Saturday, April 14, 2012

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Title: Out of the Silent Planet
Author: C.S. Lewis

Genre: Fiction (Space Travel / Vintage / Exploration / First Contact / Kidnapping / Philosophy)
Publisher/Publication Date: HarperOne (4/3/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay to liked.
Did I finish?: I did, although it took some effort at times.
One-sentence summary: An English don ends up on Mars where he meets aliens far more peaceful than his greedy compatriots.
Reading Challenges: E-books

Do I like the cover?: Eh --it's okay.  It resembles the spaceship the characters traveled in, but the landscape doesn't look like what Lewis describes.

I'm reminded of...: Jostein Gaarder, Doris Lessing

First line: The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably on his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut tree into the middle of the road.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially for those who like philosophy with their fiction.

Why did I get this book?: I've enjoyed some of Lewis' other fiction and was curious about this one.

Review: I have a thing for science fiction written by authors not known for sci-fi, like Doris Lessing, and so even though I haven't read much Lewis (none of his Narnia books, can you believe it?!), I had to say yes on this one. I will say straight out that I'm a science dummy, so sci-fi can be hit or miss for me, depending on whether I can 'get' the science. Happily, in this case, the science is sort of fuzzy, and the going to Mars is just a device to talk about souls, humanity, awareness, and other brainier topics I can handle.

This was a zippy read, not only because it's brief -- about 180ish pages, depending on your e-reader -- but also because the story moves rather quickly. Originally published in 1938, this story has that earnest feel of vintage sci-fi and science pulp -- lots of action, grand landscapes and pragmatically cruel villains -- but with a deep philosophical vein that makes the story meaty. It's no secret Lewis incorporates aspects of his Christian theology in to his fiction, and normally I'm pretty allergic to any and all 'inspiration' in my reading, but in this case, the religiosity is pretty low-grade and for me, inoffensive. There's some colonialism in the story as the characters deride or admire the beings on Mars (or, as called in the book, Malacandra), and aspire toward enslavement or liberation of the beings. It's both typical yet satisfying, the tropes that show up, and this really is a stereotypical 'first contact' type of lark, with a little more braininess than one might expect.

There's a Postscript to the story, a letter from Ransom (the fictional 'hero', of sorts) to C.S. Lewis, which made me laugh only because it was so...fussy. Ransom is giving Lewis critiques of the manuscript, and as a result, Lewis-by-way-of-Ransom includes a number of mundane facts and additional details for the practical-minded reader. But there's also a secondary discussion of 'memoir' (as this novel is pretending to be) and how one can't always convey the 'truth' of an event to the reader, despite a plethora of facts.

Of course you are right; if we are to treat it as a story you must telescope the time I spent in the village during which "nothing happened". But I grudge it. Those quiet weeks, the mere living among the hrossa, are to me the main thing that happened. I know them, Lewis; that's what you can't get into a mere story. For instance, because I always take a thermometer with me on a holiday (it has saved many a one from being spoiled) I know that the normal temperature of a hross is 103 degrees. I know -- though I can't remember learning it -- that they live about 80 Martian years, or 160 earth years; that they marry at about 20 (=40); ... that they do get (as you would say) "elevated" but not drunk on a gaudy night -- of which they have many. But what can one do with these scraps of information? I merely analyze them out of a whole living memory that can never be put into words, and no one in this world will be able to build up from such scraps quite the right picture.

On the whole, a readable sci-fi, especially for anyone intimidated by the genre. It's a story of exploration, of valuing others, the cruel and stupid way humans behave, and a vintage look at space travel from the 1930s. (I'm too lazy to look it up, but apparently Lewis was something like the fifth or sixth person to use the word 'spaceship' for the vehicle that took his characters to Mars.)


  1. That postscript that you quoted is actually quite interesting to me. I think the character is right, that there's so much that happens when "nothing" happens, but how to put that into a story is quite difficult. I wouldn't have thought of a book like this as being good for a book club, but based on that one paragraph alone, I think this would make quite an interesting pick.

    Anyway, thanks for being on the tour!

    1. Trish, I agree -- I think this would be a great book club pick, especially if folks think they don't like scifi or philosophical fiction -- that postscript bit might have been my favorite part -- being as I love memoirs and memoir-style fiction. It was a look into storytelling I hadn't considered.

  2. *bounces up and down* Are you gonna read Perelandra? Are you??

    I think I like Perelandra more than OotSP, but they're both awesome. But then, I'm a giant Lewis fan, sooo I'm slightly biased. Just a little.

    1. I am -- I'm very eager to read the other two books. Now, two people have warned me off the second book, saying it's super misogynist and weird so I'm delighted to see you're enthusiastic for it!

  3. Great review! I enjoyed these books, and I like the aspects you point out. I hadn't known about Doris Lessing!
    I wonder if I would have read them at all, though, if I wasn't already a Lewis fan?

    1. Lessing's Canopus in Argos series reminded me of this (or this reminded me of them, whatever) -- very philosophical and not too science-y, but still pretty thought provoking. Also, weird. :)

  4. Haven't read this one. Although it's not a genre I regularly reach for, it's one that I do enjoy a couple of times a year. BTW, I'm allergic to "inspiration" in my reading as well.

    1. Ti, a little bit I was reminded of Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell -- and I would say Russell's book is more religious (what with the Jesuit characters and all), and I loved that book -- so I think you won't be v bothered by the religiosity in this one (which is almost nonexistent, v metaphorical). If you ever pick it up, I'd love to hear your thoughts!