in the book in this review. In fact, some I have just left out because I didn’t feel like talking about them at this moment. Lewis’ writing is always rich, and always rewarding. I know I have said this before, but I admire and enjoy Lewis even when I do not agree with him. In fact, I think I can say that about all of my favorite serious authors. Part of the fun is in the argument, which is why C. S. Lewis would be a member of my dream dinner party.

Let me leave with one final thought. In Lewis’ conception, angelic beings exist on a different, yet concurrent plane. They move too fast to find matter to be substantial enough to bind them. If anything, our modern development of astrophysics has made this idea to be less incredible than one might have thought. (Not the angels, but the permeability of matter.) In the metaphysical sense, then, these beings transcend time and space. While all mortal sentient beings “die” in the physical sense in Lewis’ conception of space, they do not cease to exist, but transform to exist in the higher dimension. I love Lewis’ explanation for the temporality of existence. We mortals were never designed to live forever as we are. Dust to Dust has always been the plan. (And, as Carl Sagan said, we are made of starstuff.) But death in the Christian view has not been the end, but the metamorphosis.

Richard Strauss wrote a bit of music which was borrowed by Stanley Kubrick for his own science fiction movie. (The opening bars of Also Sprach Zarathustra.) But perhaps my favorite of his works fits this idea. 


Note on the edition: My wife found me a hardback version of the Space Trilogy after much searching. She is an amazing bookhound, if I hadn't already mentioned that. 


Other C. S. Lewis books I have reviewed:


  1. I think you'd find That Hideous Strength to be very interesting. It has stuff about gender roles in it (and Lewis is generally pro traditional gender roles), and actually, there's an interesting story about that because Doug Wilson stole phraseology from it, I believe in the discussion surrounding the "men conquer-women accept" rape-y thing he said. He used the phrase "submission is an erotic necessity" and this comes directly from THS. I happened to catch this in a comment thread at the time because I had read the book and remembered this weird turn of phrase. And no, Wilson didn't credit the source at any time. So I guess the serial plagiarizer plagiarized Lewis too.

    Per the hrossas' romantic lives: I guess because I've always been fascinated by animal behavior, I took that bit to just be a different mating/reproduction system from humans. I.e., if you propose a world where humans aren't the only species that evolved to become sentient, it doesn't necessarily follow that if species A had a more typical "animal" reproductive pattern when it was non-sentient (mating season, estrus rather than menses, etc.), that it wouldn't still reproduce that way after it became sentient. If this is the case, the psychology/sociology of said species surrounding sex would probably be very different from humans. In my mind this isn't an opportunity for a moral judgment (i.e., humans have too much sex, or non-humans don't have enough), it's just different biology.

    Now in hindsight, now that I'm older, is this what LEWIS was thinking when he had the hrossa reproduce like this - i.e., did he seriously NOT have a moral/theological motive for putting this in the book? Probably not, given that he seems to build worlds mainly for allegory purposes and not for the sake of the world itself or pure creativity. And all your points are well-taken. I missed all the non-reproductive sex undertones to this before (and unfortunately the death before the Fall stuff too).

  2. I'm going to push back on you a bit here, not because I think Lewis is always right, but because I think you're discounting his animal baseline too much. (Talking animals were always Lewis' first love as an author.)

    Yes, the hrossa are brown and the sorna are white. But if you try to bring human races into it then, as you say, there's nowhere to place the pfifiltrigi. I don't think Lewis ever thought of human groups with these at all. I think he was thinking of animals. The hrossa are otter-like--and like most furry earth-bound creatures in temperate climates, are a practical brown. The sorn are stork-like--and like several large birds, have striking white plumage. The pfifltriggi are bug or frog like. I think it's clear that Lewis' sympathies are primarily with the hrossa, as the guardians of poetry and language, his own specialty.

    I think similarly to what scarletsletters said above, that the sexual limitations are also primarily because of coming from this animal baseline. Animals' reproduction is proportional to their place in the food chain: small tasty creatures reproduce frequently and in large families; large, non-prey animals reproduce slowly with small families. Reason that out to sapient beings and Lewis' explanation of Hrossa lives is one plausible conclusion. I do think you are right that there's a bit of clumsiness influenced by his academic bachelor existence, but I don't think it's meant to be anti-sex in any way.

    I think rather he's jumping over it to make the point he also makes about Susan when she grows up in the Narnia books, something our culture has going on even more so: the idea that sexuality should always look a particular way which is in fact only appropriate to a narrow and rather exhausting window of life. Where now the pressure is on everyone to look and act like experienced yet still energetic 25 year olds still trying to figure out how to pair off, Lewis is offering a world where there is a natural progression; where there is a time where sexuality is expressed primarily through longing, a time where it is consummated, and a time where that pressure diminishes and it is turned into poetry and wisdom. That's not anti-sex. It's saying that the lives of 65 year olds are not less because they don't look like 25 year olds (nor 15 year olds less because they don't look like 25 year olds yet).

    But the challenge of sexual reproduction and desire in low-tech societies is a perennial challenge of fantasy, and I always appreciate when an author is at least honest about the challenge instead of pretending that we can have low-tech worlds where people can have sex whenever and however they please yet somehow magically reproduce only when an heir is actually needed. Terry Pratchett is one of the few who is even-handed about it, where the population of Lancre gets by with natural family planning taught by the witches, the occasional shotgun wedding, and pretty good-sized families even so. Nanny Ogg, the sexpert of Discworld, has a very large family and the figure that tends to result. It's a refreshing bit of honesty about human sexuality that most fantasy writers seem to be in denial about.

    1. Your point about reproduction magically only occurring when needed in fantasy made me think of a tangent off my first comment. It's hardly a given that a sentient animal species would reproduce in perfect sustainable numbers any more than humans. Because even if you do only come into heat, say, once a year, and the rest of the time sex just isn't a thing, if that's the only time you ARE inclined to have sex, and you have consciousness, emotions, etc. and an available partner/spouse - the pull to have sex is going to be very strong, despite the fact that the chance of pregnancy is huge. This would esp. true if the species in question had some system like induced ovulation like cats have (where the females don't ovulate until they mate). So I think the fact that the hrossa DO reproduce only in sustainable numbers probably does mean something here.

      And oh yeah, can you tell that like Lewis, I never got over my talking animal phase? :-) And still write fantasy involving sentient animals…

    2. This whole discussion got pretty involved, not just here, but on my facebook page. Clearly my friends care deeply about Lewis and his allegorical tendencies. Which is awesome. Seriously.

      I should clarify, since it wasn't clear apparently, that I don't think this necessarily is Lewis' personal view, or the only thing he has to say about it. It just struck me as uncomfortably close to the way the Religious Right tends to talk about the poor and minorities when it comes to sex. All their problems are because they want to have sex and babies like white people.

      Just in response to Carrots, I wouldn't have noticed the race thing if it hadn't been for the way that it correlates with certain assumptions in our culture. Also, I might note that other authors of the time, from Conrad to Haggard, shared certain assumptions and ways of writing about race. It just looked too familiar, although I am not sure Lewis *consciously* did it. I'll also mention another SciFi writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs (of Tarzan fame - another colonialist book...) and the way that the Martian races tended to reflect views of civilized whites versus the savages.

      Love the Terry Pratchett reference. Yes, he is amazingly blunt about so many things. If I were to pick an author I wanted my kids to read for ethical thought, Pratchett may well top the list.

      Just one more thought: the thing of a "natural progression" puts me in mind of a certain person (identity will remain secret) of advanced age who dissed the idea of old people having sex. Just in my experience as an attorney who works with seniors, that is a bit, um, non-typical. Someday, maybe, I will have a story to tell about all the awkward sex toys heirs have found in grandma's house.

      In any case, this discussion is fascinating, and Carrots and Scarlett, you are some of my favorite commenters on any topic. :)

    3. Okay, I ran across the missing piece in this discussion. According to the view of St. Augustine, prior to the Fall, humans had perfect control of their sex organs, and thus used them only for procreation. It was (in Augustine's view) after the fall that humans experienced sexual desire not under the control of the mind, and thus - for the first time - felt arousal when they had not already decided to procreate. At the risk of being explicit, Augustine believed the knowledge of nakedness and the desire to cover up was due to, ahem, arousal becoming apparent.

      I would imagine Lewis was fully familiar with Augustine's views. This does rather confirm the fraught relationship Christianity has had with sex since the very beginning. (I am again reminded of Tolstoy, who believed that sex itself was the original sin, and that God's aspiration for mankind is that they stop altogether. Then, perfection attained, there will be no need for future generations...)

  3. I will encourage you to read "Hideous Strength", too--it's also a mixture of really, really good stuff about power structures, and, Victorian bachelor stuff when he tries to get into the head of a female character. (I extend him a bit of grace that I'd give almost no other author; most of the time he knew that he didn't know....his guesses are kind of laughable. The husband character in "Strength", though, Mark, is very well done.)

    However, re: reproduction, I do remember one particularly strong scene in "Hideous Strength" where a (sort of) good guy admits he can't understand why Ransom won't cut the head off a woman who has prevented a pregnancy--whether with birth control or abstinence or abortion isn't really specified. (I say only "sort of" good --this character also offers to conjure a flood to kill Ransom's enemies, and gets turned down.) So, I don't think limiting population is *entirely* the point of the Hrossa having a reproductive cycle like almost every other species besides humans and those weird bats.

    Come to think of it, there's also a scene in "Strength" where a bunch of older women help a young wife get ready to greet her just-out-of-prison husband, and the main female protagonist abruptly realizes they're making jokes about codpieces--and ENJOYING it!--and the narrative pretty much sides with the raunchy older women, who are acting more or less as priestesses at the time.

    Then, as I recall, it shifts to the POV of a disobedient tame bear, but that's Lewis for you. ;)

    (And FWIW I always pictured the Hrossa as little Ewok Vikings--I mean, they have the HR at the beginning of everything, linguistic joke--without the Viking-style raids. What *would* that culture look like without the theft and murder? Fairly obsessed with poetry, dancing, and acts of somewhat foolhardy valor, one would think. Mead halls and sagas without the captives. But I could be wrong; I read the Space Trilogy after I knew that Lewis loved Wagner, and that may have colored my interpretation. And Lewis wouldn't be the first to be unable to see his own blinders.)

    1. Ewok Viking. That's great!

      One could go on and on about the possibilities of reproductive urges. One theory about why humans are (sort of) hard to predict regarding fertility (hey, I have too much experience with that, perhaps) is to encourage pair bonding and monogamy, so that offspring (which require years of care and training) have both parents involved. If anything, one might note that those species who require long term parental involvement tend to have fertility be less predictable with a cycle.

      One instead sees cyclic fertility as a norm where promiscuity is the norm. Think cats and dogs and so on. The male seeks out the fertile female wherever he can find her....

      I do intend to get to That Hideous Strength, which is the one I haven't read. From the commentary, it appears to be a flawed, yet interesting book.

    2. One of my good memories about That Hideous Strength: there is a really cool scene in which multiple planets' Oyarsas descend upon a house (I think for some kind of meeting). As each one arrives, everyone in the house comes under their influence and begins to act in a way in accordance with the mythological significance of each planet (i.e., they get amorous when Venus arrives, pugnacious with Mars, etc.). It struck me at the time for some reason that the language was gorgeous in that scene. Also pairs well with Holst's The Planets (which is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music) and that's always a plus.

    3. That does sound interesting. I too love Planets. The last time we played it, we accompanied it with multimedia that included pictures of the planets and moons from the various flyby missions. Good stuff.

  4. I didn't wince at any racial bias while reading "Silent Planet" (though I DID reading "The Horse and His Boy"). I thought in fact that Lewis did a surprisingly good job at making the three races seem balanced in talents and desirable traits -- though personally I would want to spent the greatest time by far with the hrossa, if I were visiting.

    On a related subject, I was surprised, reading "Hideous Strength" again for the first time in 25 years, at what seemed to me a truly wince-worthy gender hierarchy. "Hideous Strength" was always my favorite of the three in the space trilogy, but this time through, I concluded I could no longer even recommend it. I'd be afraid someone reading it would find it so offensive as to ruin the book.

    1. I do love The Horse and His Boy for other reasons, but you are right that the racism is far too apparent. As is the hatred of Islam and Muslims.

      That's one reason why it was so shocking to read The Last Battle, and realize that Lewis seemed to be saying that devout Muslims would be in heaven. Shocking to an Evangelical, at least.

      One wonders, in any case, regarding That Hideous Strength (which I haven't read yet), if Lewis changed his mind about gender once he actually got married. Even though I was already fairly egalitarian, marriage proved beyond any doubt that hierarchy was beyond silly.

    2. The Emeth scene is persuasive as well as surprising! A friend of mine was arguing that the Bible verse about there being no other way except through Jesus means that only those who have heard the details about Jesus (and in fact prayed the "sinner's prayer" or equivalent) can possibly be saved. After some fruitless discussion, I reminded her of the Emeth scene. The fate of Emeth (a fictional character experiencing a fictional destiny) was more persuasive to her than anything else I said. ("Oh. Well. Yes, there is Emeth.")

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post, though I have to say that there are some things that I don't agree with. While I'm actually an old Earth creationist (and also believe evolution has its merits) I've never felt comfortable with the idea that we died before the fall, since my belief is that we were created for eternity. I'm also one of those people that believe that our myths evolved from historical stories through a series of 'chinese whispers'. Great post - I've really got to read this book again sometime soon.

    1. Thanks!

      I assume, then, that you believe that humans were unique in being immortal. Otherwise, I don't see a way to explain the existence of fossils before the appearance of humans. That is one way of being old earth. For what it is worth, in Lewis' conception in this book at least, souls were always immortal, but temporal bodies - and planets - were not created to live forever. One advantage of this view is that one does not have to assume that the fundamental laws of physics, for example, were altered after the fall. Fun stuff to contemplate in any case.