Monday, January 25, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: Out of the Silent Planet

I'm pretty sure C.S. Lewis would have objected to calling his 1938 novel, Out of the Silent Planet, a "pulp fantasy" and perhaps rightly so. Indeed, his "Space Trilogy," of which this is the first volume, might in some ways be seen as a rejection of many staples of the sword-and-planet genre of which it might superficially seems to have much in common. It is, after, the story of an Earth man -- Dr. Elwin Ransom -- who journeys to another world and finds his unique talents essential to preventing a great evil from transpiring.

Of course, Dr. Ransom's unique talents are not superior strength, hardiness, or military training but rather his facility with languages. Ransom, whom Lewis may have based, at least in part, on his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, is a philologist who uses his linguistic knowledge to learn the tongue of the inhabitants of the planet Malacandra, as Mars is called by them. This enables him to learn from them the history of not only Mars but also of Earth, the "Silent Planet" mentioned in the book's title, so called because, until the events of the book, what transpires on it is a mystery to the other beings of our solar system.

Unlike, say, John Carter or Esau Cairn, Ransom's journey to Mars was as the victim of a kidnapping. An unscrupulous physicist by the name of Professor Edward Weston plans to travel to Mars both to mine gold (which the planet has in abundance) and to lay the groundwork for the eventual colonization of the planet by human beings. Of course, doing so will result in the subjugation and perhaps extermination of the native Malacandrans, a fate Ransom cannot countenance and against which he struggles in the course of the novel. Fortunately for him, the philologist has allies in unexpected places and they too reveal much about the true nature of the cosmos.

Out of the Silent Planet is what might be called "theological science fiction," for its main purpose is not describe an adventure story set on another world as to explore the theological implications of life on other worlds from a Christian perspective. Even if one does not share Lewis's religious convictions, it's nevertheless a fascinating book purely as a bit of speculation about humanity's relationship to and responsibilities toward other intelligent life forms. Likewise, the cosmology Lewis outlines, which draws heavily on medieval notions of the universe, is very well done and, as others have noted already, was an inspiration to me as I worked on my planes-as-planets notion. I suspect others will be similarly inspired.

I have a great fondness for the Space Trilogy, which I first read in high school. I was never a fan of the Narnia books, which I found unsubtle and frankly boring. The Space Trilogy, though, was much more to my liking and, while not without its flaws, both as bits of speculation and as novels, their virtues far outweigh them. The middle book in the trilogy, Perelandra, set on Venus, is in my opinion the least interesting of the three and the one where Lewis's weaknesses as a writer become most apparent, but Out of the Silent Planet and That Hideous Strength, the final book in the series, are among my favorite novels. They're both well worth reading if you've never done so.


  1. Wow, James.

    I've never heard anyone say that Perelandra is his least favorite of Lewis's Space Trilogy. It's typically the favorite! I'm of course not calling you out or calling you down. I'm simply saying that you are the very first person I've ever encountered who dislikes Perelandra while liking the other volumes of the Space Trilogy.

    Myself, I dislike That Hideous Strength. (To be fair, it's been a long time since I read it. Perhaps I'd like it now.) That Hideous Strength is strongly under the influence of Charles Williams, whose novels I don't much enjoy.

    Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, though, are both beautiful works. I always consider them alongside David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus, in spite of their diametrically opposed religious philosophies.

    To me Perelandra is an intoxicatingly beautiful work, for which Out of the Silent Planet is the warm-up. It is one of two masterpieces that Lewis wrote, the other being Till We Have Faces. Interestingly, Lewis's own two favorites of his books were Perelandra and Till We Have Faces.

    James, what about Perelandra do you dislike?

  2. I really rather liked the first in this series " Out of the Silent Planet " I thought the descriptions of the creatures on mars were very interesting..Especially the Hrossa.

    The Second in the series, Perelandra, I had to start 3 times before I actually finished it.. I just didn't enjoy it as much as the first one.

    The 3rd I liked a lot more than the second, but still not as much as the first.

    Though apparently, and this is news to me, There is a 4th book called " The Dark Tower " which was released by a Walter Hooper in 1977.

  3. The Dark Tower is controversial to Derlethian proportions - A fair number of scholars believe it to be the work of Hooper, passed off as Lewis posthumously. I've read it, and must say that if it is Lewis, it is by far his weakest story and adds nothing to the Space Trilogy.

    The 50-page fistfight with a zombie (the "unman Weston") in Perelandra is a thing of pulp beauty: I'm surprised it doesn't capture your fancy. As for me, I love all three individually. My favorite aspect of it is that, although they work well as a trilogy, each story takes such a unique tack, they stand perfectly well on their own.

    The Ransom/Tolkien character is a very unconventional, yet totally convincing. I love these books! Thanks for highlighting it.

  4. James, what about Perelandra do you dislike?

    Perelandra reads more like a straight-up theological discourse than a novel. I know that, for many people, the debate between Ransom and Weston is the highlight of the book and it is a very well argued dialog but it lacks both the characterizations and drama I find necessary to enjoy a novel.

    In short, I don't find Perelandra a very appealing as literature, even if it's a rather well done piece of theological apologetics.

  5. As a regular reader of this blog, I'd like to comment on the content.

    Early on, it seemed this blog focused on the early days of role-playing and D&D in particular. In recent months, the main topics seem to be (in no particular order):

    1. Reviews of novels written 70+ years ago
    2. Commentary on the authors of said books
    2. Reviews of new RPG products
    3. Upcoming movie rumors

    Is this just a natural progression due to the original subject matter being thoroughly explored at this point or is it an intended shift?

  6. My grandmother, a school bus drive, found this book on a bus seat and gave it to me. I was in 4th grade. It was a bit of a challenging read for a 4th grader, but it opened my eyes to the alternate worlds presented by sci-fi and fantasy and will always hold that "first book" place.

    James, I agree with you on Perelandra.

    Thanks for the post.

  7. Is this just a natural progression due to the original subject matter being thoroughly explored at this point or is it an intended shift?

    Grognardia has always been about "the history and traditions of the hobby of roleplaying." One of those traditions is the books and authors who inspired the early days of the hobby. Consequently, discussing REH or Burroughs and Tolkien is, in my view, very much in keeping with the blog's intended focus. There are also plenty of posts, even in recent months, of more directly RPG historical interest, such as interviews, analysis of old fanzine pieces, and so on. So, from my perspective, I don't see much of a shift at all.

  8. @Danforth, James has been pretty clear about how the authors of the novels/short stories he's covered have influenced the creation of RPGs and D&D esp. The product reviews have all had a direct correlation to the OSR or material that can be used to support OSR campaigns. Likewise, I don't think the enjoyment of RPGs and fantasy/sci-fi literature is mutually exclusive. Both hobbies enjoy lucrative patronage from similar, if not the same audiences.

    And the movie posts are just as relevant, since many of them are about works by writers (i.e. Howard and Burroughs) which leds a great deal of excitement to those of us wanting to see faithful interpretations of these great masters--each of whom had an influence on early fantasy/RPGs.

    And all the while still including observations about long-forgotten rules, commentary and examples on the influence of early edition illustrators, updates from the 0E Dwimmermount campaign, and providing retrospectives on other old school RPG retrospectives.

    By my book, I think he's stayed right on target.

  9. I must agree with Geoffrey, Peralandra is by far my favorite. I had a difficult time getting through That Hideous Strength. We are agreed that Out of the Silent Planet is a classic. I'm glad you posted about these, they truly are engaging and unique works, yet still related to that special kind of fantasy OD&D evokes.

  10. Thanks for the replies, James and Jay. I do see your points. I'm probably a little younger and never read those old stories or associated them with D&D so the reviews don't interest me. Likewise, I'm pretty satisfied with my D&D/AD&D materials and am not interested in new products. I mostly enjoy the posts about the history of D&D, the interviews, and the various interpretations of the rules, etc... but now I understand why you make the ancillary posts. Thanks again!

  11. I often get this song stuck in my head...

  12. I don't remember a single word said in Perelandra.

    I do, however, remember the frogs.