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 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: