Monday, January 27, 2014

The Cosmic Trilogy 1: Out of the Silent Planet by CS Lewis

The tellers of tales in our own world make us think that if there is any life beyond our own air, it is evil.
When a friend asked me my opinion of CS Lewis recently, I thought--not for the first time--that a review of Lewis's adult works was long overdue for Vintage Novels. Besides the obvious Chronicles of Narnia and Screwtape Letters, Lewis wrote a handful of other fiction and much non-fiction. Of the latter, some of it is apologetic, some of it is popular Christian philosophy, and some of it is scholarly discussion of old literature. Of these the most notable works include The Abolition of Man, his marvellously insightful work on education, and The Discarded Image, an introduction to the medieval worldview and cosmology. I've also found his Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature helpful in grappling with Malory, Spenser, and Tasso. Of the fiction, Till We Have Faces is perhaps the most profound, challenging, and bittersweet thing Lewis ever wrote--so complex and multi-layered that I hesitate to attempt a review. Also written for adults was the Cosmic Trilogy, more often called the Space Trilogy, although Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in the series makes it clear that "Space" would not have been Lewis's preferred term:
If we could even effect in one per cent of our readers a change-over from the conception of Space to the conception of Heaven, we should have made a beginning.
Meet Dr Elwin Ransom, linguist and academic on holiday. At a deserted country house he stumbles across two men, one a renowned physicist and the other a wealthy speculator whom Ransom knows slightly. They drug him.

When he wakes up, he is no longer on Earth. In a spherical space-ship he and his two kidnappers are hurtling towards a planet they refer to only as Malacandra. As Dr Weston explains to Ransom, before the natives of Malacandra will allow the Earthmen to continue exploring the planet, they demand one of them--as a hostage, or a sacrifice, or a meal. And Ransom is it.

Faced with the ghostly, surreal sorns that inhabit the beautiful but weird planet of Malacandra, Ransom flees. Alone, hunted by the only two other humans, on the brink of insanity, Ransom begins his journey into a new and unexpected world.
We did not leave [the Bent One] so at large for long. There was great war, and we drove him back out of the heavens and bound him in the air of his own world as Maleldil taught us. There doubtless he lies to this hour, and we know no more of that planet: it is silent.
Despite how good the book is, it is still the least and the shortest of the Cosmic Trilogy. By this I mean that the characters and the philosophical questions of the book are painted with broad strokes. In this book Lewis was only creating and exploring the characters and the cosmos with which he would go on to do so much in the following books of the trilogy, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. It is, of course, written in the superb, clear English of which Lewis was a master, and would be a pleasure to read for that alone.

Out of the Silent Planet is science fiction. This is a somewhat difficult genre to describe and define. Let sci-fi author John C Wright explain:
Science fiction is the genre which introduces its sense of the fantastic through wonders made plausible by reference to the scientific world view. In other words, science fiction has a setting, props, or characters of extraterrestrial or futuristic origins rather than magical or supernatural. A yarn set on Mars is science fiction, set in Oz is a fantasy; jetpack is science fiction, flying carpet is fantasy; a monster is fantasy, but a Morlock is science fiction.

Lowgrade science fiction, space opera (my own genre) or sciffy (like STAR WARS) use the props and settings but not the essential feature of the science fiction genre: The essential feature of science fiction is speculation from what is known to be scientifically plausible to what is implausible, to treat the unrealistic element in the tale realistically, so that the reader is taken as if by surprise: “Ah! Well, of course that is what it would be like!” (Link)
Out of the Silent Planet does attempt with some level of seriousness to speculate from the scientifically plausible to the implausible. Thus, what would the vegetation and inhabitants of a planet lighter than Earth look like? A big part of the book is involved in answering this and similar questions. There is much discussion of Malacandrian flora, fauna, geography, climate, culture, and of course--given Lewis's linguistic expertise--language. This, rather than plot or character, is the point of the story, and it is done astonishingly well.

It is not very "hard" sci-fi, having been written by a linguist in 1938. I have just enough scientific knowledge to appreciate the lovely descriptions of the perpendicular world of Malacandra, and enough poetry not to mind the obvious mistakes. John C Wright has a more in-depth review of the book, and is a better judge of the science: he says:
A science fiction writer of ordinary imagination might, as Lewis did, give his [Malacandrians] the great stature, thin legs and wide, birdlike chests to be expected of a world of less than earthly gravity; but it takes a particular cleverness of the science fictional imagination to describe the waves of water as being taller and thinner than Earthly eyes expect, or the dizzying narrowness of hills and mountains, and then to express these unearthly imaginings as hauntingly beautiful despite their strangeness. (Link)
While I can't pretend to evaluate the science in any depth, it doesn't really concern me. Speculative fiction may speculate about science and be proved wrong by tomorrow's new discoveries. But this is not the whole point of Out of the Silent Planet. Because the book does not speculate only, or primarily, about science.

Out of the Silent Planet speculates primarily about what Christian cosmology would mean for the possibility of alien life. Presupposing an omnipotent Creator, a fall of man, and the existence of angels, Lewis asks: if man did have the technology to travel to another planet, and if he found life there, what kind of life would he find? What would be the moral and spiritual nature of these creatures? Would they know God?

And what would be the ramifications of fallen men intruding upon a less-fallen world?

General reservations

Lewis's vision is so original, thought-provoking, and lovely that I hesitate to give any of it away. But although Lewis is one of my six all-time favourite authors I want to be very clear about where he goes wrong. There are three aspects of Lewis's vision that I'm going to take issue with--and these apply generally to the whole trilogy, not just Out of the Silent Planet.

First, Lewis was a child of his age, a theistic evolutionist. In his book The Second Mayflower, Kevin Swanson identifies the publication of Morris and Whitcomb's book The Genesis Flood in 1960, just three years before Lewis's death, as the first drop of what has in our day become a deluge of Christian worldview resources seeking to submit every area of life to the Word of God. Mr Swanson says,
For at least 100 years, there was little fear of God and respect for His Word in the university science classroom. Few professors would acknowledge the Bible as the absolute source of truth or held the fear of God to be the beginning of knowledge in the field of science. Therefore, since the days of higher criticism, the veracity of the Word of God was tested by the higher minds of the enlightened scientists of the nineteenth century. Even the Creation account was interpreted by Christian theologians through the lens of this flawed science that refused to fear God. However, with the publication of The Genesis Flood in 1960, Christians in lab coats set out to interpret science through the lens of God's Word (emphasis in original).
Mr Swanson's account of the state of affairs before 1960 helped me to a much better understanding of, and respect for, CS Lewis and men like him. In an age offering little or no encouragement to the man who wanted to begin his knowledge of the world with the Word of God, Lewis like many others bowed to the prevailing skepticism on matters such as six-day creation and the absolute inerrancy of Scripture.

Despite this, one of the best things in Out of the Silent Planet is Lewis's savagely funny dissection of Darwinism as a worldview. Dr Weston arrives in Malacandra telling the inhabitants that it is his right--nay, his duty--to exterminate them all for the sake of the progress of the human race. Waving coloured plastic beads at the sophisticated and intelligent inhabitants of the planet, Weston also serves as the butt of satire on colonial exploitation. For more Lewisian critique of Darwinism, may I recommend his Evolutionary Hymn which you can listen to in all its satirical glory over at Wordmp3.com.

Second, Lewis's conception of the Christian cosmos draws heavily on medieval, neo-Platonist-flavoured cosmology. I've discussed this in my reviews of Planet Narnia and The City of God. Briefly, the medievals believed that everything below the orbit of the Moon was fallen, but beyond that was not Space but the Heavens: full of light, full of life, full of angels and heavenly beauties. The seven planets--Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn--were each identified with some angelic or divine intelligence.

While this model of the universe was influenced by the neo-Platonists, it need not be identified as unavoidably neo-Platonist in nature. Augustine described and discussed it, finding (as he believed) Scriptural reason to believe it might be true. A better word for medieval cosmology might be, not neo-Platonist, but Augustinian.

Lewis found medieval cosmology unutterably beautiful: he used it as an inspiration for his conception of "Space", or Deep Heaven, in the Cosmic Trilogy and almost certainly also as an aesthetic framework for his Narnia Chronicles. I'm not sure how well it gels with the attempts at serious scientific description in these books. But I think it's a legitimate use, to challenge the Enlightenment materialist cosmology, which sees stars as nothing more than balls of flaming gas, and Space as truly dead and empty of life, reducible only to matter, with no benevolent Providence guiding its every action and reaction. That is something that plagues us far more virulently than a superstitious neo-Platonism. Lewis's trilogy is not meant to be a non-fiction account of the universe as it is, but a thought-provoking suggestion of the universe as it might be given a number of fictional assumptions, such as the presence of life on other planets.

Third and finally, CS Lewis was theologically premillenial, not believing that Satan had been bound at the Cross, nor that the all-powerful ruler of this world is the King Christ. The assumption, with Hal Lindsey, that the Devil is "alive and well on Planet Earth" is a major part of the background to Lewis's trilogy, and the biggest flaw I can point out. It is, however, not a major factor in the action of the stories nor a foundation for the most important lessons these books have to teach.

Why you should read it anyway

All this dealt with, what is left? For one thing, Out of the Silent Planet is the first book of the trilogy, an excellent read in its own right, but an introduction to two far more powerful, imaginative, and profound novels.

For another thing, Out of the Silent Planet was intended, and functions excellently, as a thought-provoking introduction to traditional Christian cosmology. It utterly rejects Enlightenment materialism, which has crippled our scientific and poetic imagination, to say nothing of our theology (as RC Sproul Jr loves to say, "We're Enlightenment geeks!"). It prompts us to think of the cosmos as a living place, full of kindness and swift obedience on the part of spirits and atoms--surely an image closer to Scripture, in which stars sing and flames of fire serve the Lord, than that of our sterile materialist, rationalist, post-Enlightenment modernism. A book to be read and delighted in.

4 comments:

Radagast said...

A great review!

I would actually classify the novel as fantasy, though with some science fiction mechanisms (like space travel). I found this book and this one informative on the series.

Theologically, Lewis seems to have Satan bound in the sense of being restricted to Earth, and also in being subject to limitations which he tries to circumvent in That Hideous Strength.

Alina said...

I in so glad you've started reviewing this trilogy! It's one of my favorite scifi series.

Anonymous said...

That C.S. Lewis was a premillenialist does not mean that he did not believe that Jesus was the all powerful ruler of the universe. In fact, he clearly did believe this, as can be found in any novel of his, including the popular Mere Christianity. Among premillenialists in general, there is no lack of belief that Jesus is the all powerful King.

Suzannah said...

Hi, Anonymous! Yes, I know that Lewis believed Jesus was the all-powerful ruler of the universe. However, I believe it's pretty clear from the Cosmic Trilogy that he believed Satan to be the primary ruler of Earth, as can be seen from his descriptions of it as "the Silent Planet". The idea seems to be that the Church is a conspiracy within a world ruled functionally by the powers of darkness. I entirely disagree with that. :)

I admit I don't know a huge amount about premillenial thought, but in one of the more recent debates I had with a premillenialist he said that Christ reigns at the right hand of God but does not rule: that he HAS "all authority" but chooses not to wield it. As a postmillenial, I disagree with that entirely too. :)

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