A couple of Oxford professors were once lamenting that no one seemed to be publishing the kind of books they enjoyed, stories of wonder and of imagination. They came to the conclusion that if they wanted that kind of stories, they’d have to write the books themselves. And so the two men made an agreement: one would write a story about travel to other times, and the other would write one about travel to other worlds.
J.R.R. Tolkien never completed his Time Travel story, in which a father and son take a psychic journey to the fall of Atlantis, which the natives called Numenor, although his unfinished draft was eventually incorporated into Chritsopher Tolkien’s massive History of Middle-Earth. His friend, C.S. Lewis stuck with the project and his tale of Interplanetary Travel became his novel Out of the Silent Planet and the beginning of his Space Trilogy.
The series does not have a good overall title. Sometimes it’s called the Space Trilogy, sometimes the Ransom Trilogy. It’s not even a trilogy in the post-Tolkien sense of a sprawling epic told over three volumes. Although each book builds off the previous one and although the main protagonist Ransom is the central character through the series, each book is a separate, individual story and each one a different kind of story.
Lewis was a fan of science fiction. As a matter of personal taste he didn’t care much for stories which emphasized the technical Hard Science stuff -- he called them “Engineer’s Stories” -- but he enjoyed tales of wonder and other worlds.. He cited David Lindsey’s 1920 novel A Voyage to Arcturus for showing him how journeys to alien worlds can be used as settings to explore philosophical and spiritual themes. He was greatly impressed by Olaf Stapelton’s Last and First Men, and although he disagreed with Stapelton’s philosophy, he greatly admired Stapelton’s invention. In one of Lewis’s fantasy novels, The Great Divorce, he admitted lifting a plot device from a short story he had read in an American “Scientifiction” magazine years before.
Out of the Silent Planet drew its influence from the stories of H.G. Wells, in particular The First Men in the Moon. In a brief preface, Lewis apologizes for “certain slighting references” to these stories which he says were made “purely for dramatic purposes” and adds, “The author would be sorry if any reader supposed he was too stupid to have enjoyed Mr. H.G. Wells’s fantasies or too ungrateful to acknowledge his debt to them.”
Dr. Elwin Ransom is a professor of philology who is hiking around the English countryside on his vacation. Lewis modeled Ransom on Tolkien, who was also a philologist.(Tolkien, it is said, modeled the character of Gandalf on Lewis; at least, Tolkien said, Gandalf shared Lewis’s sharp temper and his bushy eyebrows.). He comes across an old school chum named Devine who is working with a scientist named Weston on some sort of secret project which strikes Ransom as vaguely suspicious.
Devine is the sort of oily, shallow, chummy type that Terry-Thomas used to play in the movies. He had a cynical worldliness in school that Ransom admired when he was young but which Ransom soon outgrew. Devine has changed very little since then, and it isn’t until after Ransom has accepted his old chum’s hospitality that it occurs to him that he really didn’t like him all that much.
Weston is a physicist. “Has Einstein on toast and drinks a pint of Schrödinger’s blood for breakfast,” Devine explains. Weston is essentially modeled after the Late Victorian Materialist Scientist. He is much like Professor Challenger from The Lost World, only without the homicidal rages and the endearing frailties. Much later, in a draft of a response Lewis started to an critical review of the trilogy by J.B.S. Haldane, Lewis confessed that Weston was a caricature who seemed more interested in Social Darwinism than Physics and that he was one of Lewis’s least believable characters. Still, Weston is not without some scruples and expresses some regrets about involving Ransom in their plans. “He is, after all, human. The boy was really almost a – a preparation. Still, he’s only an individual, and probably a quite useless one.”
Ransom suspects that the two are up to something shady, and if this were a horror movie the audience would be shouting at him not to accept the gin and tonic Devine fixes for him in the other room. But the Old School Tie overrides his premonition of danger and Ransom finds himself drugged and carried off into the strange round structure in the back of Devine’s house.
He awakens to find himself on board a spacecraft. In a passage which post-Apollo readers probably find difficult to visualize – at least I do – it takes a while for Ransom to comprehend that the huge orb he sees through the craft’s window is not the Moon, swollen to enormous proportions, but the planet Earth..
When Ransom demands some answers, Weston’s answer is both arrogant and evasive:
“As to how we do it – I suppose you mean how the space-ship works – there’s not good your asking that. Unless you were one of the four or five real physicists now living you couldn’t understand; and if there were any chance of your understanding you certainly wouldn’t be told. If it makes you happy to repeat words that don’t mean anything – which is, in fact, what unscientific people want when they ask for an explanation—you may say we work by exploiting the less observed properties of solar radiation.”Many years later, Lewis participated in a round-table discussion on science fiction with writers Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss for the British magazine SF Horizons. One of them brought up the fact that scientists had actually devised a theoretical type of space travel which would utilize a “solar sail” to catch radiation from the sun. Lewis admitted with some embarrassment that Weston’s explanation was pure technobabble, that he simply wrote something he hoped sounded impressive. He noted that in his first space book he had his hero taken to another planet in a spaceship, but in his second, where he felt a little more confident, he had his hero carried by angels. It says much about Lewis that he never really believed in Weston’s space-ship, but he did believe in angels.
Weston tells Ransom that they are en route to the planet Malacandra. “There isn’t a planet called Malacandra,” Ransom protests. “I am giving it its real name, not the name given it by terrestrial astronomers.” The planet is in fact Mars, but Lewis does not explicitly confirm this until the very end. As to why they have kidnapped Ransom, Weston will only say that “small claims must give way to the great” and that abducting him was “no idea of ours. We are only obeying orders.” That is all Weston will say on the subject.
Lewis gives scant description to the space-craft. Unlike Nemo in the Nautilus or Seaton in the Skylark, Weston does not give Ransom a tour of his craft – it does not even seem to have a name and one gets the impression that Weston is too prosaic to give it one. Some details of space travel Lewis gets wrong, as where he gives Ransom a kind of metal girdle hung with enormous weights to mitigate “the unmanageable lightness of his body”.
One point he gets unexpectedly right. Ransom is surprised by the brightness of outer space. “I always thought space was dark and cold,” he says. “Forgotten the sun?” Weston replies. Without the earth’s atmosphere to block them, the rays of the sun, and even of the stars, are so much more intense.
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 not known how much it affected him till now – now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. … No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens…Lying in bed, looking up at the stars as thick as daisies, he imagines the ‘sweet influence’ of the stars piercing his body as if he were “a second Danaë”, recalling the Greek myth of the maiden ravished by Zeus in a shower of golden light.
It’s not until a couple weeks into the voyage that Ransom overhears part of a conversation between Weston and Devine discussing why they need Ransom. Devine makes an ominous reference to something called a sorn.
Again Ransom heard the indistinct noise of Weston’s voice.NEXT: Arrival on Malacandra; Meeting the Hrossa; and the Sorns
‘How should I know?’ said Devine. ‘It may be some sort of chief; much more likely a mumbo-jumbo.’
This time came a very short utterance form the control-room: apparently a question. Devine answered at once.
‘It would explain why he was wanted.’
Weston asked him something more.
‘Human sacrifice, I suppose. At least it wouldn’t be human from their point of view; you know what I mean.”