The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Moral Thought and Intergalactic Genocide in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet

There’s a lot to uncover in Out of the Silent Planet. It’s a reflection on (or refutation of) colonialism in our own world and in science fiction, which is certainly fascinating when written in 1930s Britain. It’s an exploration of what it means to be human (or something like it). It’s an exploration of and conversation with Plato’s Republic. And all of it is leading up to (as is common in Plato’s work) a final conversation in which the final points will be made and a conclusion reached.

The culmination of Out of the Silent Planet is almost satire. It’s a presentation of why human beings think interstellar colonial practices are necessary and even praiseworthy, and it’s met with laughter, confusion, consternation, and eventually paternal concern for the poor warped humans who think colonization makes sense.

A quick few notes to those who aren’t coming from a religious background and might have missed a few of the less common scripture references leading into the climax. One, Ransom notices a huge number of eldila gathered to watch the big conversation. This is almost certainly a reference to the book of Hebrews, where we’re told that a “great cloud of witnesses” gathers to watch the lives of human beings and see if we are triumphant in “the race set before us.” Now in scripture, it’s all those “heroes of the faith” who have gone before us who are watching and cheering us on. But the way Lewis writes this bit, it certainly feels like an echo of Hebrews. Ransom would be “pleading his cause before thousands or before millions: rank behind rank about him, and rank above rank over his head, the creatures that had never yet seen man and whom man could not see, were waiting for his trial to begin.”

Second, although Lewis has made an overt statement earlier in the novel that these aren’t angels, he talks about how Maleldil (the “Jesus” figure of Malacandran cosmology) has “dared terrible things, wrestling with the Bent One in Thulcandra.” He’s referring here to the story of Jesus, of course, and the idea that God would come to Earth and die in an attempt to create a way for human beings not to be bent anymore. Oyarsa goes on to say, “But of this we know less than you; it is a thing we desire to look into” which is close to a direct quote from the book of 1 Peter, where we’re told that when it comes to God’s plan of salvation “even angels long to look into these things.”

Third, we have the myth of the Bent One, who “sank out of heaven into the air of your world, wounded in the very light of his light.” Oyarsa has explained that every other planet is actually a part of the heavens, but Earth has fallen out of it. In most Christian theologies, Satan (“the adversary”) was originally Lucifer (Light-Bringer/the Morning Star). When Satan rebelled against God he was kicked out of the heavenly realms. Again, in some Christian theologies (this is shorthand here, so please know this is much more complicated and varied than I’m making it sound), Satan is actually still technically in charge of Earth in various ways (i.e. “the Prince of the Power of the Air”) and the Kingdom of God is actually taking ground from Satan, trying to turn Earth into what it was meant to be, instead of the corrupted and broken place it is. Lewis falls in a similar theological place and recreates it in this book: the Bent One is responsible for Earth, continues to have power, and has made the choice to go silent. He’s the Oyarsa of Earth and so what he says goes. But Maleldil has been fighting against him.

Then, at last, we come to the big moment. The humans are finally in the presence of Oyarsa, the eldila, and many hnau. Oyarsa has been asking them to come, in fact has invited them to come into his presence. Now they’re here, and it’s time to straighten things out.

Weston starts us out on the wrong foot by falling back on some tried and true colonial techniques: intimidate them, scare them, and offer them cheap baubles in exchange for what you want. It doesn’t work. At all. What he thinks is terrifying (including threatening the crowd with death) only makes them laugh. When he offers them baubles they laugh more.

Weston thinks they’re trying to scare him, and he doesn’t believe Oyarsa is there at all. He assumes that an old alien who has fallen asleep nearby is practicing ventriloquism in order to scare him. Oyarsa and Ransom both try to set his mind at east, but it doesn’t work. Oyarsa himself is confused by Weston’s behavior, and he keeps asking Ransom if the guy is stupid or has some sort of brain injury.

Ransom gives Weston some excellent advice. “Speak the truth and not bluster.” This appears to be the key translational need. Much of Weston’s English is given to disguising what is actually being said.

When Weston still makes no sense (or so Oyarsa thinks), he sends the man to get some cold water in his face. And so he’s “dipped” seven times, and then seven times more, and he comes back wet and angry and tragically comic.

Oyarsa comes to realize that much of the miscommunication here comes from the fact that the humans presuppose evil and pain. Fear is central to so much of the human way of thought that they cannot understand communications that come with good intent and no desire to harm them. The only things in a human’s head are “fear and death and desire.”

So Oyarsa puts Ransom on the task. His Malacandran is better than any of the other humans, so he’ll be the translator. Weston has no issue with this, and he gets up to start his speech. The question on the table is “why did you kill my hnau?” In other words, why did you come to my world and commit murder. Weston has plenty of thoughts on this topic, and, spoiler, he doesn’t regret his actions a bit.

As Ransom tries to translate Weston’s great speech to Oyarsa, of course he has to explain many things that have a singular word in English but are foreign concepts in the language of the Malacandrans. With most of these, Lewis is using this translation narrative to get us to examine what exactly we mean by those words we take for granted.

So, “armies” becomes “we have many ways for the hnau of one land to kill those of another and some are trained to do it.” Prisons are huts where we shut in bent people to settle quarrels (if we don’t kill them). Hospitals are places where we “sometimes” know how to stop weakness or pain. Weston goes on to explain that because we can do all those things, and move heavy things long distances (“our transport system”), then “it would not be the act of a bent hnau if our people killed all your people.”

It’s an argument, again, for colonization. It’s the same pattern and shape as Western colonization on Earth, though for the intergalactic version Weston focuses more on “human supremacy.” The basic idea is “our culture is better than yours” or “our technology is better than yours” and therefore it’s morally right for our people to destroy yours for our own good. Ransom’s translation makes the argument look particularly specious.

When Weston says, “‘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,” Ransom finds that he can’t translate it well at all. He can’t quite say it correctly. The claims that life is more important than morality is beyond Ransom’s ability. He gets the evolution bit more or less translated, with the addition of saying that the animals felt no pity about the process.

Then comes the moment when Weston describes what has been a keystone piece of the science fiction movement in Lewis’s day (and for many decades to come), the idea that humanity will spread to the stars, keeping ourselves “for ever beyond the reach of death” at any price. Which Ransom translates as, more or less, continual intergalactic genocide (to be fair, Weston is definitely framing this as “we’ll kill you if that’s what we have to do,” which wasn’t necessarily what everyone else in the science fiction community was saying).

The end of Weston’s speech is a part that Oyarsa finds of extra importance in the end, so I want to quote that exactly: “‘I may fall,’ said Weston. ‘But while I live I will not, with such a key in my hand, consent to close the gates of the future on my race. What lies in that future, beyond our present ken, passes imagination to conceive: it is enough for me that there is a Beyond.’”

Ransom translates this as, “he will not stop trying to do all this unless you kill him. And he says that though he doesn’t know what will happen to the creatures sprung from us, he wants it to happen very much.”

Then Weston, accustomed to applause and a place to sit after a speech, looks around for a chair and eventually lands on standing with his arms crossed with “a certain dignity about him.”

Oyarsa finds this last bit important because it tells him something about Weston: he is doing all of this not for himself, but for his descendants. And that means that he is not yet broken, for he’s still able to think of others. There’s an interesting bit of exploratory conversation here, where Oyarsa tries to figure out exactly what it is that Weston cares about in humanity.

It’s not the shape of human form…Weston admits that humanity may have to change in various ways to live among the stars, and may well cease to resemble Weston himself. Oyarsa thinks it cannot be the mind of humanity, then, because all hnau have a mind that is similar to that of humanity. Weston agrees, he cares nothing for other hnau, only for human beings. And yet, he was willing to sacrifice Ransom. So it’s not human beings in the particular he cares about, but human beings in the whole.

As Oyarsa says, “You do not love the mind of your race, nor the body. Any kind of creature will please you if only it is begotten by your kind as they now are. It seems to me, Thick One, that what you really love is no completed creature but the very seed itself: for that is all that is left.”

And at last they come to a sort of understanding. Weston agrees, that is what he is trying to say. (Well, actually he starts to speak of metaphysics and “man’s loyalty to humanity” but Ransom can’t translate that at all.) What matters is that humanity in whatever form continues and that anything that gets in the way of that—in whatever form—must be overcome.

Oyarsa understands at last. The Bent One has taught humanity (or Weston, at least) to put one law above all others: the love of kindred. And having been taught that this law is the most important, maybe the only law that matters, Weston feels free to break every other law, even laws that would be more important like not killing others and not committing genocide.

But Weston doesn’t believe in the Bent One, the Oyarsa of Earth, because he is a “wise, new man” and Oyarsa tries to explain to him that he has it all wrong. Malacandra is closer to death than Earth is (Weston knows this; he’s planning to use it as a stepping stone to the next place). Oyarsa explains that the hnau of Malacandra had a similar evil idea when they realized their own planet was dying, and Oyarsa had to stop them. Some he unbodied, and some he cured. But the point he is trying to make to Weston is that even if humanity skips along from planet to planet, in time they all will die. All of them. And the biggest difference between humanity and the hnau of Malacandra is that Oyarsa’s hnau still have death but have ceased to fear it. When they set aside their fear, they also set aside murder and rebellion. Now, “The weakest of my people does not fear death. It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end. If you were subjects of Maleldil you would have peace.”

Weston can have none of that. He lays aside his previous suggestion that he didn’t believe in the Bent One, and now says that he wants to be on the side of the Bent One, to “fight, jump, live.”

But their conversation is at an end, now, and it’s time for the judgment of Oyarsa: Weston is badly bent. Ransom is bent but could likely be salvaged in time. Devine is broken and cannot be repaired. Oyarsa decides he won’t unbody any of them, but will instead send them back to Earth—or at least, give them a shot to get back. It’s going to be a close call because the Earth isn’t in opposition to Malacandra. Oyarsa has spoken, though, and he’s not willing to keep the humans any longer than necessary, even at the risk of their lives. It’s too dangerous to have such badly bent creatures on his planet. Not only is he banishing them, but Oyarsa will destroy their ship so they cannot return.

C.S. Lewis reveals himself at the end of the novel. It is he, after all, who is writing it. He tells us that everything that happened in the book is true, but that he and Dr. Ransom decided it would be best to quickly package it as a novel, in hopes of persuading at least some people in the world of certain truths. As Ransom says, “what we need for the moment is not so much a body of belief as a body of people familiarized with certain ideas. 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.”

In other words, the whole novel is a sort of experiment in translation, an attempt to make certain difficult, even alien, ideas understandable, and to bring transformation in the reader. Lewis wants to shift us away from the colonial understanding of space flight and toward a more spiritual goal of participating in the cosmic struggle happening in our solar system.

The novel ends with a clue toward the sequel: Weston is still at work in the world, with evil plans. The door is shut to space, so now if they are to go to the planets they must go “through the past”:  “If there is to be any more space-travelling, it will have to be time-travelling as well…!”

And so we come to the end of our reread of Out of the Silent Planet. We’re going to take a short break for a while, and when we come back we’ll take a hard look at Perelandra! In the meantime, I love to hear your insights, thoughts, questions, and disagreements in the comments.

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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