After all the post-cyberpunk, Steampunk, New Weird, Post-Singularity, Post-Scarcity etc. books I have been reading lately it is nice to turn to an old school sf book for a change of pace and a bit of coziness. Out of the Silent Planet is in fact more of a science fantasy
than something you would expect Asimov, Heinlein or Clarke to write. C.S. Lewis is best known and loved for his wonderful Narnia
books, where religious allegory is woven into exciting and wondrous fantasy adventures aimed primarily at children. Out of the Silent Planet is similarly allegorical but written more for adults though you let your children read it without worrying about them picking up some "funny ideas".
Out of the Silent Planet tells the story of Dr. Elwin Ransom who is kidnapped by a couple of men of low moral fiber and transported to Mars (called Malacandra by the natives). Soon after landing he escapes his kidnappers and embarks on an adventure on this strange planet and learns many things which changes everything he knows about life and the universe. That is all I am going to say about the plot!
The difference between how sf was written then (1938) and now is quite intriguing, and I am not even talking about the science. The aliens in this book are mostly very old school; bipedal, a little human or animal-like, no talking amoebic blobs of jelly here. They can communicate with human beings by sign language and gesticulation. The alien kids can even be petted like puppies. Aliens in more recent sf books tend to be more bizarre and inscrutable (read Embassytown for totally WTF aliens). There is less sense of wonder when the aliens are not that far removed from what the reader can imagine. Every word of the neologism herein is explained as soon as introduced, this makes the book immediately accessible but less challenging. However, Lewis has one major advantage over most genre authors today, he is a very fine writer and story teller. His prose is literary, elegant and refined, at the same time his story telling is clear and visual, it is not hard to picture what is transpiring in the book in your imagination as you read; this makes for a pleasantly immersive experience.
The pace of the book started as something of a romp and gradually settle down to pastoral episodes and profound philosophical musings about the nature of humanity, morality, good and evil. As mentioned previously the book is a religious allegory but Lewis does not hit you over the head with it. If you do not have a single religious bone in your body you can always ponder the issues the author is raising about what it means to be human. Of course you can just kick back and read the book from beginning to end just for the entertainment value without pondering anything if you don't feel so inclined. Lewis did not forget to tell a story here while blending in the subtexts.
This book is the first of C.S. Lewis' quaintly named Space Trilogy
, the other two volumes are Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. By all accounts the quality does not slip in subsequent volumes and I have often heard that the third book That Hideous Strength is the best of the three. I have every intention of finding that out for myself and will report my findings back to you accordingly.