With his first novel, The Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis tried to revitalize the genre of allegory. His second novel, published in 1938, represents an almost 180-degree turnaround in approach and style. Aiming to craft a narrative rather than an argument, he also abandoned the medieval literary technique for a genre that was considerably more modern and which, in the body of Lewis’ work, remains a surprising anomaly for an academic so steeped in the past. He wrote science fiction.
Out of the Silent Planet begins with a Cambridge philologist named Ransom on a walking tour while on vacation between terms. He comes to be kidnapped by two scientists named Weston and Devine, who stuff him into a spaceship and bring him to an alien world named Malacandra, which he later learns is Mars. Their plan is to offer him as a sacrifice to the local population (who they themselves view as primitives they can exploit to mine gold and other resources), but Ransom escapes into the wild and unfamiliar landscape. He meets Hynoi, a hrossa, one of three native species on the planet, and learns that it is also inhabited by spirits named eldila whom Ransom cannot at first hear or see though the natives can. And the ruling eldil, Oyarsa, summons Ransom to appear before him.
Lewis prefaces the novel with a brief note acknowledging his debt to scientific romances of the kind written by H.G. Wells, and from beginning to end this debt is obvious. Far from being the kind of hard sci-fi which is published today, Out of the Silent Planet is a product of an era when no one had even launched a rocket into orbit let alone put an astronaut on the Moon. The details of spaceflight are vague and nowhere near as interesting to Lewis as getting his human characters to another world as quickly and simply as possible. Martian topography is out of date even for the time; the infamous canals which had already been proven not to exist are portrayed as the only habitable area of the planet.
This seeming unconcern with scientific fact has sometimes earned Lewis the charge that, as a Christian, he was against science and the knowledge it could uncover. This is neither fair nor accurate. The novel in fact displays a particular awareness of things like the need to cope with zero-gravity in space and the way orbital mechanics affects interplanetary travel. But he was responding to what he called ‘scientism’, the belief that through science humanity is entitled to live forever and exercise power over nature at the expense of morality. In the science fiction books Lewis read, like David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, that drive had a new, modern dimension: the conquest of outer space and alien planets.
As this deceptively escapist adventure story unfolds it becomes clear to the reader that Lewis is writing about aliens who worship God and are overseen by an angel, as are all the other planets in the cosmos. The novel, however, is not an allegory, but instead—and much more interestingly—a book that imagines a Christian mythology. Lewis was clearly not a man who despised the mythic or fantastic. In his essay, “On Science Fiction”, he seems to enjoy its capacity for removing us from the realm of mere fact. He appreciates that it can lead us to new ways of thinking, even about theology, which is exactly what he sets out to achieve, I think, in Out of the Silent Planet.
By learning the Malacandrian language, the main character of Ransom experiences an almost-complete imaginative shift. Ordinary theological terms such as ‘evil’, ‘angels’, or ‘Christ’ are replaced entirely by Lewis’ own invented ones: ‘bent’, ‘eldila’, and ‘Maleldil the Young’. Earth itself is called Thulcandra: the ‘silent planet’ of the title. In the spaceship on the way to Malacandra, Ransom first learns what it means to break out of this oppressive silence:
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’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds…He had thought it barren; he saw now that it was the womb of worlds…Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens—the heavens which declared the glory—
The reference to older thinkers is a nod towards the medieval writings from which Lewis drew inspiration for his own mythology, but also of course includes the Biblical psalmists. Here Lewis stops short of completing the quotation from Psalm 19 and stating explicitly what his ‘new’ mythology represents. The only old word used is “heaven”, but not until it gets a new definition.
Out of the Silent Planet eventually spawned two sequels over the years, written between other books and creating what is called the Space (or Cosmic) Trilogy. Few Christian writers have taken the imaginative leaps that Lewis did in these books, and our literature is poorer for it. People caught up too much in doctrines are sometimes hostile to new, imaginative language and ways of seeing. Lewis dared to imagine what interacting with a spiritual world might really be like for material creatures. And he further dared to imagine such things in a genre that, like dogma, is traditionally hostile to imagination.
Some call Lewis the great Christian apologist of the 20th century. But while he was skilled in theological argument, his true gift to Christianity (and what should really be his legacy) was in leaving behind the argument of allegory and embracing the imaginative play inherent to creating worlds. In the long run, that is what will break the oppressive silence under which this world lives.