Is Out of the Silent Planet a Christian classic? Its author, C.S. Lewis is certainly well-known as a popular Christian writer, but his ‘Space Trilogy’—of which Out of the Silent Planet is the first—is not mentioned as often as The Chronicles of Narnia, or even several of his nonfiction works. Is the book neglected because its quality is considered inferior to The Chronicles? Is its message too dated? Or do some of its messages, despite being delivered by a Christian author, make Christians uncomfortable?
Or perhaps it’s mere happenstance that this work is not as well-known?
I already reviewed Out of the Silent Planet on my main blog, harmamaesmit.com. But as I want to give this section of my web presence a stronger emphasis on the Christian writings out there, I thought I’d address a few of my thoughts on the Christian messages in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet here. If you’re interested in the original review, you can read it here.
So, it is too challenging, too dated, or inferior quality? Let’s dive in and look.
How often do Christian authors tackle concepts like what ‘sinless’ creation might be like, what a pre-fall society might be like, or what might be the religious beliefs of alien peoples? No, if you briefly glance through the racks of Christian fiction today, you’ll find a lot of thoughts on the ‘moment of conversion,’ and how people get to that point in their lives. You might possibly see stories addressing how Christians live through difficult circumstances. You’ll see a lot of focus on romantic relationships, and a brief treatment of how Christianity views such relationships. But deep theological concepts, presented fictionally? No, not very common.
Of course, to present ‘sinless’ creatures is incredibly risky. Any author is, of course, sinful—so likely anything anyone writes would be skewed and inaccurate in some way. However, does this mean there is no point to be made about sinlessness, or pre-fall creation? It’s a challenge for only the best writers to take on, but Out of the Silent Planet proves that such an experiment can teach us something. It can reveal our own arrogance and sense of superiority in a surprising and powerful way.
I sincerely hope this not the main reason this book is overlooked. If so, it points to a towering problem in the modern world of Christian fiction in general—an unwillingness to tackle big idea and work out ALL of our faith with fear and trembling.
Too Dated? Its Critique of Modernism and Why This is Still Relevant
The second reason might be that its strongest theme springs from the context of the time period it was written in, almost to the point that it is ‘a product of its time.’ The theme—that cold, objective scientific study cannot describe the full joy, beauty and thrill of creation, and can even lead to outright blindness to joy, beauty and thrills if it’s too strictly adhered to—is critiquing modernism. It’s directly addressing the modernist idea that science would discover everything about the world and solve all of humanity’s problems. This impulse is still around today, but it was even stronger in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were very optimistic about the benefits solid objective study would bring humanity. But society today in general is more cynical and more postmodernist, and it’s no wonder, seeing how some scientific products (the atom bomb, for example) were not all clearly benefits to humanity.
In other words, to argue against modernist optimism hardly seems necessary, as our culture whole-heartedly agrees with cynicism.
C.S. Lewis ably critiques extreme forms of modernism here without anticipating the ways this philosophy would morph into postmodernism. It doesn’t even begin to consider the postmodernist idea that you may see space as cold and empty, whereas I may see it as full of light and life, and each of these observations depends strongly on the perspective we ourselves come from. I am not saying that C.S. Lewis should have anticipated the next challenge to the Christian worldview, only that in reading Out of the Silent Planet today, the worldview he argues against may come off as quaint and not a threat.
And really, a story arguing against the dangers of a specific philosophy can come across as less universal than a story illustrating the message of salvation (like The Chronicles), especially as many readers may not know much about specific philosophies in the first place. So perhaps it truly is a bit dated?
I’d argue, in fact, that it is important in order to understand what a threat these sorts of ideas were, and to bolster our own worldviews by working through these ideas because—well, many people who believe in modernism are still around, and the heirs of the ideas themselves still influence our society’s thoughts. How often do you hear the media advocating colonizing other planets? Saving humanity by moving away from our mess and starting over elsewhere? We still talk about these things!
Lewis’s unique contribution is to point out that we can’t just see the rest of the universe as ‘ours’ to take over as we wish. Nowadays it’s very fashionable to point out that when Europeans took that approach to other continents, they absolutely disregarded whatever existed there before their arrival as irrelevant, nonexistent (‘we discovered a country that already had people on it so it clearly must’ve been discovered before we arrived!’). It’s quite fashionable to rightly judge this colonialist attitude—other lands did not exist merely for Europeans to exploit. But when it comes to space, we all seem to turn into colonialists again.
Now, we don’t usually consider the rest of the universe as inhabited, so maybe that’s why we’re more comfortable with this idea. In Out of the Silent Planet, the other planets are inhabited, and worse, are free of all the evil and destruction that comes naturally to humanity. So in a fantasy of this sort, it’s easy to demonstrate the harm of human expansionist ideas.
But the book is more than that. It’s not aiming at expansionism alone, but beyond that to the shortcomings of the human heart—our own greed and our own tendency to view ourselves as first and most superior. Even our ‘good’ protagonist is shocked to discover not only that the other planet are inhabited, but that they’re not inhabited by monsters but by creatures who might, in fact, be superior to himself. The book provides a necessary corrective, not just to a time-bound philosophy (modernism), but also to a timeless human temptation—to think of ourselves as the centre of the universe.
I’m not going to spend much time on this topic. It is absolutely not inferior quality to The Chronicles. To discuss the quality of the story in-depth would stray too far from my main focus on its Christian themes, but I’ll just say its lack of recognition probably stems from it being published before The Chronicles, and being aimed more at adults and therefore overlooked.
In Conclusion – We Need More Fiction on the Classics Lists! Could This Be One?
So my answer to the question I raised in the title is—yes, I think it should be. But thinking a work should be a classic does not make it so. I think it’s the sort of story to give someone thinking through the philosophies the story addresses.
But to be fair, there really isn’t a definitive list of Christian classics. If you search it, you get great lists of nonfiction but very little fiction, especially modern Christian fiction. So that’s one new aim of this blog—to look at fiction classics as well as nonfiction ones. Not to draw up a definitive list, but present possible candidates. And here is my first suggestion!
Related Book Reviews of Out of the Silent Planet:
While writing this post I discovered there were not a lot of people writing about the Space Trilogy, so I thought I’d link to a few good reviews I came across here.
The Silent Planet of C.S. Lewis – why this book counts as good classic sci-fi despite having angels in it.
The Cosmic Trilogy 1: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – a deeper review of the books as a whole.
Out of the Silent Planet – a comparison with Gulliver’s Travels that I didn’t notice myself.