Out Of The Silent Planet
Friday Book Pick: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S.Lewis
On the window sill (in plain view as I type on this computer) is a small black-and-white photograph of a middle-aged, scholarly man lighting a pipe which is clenched firmly in his lips. He looks directly into the camera with raised eyebrows and an expression of intelligent incredulity. The man is Clive Staples Lewis, the Irish born, Oxford-educated scholar, convert and writer. The children’s fantasy series Chronicles of Narnia are perhaps his most famous books and wonderful reading for any age, but many are the recognizable titles in his litany of books, namely: The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, The Abolition of Man, The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, The Four Loves...and at least a bookshelf more. Perhaps somewhat under-appreciated are his three works of science fiction. Some might find it surprising that this Christian theologian and Oxford don wrote not one, but three, books in that genre. In fact, Out of the Silent Planet, published in 1938, was Lewis’ first successful work of fiction.
Reading a good novel is a way to experience ideas coming to life in multidimensional ways. Certainly there are many avenues available to pursue an idea. To learn about the phenomenon of light, for example, I could listen to a lecture by a scientist, an artist or a clergyman; I could read essays, articles and books exploring the nature, properties and virtues of light; or I could have a lengthy conversation with friends about our questions and experiences of light. And yet another means of pursuing an idea is to read a good novel in which a character encounters light in a marvelous and different way than I ever have, or ever could. Novels provide an (almost) living outlet for ideas to be explored, tested and tried.
Out of the Silent Planet is the story of a youngish professor, a philologist named Elwin Ransom, who is kidnapped while on a walking holiday, and winds up on Mars, or rather Malacandra, as the natives call it. Early on in the pages of this science fiction adventure, we get to experience light through the hero’s eyes as he is first coming to grips with his situation. He quickly realizes that one side of the spaceship is in perpetual darkness and the other in perpetual light. Questioning his captor, Ransom says: “I always thought space was dark and cold.”
“Forget about the sun?” quips his nemesis contemptuously.
Ransom soon develops a routine which persists in his long weeks of interplanetary travel. “He lay for hours in contemplation of the skylight. The Earth’s disk was nowhere to be seen. The stars, thick as daisies on an uncut lawn, reigned perpetually with no cloud, no moon, no sunrise to dispute their sway. There were planets of unbelievable majesty, and constellations undreamed of: there were celestial sapphires, rubies, emerald and pin-pricks of burning gold…. Often he rose after only a few hours of sleep to return, drawn by an irresistible attraction to the regions of light; he could not cease to wonder at the noon which always awaited you however early you went to seek it.”
In this marvelous description of sun and stars, the reader is brought easily into what is becoming a believable tale, in part through good writing, but in greater part through good ideas. One begins to see light in a new way with Ransom, who as a result of his contemplative daily sunbathing, “felt his body rubbed and scoured and filled with new vitality.” And though he receives a scientific answer to his question about the sensations connected to the light from his captor—who explains that without the barrier of the atmosphere of Earth, the rays of the sun are now being experienced by them in an unfiltered way—as time wears on, Ransom becomes aware of a deeper, more personal reason for the lightening and exaltation of heart which he is experiencing. “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’: and at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness that was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it had affected him till now—now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed like blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean radiance in which he swam.” And his meditation goes on until he declares the wisdom of “the older thinkers who had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens.”
I had to put the book down when I read this passage for the first time as a teenager in high school. I was blown away. It was the image of renewing, life-giving light; it was the contrast of the "heavens” to “space”…. For a kid who took Christianity very seriously and whose favorite class was AP biology, this novel was important. It got me thinking about the weight of ideas and the power of words. Out of the Silent Plant, like all of Lewis’ novels, are chock-full of ideas worth pondering and truths worth knowing, plus it’s a great story (of which I have told you very little, on purpose). The themes from his nonfiction works come to blood, bones and breath in his novels. A book able to cause you to pause and to wonder is worth its price…and more.
Mother Clare, CFR