Out of the Silent Planet is the first novel of a science fiction trilogy written by C. S. Lewis, sometimes referred to as the Space Trilogy, Ransom Trilogy or Cosmic Trilogy. The other volumes are Perelandra (also published as Voyage to Venus) and That Hideous Strength, and a fragment of a sequel was published posthumously as The Dark Tower. The trilogy was inspired and influenced by David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus (1920).
According to his biographer A. N. Wilson, Lewis wrote the novel after a conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien in which both men lamented the state of contemporary fiction. They agreed that Lewis would write a space-travel story, and Tolkien would write a time-travel one. Tolkien's story only exists as a fragment, published in The Lost Road and other writings (1987) edited by his son Christopher.
The story begins with Elwin Ransom, a professor of philology, on a hiking trip in the English Midlands, knocking on the door of an isolated cottage in an attempt to find sleeping accommodation. The cottage is occupied by a woman who expects her son to return from work. Hearing of this, Ransom agrees to go to a walled estate where the son works for “the professor” and set him on his way home, and makes his way there. The estate is occupied by Ransom's former schoolmate Devine, whom Ransom remembers having cordially disliked. Devine, however, enthusiastically welcomes Ransom and offers him a room, a meal, and (first of all) a drink.
Devine and his associate, Professor Weston, have ulterior motives: Weston is a scientist who has discovered a way to travel in space and the two men need another person to take with them on their next journey. Ransom realizes his drink has been drugged to make him sleepy; but before he can escape he is struck on the head and loses consciousness. When he wakes, he finds himself on a ship traveling through space to the planet Malacandra, a fictional version of Mars. En route Ransom overhears Weston and Devine talking about whether they should again drug Ransom before they give to the inhabitants of Malacandra, the "sorns", or allow him to stay conscious. In this conversation, Devine, when asked the reason for which the "Sorns" want Ransom, suggests that it is "for human sacrifice". Ransom then decides to escape as soon as he has a chance.
Soon after the three land on the strange planet, Ransom gets his chance to run off into the unknown landscape. He wanders around, finding many differences between Earth and Malacandra, in that all the lakes, streams, and rivers are warm; the gravity is significantly less; and the plants and mountains are strangely tall and thin.
Ransom later meets a civilized native of Malacandra, a hross named Hyoi. He becomes a guest for several months at Hyoi's village, where he uses his philological skills to learn the language of the hrossa and learns their culture. In the process he discovers that gold, known to the hrossa as "sun's blood", is plentiful on Malacandra, and thus is able to discern Devine's motivation for making the voyage thither. Weston's motives are shown to be more complex; he is bent on expanding humanity through the universe, abandoning each planet and star system as it becomes uninhabitable.
The hrossa honor Ransom greatly by asking him to join them in a hunt for a hnakra (plural hnéraki), a fierce water-creature which seems to be the only dangerous predator on the planet, resembling both a shark and a crocodile. While hunting, Ransom is told by an eldil, a creature reminiscent of very faint light, that he must meet Oyarsa, the eldil who is ruler of the planet. He refuses the summons, as he wishes to proceed with the hunt. Hyoi, after killing the hnakra with Ransom's help, is shot dead by Devine and Weston, who are trying to find Ransom. Ransom is told by Whin, another hross who is Hyoi's friend, that this is the consequence of disobeying Oyarsa, and that Ransom must now cross the mountains to escape Weston and Devine and fulfill his orders. On his journey, Ransom meets a sorn, much as he had feared. He finds, however, that the séroni are peaceful and kind. The sorn he meets, Augray, takes Ransom to Oyarsa, as was their plan from the start.
Ransom finally makes it to Meldilorn, the home of Oyarsa, after several days of traveling in thin air. In Meldilorn, Ransom meets a pfifltrigg who tells Ransom of the beautiful houses and artwork his race make in their native forests. Ransom then is led to Oyarsa and long awaited conversation begins. Through the conversation Ransom finds out that there are Oyéresu (the plural) for each of the planets in our solar system; in the four inner planets, which have organic life (intelligent and non-intelligent), the local Oyarsa is responsible for that life. The Oyarsa of Earth, called Thulcandra ("the silent planet") by the Malacandrans, has turned evil and has been restricted to Thulcandra by Maleldil, the ruler of the universe. Ransom is ashamed at how little he can tell Oyarsa about Earth and how foolish he and other humans seem to Oyarsa. While the two are talking, Devine and Weston are brought in guarded by hrossa, because they have killed three of that race. Oyarsa then dissects their characters and beliefs.
Oyarsa tells Weston and Devine that he would not tolerate the presence of creatures such as they, but lets them take the chance of immediately leaving the planet and returning to Earth under very unfavorable orbital conditions. Although Oyarsa offers him the option of staying on Malacandra, Ransom decides that he does not belong there, perhaps feeling himself unworthy and perhaps because he yearns to be among human beings. After a difficult return journey, the space-ship makes it back to Earth. Weston and Devine do not further molest Ransom, perhaps realizing that if Ransom were to try to expose their villainies, no-one would believe him, since there is no corroboration for the story. To prevent further intrusions in Malacandra, Oyarsa has caused the ship to disintegrate shortly after landing.
Ransom himself half-doubts whether all that happened was true, and he realizes that others will be even less inclined to believe it if he should speak of it. However, when the author (Lewis) writes him asking whether he has heard of the medieval Latin word "Oyarses" and knows what it meant, he lets him in on the secret. Ransom then dedicates himself to the mission that Oyarsa gave him before he left Malacandra of stopping Weston from further evil.
The storyline may have been influenced by H. G. Wells's First Men in the Moon which Lewis described as "The best of the sort Science Fiction I have read...." (from a letter to Roger Lancelyn Green). Wells's book, like Lewis's, reaches its climax with a meeting between an Earthman and the wise ruler of an alien world, during which the Earthman makes very ill-considered boasts of his species' military prowess. The characters of Weston and Devine might be, in general, dark versions of Wells's Cavor and Bradford. In both books, a scientist with a wide-ranging mind forms a partnership with an eminently practical man who has a special attraction to extraterrestrial bars of gold, and they quietly build themselves a spaceship in the English countryside. In both stories, the interplanetary craft are spherical, though only Lewis' is called a "space-ship". It may be that it was Lewis who coined the term, as it does not appear in Wells' work or any other before that time.
As in many other science fiction works of his time and earlier, Mars in this book is conceived of as a dying world; the enormous canals believed at the time to be a major feature of its surface (until space probes proved them to be either nonexistent or a misinterpretation of natural river canyons) were conceived as a major engineering project undertaken by the Martians in their effort to survive. The logical conclusion, first made by H. G. Wells in The War of the Worlds and repeated by various others, was to assume that the Martians would eventually try to escape their dying world and settle on the younger and more vigorous Earth.
Olaf Stapledon, in Last and First Men - a monumental future history stretching over millions and billions of years which was published shortly before Lewis' book, made a further extrapolation: humans in the far-off future escaping the dying Earth and settling on Venus, in the process totally exterminating its native inhabitants - an intelligent marine species. Stapeldon's book can be seen as condoning such interplanetary genocide as a justified act if necessary for racial survival, though some of Stapeldon's partisans denied that such was his intention.
Lewis very strongly objected to the idea, and this book can be seen as partially a rebuttal of it. Prof. Weston's arguments in his confrontation with Oyarsa, where he outrightly defends the "right" of "culturally superior" humans to displace and exterminate the Martians are clearly intended to represent what Lewis conceived as Stapledon's arguments. Counterposed by Lewis is the vision of the three virtuous Martian species, aware that their planet is dying, stoically accepting their fate and living a harmonious life under the wise guidance of Oyarsa. Members of the three species are also aware of the appointed day of their own individual deaths and accept it.
Though their ancestors possessed the technology to build spaceships and go to other planets, and though Earth's "Bent Oyarsa" (Satan) tried to put that thought into their minds, they have foregone this temptation. Malacandra's Oyarsa does mention that taking this momentous decision was not quite smooth, and that some rebels whom the Bent Oyarsa had made "wise enough to see the death of their kind approaching, but not wise enough to endure it" and who could not be healed had to be "unbodied" (by Oyarsa himself as Maleldil's agent). This was, however, in the distant past, many generations ago.
To Prof. Weston, such a "defeatist" attitude is intolerable, although had the Martians settled Earth, nascent mankind would have obviously received short shrift. On hearing it he declares himself on the side of the Bent One and his defiant attitude ("He fights, jumps, lives, not like Maleldil [Jesus] who lets everybody die"). In Perelandra, this leads Weston to falling under demonic possession and eventually dying a most gruesome death.
The concepts of space and other planets in this novel are largely taken from medieval cosmology. For more information on it, see C. S. Lewis's The Discarded Image, a series of lectures on this cosmology that were published after his death.
The séroni (singular sorn; the plural is sometimes given as sorns) are thin, fifteen-foot-high humanoids having coats of pale feathers and seven-fingered hands. They live in mountain caves of the high country (harandra in the speech of the eldila), though they often descend into the handramit where they raise giraffe-like livestock. They are the scholars and thinkers of Malacandra, specializing in science and abstract learning. Their technical level is high, and they design machinery, which is built by the pfifltriggi. Although they can write they do not compose written works of history or fiction as they feel the hrossa are superior at it.
The pfifltriggi (singular pfifltrigg) have tapir-like heads (with a bulge at the back containing the brain) and frog-like bodies; they lean their elbows on the ground when at rest, and sometimes when working with their hands. Their movements are quick and insectlike. They are the builders and technicians of Malacandra. They build houses and gadgets thought up by the séroni. They are miners who especially like to dig up "sun's blood" (gold) and other useful and beautiful minerals. They are the only species said to wear a form of clothes, other than the hrossa, and even wear goggles to protect their eyes.
All three of these races are "hnau" (a word referring to sentient or reasoning beings, in which humans are included) and "unfallen": free of the tendency to evil and sin that plagues humans. Ransom describes the emotional connection between the races as a cross between that of equals and that of person to an animal, mirrored in the way that humans tend to anthropomorphize pets. Members of the three races do not believe any one of the races to be superior to the others; they acknowledge, rather, that no single race can do everything.
In the sequels it is made clear that the language of the hrossa is the primary Old Solar language, and that the languages of the other two species are late derivatives of it. This represents Lewis' view that the symbolic and mythopoeic imagination is the primary language of the human mind and that scientific and technological analysis is a later development. In the essay Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare he argues that, though reason is the organ of truth, imagination is the organ of meaning.
The séroni appear at the beginning of the second volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as one of the Martian races allied against the "mollusc invaders" (the Martians from The War of the Worlds).
In Scarlet Traces: The Great Game, a hieroglyphics-filled chamber seems to show the hrossa, séroni, and pfifltriggi as the original races of Mars, that were wiped out by the arrival of the War of the Worlds Martians.
The speech which Weston delivers at the book's climax, and Ransom's effort to render it into the Old Solar spoken by the Malacandrians, demonstrate the enormous gulf in cultural and moral perceptions, with Weston's value judgements utterly untranslatable. The “translation” that we read is, of course, to be understood as a back-translation into English of what Ransom said in Old Solar.
|Weston's speech in English||Ransom's rendering into Old Solar|
|To you I may seem a vulgar robber||Among us, Oyarsa, there is a kind of hnau who will take other hnau's food and - and things, when they are not looking. He says he is not an ordinary one of that kind.|
|but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race.||He says what he does now will make very different things happen to those of our people who are not yet born.|
|Your tribal life||He says that, among you, hnau of one kindred all live together|
|with its stone-age weapons||the hrossa have spears like those we used a very long time ago|
|and bee-hive huts||and your huts are small and round|
|its primitive coracles||and your boats small and light and like our old ones|
|and elementary social structure||and you have only one ruler|
|has nothing to compare with our civilization -||He says it is different with us.|
|with our science||He says we know much.|
|medicine||There is a thing happens in our world when the body of a living creature feels pains and becomes weak, and we sometimes know how to stop it.|
|and law,||He says we have many bent people and we kill them or shut them in huts and that we have people for settling quarrels between the bent hnau about their huts and mates and things.|
|our armies,||He says we have many ways for the hnau of one land to kill those of another and some are trained to do it.|
|our architecture,||He says we build very big and strong huts of stones and other things - like the pfifltriggi.|
|our commerce||And he says we can exchange many things among ourselves|
|and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time.||and can carry heavy weights very quickly a long way.|
|Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower.||Because of all this, he says it would not be the act of a bent hnau if our people killed all your people.|
The hrossa's word for "to eat" contains consonants unreproduceable by the human mouth. It is not clear how that word would be pronounced on Venus, where Ransom, in the sequel, finds humans speaking the same language spoken by the hrossa.