One evening, lamenting the fact that nobody wrote the sort of novels that they enjoyed, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien made a writers’ pact: Lewis would write a space travel series while Tolkien would write on time travel. Characteristically, every attempt Tolkien made ended up sucking him back into his lifelong project of bringing Middle Earth alive. Lewis, on the other hand, gave us the Space Trilogy.
Taken as a whole, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength serve to guide those of good will through the perils and temptations of modernism. Lewis was writing contra the modernists of the early and mid-twentieth century, with their atom bombs, theories of eugenics, and star-struck optimism for outer space. However, the relevance of the Space Trilogy has grown more, not less, as the twenty-first century ushers in the “New Normal” and the “Great Reset.”
The great adventure upon which philologist Dr. Elwin Ransom is unwillingly thrown at the outset of Out of the Silent Planet first appears to be standard science fiction. An idealistic physicist, Dr. Weston, and his treasure-hunting colleague, Devine, have visited the planet Mars, which the natives call Malacandra. Stymied by what they take to be the primitive superstitions of the locals, Weston and Devine bring the kidnapped Ransom along on their second voyage as—they assume—a human sacrifice to some primitive idol called Oyarsa.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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However, the standard tropes of the science fiction novel begin to melt away as Ransom peers out of the spaceship’s windows to find himself bathed in the brilliant light of Deep Heaven, a more medieval realm than the cold, empty space that his modern sensibilities had expected. Ransom’s subsequent adventures with the Malacandrans—the great poetic Hrossa; the scholarly, philosophical Sorns; the master artisan Pfifltriggi; along with the mysterious, otherworldly creatures of light, the eldila, culminating in an audience with the great Oyarsa himself—blur the line that post-medieval man has drawn between the supernatural and the scientific.
While the three adventurers might be on an alien planet, the novel (and the Malacandrans) are more interested in analyzing the three men from the Silent Planet—the one planetary realm whose own Oyarsa, long ages ago, had become “bent.” Ransom discovers that this dark Oyarsa had been defeated by the lord of creation, Maleldil, who had chained him to his own planet, cut off from the rest of the cosmos. By contrast, the Malacandrans live in unfallen harmony with one another and in frequent communication with Maleldil’s servants, the eldila.
Weston, Devine, and Ransom each represent a different type of modern man. As Oyarsa notes upon meeting the three, Weston is a “bent” man who has elevated minor virtues and goods over the greatest ones and is ruthless in his pursuit of them. For him, the scientifically ensured survival of his species justifies any atrocity, including those done to individuals within that species.
Pre-dating the transhumanists, and as a good evolutionist, Weston neither values the form of human bodies, nor does he believe in the soul. Additionally, he despises the human patrimony of culture, tradition, and morality. (The scene where Weston attempts to gift cheap beads to the “medicine man” of the “primitive” aliens is both damning and hysterical.) The Martian Oyarsa, puzzled, asks him what it is, then, about humanity that Weston wants to preserve by space exploration and colonization. The answer is the sheer concept of survival at any cost—a scientific eternal life stripped of any spiritual or individual benefit.
Weston typifies the modern atheist who has put his trust and his hope for eternal life in science. In our day, we can see him as the father of those who have overcommitted to the religion of public health and have been willing to cast off basic human interaction, violating the dignity and humanity of countless individuals for the sake of some vaguely defined “common good.” Importantly for us who stand against them, Lewis reminds us that while Weston is truly a “bent” man, he does have some remaining virtue, such as the commitment to sacrifice himself for a seemingly higher cause. Oyarsa notes that if Weston were under his authority, he would attempt to cure him—unlike Devine, whom Oyarsa judges to be beyond help.
Weston stands in stark contrast with his colleague Devine, whose selfish greed has broken his humanity so much that he is a dead soul in a walking, laughing body. But Weston is the true villain of Out of the Silent Planet because the novel’s dominate action is to strip Ransom’s unthinking modernist assumptions away to prepare him spiritually and mentally for the great cosmic assault upon the Silent Planet which comprises the following novels.
The most important assumption that Ransom learns to rethink is the modern belief in a hard split between science, the supernatural, and the mythical. Unlike Weston and Devine, Ransom starts the novel a pious Christian, and he is revolted by Weston’s arrogant materialism and abuse of human beings in the pursuit of science. However, Ransom discovers that his imagination, though not his religious beliefs, has been tainted by materialistic science’s mythology.
Basking in the light of Deep Heaven, Ransom realizes that “a nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him…No: space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens—the heavens which declared the glory….” (The cosmic gems brought to us by the Webb telescope suggest to me, at least, that Lewis is not being fanciful here!)
This materialistic mythology masquerades as “fact” due to the arrogance of those who believe that a human’s capacity to measure and weigh and see is all that there is in the determination of truth and reality. A flawed imagination can ultimately damage both clear thinking and the strength of belief, and so Ransom—and the reader—must correct his conceptions.
By contrast, as Ransom soon learns, there is much more in the cosmos than can be measured by the tools of science. As a Sorn explains, “There are a great many bodies you cannot see. Every animal’s eyes see somethings but not others.” In Malacandra, the supernatural and the scientific are harmoniously interlinked—Ransom finds himself discussing the nature of eldila within the context of an analysis of how matter and light move through space. Here, Lewis quietly references medieval scholastics, who greatly advanced our conception of matter and light in the attempt to understand angels. The end result of this is that Ransom is freed from the cramped mythology of materialistic science and is capable of seeing the cosmos as it truly is—vastly more mythic and supernatural.
As the novel ends, Lewis recounts that Ransom has asked him to write the account of his travels to strengthen “our side” in the cosmic, eternal fight for the soul of this, our Silent Planet. “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,” Ransom assures us.
Reading Out of the Silent Planet in the twenty-first century, we both encounter the modern materialistic mythology that has corrupted all our imaginations and also have a chance to excise it and replace it with an older, more eternal, and truer one. In doing so, we are prepared to follow Ransom on his great battle against evil in Perelandra. But even more importantly for our own times, we will be better equipped to face our own Westons who have seized the reins of power and who are directing us toward a materialistic, inhuman future.