Note: This review was written as part of the Pages Unbound C. S. Lewis Read-Along for the month of February 2013. Go check out their master list for more Lewisian topics!
Perhaps it is a peculiar practice to review a book one has read at least two or three times already. But perhaps it is the only honest way to do it. I’ve let Out of the Silent Planet, first book of Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, rest on my shelf for a few years already; though I recalled where the story ended up, I didn’t always recall how it got there. “Narrative lust,” that is, wanting to know How It Ends, wasn’t necessary to carry me through; the story retains an element of freshness and would not, I think, be worn thin by further rereadings.
Why not? In part, because of its oddest aspect: the mystery of the title. Here’s a prepositional phrase, appearing nowhere in the story itself, whose meaning is obscure even when we learn which planet it indicates. Is it the start of a sentence? The end of one? Perhaps it means to set up a contrast: out of the silent planet, into the heavens. For though the planets are the chief concern of this book and the trilogy in general, Lewis doesn’t miss his chance to share his favored cosmology:
A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of “Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now – now that the very name “Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it “dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. …No: space was the wrong name.
Hence my references to the Cosmic Trilogy, rather than the Space Trilogy. Cosmic better captures the nature of this book, which is a bit of a pastiche genre-wise: it has something of the mythic (particularly where the hrossa and their poetic inclinations are concerned), a good dollop of the supernatural, bound up in a science-fiction narrative which was composed early enough to be called scientifiction. Even without that slightly archaic term, there are points when it becomes clear that this book is an early effort (though far from the earliest) in the science-fiction genre. The nature of the spaceship, Ransom’s somewhat foggy understanding of the ship itself, gravity, the occasional confusion where other celestial bodies are concerned, his attempts to figure out how this new planet Malacandra sustains life: these are details absent, or strikingly different and more true-to-life, in books written fewer than 75 years ago. Some readers get distracted by this, but I suppose it’s never troubled me, since it’s clearly a facet of Lewis’s world-building.
The three main facets of said world-building, so far as I noted them, are as follows: the physical descriptions as Ransom sees and interacts with the country around him; the details and history learned from the hrossa, sorns, and Oyarsa; and over-around-through it all, the use and limits of language.
This last seems especially noteworthy. Lewis paints the world and its inhabitants in bold, bright colors: clouds of red stone, neon blue rivers hiding a lightning-fast eel, pink scrub, sweeping green mountains, and precarious-looking purple vegetation. By analogy he gives us to understand more or less what a hross looks like (something like a penguin, otter, and seal, with the flexibility and litheness of a stoat), and a sorn, and even a pfiffltrigg. There are occasions where discussions of life and philosophy are worked in, despite Ransom’s shaky grip on the Malacandrian tongue. But there are also times when words fall short, both when the narrator tries to put an experience into words which cannot be so rendered, and when Ransom attempts to translate Earthly arguments into Malacandrian.
This language doesn’t have so many shades of meaning as English, and therefore cannot be used in the subtly misleading fashion that is the travelers’ wont. It reminded me of nothing so much as Diggory and his Uncle Andrew: Devine and Weston, the other Earthlings, are so quick to couch their goal in the rosiest terms and obscure whom shall be sacrificed on the altar of progress, making it really seem, for a second, that ‘they were saying something rather fine” (indeed, they think they are). In the end their greed, their halting understanding, and their having set up an unimportant rule as their guiding principle, reveals these two to be ridiculously silly figures. It is quite as entertaining as Uncle Andrew being planted and watered.
I have some minor quibbles with the story near the end – there’s a spot of trouble the Earthlings manage to avoid though it’s never explained how – but overall, this first book of the Cosmic Trilogy is a fine step in a somewhat different direction for those who loved Narnia. Further delights await elsewhere in the Field of Arbol!