In my early teens I enjoyed reading the novels of HG Wells, such as The First Men in the Moon. In a similar style, though a very different perspective, were three books by CS Lewis, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet.

Here, a university teacher named Ransom stumbles across an old acquaintance (Devine), who is working with a scientist (Weston), on a project to travel to Mars. He only discovers their intention when he wakes up from a drugged sleep and finds himself on a space-ship. Suspicious of their plans for him, he escapes soon after they land. He meets one of the three intelligent Martian species and learns their language. He discovers that they are very different from the monsters he had expected.

Here there’s a bit of a dig in the direction of HG Wells and his like, who generally imagined “aliens” to be both super-intelligent and hostile, as in War of the Worlds. Devine and Weston, on the other hand, had seen the ‘natives’ only as subjects to be exploited.

Devine wants to trade their gold for trinkets; Weston aims to take over the planet for human colonisation. This is part of his idea, not uncommon in Science Fiction, of freeing humanity from the limitation of living on a single planet – which, through war or pollution, we may end up destroying.

Ransom learns that the Martians all live in peace, with no exploitation, no fear of death - that, in short, they are not subject to what we would call ‘original sin’. He himself feels considerable shame in explaining various features of human society: wars, crime, slavery and so on.

There is a lovely passage towards the end of the novel, where the three men meet again, in the presence of Oyarsa, the ruler of Mars. Weston is trying to justify his plans in a sort of public hearing and Ransom has to translate, because Weston never learned the language. So we hear Weston’s impressive-sounding rhetoric, translated into language that exposes the hypocrisy of what he is actually saying. For instance, he says that his actions are directed towards assuring the future of the human race, and speaks about one’s “loyalty to humanity”.

Oyarsa picks this apart by observing that Weston doesn’t seem to love the mind of man, which should lead him to love all rational life. Neither does he care about man’s physical form, as he recognises that this would have to change in order to adapt to life on other worlds. I’m reminded of the old joke, “I love humanity, it’s just people I can’t stand!”

Some readers dislike the fact that the novel contains more philosophical reflection than action – though to me this gives it a remarkable depth. By considering the possibility of non-fallen intelligent life, it shines a fascinating side-light on our fallen humanity.

Out of the Silent Planet

As scientists research the possibility of water on Mars, millionaires

compete to explore space. Paul Hendricks asks if the aliens in an early CS Lewis novel can teach us a thing or two about human relationships.

Bishop Hendricks

Rt Rev Paul Hendricks is Auxiliary Bishop of Southwark.