Predating the Narnia books by slightly more than a decade, Out of the Silent Planet was the first novel of the “Space” trilogy of works of “philosophical science fiction”, in which Lewis sets out an attempt to explain the problem of evil on Earth. I’ve read at least the first two of this series (which is continued in Perelandra) a long time ago, when I was a teen-ager, and when I happened upon them in a charity shop while my wife was investigating one of the many quilt stores in the region, fifty of your Earth cents didn’t seem like too much to spend to re-read both books.
As philosophy or science fiction, the book can be read on several levels. In the sense of a straightforward science fiction tale, it is not unsuccessful, and Lewis as narrator is particularly interested in the development of the Martian (later to be described as “Old Solar”) language and the description of the landscapes and creatures of the fourth planet. He convincingly tells the tale of Ransom, a Cambridge philologist, who is kidnapped by two unscrupulous men, Weston and Devine, who shanghai Ransom to the planet Mars in a space-ship. The duo wish to mine the gold of Mars, or Malacandra, as it is known to its inhabitants. However, the reason for which they want Ransom as a prisoner is sinister; they have misunderstood the suggestion that in exchange for permission to mine, the ruler of Mars requires a human sacrifice. But shortly after their arrival Ransom escapes, and begins a journey among the races of Mars, before having to decide whether or not to return to Earth with his kidnappers.
Along the way, there’s a lot of philosophy and linguistics, which I do recall made the book drag for me as an early teen reader. There is enough action to move the story along, but irritatingly a few key sequences that could have done with more excitement and description are allowed to fall flat, almost as though Lewis was trying to write in his office when he realized that he left the gas on at home.
One of the mysteries of the book, which will not be investigated in full until later, is why the Earth has “fallen silent,” hence the title. This question will be more fully addressed in the two subsequent books of the series, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.
However, ultimately, readers will most likely not read this book or its two sequels for the traditional sort of space adventure yarn. They certainly won’t read it for the science, which could escape the test of reality in 1938, but is now comprehensively debunked in the 2010s. But Lewis’ strong suit is description, particularly his setting of the original scene in England, which is beautifully wrought. The descriptions of the journey in the spherical craft to and from Mars, as well, although scientifically questionable, are well thought-out and brilliantly described.
In short, Out of the Silent Planet is a different sort of animal both from the later Narnia books and from Lewis’ academic and philosopho-religious works. It is entertaining, interesting, and well-crafted, but may be a bit slow for some readers. Four stars of a possible five.
Originally reviewed 30 July 2015.
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