The “Extras” in Out of the Silent Planet

I have just this week completed teaching Out of the Silent Planet to a dedicated small group in person at my church while a larger number watch on Zoom, and a much larger number than the first two groups watch the video later. It’s a privilege that I don’t take for granted. Now that I have finished that book and will enter into Perelandra next, I would like to take a few moments to note that one of the benefits that participants have commented on is the “extra” information I have provided each week that amplifies the story and/or Lewis’s perceptions behind the story.

There is no way to highlight all those “extras,” but I would like to offer a few in this post. First, I want to reiterate how much help I received from books written by David Downing and Christiana Hale and one edited by Diana Glyer. I appreciate deeply being able to draw insights from other scholars.

Many influences led Lewis to write Out of the Silent Planet, but one was a book that while it inspired him in one sense, he had rather an antipathy to its overall message.

Lewis didn’t like the theme of the book, which he called “on the borderline of the diabolical [and] so Manichean as to be almost satanic.” Yet he was able take from it what he could in the development of his own approach to writing a novel somewhat in the vein of Lindsay’s book but entirely different in message.

The same can be said with reference to H. G. Wells. Lewis certainly appreciated aspects of what Wells accomplished in his science fiction, but there was an overall philosophy that drove Wells with which Lewis had grave concerns and which played a significant part in the creation of Weston, the chief villain of the book.

Of Wells’s transition from science fiction writer to socialist philosopher, Lewis lamented that Wells had traded his birthright for a “pot of message.”

One of Lewis’s critics was Cambridge biochemist J. B. S. Haldane who wrote that Lewis’s science was usually wrong, that he made false or malicious statements about scientists, and that he believed scientific planning led to Hell. Lewis penned a response that never was published (perhaps he didn’t want to go public with this particular controversy?), but we do have that response today. Here’s part of how Lewis answered Haldane’s criticism:

With respect to his attitude toward scientists, Lewis corrected Haldane’s perception by stating, “It certainly is an attack, if not on scientists, yet on something which might be called ‘scientism.’”

It is, in a word, the belief that the supreme moral end is the perpetuation of our own species, and this is to be pursued even if, in the process of being fitted for survival, our species has to be stripped of all those things for which we value it—of pity, of happiness, and of freedom.

I also pointed out, thanks to one of my resources, the similarity between the beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy with how Lewis chose to begin his novel.

Both Dante and Ransom are pedestrians/travelers embarking on a journey that will take them through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. For Dante, it is literal; for Ransom, it is more symbolic of the journey as he goes from Malacandra as a fearful man, to Perelandra as one who must endure a purging, and back to Earth as someone who has been elevated into the heavenlies.

When Ransom is in the spaceship, seeing for the first time the wonders of the heavens and the inaccuracy of calling it “space,” I was reminded of an incident in the Narnia books where a “star” who has become a man makes a similar point to Eustace.

A question that I’m sure would have entered into the minds of participants when reading the book was “why did Lewis come to use the name Maleldil for God?” David Downing answered that question.

And when one might wonder why Lewis invented eldils rather than just calling them angels, I showed participants Lewis’s own answer for that in a letter he wrote to an American correspondent:

Near the end of Silent Planet, and in the wake of Weston’s ludicrous plans for the human race spelled out clearly through the arrogance of his “superior” knowledge, I was reminded of a book by British historian Paul Johnson that I highly recommend, and I thought it fit in perfectly here as a warning against people like Weston. Here’s what Johnson wrote:

I chose to close out our reflections for Out of the Silent Planet with a salient comment from another of Lewis’s correspondents who had read and loved the book.

I consider that a fitting conclusion. We turn next to Perelandra as we witness Ransom’s struggle to save a planet from the same evil that has entered into ours. I’m looking forward to it.