Since Mars is on my mind right now…
Out of the Silent Planet (1938) by C. S. Lewis (1996 cover by Kinuko Craft)
C. S. Lewis is famous for the Narnia novels, but more than a decade before they were written, he published Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis was to write two sequels (I have blogged about the last volume, That Hideous Strength). However, Out of the Silent Planet is essentially science fiction, while the sequels are better described as fantasy.
Considered as a work of science fiction, Out of the Silent Planet was a pioneering novel. It followed (and was influenced by) novels by H. G. Wells, David Lindsay, and Olaf Stapledon, but preceded the work of Brian Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, and other British science fiction authors of the “Golden Age.” Lewis’s novel was one of the first to sound a cautious note about human colonisation of other planets. In his 1958 essay “Religion and Rocketry,” Lewis describes the rather sad results that human colonisation could have: “We know what our race does to strangers. Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps. There are individuals who don’t. But they are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space.”
Lewis’s word hnau (sentient being) was borrowed by James Blish in his alien-contact novel A Case of Conscience. In Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis brings colonisation to a halt after three deaths; Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Word for World Is Forest is one of many where exploitative colonisation runs its course. Several ideas in the 2009 film Avatar can be traced back to classic novels that were, in turn, ultimately inspired by Lewis.
In Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis introduces not one, but four, sentient species living in harmony with each other: the hrossa (farmers and poets), the séroni (scientists and philosophers), the pfifltriggi (artists, miners, and engineers), and the eldila (angels, essentially).
The scientist Weston actually recommends exterminating the inhabitants of the planet to make room for humans, claiming “Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and beehive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization – with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower. Life … is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copy-book maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from the amœba to man and from man to civilization.” (this was an idea seriously suggested in the 1920s and 1930s, but one which was perhaps seen for what it was after World War II). The businessman Dick Devine simply wants to exploit the inhabitants for profit. Only the hero, Elwin Ransom, is interested in them for who they are.
The science in Out of the Silent Planet is surprisingly good, considering that Lewis’s area of expertise was English literature. No doubt Lewis ran his ideas past the scientists at Magdalen College. There are some clangers in Lewis’s discussion of gravity onboard the spacecraft, and he no doubt knew that the theory of Martian canals was obsolete (although Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury were still using the idea of canals in the 1940s and 1950s). Lewis does an excellent job of explaining the impact of low gravity on Martian life, of pointing out that space is not “dark and cold,” and of describing the need for oxygen on the Martian surface.
“He learned from the sorn that he was right in thinking they were near the limits of the breathable. Already on the mountain fringe that borders the harandra and walls the handramit, or in the narrow depression along which their road led them, the air is of Himalayan rarity, ill breathing for a hross, and a few hundred feet higher, on the harandra proper, the true surface of the planet, it admits no life.”
Bringing in a specialist linguist (Elwin Ransom) to decipher the Martian language is a neat trick (and one repeated in Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade). Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien may have been an inspiration for this character.
Lewis’s special interest was Mediaeval and Renaissance literature. In Out of the Silent Planet he is taking the cosmology of Dante’s great trilogy (see my discussion of the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) and putting it through a Copernican Revolution, while retaining the Christian worldview. Naïve correspondences with Dante should be resisted, however, since Lewis was not originally intending to write a trilogy. If one absolutely must draw links, Out of the Silent Planet would probably correspond to the Purgatorio, with its emphasis on permissible vs wrongful desires.
Goodreads rates this ground-breaking novel 3.92. I’m giving it four and a half stars.