Alien names and languages are often a tricky proposition when it comes to telling a Science Fiction tale. Done right, they can help add a level of foreign beauty and otherworldly texture that can add to the immersive nature of the story and give the characters a unique identity. Done poorly, however, and it can be hard for the reader to tell who is talking and what they’re even talking about. Unfortunately, C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet lands squarely in the latter camp. From hrossa to seroni to sorns to pfifltriggi, the different creatures and inhabitants of Malacandra end up all blurring together in a jumble of unpronounceable names. Add to that the fact that nearly every word in their language starts with h (handra, harandra, handramit, hlab, hluntheline, hnakra, hnakrapunt, hnau, hressni, hru – you get the point) and you get a book that’s a chore to read. I’m sure there’s a decent story in there somewhere, but I spent too much time trying to figure out what was going on (and to whom) to find it. If you’re a fan of linguistics or someone who doesn’t mind learning an entirely new language just to read a book, than you might find something to enjoy here. I’m just not one of those people. Given all that, I’ll still try to give a synopsis of what I think happened (with a little help from Wikipedia).
The book opens on Dr. Elwin Ransom as he’s in the middle of a walking tour of the English countryside. As night starts to fall and he’s refused lodging at a village, he stumbles upon a house where he hears a struggle going on. After investigating, he finds out that its the home of two fellow professors (Mr. Devine and Professor Weston). The struggle he overheard was with a neighbor boy who the pair had hoped to use for some sort of experiment. When Ransom walks in, they decide that he’ll be a better subject and offer him a place to stay for the night and a drink. Upon waking up from the effects of the drugged drink, he finds himself aboard some sort of spacecraft and learns, through overhearing the conversation of Devine and Weston, that they are heading to a planet called Malacandra (what we learn is actually Mars). Although Ransom is excited at first about the idea of flying through space and visiting another planet, the fact that he was kidnapped makes him uneasy – as does the conversation he overhears where Devine and Weston are talking about offering him up as a sacrifice to the planet’s inhabitants.
When they finally get to the planet, Ransom is able to escape and ends up wandering around the strange landscape for a while. While not drastically different than Earth, the planet seems to have a few large differences – including less gravity, warmer water, and extremely tall plants and trees. After stumbling around for a while, Ransom finally runs into one of the natives of Malacandra (the hross). Apparently Ransom is a brilliant linguist himself and is somehow able to learn the language of the hross after spending just a few months in their village. After being contacted by an eldil (don’t ask) and told that he must travel to meet Oyarsa (really?), he ends up having a final confrontation with Devine and Weston in the presence of the natives in which he learns that Weston’s main goal in coming to Malacandra is to help spread Mankind’s DNA across the stars through colonization and further space exploration.
With subtle (and not so subtle) references to angels and other Christian archetypes, Lewis seems to be comparing Malacandra to some sort of Eden – with the intrusion of humans coming to conquer representing the fall from grace. But whatever metaphors he’s trying to use are lost in a jumble of incoherent speechifying and confusing expository dialogue. Maybe readers in 1938 (when the book was published) had more patience for this sort of thing, or maybe it’s just me. While I loved and enjoyed the Chronicles of Narnia series as a kid, I really can’t recommend this book to anyone other than classic Science Fiction purists or “Top 100” list completists (like me). If you think I missed something here, feel free to let me know in the comments section.
Buy Out of the Silent Planet