October 18, 2004

Might as well be on Mars

The third H. G. Wells novel that I read, after The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, was The First Men in the Moon. Originally published in 1901, my personal copy comes from the 1940s. My high school girlfriend, who liked collecting old books, once noticed that it lacked a proper publisher's imprint or copyright notice. Apparently, it is an unauthorized edition. (I lifted it from the bookshelf of my grandparents' summer cottage. Blame them.)

In this story, our faithful narrator meets up with a scientist named Cavor, who has invented an anti-gravity substance that he has modestly named "Cavorite." The two men, sealed inside a Cavorite-coated, spherical spaceship, travel to the Moon. There they are captured by the ant-like Selenites and brought into their underground domain. It's a grand yarn, one of Wells' best.

No doubt that when C. S. Lewis wrote the following on the dedication page of his first fantasy novel, Out of the Silent Planet, he had this novel of Wells' in mind:

Certain slighting references to earlier stories of this type which will be found in the following pages have been put there for purely dramatic purposes. The author would be sorry if the reader supposed he was too stupid to have enjoyed Mr. H. G. Wells's fantasies or too ungrateful to acknowledge his debt to them.

The similarities are obvious: Elwin Ransom, a professor of philology on a walking tour, has a chance encounter with an old schoolmate named Devine, who introduces him to his scientist colleague Weston. Unfortunately, Devine and Weston are up to no good, and since none of Ransom's friends or family know where he actually is, he finds himself drugged and abducted on a spherical spaceship heading for Mars. After overhearing his captors discuss how they intend to offer him to the Martians as a human sacrifice in exchange for gold, Ransom escapes from Weston and Devine after landing. He spends some time living with the Martians and discovers that not only do they wish him no harm, but in spite of their technological primitiveness, they are humanity's philosophical and moral superiors.

Mars - or as it is called locally, Malacandra - has three indigenous, intelligent species: the tall, aloof, but wise sorn; the seal-like hrossa, hunter-gatherers whose major contribution to Malacandrian society is their poetry; and the diminutive pfifltriggi, who build things. Mars is ruled by Oyarsa, the chief of the spiritual beings called eldila. We learn that every planet has an Oyarsa, but the Oyarsa of Earth (called Thulcandra by the Martians) has not been heard from for a very long time. Hence Earth is the "silent planet." Indeed, the Oyarsa of Earth appears not only to be silent, but even malevolent (as we learn in the first few pages of the sequel Perelandra, he is mounting some sort of offensive against Venus).

Lewis denied that his Space Trilogy was "allegorical." Nonetheless he brings his explicit Christian worldview into his contrast of fallen Earth and Mars. Though it appears that some kind of Fall has occurred on Mars, the depravity of the Martians is not total. While aware of the existence of evil in humanity and amongst their own kind - compared to the unmitigated naïveté of the Green Lady in Perelandra - they have no word for it in their own language: the closest equivalent is "bent." The Martians have a strong awareness of the spiritual beings inhabiting their world and are in close communion with their attendant eldila. Ransom learns to see and hear the eldila with some effort, but at first Devine and Weston do not even believe they exist. Put on trial before the Oyarsa of Malacandra, Weston humourously presumes him to be the parlour trick of primitive religionists, and begins to address him in pidgin language through a sleeping hross whom he supposes to be the ventriloquist perpetrating the fraud.

Out of the Silent Planet is also markedly similar to The War of the Worlds. In the latter novel, Martians looking for a new supply of food invade and overwhelm Earth with superior technology. In the former, it is the technologically superior Earthlings that invade Mars in search of gold. The War of the Worlds is a veiled critique of European colonialism; Out of the Silent Planet critiques the pretensions of intellectuals such as Wells or J. B. S. Haldane, utopian idealists who believed that man could perfect himself through scientific progress. Standing before the Oyarsa, Weston delivers a bombastic speech about the moral superiority of technological advancement and the manifest destiny of humanity to expand to the stars. However, he has so little common ground with the innocent Martians that communicating his philsophy to them proves impossible. (Fans of the Narnia books will recognize this plot device: Uncle Andrew's encounter with the talking animals in The Magician's Nephew is a recycled Weston.) Ransom, translating Weston's rhetoric into plain language for the simpler-minded Martians, strips it naked and exposes it as high-minded nonsense:

"It is in her right," said Weston, "the right, or, if you will, the might of Life herself, that I am prepared without flinching to plant the flag of man on the soil of Malacandra: to march on, step by step, superseding, where necessary, the lower forms of life that we find, claiming planet after planet, system after system, till our posterity - whatever strange form and yet unguessed mentality they have assumed - dwell in the universe wherever the universe is habitable."

"He says," translated Ransom," that because of this it would not be a bent action - or else, he says, it would be a possible action - for him to kill you all and bring us here. He says he would feel no pity. He is saying again that perhaps they would be able to keep moving from one world to another and wherever they came they would kill everyone. I think he is now talking about worlds that go round other suns. He wants the creatures born from us to be in as many places as they can. He does not know what kind of creatures they will be."

"I may fall," said Weston. "But while I live I will not, with such a key in my hand, consent to close the gates of the future on my race. What lies in their future, beyond our present ken, passes imagination to conceive: it is enough for me that there is a Beyond."

"He is saying," Ransom translated, "that he will not stop trying to do all this unless you kill him. And he says that though he doesn't know what will happen to the creatures sprung from us, he wants it to happen very much."

Weston, who had now finished his statement, looked round instinctively for a chair to sink into. On Earth he usually sank into a chair as the applause began. Finding none - he was not the kind of man to sit on the ground like Devine - he folded his arms and stared with a certain dignity about him.1

One wonders whether Wells ever wrote a review of Lewis' books, and if so, what he thought about Lewis' deconstruction of his brand of utopian idealism.

The Space Trilogy is a fine representative of early science fiction/science fantasy, in spite of critiquing rather than promoting the idealistic philosophies typical of the genre. More fundamentally, it's just a darn good read, penned by a master of the literary art. Books like this make me lament the sorry state of Christian fiction in the last 50 years, mired in the formulaic quagmire of end-times thrillers and historical romances.

Since 1991, I have used the nickname "Ransom" online, inspired by my first reading of Lewis' trilogy. In honour of my third reading of Out of the Silent Planet and the posting of this review, hereafter I will use the name here on the blog as well.

Footnote

1 C. S. Lewis, The Cosmic Trilogy (London: Pan, 1990) 122-23.