Book Review: Out of the Silent Planet

I really don’t like C.S. Lewis’ fiction.  Yes, I understand this is heresy.

One of my best friends in high school and college was fascinated with language.  He had a gift with words, but he was also obsessed with them.  And not just our words either, not just English words.  He loved all words.  He loved burrowing between the letters to discover their roots.  He created new languages.  I think he still does.  He was the first philologist I ever knew, and perhaps the only one.  We attempted collaborations on novels and short stories, but our styles were too different.  I could never fully understand his love of language, although having studied multiple languages over the years, I’ve gradually come to both respect that love and to better appreciate it.  
And then I reread C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet , in which the protagonist, Ransom, is a philologist.  
Therein lies the majority of the problem with the book.  Lewis has some fascinating ideas.  He’s able to capture them in dialog that at times is magnificent.  But he feels the need to dwell extensively on language, reflecting his own passion for words.  This drags the book down significantly, slowing the pace to an almost excruciating crawl.  Extended sections of description of geological features and language are all ultimately wasted because regardless of the detail Lewis applies to the characters and landscape, they remain completely one-dimensional.  They are foils for Lewis’ theological musings and little more.  
Fortunately, those musings are worth skimming over the slower portions of the book.  In essence, Lewis is proposing a discussion.  How might a modern human being experience and describe celestial beings?  In our rush to insist that the heavens are really just space, we have emptied them of so much, including God.  But in addition to God, the Judeo-Christian Scriptures describe the existence of other spiritual creations as well – angels and demons.  Concepts that make the smug modernist or humanist snort and chuckle in derision as they imitate flapping wings and halos.  
But what if those beings were real, and someone from the 20th century encountered them and described their relationship to us?  What if we could come up with Biblically faithful words that access our more detailed understanding of our world?  How might we describe some of the beings the Bible describes?  What concepts would we bring to that description?
Lewis begins constructing a more modern framework for the Biblical ideas in Genesis.  God.  Creation.  Satan.  Angelic beings.  Sin.  Grace.  These concepts begin to be fleshed out in this book and are carried out in the two other books of the trilogy (Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength).   Yes, this is all speculation on Lewis’ part, but it’s intelligent speculation as well as faithful imagining.  I won’t go into the details, as encountering those nuggets are what makes wading through the prose and linguistic details of the book worth the effort.  Fortunately it’s a relatively short book and an easy read – so you aren’t suffering for very long, and you get to begin ruminating on his imaginings pretty quickly.

One Response to “Book Review: Out of the Silent Planet”

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