I first read Out of the Silent Planet when I was a student, over twenty years ago, and it made a huge impression on me at the time. I’ve re-read it since, a couple of times, the most recent occasion being earlier this summer, and one curious thing I’ve found is that the book appears to have shrunk, over the last two decades. Not in a literal sense, obviously, as the number of words probably hasn’t changed, but what I mean is that the events of the story seem to take place over a much shorter time frame than before. What seemed like a tale of numerous adventures, journeys and encounters across the exotic surface of Mars now appears briefer, far more condensed.
And my point? It is that so much depends on our perceptions. The book hasn’t changed, but I have. And fundamentally this is one of the things the book is all about – a perceptual shift.
Out of the Silent Planet is on one level a voyage to another world, and CS Lewis was going in 1938 where authors such as HG Wells and Jules Verne had already ventured. The hard science part is barely there; for instance the space ship, into which Ransom is bundled by his kidnappers Weston and Devine, and which transports the trio to another planet, is powered by processes that are never described. (This, in itself, is not a failing, in my opinion. HG Wells invented a fictitious material – Cavorite – to get his adventurers to the Moon, and Jules Verne simply fired his space travellers out of a giant cannon.) Malacandra is a dying world, like so many other early visions of Mars, a place where life arose before it did on Earth and is now in a state of decline; not a particularly new idea.
No, what sets Out of the Silent Planet apart is what happens to middle-aged professor Elwin Ransom – and by extension to the rest of us, because despite his academic background, Ransom is a type of Everyman figure. Abducted by his old school acquaintance Devine and the sinister Weston, Ransom is taken across the gulf of space to Malacandra, where the others have established a base, consisting of a rudimentary hut. Why are they doing this? So that Ransom can be delivered up as a kind of human sacrifice, in return for Malacandrian gold.
In the absence of any real information, he is understandably terrified at what might be about to happen to him at the hands of the menacing natives, the sorns or séroni. He breaks away, and starts to flee across the confusing landscape of this alien world. And this is where his transformation starts.
I don’t want to reveal much more about the story, for fear of ruining it completely for readers who haven’t yet had the pleasure. But I have some observations about aspects of the novel where Lewis’s writing seems psychologically true to life.
Firstly, as Ransom runs for his life across the surface of Malacandra, he experiences the landscape as a confusing blur of strange colours and shapes, as the vegetation is utterly unfamiliar to him and the creatures even more so. The total sense of disorientation is convincing, because we tend to see the world as a collection of familiar constructs. We don’t see an expanse of rugged brown stuff crowned by masses of flat greenish tendrils; we see an oak tree, because “oak tree” is a discrete concept we are familiar with.
In a similar way, people who are blind from birth and who later become able to see, find the visual world a perplexing mass of colours and shapes until they learn to perceive things. It is also reminiscent of the (probably apocryphal) stories of native Americans unable to see Columbus’s sailing ships, as they were completely outside their experience. Perception is something that we learn; it is a human skill, like language.
In time, Ransom meets the Malacandrians, and eventually he rejoins his fellow travellers from Thulcandra, the Silent Planet (Earth.) On the outside, he is little different to how he was before. But on the inside…
We experience culture shock when we are taken out of our familiar surroundings and placed in a foreign land, with foreign people. Everything seems wrong, strange, even threatening. There are degrees of foreignness – for the average native English person, Paris is foreign but manageably so, Istanbul is somewhat further along the scale and a Mongolian yurt must be at some sort of apex of pure foreignness for those used to suburban streets, corner shops and Victorian terraces.
Now place the same English person on Malacandra, with its séroni, hrossa and pfifltriggi! And yet we adapt. Although Ransom never quite loses his instinctive feelings of apprehension when dealing with the spindly, feathered séroni, he arrives at the knowledge that these are neither monstrosities nor bizarre talking animals but hnau, or rational beings. They have undergone a radical transformation in his mind.
Weston and Devine also undergo a transformation. For where there is culture shock, there is also reverse culture shock. The familiar becomes strange and by living in foreign parts we become assimilated by foreignness, which gives us the freedom to see our native culture with fresh eyes. That also goes for our fellow natives. At first Ransom is unable to see his erstwhile kidnappers; having become accustomed to Malacandra, he is aware of a couple of approaching bipedal oddities covered in strange growths, and it takes him a while to realise these are humans.
I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of his book; there’s just so much more. I haven’t mentioned Lewis’s Christianity, his depiction of a world where three kinds of sentient life form live in harmony and his ridiculing of imperialism – this review could easily have been ten times its current length. Suffice it to say that Out of the Silent Planet occupies a special place in my heart; although I tend to resonate more with the writings of HG Wells, there is something about Lewis’s vision of a universe inhabited by benevolent spirits (eldil) and rational beings that touches me – would that even a part of it were true.
© Alex Cull, 9th July 2008
(This is a book review I posted on Planet Bookworm earlier this month.)