Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis

Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis should not be considered a science fiction novel, it follows more in the footsteps of The Devine Comedy and Paradise Lost than it does with H. G. Wells and Jules Verne.  I would go so far and say Out of the Silent Planet is an anti-science fiction novel, although it reads much like Stanley G. Weinbaum and other pulp writers of the 1930s, and was inspired by the 1920 fantasy novel, A Voyage to Arcturus.  Strangely enough, it reminds me of the recent film Avatar.

Please do not read any further if you haven’t read the book and want to avoid spoilers.  What I have to say is a reply to the philosophical implications of the novel and that indirectly gives away plot elements.

Out-of-the-Silent-Planet

The reason why I claim Out of the Silent Planet is anti-science fiction is because the story wants to convince its readers that outer space is the supernatural heavens of religious myths and is full of spiritual beings, even beings who live in the void between planets.  Essentially Lewis does this for religious reasons, and not scientific, and the story feels like medieval philosophy.  Now, this isn’t to say the story isn’t a ripping good yarn, nor does it imply a lack of old fashion sense of wonder about alien life on Mars, like most SF fans love from science fiction from the 1920s and 1930s.

What C. S. Lewis attempts is to claim outer space for Christianity, which is pretty interesting since most Christians focus heavily on Earth and ignore cosmology.  The ending to Out of the Silent Planet reminds me of the ending in Have Space Suit-Will Travel, where in both, humanity and Earth come under the judgment of higher life forms on other planets.  Strangely, the bad guy in Out of the Silent Planet makes the same case as the good guys in Have Space Suit-Will Travel.

Now this is a very essential difference in philosophy, and why I’m making a case that C. S. Lewis is writing anti-science fiction.  Heinlein and most of science fiction is pro mankind, even to the point of taking Satan’s attitude in Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in hell than serve in Heaven.”  Weston, a pathetic, spiritually blind, scientist in Out of the Silent Planet wants mankind to conquer the heavens and spread humanity to all the planets.  Oyarsa, the archangel like ruler of Mars, or Malacandra, has godlike powers and considers Weston bent, or evil.

I am reminded of Lester del Rey’s “For I am a Jealous People” where God takes the side of aliens and mankind declares war on God.  Science fiction is the ultimate hubris.  Of course all of this assumes there are spiritual beings and dimensions we cannot see with our science.  If you believe in those dimensions and beings, you will take the side of C. S. Lewis, but if you don’t, I expect most science fiction fans prefer to follow Heinlein and believe mankind is the most dangerous creature in the universe.

I think a new philosophy is emerging, that’s post-Lewis and post-Heinlein.  There are no spiritual beings, but then we’re not going to be rulers of the universe either.  I think in a few decades Heinlein will feel as archaic as Lewis in his philosophy, and Heinlein is my favorite writer.  I grew up believing in the manifest destiny of space but the relentless reality of science is convincing me otherwise.

Out of the Silent Planet is a throwback and could easily have been written in 1838 instead of 1938.  It’s the last of its kind, rather than being an early novel of future directed science fiction that dominates the twentieth century.  Out of the Silent Planet wants to incorporate the spiritual world into the physical world – to weld them together.  If you accept science there is no room in reality for angels, and the only hope of the spiritual world existing lies on the other side of the doorway of death.

JWH – 7/9/10

13 Responses

  1. I agree James. Out of the Silent Planet is more fantasy than science fiction but I think that for Lewis there is no conflict between his cosmology and his theology in the sense that he believes, as I do, that an omnipotent God cannot belong merely to the realms of “heaven” and “earth” whatever exactly those terms might mean to people. Nor does he accept the sharp distinction between the physical and spiritual. I’m cool with that. We are spiritual and physical beings.

    Have you read the whole trilogy? The second book Voyage To Venus is even less “scientific”. C.S. Lewis is my favourite writer.

    • David, I plan to finish the trilogy, but I can’t go to the second book right away, I’ve got too many books to read for my various book clubs to read first. I am curious what Lewis will do with the series.

  2. I read the trilogy many years ago, and enjoyed it, but I had quite a different opinion on a recent reread of “Out of the Silent Planet.” For one thing, although Ransom started off as a sympathetic character, I thought his personality really suffered on Malacandra. For the most part, he treated the natives like domestic animals – like pets, not people. After that, I really didn’t like him much.

    More importantly, in this book, Lewis seemed to glorify one of the worst totalitarian regimes I could imagine. On Malacandra, the intelligent species WERE more like domesticated animals, since the ruler of the planet ruthlessly killed anyone who had the wrong attitude (basically, anyone who wouldn’t make a happy slave). By culling the independent, Oyarsa was effectively breeding only those most suited for slavery.

    Honestly, I can’t imagine the mindset of someone who’d find this situation admirable. I thought it was horrifying. The villains of the book were comic relief compared to this (and they were kind of ridiculous anyway, don’t you think?). After all, would you see no problem with having human beings culled until they lost the urge to think for themselves and rebel against a tyrant?

    I know this was supposed to be a deeply Christian author writing a religious allegory. Well, if that’s the case, I’m glad I’m an atheist!

  3. Wit respect to: “It’s the last of its kind”: there is a whole genre of christian pseudo science fiction. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_science_fiction
    I feel a strong urge to avoid it! ;-)

  4. This post brings up an interesting topic: is science fiction by it’s nature anti-religious?

    Or, to put it another way: must science fiction assume a naturalistic worldview?

    Atheist though I am I can’t agree with the perspective that excludes OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET from being defined as science fiction. I think science fiction can be free to explore the idea that religious claims might prove to be true.

    Does it make for good science fiction? Usually not. It certainly didn’t in OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET. The book suffers from the same problem Lewis’ other religiously focused fiction does (like THE GREAT DIVORCE): it too often resorts to caricature in it’s depiction of anyone not a Christian.

    • I think science fiction and religion are opposing philosophies for most people. Religion focuses on heaven after death, while science fiction focuses on exploring the heavens while we live. Of course, Christianity doesn’t have to be about after death salvation, but how you live your life in this reality. In that case, you could have Christian science fiction. Before Christianity, the Jews did not believe in an afterlife. I’m not sure if even Jesus promised one either, it appears that was made-up after he died. If religion focused only on this life, then it would have to embrace the ideas explored by science fiction.

      • Hear, hear! Finally words of reason and common sense!! I get sick-‘n’-tired of naturalistic and atheistic drivel (like the comment to which you responded) Your comment is logical. The other one isn’t. You comment is true. The other one is false.

        BOTTOM LINE: You naturalistic and atheistic nitwits just don’t want to be told what to do or not do by God regarding obeying the Ten Commandments.

      • Sorry William, I too am an atheist, but I’m willing to consider Christianity as a philosophy. I’m also willing to accept the 10 commandments, but I see them not as coming from God, but as invented by the rulers of the time to convince people to behave in a way that will bring about an ordered society.

        I do like how you link naturalism with atheism. Why? Was it because science used to be natural philosophy? I feel no need to invent God, but I understand why other people do, and that’s fine by me. An interesting question comes up here: Is the divine reflected in nature? In other words, for those of us who don’t deal with God directly, can we find morality inherent in nature?


  5. I think science fiction and religion are opposing philosophies for most people.

    Yes, and that’s precisely the perspective that prompted Lewis to write his Space Trilogy—he wanted Christian voices to be added to a genre that seemed to be (and still is—which I’m glad of) dominated by people with a naturalistic worldview.

    Just imagine if the history of science fiction had gone differently and there had been a massive movement following in Lewis’s footsteps: blatantly Christian supernaturalism mixed in with science fiction as the dominant voice in the field.

    Talk about a nightmarish scenario.

    • Why? Just because it is Christianity? Do you have a bias against Christianity because of the requirement to obey God’s Law; Ten Commandments??

  6. Do you merely write this assessment of Out of The Silent Planet because of a personal bias against Christianity? If so: EPIC FAIL!

    • No I didn’t say what I said because of a personal bias but because within the book Lewis states that it is spiritually wrong for us to travel into space – that makes Lewis’ version of Christianity anti science fiction. Of course, Lewis could be wrong. There are many science fiction books that portray Christianity being spread across the galaxy. But I tend to think Lewis is right from a Christian philosophical point of view. To the faithful, the physical world is not the real world, but one in which we’ve descended. They aspire to a higher plane of existence, and I don’t think they mean to get there by rockets. That’s why I compared Out of the Silent Planet to Paradise Lost. Science fiction is all about conquering the physical reality. Science fiction is rebellious like the rebel angels in Milton’s poem. I tend to think two fictional genres are inherently anti-Christian: science fiction and westerns. Of course, the wild west was tamed when women and Christianity came to town. I suppose the final frontier could be conquered in the same way.

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