C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet was published in 1938. It was followed by two sequels, the three novels comprising his Cosmic Trilogy or Space Trilogy.
Lewis is better known for his fantasy than his science fiction and is of course best known for his ability to present elements of Christian theology and morals in a relatively palatable form. Having said that I should note that Out of the Silent Planet is still very good science fiction and can be enjoyed as such even by people like myself whose knowledge of theology is vanishingly small.
The novel starts the way so many early science fiction stories starts, with a hero who has no idea he is about to be propelled into an adventure in outer space. In fact Ransom has no idea he is about to be involved in any kind of adventure. He is not really the kind of man to whom adventures happen. He is an inoffensive Cambridge don on a walking tour. He is in fact, through no fault of his own, a philologist (just as Lewis’s close friend J. R. R. Tolkien was). This will turn out to be surprisingly important.
Entirely by accident Ransom finds himself kidnapped by a genuine mad scientist. Weston is a mad physicist, a particularly dangerous breed. They’re the sorts of chaps who are likely to kidnap unsuspecting philologists and carry them away into outer space. This is precisely the fate in store for poor Ransom. After a journey through space Ransom finds himself on the planet Malacandra, better known to inhabitants of Earth as Mars. Weston’s partner in crime is an old school chum of Ransom’s named Devine. They’re the sorts of old school chums who cordially hated one another at school, and are able to keep that hatred going for the rest of their lives.
Ransom manages to escape from Weston and Devine, having formed the suspicion that they intended to present him to the natives of Malacandra as a human sacrifice. Soon after his escape Ransom meets the first of the planet’s three sentient races, the Hrossa. The hrossa are a bit like very tall very thin bipedal otters. They are unquestionably intelligent although their intelligence is rather different from human intelligence. Later on he will encounter the second of Malacandra’s sentient races, the sorns. The third sentient race, the pfifltriggi, make only a fleeting appearance in the book. The sorns are also unquestionably intelligent, but again in a very unfamiliar way.
The creation of alien races that are genuinely alien in an interesting way is quite an art and Lewis succeeds admirably in the case of the hrossa and the sorns. The fact that Ransom is a philologist allows him to learn their languages fairly quickly without stretching the reader’s credibility.
Lewis also proves adept at interesting world-building. Since gravity on Mars is considerably less than on Earth everything on Mars tends to be very tall and very thin. This applies to the animals, the plants and even the mountains.
The spaceship is unusual and rather clever as well, as is Lewis’s idea of space as being something rather more than mere emptiness.
Ransom is in some ways a typical reluctant hero. He’s a man who has always considered himself to be entirely lacking in heroic qualities but in the course of his adventures he will discover that unusual circumstances can bring out wholly unsuspected reserves of courage even in inoffensive Cambridge dons. The hunt he finds himself undertaking allows Lewis to present an alien mindset in a particularly effective manner.
While it works as a straightforward science fiction adventure (although rather more literary and ideas-driven than was common in 1938) Lewis does use the novel to make some important moral points. He manages to do this without coming across as preachy or irritating, something that sadly cannot be said about most of today’s science fiction. He also makes some equally important theological points although readers better versed in this subject can judge his success in that area more competently than can your humble reviewer.
Out of the Silent Planet is entertaining and intelligent science fiction. Highly recommended.