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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Trekking through Malacandra - CS Lewis "Out of a Silent Planet"

Original Published on Amazon as a book review
Out of a Silent Planet
I had never read Lewis, (or much of what others have written about him), except for 20 pages of the Screwtape Letters when I was a teenager. I didn't like it then, but I suspect that it was because I didn't have the disciple or desire to read closely written prose, even from the Devil. I have always known Lewis was a colleague of Tolkien, a medievalist, a favorite author of the intellectual Christians. Aside from all that, I didn't have any preconceptions about him when my sister sent me a vintage copy of 'Out of a Silent Planet' (original price 95¢) which she had held onto since her teen years.
Three fourths of the book is physical description. From the English countryside to the space ship he traveled on, the flora, fauna and geology of where ever he was, it was all painted carefully with the full prose arsenal available to Lewis, whose vocabulary was voluminous, yet always apt, and whose style was direct and clear. Malacandra, the planet to which the main character, Ransom is taken, if described by a lesser writer would be depicted as a cartoon, but Lewis's style is so understated, that the story has to be taken seriously in the way the discourse of a sober careful, well educated Englishmen of the twentieth Century is taken. Perhaps that attitude is a cultural prejudice, or social stereotype that maybe does not translate anymore, particularly after exposure to hours of Monty Python . Normally, I prefer the gaudy, overstated, hyperbolic blasphemy of American writers like T. Pynchon, Hunter Thompson or even Tom Wolfe. But Lewis grows on you - if you let him.
Ransom is kidnapped by two English University men, of his own generation and class, one a huckster, Devine and the other a 'mad' professor, Weston. The story is almost too fantastic to take seriously, except for the exact, painstaking language Lewis uses to describe his surroundings while it is happening.
They arrive on Malacandra and Weston, the mad professor - As I said, I have read nothing of what other people have written about 'Out...Planet', - Weston reminds me of a caricature of Robert Heinlein, the science fiction author. Through his fiction we learn that Heinlein believed that man's destiny is in the stars and we are going to have to kill aliens if we want to succeed in that domain. Heinlein was also a very good writer whose descriptions of space travel set the standard for 'hard science fiction' - fiction that stays within the scientifically conceivable, and is explained with the history of the technology usually incorporated into the story - and that style is everything that Lewis' descriptions are not. Ransom is almost oblivious to the technology of the spaceship and how it developed and as a result so is the reader. That is not what Lewis is writing about.
  The other kidnapper, Devine, is there for the gold. He went to college with Ransom and Ransom hated him then.
  Ransom escapes and discovers three main species of intelligent life on Malacandra - spoiler alert - Malacandra is Mars. Ransom doesn't divulge this until much later in the story, but the description said it was Mars on the back cover of the 95¢ book I am reviewing,so I think it is OK to reveal that. This knowledge brings you closer to the exact and consistent manner with which Lewis constructs the book. His account of Mars is at odds with what any 10 grader knows about the barren desert planet fourth out from the sun. In the sixties there was a controversy that supposed the Canals of Mars were engineered. Lewis gradually draws you into a vision of Malacandra as a lush vibrant world. Not great science, but well structured as a story.
As stated, color and vibrancy abound. The book was popular with the 'Acid' cultural of the late sixties, perhaps because the world he describes is definitely over the Rainbow.
  Ransom's  examination of Malacandra is meant to seem systematic and scientific. Back on earth, he is a philologist. He learns the planet's language, (fortunately all four species speak the same language). He makes friends with a beaver-like creature, a Hross. There is also a forest dwelling ghostly, long shanked, long faced humanoid (Sorn) that covers huge distances walking, as well as a a mechanically talented frog-like animal (Pfifltriggi ). They are ruled by Eldils, almost invisible flying beings, among whom include the planet's leader, more like a god, who speaks but isn't seen.
  The story is told with a minimum of drama, and is described in a very flat manner. Lewis is more 'English' that the English. His narrative style seems modeled on HG Wells' manner of story telling. On second thought, I doubt that Weston is modeled after Heinlein. I am not even sure that Lewis was familar with the Science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s. Sci Fi had advanced in realism and even characterization since Wells wrote The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. Out of a Silent Planet was written by someone who either was ignorant of modern (1950's and 60's) Science Fiction or hated it. I suspect it is probably the later, because Lewis was a profound scholar.
  The story had a tragedy and a climax, but they are not depicted the way normal books deal with such things. These denouements are clearly only a vehicle for final conversation between the head Eldil, Oyarsa and Ransom, just before the three earthlings get ready to return home. It gives a cosmology which is not at all congruent with Christianity, but more Buddhist explained with Norse mythic nomenclature. Oyarsa, who is God come down off the mountain, talks about the origins of not only the Malacandria but also earth or as it is called Thulcandra. Oyarse is in contact with the Eldil that 'rules' our planet and describes him as 'bent' which is Ransom's translation of a Malacandraian word which might also mean crazy or unstable. For being a fairy tale, it is internally very consistent, profound theologically, and the further you read into the novel the more you appreciate it.
  Without even 'goggling' "Christianity and "Out of the Silent Planet'" I am sure that I will discover that some people have written that the book is a Christian allegory. That is not based on my knowledge of Lewis, it is based on my knowledge of Christians, a belief I have held off and on throughout my life.
I thought 'the best part' was also the most awkward part, the very end. It is a post script where Lewis the author is chided by the 'real' Ransom for editing out a huge linguistic section of his book, where he describes the Malacandrian Language in detail. Lewis still defined at least 15 or so words. He also says that he had to leave out all manner of more detailed descriptions including how each species has great internal diversity. There are some Hross's with silver fur, black fir, brown fir, and one with a comb on top of the head of the males in another species.I t was a scholarly critic of his own work presented as part of the work itself.
  Lewis 's 'Christian' point I suppose is that all intelligent creatures are united spiritually, that we all come from the same place and will return to the same place. That death is nothing to fear and that perhaps the mechanical/ scientific secrets of the universe are best left alone and that we should unite with nature and maintain ecological harmony. While it seems neo-luddistic, in the manner Tolkien I suppose, (World War I had damaged a lot of people in different ways) I believe that is a good code by which to live.