Saturday, July 14, 2012

Out of the Silent Planet

by C. S. Lewis
Harper Collins, 1938, 351 pages

Out of the Silent Planet is the first book in C. S. Lewis's unjustly little known space trilogy. Why unjustly? Because these three novels are books that all adult fans of C. S. Lewis should read, but too many never read past the Narnia Chronicles in his fiction.

So where in space will you go, and what might you be reminded of, when you read these three stories? Each is set in a different planet in our solar system, and each also has echoes of other famous literature - from Gulliver's Travels to Paradise Lost to the legends of King Arthur - even though Lewis himself only acknowledged his debt to H. G. Wells.

The reason that Out of the Silent Planet will remind many of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is that the main character Ransom, like Swift's Gulliver, is a traveler who ends up marooned in a strange land - in this case, the planet of Malacandra.

Ransom is like Gulliver in his name as well, in two ways. Swift's Gulliver is a gull - a gullible person - who believes steadfastly in the goodness of his native Britain. Ransom, too, believes that the civilization of his native planet of Earth is far superior to the seemingly primitive cultures of Malacandra. Both men defend their own societies, but are repeatedly humiliated when it turns out that what they take to be primitive is actually simply civilization that has not learned to justify such sins as greed and lust.

Another way in which Ransom is like Gulliver is that the name "Ransom" is as meaningful as "Gulliver," because the novel is not only satire, but is also an exciting escape story. Ransom is being offered to the 'beings' of Malacandra as a sacrifice in exchange for the riches of the planet - a little like what happens in yet other famous stories, such as H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and Rudyard Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King."

But who and what are the terrifying 'beings' of Malacandra? And how can Ransom free himself from both his kidnappers and the natives of Malacandra? As Ransom flees from everyone around him, the story of his desperate search for someone or something he can trust among Earth's and Malacandra's four races - and beings startlingly greater than any of them - shows us some truly profound things about our own Silent Planet.

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