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Literature / Out of the Silent Planet

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The first volume of The Space Trilogy by C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet is a tribute to early science-fiction of the likes of From The Earth to the Moon.

Philologist Elwin Ransom is kidnapped by the (evil) scientists Devine and Weston, and taken in their space-ship to the planet Malacandra (or Mars, as we call it) as a human sacrifice to appease the natives while they mine the place for gold. He escapes, locates and falls in among the civilized natives (the otterlike hrossa) and learns their language and their ways.

He is then summoned to see Oyarsa, the ruler of Malacandra. This being is an eldil — basically, an angel — and actually just wants to talk. In the court of Oyarsa, Ransom learns much of the history of eldila and the solar system, and the reason why Thulcandra (the titular Silent Planet, that is, Earth) has heretofore been cut off from the Heavens. Weston and Devine reappear, and their ultimate villainous goals are laid bare and dissected. Oyarsa then sends the three humans back to Earth.

This book provides examples of:

  • Absolute Xenophobe: Weston has no problem shooting Hyoi (who as a hross looks seal-like and not humanoid like Weston expected) on sight without bothering whether he may be murdering a sentient person. Even later when he knows the victim was a person just as he is, he shows no remorse and maintains that the only life of value is human life. Later still it becomes clear he doesn't even value individual human lives; or even the human species as it now is, but just that some creature that has some origin in humanity (however vague) continues to conquer and plunder.
  • Almost Out of Oxygen: Carbon dioxide poisoning becomes an issue during the return trip. The characters move and speak as little as possible in order to reduce their respiration.
  • Ancient Astronauts: Inverted. C. S. Lewis' Author Avatar translates a manuscript by the 12th century Platonist Bernardus Silvestris, describing a voyage through the heavens and mentioning Oyarses, a tutelary spirit assigned to a planet. Said author avatar seeks translation help from Dr. Ransom—who had himself recently voyaged to Mars and spoken with Oyarsa, and thus recognizes Silvetris' account as a true one. As for Oyarsa, he's an Energy Being, an angel, and a little-g god.
  • Angelic Aliens: The sorns of Malacandra are incredibly tall beasts that Ransom comes to appreciate as beings of such intelligence and grace as the legendary titans and angels.
  • Artistic License – Space:
    • In the introduction Lewis explains he knew that telescopes had shown there were no canals on Mars, but he put them there anyway because they were part of the popular lore about the planet. It was already out of date by the time it came out, scientifically, but it made for a good story and effort was at least made to try justifying some of it. (Such as when Ransom watches during liftoff and finds that their appearance depends on how he's looking at the ground. Given that the original reports were 'optical illusions' that depended on how you looked at Mars...)
    • In-universe, a pfifltriggi makes a portrait of Ransom and his companions that depicts them as stumpy mushroom-shaped creatures. Ransom is startled to realize this is their idealized version of what humans look like, as the real version would be hard for Malacandrians to believe.
  • Attack the Mouth: On the world of Malacandra, a river-dwelling predator called a "hnakra" is heavily armored, and can only be harmed by hurling spears at its open mouth. The main character takes part in a hunt and manages to help kill one.
  • Author Tract: Out Of The Silent Planet is a fictionalized precursor of Lewis' essay "Religion and Rocketry", describing how extraterrestrial life doesn't contradict Christian theology. It is also a deconstruction of the colonial ideals often found in sci-fi of the time through the "judgement scene," where Weston has to attempt to justify his worldview to an angel that doesn't speak his language. He needs to resort to the interpretative services of Ransom, who can only convey his speech very simplistically, and who is not necessarily sympathetic to many of his opinions. The obvious point is that, stripped of rhetorical flourish, many of Weston's seemingly high-minded ideals start to sound almost barbaric.
  • Bizarre Alien Psychology: Discussed by the séroni, who are of the opinion that living on a world with only one sapient species must profoundly narrow our mental horizons by depriving us of the opportunity to compare our own worldviews with those anchored in a different biology and set of instincts.
  • Captain Ersatz: Weston and Devine are a darker version of Cavor and Bradford from H. G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon. Lewis himself was a fan of the novel.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: Oyarsa points out to Weston that he and Devine made two extremely dangerous trips of millions of miles, wasted at least a year, and committed numerous crimes all to avoid him, when all he wanted to do was talk to them.
  • Cunning Linguist: Ransom is a professor of philology, which helps him to assimilate the Malacandran languages quickly. Notably, he figures out that the hrossa are sapient beings when he hears one vocalizing and realizes it's not just barking but speaking an actual language.
  • Deconstruction: Weston's motivation for the colonization of Mars is the survival of the human race, even if this means killing all the natives of Mars. Or killing any humans who stand in his way. The conversation with Oyarsa picks this philosophy to pieces. This aspect was most likely intended by Lewis as a rebuttal to Olaf Stapledon's novel Last and First Men, which (arguably) condoned the genocide of native Venusians as necessary for humanity's survival, though Weston's clownish antics earlier poke fun at colonialism generally.
  • Evil Colonialist: Weston and Devine are planning to exploit the Malacandrans for their planet's natural resources.
  • First Contact: Some time before Ransom walked into them, Devine and Weston traveled to Mars and met members of one of its three species, the sorns.
  • First Contact Faux Pas: After some rough time breaking the language barrier, the sorns of Mars ask the men of Earth to come talk to their world's invisible leader, the Oyarsa. They assume the Oyarsa is some type of pagan idol, so they head back to Earth to kidnap a Human Sacrifice to offer it. The Oyarsa is disgusted by how corrupt the human mind is, sends them back to Earth, and "unbodies" the Earth's only spaceship.
  • God: Ransom learns the Martians worship a being called Maleldil. There is no dispute that Maleldil is on Mars, although the intellectual sorns have a more abstract understanding of him than the more artistic hrossa. They all agree he is a spirit without bodies or parts (which the sorns attribute to an extreme form of Faster-Than-Light Travel) that created everything in the world and assigned the Oyerésu to watch over the planets. Ransom realizes with time that Maleldil is who on Earth is called Jesus and in Perelandra that Venusians know He is one with his Father and "the Third One."
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: Ransom has a Sanity Slippage episode while wandering, lost and alone, on the planet he doesn't yet know is Mars, long into the night (so sleep deprivation may factor into it). He starts talking to himself in a rather circular manner. He gets better after sleeping, and meets the hrossa the very next day.
  • Good Cannot Comprehend Evil: Downplayed; the Oyarsa of Mars only wanted to speak to Weston and Devine to get some information from them about what was going on on Earth, but the two of them fled back to Earth and kidnapped Ransom to go in their place. This and other behavior on their part completely baffled Oyarsa, even going so far as to make him wonder if those two were brain-damaged. Only after a lengthy questioning and hearing a (very much deconstructed) explanation of their colonial ideas did Oyarsa come to understand them, and during that interrogation, Oyarsa kept finding new and surprising levels of genius and insanity in them.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The Bent One is responsible for cutting off Earth from the rest of the solar system and corrupting its people into misers and murderers. He is never directly encountered, but is responsible for the Greed and Pride that motivates Weston to kidnap Ransom and to attack his alien friends.
  • Hannibal Lecture: Weston's speech to Oyarsa justifying his murder of the Malacandrans, as well as planned genocide and colonization of the planet. Thoroughly deconstructed, as noted elsewhere, to the point where Oyarsa's response effectively qualifies as an indirect Shut Up, Hannibal!.
  • Heavy Worlder: The Earth-based characters once on Malacandra, as identified by the sorns. Ransom himself, after months living among the natives, sees Weston and Devine as they must look to Malacandran eyes for a brief moment towards the end of the novel.
  • Humanoid Aliens: The sorns are bipedal like humans and otherwise structurally similar to humans, apart from the feathers, needle-thinness, and the extra four feet they have on us.
  • Inhumanable Alien Rights: Both played straight with what rights Weston and Devine think a non-human should be afforded (none); and inverted in how the Martians in turn treat the alien human visitors to their world. By contrast to the aforementioned, the Martians are actually perfectly moral and have no difficulties acknowledging the full personhood of a human (just like every other hnaunote ). Weston is given a fair trial for the murder of Hyoi. The Martians also realise that Ransom was abducted by the other two against his will, so is just as much of a victim of their havoc as their Martian victims, instead of being in any way responsible. The only thing they blame him for is not coming to them for help against his abductors sooner when he managed to escape (though they acknowledge that he had no means to divine whether or not they might be hostile, and was thus rationally fearful to make contact).
  • Innocent Aliens: The three species of Malacandra live without any Fantastic Racism, false religion, or even murder, thanks to their resident eldil keeping their planet from giving in to idolatry. It's said humans were once the same, until Earth's eldil cut off contact with the rest of the Solar System and bent humanity to his envious will.
  • Intelligent Gerbil: The hrossa are quite like sentient seals or otters, only their planet's lighter gravity has made them taller and thinner.
  • It's All About Me: Both Weston and Devine have no regard for anyone but themselves, Weston's flowery rhetoric about advancing the human race notwithstanding. Oyarsa sends them and Ransom back to Earth, and informs them that their ship will be unmade after their landing, along with anything and anyone left inside. Ransom is asleep when they land, and wakes to find that they left without bothering to wake him. He barely makes it out of the ship before it self-destructs in a flash of light.
  • Lady Land: Ransom mentions in his afterword that the Pfifltriggi are matriarchal.
  • Language Equals Thought: Evil is such an alien concept to the innocent non-Earth aliens that Ransom had considerable difficulty finding proper terms to translate it and related concepts.
  • Low Culture, High Tech: Played with. The Malacandrans have many advanced devices, such as oxygen tanks, that they just don't use very often. In fact, when their world began to die, many of them were tempted to try Weston's scheme to invade Earth and displace the natives to take it for themselves, and Oyarsa confirms that they would have been capable of it if he hadn't stopped them.
  • Martians: Mars (or Malacandra) is inhabited by three different intelligent species, the otter-like hrossa, the giant feathered sorns (or séroni), and the pfifltriggi (who excel at mining and at building things).
  • Mighty Whitey: Ransom had some ideas of becoming something like this, but the closest he came was contributing to a hunt for a monster, and even then, he didn't do more to succeed in that hunt than his Martian companions did. He also didn't have superior scientific or technical knowledge to the Martians, as he was a Cunning Linguist rather than a scientist, plus the Martians actually had surprisingly advanced scientific knowledge for how little technology they showed. In fact, when the Martian scientists sat down to get as much scientific data about Earth as they could from Ransom, they figured out some scientific knowledge that Ransom himself didn't know, and they managed this by inferring it from information Ransom gave them about other scientific topics that he hadn't realized were related, making this something of an inversion.
  • Mistook the Dominant Lifeform: Inverted Trope; the men Devine and Weston believe the sorns are the masters of Malacandra because they're the first species they meet. It turns out they and the three other species all willingly serve the Oyarsa, an invisible being in the service of Maleldil the Young.
  • Mix-and-Match Creatures: Malacandra has fauna that resembles a mix of Earth-like animals, including an amphibious, long-legged, and seal-skinned herbivore with teeth like a beaver.
  • Multicultural Alien Planet: The inhabitants of Malacandra come in three different species (not counting the energy beings), each with its own language. Furthermore, the sornsnote  (giant feathered humanoids) come in at least two varieties — white (in the mountains) and red (in the deserts), and the hrossa (otter-people) come in at least three races — black, silver, and crested. There might be more, but the viewpoint character wasn't on the planet long enough to tell, as he was vividly aware.
  • Noble Savage:
    • Subverted. Originally, Weston and Devine consider the native Malacandrans to be primitive tribespeople, and when Ransom discovers their highly-developed cultural achievements, he thinks they fit this trope. But he later learns that they are actually a great deal more advanced than they appear, and simply don't bother doing a number of things they are capable of because they don't see any need to. (For one, their lower gravity makes them a great deal less concerned with the moving of weights than Earth people.)
    • Deconstructed with the hrossa. The hrossa, who live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, are very friendly to Ransom due to their nobility, but they do him more harm than anyone else by forgetting he can't breathe the thin air up on the high steppe. The sorn astronomer who saves Ransom's life notes that neither he nor the technically-minded pfifltriggi would have made such a mistake. The other two species are just as noble, having no concept of evil, yet far more rational.
  • No Such Thing as Space Jesus: The scientists who create the first starship are too caught up in materialism to consider that the Oyarsa of Malacandra is not an idol or a fraud, but a real spirit empowered by an even realer God. Their inconsideration costs them humanity's only method of interplanetary travel.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Invoked by Oyarsa: he noticed that Ransom was quite afraid at meeting him, and told Ransom that the human mind and eldil mind were both created in God's image, so their psychology at least wouldn't be so alien.
  • Omnidisciplinary Scientist: Done deliberately with Weston. In his essay "Reply to Professor Haldane", Lewis himself notes the weak point that although "Weston, for the sake of the plot, has to be a physicist, his interests seem to be exclusively biological," and he points out that he was intending the story to be more fantastical than hard sci-fi. Perelandra has Weston state that he started as a physicist, then became a biologist, but it's implied to have happened between books.
  • Once-Green Mars: It turns out that Malacandra (Mars) was once lushly habitable before being attacked and ravaged by the bent Oyarsa of Earth, and now life there is mostly limited to a few geothermal oases.
  • Planetary Nation: The Oyarsa is recognized as the final authority across all the races and towns of Malacandra, owing to his status as an Energy Being with an ancient and transcendent intelligence.
  • Planet Looters: Weston and Devine travel to Malacandra in the hopes of finding gold and land for humanity to plunder. The knowledge that three intelligent races live on the planet is no object to these men, who only have the fame of the human species and their own wallets in mind.
  • Planet of Hats:
    • The hrossa are warrior-poets and musicians prone to flamboyant action and speech; their humour consisting predominantly of elaborate wordplays. They take great joy in hunting dangerous animals face to face, and composing epic poems; but are prone to overlook simple practicalities. Likely inspired by the style of the Scandanavian Poetic Edda, Prose Edda and The Icelandic Sagas.
    • The séroni (the proper plural of sorn) are reserved and solitary shepherds, whose humour is described as dry and sardonic. They're the philosophers and scientists, more interested in abstract principles than in technology itself.
    • The pfifltriggi are miners and artists; whose humour is described as "excelling in practical jokes and personal abuse". They are expert craftsmen and architects who delight in technology and the visual arts, though they prefer complicated things that are fun to make, and the sorns are long-since resigned to the fact that a pfifltrigg won't make something useful if it's too easy and simple.
  • Planetville: Lampshaded. As Ransom leaves Malacandra, he realizes what a tiny portion of the planet he actually saw, and discusses the great varieties of beings he never got to see in the afterword.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Invoked by the pfifltrigg who carves Ransom's portrait. Ransom is alarmed that the final result looks very little like an actual human being, but the artist explains that he left out all but the most basic details on purpose.
    "I do not mean it to be too like. Too like, and they will not believe it — the ones who are born after."
  • The Right of a Superior Species: Weston, the villain of the first book, sincerely believes that humanity's continual industrialization justifies slaughtering the "barbaric" people of Malacandra. When pushed on his logic, he proclaims no killing is unlawful if it means something called "man" (since they may change their body or mind in the name of Progress) survives. The Oyarsa identifies this as classic case of a single duty (love for own species) being isolated from all the great laws of goodness until it becomes evil.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Hyoi, the first Malacandran Ransom meets and his best friend for the time spent there (everyone is friendly to him, but Hyoi becomes his friend) is shot dead to show how humans are not all nice.
  • Schizo Tech: The hrossa use stone and bone tools while the séroni and pfifltriggi are advanced enough to produce things like oxygen masks.
  • Shown Their Work: C.S. Lewis does surprisingly well at depicting realistic interplanetary flight and the effects of Mars' lower gravity: it takes weeks to get from Earth to Mars, even when they're in a favorable planetary alignment, for one example, and for another, the sun constantly lights up the spaceship, averting Space Is Cold to the point where Ransom lampshades it. The sheer impossibility of leaving the Solar System even comes up at one point, averting Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale. As for Mars' lower gravity: animals, plants, and even waves on the water are much taller than on Earth. Not too shabby for a book written before Britain entered World War 2!
  • Space Elves: The sorns of Mars are exceptionally tall creatures renowned for their intellect.
  • Space Is Cold: Averted. All the space travel remains in the inner solar system (from Earth to Mars and back), so the sun is relatively near to Weston's spaceship, always visible, making things very hot within the ship. When Ransom comments, "I always thought space was dark and cold," he is met with scorn for his naiveté. "Forgot about the Sun, did you?" On the return trip from Malacandra to Earth, where Weston and Devine have to cut inside the orbit of Venus to get back to Earth in time, they very nearly cook to death before they get past the Sun and start back outwards.
  • Space Is an Ocean: Ransom observes that "space" (an unfitting name) is less of a void and more like an ocean of heavenly, unfiltered starlight that only stops at the planetary islands where mortals live. He quotes John Milton's description of an oceanic flight in Paradise Lost to show that older thinkers were right to see the heavens as skyward seas.
  • Spheroid Drop Ship: Weston's spaceship is a sphere by necessity, since he can't create Artificial Gravity and so he needed to have a core that would pull the rest of the spaceship into the center. Weston refuses to explain to Ransom (and the reader through him) how exactly he created a center of gravity so small, but the result is that the floors of one room seem to be the walls as soon as you walk out and look into it. It also means that entering a planet's orbit involves making "down" down again, which proves a harrowing experience.
  • Starfish Aliens: One of Malacandra's three sapient races is a tapir-headed froggish alien. The Eldila, though angelic, are multidimensional energy beings who inhabit the vacuum of space itself.
  • Take Me to Your Leader: The first thing Weston and Devine tried to do upon meeting Martians was ask to speak to their ruler. When the Martians say they're ruled by an energy being, the humans decide its the ruler is some artificial idol and go back to Earth to get a human sacrifice to offer to it.
  • Tears of Fear: On their way home from Mars, Weston breaks down in fear and despair when he realizes that he's miscalculated and the ship is about to overshoot Earth's orbit.
  • Techno Babble: Weston dismissively explains his spaceship works by "exploiting some of the less observed properties of solar radiation." (Lewis explained this as an obvious Hand Wave, as the mechanics of space travel are not really the point; in Perelandra Ransom's space travel is accomplished not by science but by angels.)
  • Uncanny Valley: Invoked. Ransom finds the Sorns terrifying at first (and even after discovering their true nature takes awhile to become comfortable with them) precisely because they superficially resemble elongated humans. With the other species, he discovers that the moment he starts thinking of them as 'human' rather than intelligent animals they become disturbing.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Subverted. The Old Solar language has a word for sapient creatures of any species: hnau. Humans, Malacandrans, Perelandrans, and Eldila are all hnau — people. As a twist, though, Lewis proposes that the human practice of keeping pets is an expression of our desire for companionship with people who are different creatures from us — the various Malacandrans find each other silly, amusing and refreshing. Humans talk to cats or dogs and treat them as family members; a Hross goes to hang out with a Pfifltrigg, who can actually talk back.
  • Wham Line: Ransom realising where he is.
    "It isn't the Moon. It's the Earth."
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Oyarsa discusses un-making Weston and Devine with Ransom — but ultimately decides against it. The basic idea of the reason for this is that as inhabitants of a different planet, they (so to speak) fall out of his jurisdiction.
  • You No Take Candle: Weston gives a philosophical speech in English with some very stirring rhetoric; Ransom translates it into Old Solar, but he can only get across the basic ideas, not the rhetoric. The ideas are accurately conveyed, more or less, but stripped of their high-minded vocabulary they sound banal, meaningless, or outright barbaric; when Weston says that "Life itself is more valuable than any system of morality", Ransom admits to Oyarsa that he has literally no idea how to say this in Old Solar, and flails around for an adequate translation before arriving at the rough equivalency: "It is better to be alive and bent than to be dead."