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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis

Out of the Silent Planet  - C.S. Lewis

Utopias are rarely played straight these days.  Though I could name off the top of my head a dozen recent, hugely popular dystopian novels (especially in YA - man, teens sure love their crapsack worlds), I can't think of any modern big-name utopias.  (Not true utopias, anyway.  If it's hiding a dark underbelly, it doesn't count...)


In a way the discrepancy seems odd, since the "topias" are very much two sides of the same coin (speculative futures with some sort of ideological axe to grind; extrapolations of contemporary trends that are fundamentally of their time).  But dystopias are dark and broken and savage.  They terrify and fascinate us.  Utopias are homogenous and void of conflict and insufferably didactic.  They bore and patronize us.


That's my take, anyway.  I can only think of two flavors of genuine utopias I've read in the past few years - second-wave feminist utopias like Woman on the Edge of Time and A Door Into Ocean, and religious (particularly Christian) utopias like Out of the Silent Planet.  It's surprising how much they have in common, despite the major ideological differences between modern feminism and mainstream Christianity.


The societies in the three books I mentioned all share many of the same traits: interracial and interspecies egalitarianism; no crime and no need for laws; environmental custodianship; responsible procreation rates; and so on.  And the reason given for our world being so comparatively corrupt and broken?  Because it is ruled by either dudes or the devil (pick your ideology).


So utopias tend to look the same, though they rest on very different (sometimes fundamentally contradictory) principles.  And I have very little interest in delving into yet another cookie-cutter perfect society while characters preach to me about why our world could be beautifully harmonious, too, if we all just adopted X philosophy. 


No thanks, I'll take the crapsack worlds.



Still, I am unaccountably charmed by Out of the Silent Planet.  Aside from the ideological stuff, there's something so pure and classic about this story - that wonder of cosmic discovery (exploring strange new worlds; seeking out new life and new civilizations; boldly going and so forth) - that still feels fresh, that still makes me fall in love with science fiction.


I've read Lewis's Space Trilogy before, but it's been at least 15 years.  I'd forgotten how much fun they are.  Ransom, the protagonist, is a somewhat timid, introverted academic who is kidnapped by a couple of capitalist douchebags and taken to Mars - where they plan to use him as a human sacrifice to the Martians in return for access to gold.  Instead, Ransom escapes the greedy buffoons, dodges a seriously badass sea monster, and befriends the otter-like Martians, learning their language and their utopian customs, and eventually going to hang out with Oyarsa, the Martian Jesus (who, oddly, reads more like the Martian Aslan than anything out of the Bible - Lewis has a very specific character-type in mind for his Christ figures).  Sermons are declaimed, weird religious allegories are constructed, the kidnappers get their comeuppance, and everything is tied up neatly in 150 pages.



Based on the story alone, Out of the Silent Planet is totally enjoyable, but like all of Lewis's fiction the book gets bogged down in its religious objectives.  There's a lot of religious SFF that I really love, from The Lord of the Rings to much of Wolfe's work to books like The Sparrow and Lord of Light.  But Lewis just can't seem to weave in religious themes without getting annoyingly preachy and simplistically allegorical.  I think he manages it best in Till We Have Faces (though I have issues with that one as well), but his genre novels are ridiculously transparent in their sermonizing - which was, of course, fully intended.  He wanted to inculcate the masses with Christian doctrine by distracting them with fun stories.


And the stories are fun.  The sermons, less so.


(2014 #10)