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Out of the Silent Planet fails miserably at being science fiction.



It fails to be science fiction, because the science is unnecessary at almost every point. Of course, it is quite obvious that the book is not "hard" science fiction, that is to say, the science does not try to be strictly plausible. We never learn more than the vaguest outline of what drives the ship, or how it works. But it is more than this. The ship itself isn't very interesting. What is more interesting is how the heavens (for Lewis is very purposeful in using more medieval descriptions, rather than the modern idea of space) is the focus of the journey. Those glorious golden rays are more entrancing than the ship. This is where we begin to see the genius of Lewis.

While Out of the Silent Planet may fail as science fiction, it certainly succeeds as fantasy. It isn't the best fantasy that Lewis wrote, of course (Perelandra and That Hideous Strength are much better as fantasy), but this seems to be that Lewis does not quite realize that he is writing fantasy. He thinks that he is writing science fiction.

But how can this be science fiction? There is a spaceship, certainly, but it is not that interesting, and hardly important, except as a plot point. There are scientists, but they are not terribly interesting as scientists. They are much more interesting as a type of modern man, or perhaps it would be better to say, an example of how modern people think. It is what is usually called the modern scientific perspective, but may be called a naturalistic darwinistic perspective with equal accuracy. They become the type of villain most often seen in fairy tales; the sorcerer who desires power, or wealth, or anything but the right thing. They want gold when they could have heaven.

Lewis himself was unhappy with the spaceship. He says somewhere (and I am sorry I cannot directly quote, nor cite this reference), that he sent Ransom to Mars by way of a spaceship, and when he had learned more, he sent him to Venus by way of angels. At some point, he realized that he was writing a particular type of fantasy, and there is nothing so dull as someone who goes about putting spaceships in fairy tales. Spaceships are very practical, in one sort of way, mainly associated with things like numbers, and flying, and all sorts of things that turn out to have little to do with ordinary life. Fairy tales are very practical in another sort of way, as they are mainly associated with things like apples, and fighting for truth, and honor, which turn out to have everything in the world to do with ordinary life.

For all its flaws, then, I propose that Out of the Silent Planet has done something that no other book (that I have read) is able to accomplish. It starts out as science fiction, and shows how unsatisfying it is when compared to fantasy. That is to say, it begins with a usual assumption of the genre, that the material world is all important, and all there is, and proceeds to tell a very practical story where a scientist finds that it isn't all there is. Planetary intelligences (or what Dante would also call angels) exist, as well as honor, and truth, and a huge battle between good and evil. In the fact that it falls flat as science fiction, it manages to show the great weakness of science fiction; that it allows no room for the immaterial world. We may have angels in a book. We may have spaceships in a book. But we cannot properly have both angels and spaceships in a book. You may choose whichever world you want, whichever kind of practicality that you want. Of course, if there is only the material world, you are quite right in preferring spaceships. As for myself, I prefer angels, and that is why I cannot help but love Out of the Silent Planet.

(cross posted to [livejournal.com profile] erlenstar
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Kate Saunders Britton

October 2017

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