The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Colonization, Empire, and Power in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet

I was going to start out this article by saying that early science fiction was shaped by colonialism, but that’s probably understating it. Many of the tropes of science fiction and—going even further back—adventure novels are centrally located in colonialism. It’s not a huge surprise given that many of the authors were from colonizing culture or, as science fiction spread, in countries that were doing their best to get in on the colonization game. Out of the Silent Planet is no exception to this and, in fact, the book is largely shaped around a critique of H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon.

Lewis doesn’t disguise this at all. He lays all the cards out on the table that this is a novel about imperialism, colonialism, and seeing others as subhuman. We get some indications of this early on. Weston and Devine, the main antagonists are practically colonialism incarnated. Weston’s name comes from Old English, meaning “settlement.” Devine says he doesn’t care a bit about science or first contact (later we will learn he’s all about the abundant gold), but he does pay lip service to “the white man’s burden” and the “blessings of civilization” (encouraged by Kipling and critiqued by Twain).

During our first introduction to Weston and Devine, they are trying to abduct a young man who they see as subhuman; they also mention in passing that they have already killed their dog while doing experiments on it. “Seeing others as subhuman so I can take what I want” is certainly a theme for our villains.

The young man has some sort of intellectual disability. Devine and Weston think they are taking him to Mars to be sacrificed to the natives, which to Weston’s point of view makes him “ideal” because he’s “[i]ncapable of serving humanity and only too likely to propagate idiocy. He was the sort of boy who in a civilized community would be automatically handed over to a state laboratory for experimental purposes.” He literally sees the boy as the equivalent of the pet dog he experimented on. Weston and Devine have a small argument over it, with Weston saying he doesn’t like kidnapping Ransom, as he is, at least, “human.” There’s also a big speech about the great endeavor they are setting out on, and the notion that Ransom would agree to be sacrificed if he could be made to understand why that would be a good thing.

Ransom wakes to discover—surprise!—he’s been kidnapped onto a homemade spaceship that is launching out of the back yard. Ah, the good old days, when space travel was simpler! Ransom more or less immediately escapes when they arrive on Mars (called Malacandra by the locals), and much of the book is about his own journey away from the colonizer point of view and toward a more, well, Malacandran outlook.

This transition doesn’t come easily for Ransom. When he has his first extended interaction with an “alien” it’s a hross, a creature who looks somewhat like a seven-foot-tall otter. Ransom struggles with how to categorize the hross in his mind. It appears to be sentient (much more about that to come in the book!), and yet he can’t get past the fact that it looks like an animal, not a human. He finds that if he thinks of the hross as a man, it disgusts him. But if he thinks of it as a very clever animal who can even speak, it’s delightful: “Nothing could be more disgusting than the one impression; nothing more delightful than the other.”

Ransom begins to learn about their language. They have culture, and houses, and agriculture, and poetry, and he’s gladly continuing to think of the hrossa as extremely clever animals. His “clever animal” mental category begins to fall apart as he tries to explain to them where he comes from. He tells them he “came from the sky” and they are perplexed…how could he live in the vacuum of space? What planet did he come from? Ransom can’t point out Earth to them in the night sky, and they are perplexed by this as well and start pointing out different planets and asking if it’s this one or that one. Ransom is a bit frustrated that they know so much astronomy.

Ransom pushes further into all this and finds himself neck-deep in a theological conversation. “Ever since he had discovered the rationality of the hrossa he had been haunted by a conscientious scruple”—one common in the history of colonization— “as to whether it might not be his duty to undertake their religious instruction.” He tries to share his own understanding of the theological reality of the universe, and then “found himself being treated as if he were the savage and being given a first sketch of civilized religion—a sort of hrossian equivalent of the shorter catechism.” (“Savage,” by the way, being a key term of colonialist thought and propaganda.)

So here we see Ransom’s first assumption of the superiority of humanity being knocked down by the hrossa. Human supremacy is a necessary piece of intergalactic colonization…there must be a compelling reason that humans should have claim to the land and the “natives” should not. But as Ransom moves deeper into the hrossian culture he discovers that they have a superior understanding of astronomy compared to his own, and seem to have a more ready grasp of their own theology (or so he thinks…the hrossa would not categorize it as such) than he has of his own.

This sets Ransom into a bit of a tailspin, and he tries to discover “who is in charge.” He learns there is not only one sentient race on Malacandra, but three (at least, and there used to be more, as we discover later). “On Malacandra, apparently, three distinct species had reached rationality, and none of them had yet exterminated the other two. It concerned him intensely to find out which was the real master.” Note that Ransom is somewhat astonished that three rational races could live with one another without complete genocide, and the only possible solution to this was some sort of hierarchal society. The hrossa have a word that roughly matches “sentient,” or possibly “mortal” or “human.” That word is hnau. “Which of the hnau rule?” Ransom asks.

This conversation leads down a variety of paths that eventually bring Ransom to the (erroneous) conclusion that “the intelligentsia rule” on Malacandra. As Ransom continues in conversation with the hrossa—who he assumes still to be some sort of servant class—he begins to recognize that his own ignorance is not just about the people of Malacandra, but also about himself. He can’t answer some of their questions not because of the language barrier, but also because he simply doesn’t know the answer (this happens again, and in starker relief, when he meets the séroni, who manage to discover things about humanity that Ransom himself doesn’t see clearly, just by reading into the gaps in his knowledge).

These things begin to pile up. Ransom discovers that what he initially took for hross superstition is, in fact, true. He is the one lacking in knowledge. When he does meet the séroni and they learn about “war, slavery, and prostitution,” the “aliens” experience both distress and compassion for the poor humans. Humanity is “trying to rule themselves” and failing, like “one trying to lift himself by his own hair.” One wise old sorn says that the humans “cannot help it.” Perhaps the humans are this way because there is only one hnau species. Maybe they haven’t been able to learn compassion by seeing people who are unlike them.

Ransom, who is naturally a “human supremacist,” discovers that the people of Malacandra look on him with sympathy and compassion, but they see him and the other humans as “bent.” Earlier in the book, one of the hrossa said he didn’t even think you could be both sentient and bent. It stretched incredulity for him to consider it.

As Ransom tries to explain humanity and the colonial drive toward space, the wisest of Malacandra are baffled by it. Oyarsa, who is the true ruler of Malacandra, a sort of alien space angel, asks if human beings are “wounded in the brain.” He sees only “fear and death and desire” in Weston, who Oyarsa recognizes to be both bent and evil.

Weston and Devine, in the end, show their cards. One cares only for the propagation of the human race among the stars, the other only for personal gain (there’s a lot of gold there). Weston and Devine try to demonstrate how to “deal with the natives” with failed attempts to terrify, bribe, or threaten them.

Eventually Weston is invited to explain his philosophy, and Ransom tries to translate Weston’s speech—and don’t worry, we’ll spend a whole post on that—only to discover that he no longer has the words to explain it. Colonialism and imperialism aren’t able to be translated into the language of the Malacandrans without revealing it for what it is: a morally bankrupt, self-serving desire to put one’s self or one’s people at the center of the universe, to the unnecessary detriment of others.

Oyarsa eventually makes the final pronouncement: there is hope for Weston…he is bent, not broken. Why? Because at the end of the day there is something that is still noble about his desire to care for his own people. It’s perverted and there are other, more important, things that he’s missing. But Oyarsa thinks that if Weston were his responsibility that he might still be able to reform him. Devine, on the other hand, is no longer hnau, no longer human. He is an animal (an interesting reversal, given how we’re introduced to him). Because his only desire is for himself, Oyarsa sees him as an animalistic, instinct-driven creature. “He has broken, for he has left him nothing but greed. He is now only a talking animal and in my world he could do no more evil than an animal.” Weston is bent, but Devine is broken.

Oyarsa has one more stunning revelation to share. Weston keeps suggesting that it’s a moral good for humans to come and commit genocide against the Malacandrans so that humanity can live and spread to the stars, but Oyarsa tells him that the Malacandrans have lived since before humanity came to be. Not only that, but at least one hnau race of Malacandrans has been driven to extinction, and they all will be in time. And yet they never—even though they had the capacity to do so—tried to colonize Earth.

Why?

Because they have left behind fear. “And with fear, murder and rebellion. The weakest of my people does not fear death.” It is the Bent One who has taught humanity to be so afraid and waste their lives trying to avoid death, which will come for them in the end. Humanity has been denied peace.

This is, in many ways, the core of Lewis’ point in the book. It’s fear that leads us to murder, to colonization, to building empires. The desire to be in power, the desire to harm others for our own gain is, at best, “bent,” and at worst something that moves us away from being human. As Ransom digs further into this insight he eventually says that the “dangers to be feared are not planetary but cosmic, or at least solar, and they are not temporal but eternal.”

Human beings are—like all hnau—“copies” of the one God, Maleldil. One must not destroy them for personal gain, or out of fear, or for the sake of power. That is bent. That is evil. The urge to colonize, to gain power, to build empires—all of that is denounced in the moral universe of Out of the Silent Planet. We must learn, instead, to embrace peace.

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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