C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet is one of my favorite science fiction novels, because it deals not so much with the science as with the moral and philosophical questions about life on other planets.
Dr. Edwin Ransom, a Cambridge literature professor on a walking tour in the rural English countryside, is kidnapped by the evil scientist Weston and his companion Devine and taken to Malacandra or, as we would call it, Mars. On a previous visit, Weston and Devine had been summoned by the guardian spirit, Oyarsa, of Malacandra and had mistakenly assumed that what Oyarsa wanted was a human for sacrifice. Believing that any further trade with the planet will be impossible until they provide a sacrifice (Devine wants precious metals and Weston wants to make Mars a habitation for humans), they go back to Earth in search of a hapless human to fulfill this role.
Once on Malacandra, Ransom escapes from his captors and is taken in by a race of beings who are far kinder to him than his fellow humans. In fact, Ransom is struck by their intelligence and goodness to the point of feeling ashamed of his own species. He now feels the need to explain the “bent” (their only word denoting what we would call “evil”) tendencies of human kind, and he also wants to protect his new friends from the two bent men who have brought him here.
In the end, all three men are brought before Oyarsa, who tells them that he knows very little about their planet. He is able to communicate with the guardian spirit of every planet except theirs, which he calls Thulcandra, meaning the Silent Planet. The reason for this is made clear to Ransom; indeed, the education he receives both from the beings who befriended him and from Oyarsa completely changes his ideas about the nature of life and of death as well.
When by a miracle the three men make it back to Earth, Ransom tries to put his newfound knowledge into practice. The conclusion of the book consists of an afterword and several letters Ransom has written to the few colleagues he has entrusted with his amazing story. We discover that the work of “fiction” we have been reading is actually his attempt to share with open-minded readers the fruits of his experiences.
C.S. Lewis often used a fantastic setting to strip away the trappings of everyday life and expose the truths hidden within. Out of the Silent Planet leaves the reader with a sense of awe and with the idea that deep space and even our own damaged planet are filled with wonders that we are normally too jaded to see.
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