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|Out of the Silent Planet
by C.S. Lewis
Published by John Lane, 1938
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Suggested by: Ross Pavlac
When I first started the SF-CHRISTIAN mailing list some years ago, I assumed that much of our time would be taken up discussing C.S. Lewis' "Cosmic Trilogy", since at the time, I had no idea how much Christian science fiction has been published since, and what little I had found, to be blunt, didn't measure up. Lewis set the standard, and although some of the works I have discovered more recently have come close, nobody has yet managed to knock the trilogy, and particularly Out of the Silent Planet, off its place on the podium as my favourite Christian SF.
Like much early science fiction, Lewis posits intelligent life in the canals of Mars. Edwin Ransom, an English philologist, is kidnapped by an old "friend" from school and his colleague, Dr. Weston, who has developed a space ship. The inhabitants of Mars have told them that they cannot take away any more of Mars' natural wealth unless they send one of their kind to meet with the ruler of Mars. Naturally enough, they assume that no good thing would happen to such an emissary, and they "volunteer" Ransom.
The twist is that the ruler of Mars is, in fact, an angel, and he is curious about what has been happening on Earth since the angel who rules Earth had been "confined to quarters" some time ago. Earth is cut off from the rest of the universe, and is the "silent planet" of the title. Earth, you see, is the only planet affected by the Fall in Genesis. In this way, Lewis explores the possibility of "unfallen" races of aliens. His picture of such societies is necessarily fragmentary, but tantalising all the same. In fact, Lewis creates one of the most touching and memorable accounts of "first contact" between humans and aliens in all of the science fiction I have read so far:
Unconsciously he raised himself on his elbow and stared at the black beast. It became silent. The huge bullet head swung round and lustrous amber eyes fixed him. There was no wind on the lake or in the wood. Minute after minute in utter silence the representatives of the two so far-divided species stared each into the other's face.
Ransom rose to his knees. The creature leaped back, watching him intently, and they became motionless again. Then it came a pace nearer, and Ransom jumped up and retreated, but not too far; curiosity held him. He summoned up his courage and advanced, holding out his hand; the beast misunderstood the gesture. It backed into the shallows of the lake and he could see the muscles tightened under its sleek pelt, ready for sudden movement. But there it stopped; it, too, was in the grip of curiosity. Neither dared let the other approach, yet each repeatedly felt the impulse to do so himself, and yielded to it. It was foolish, frightening, ecstatic and unbearable all in one moment. It was more than curiosity. It was like a courtship like the meeting of the first man and the first woman in the world; it was like something beyond that; so natural is the contact of the sexes, so limited the strangeness, so shallow the reticence, so mild the repugnance to be overcome, compared with the first tingling intercourse of two different, but rational, species. (p. 54)
It is only recently that I have begun to wonder just how much two of my great passions in life missions and science fiction have to do with one another. Certainly, science fiction works which explore just how "alien" aliens might be, in their shape, thought processes, and culture, can be useful for candidates planning to work in other cultures, because it can make them question the unexamined assumptions which lead to culture shock. In the case of this story, Ransom the philologist would be admirably equipped to be a missionary, except the twist is that, while the Martians have never before heard the story of salvation which was worked out on Earth, neither do they need it, because they already know the Saviour. Greg Slade (April, 2004)
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