Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Our Heroine Learns That Sometimes a Giant Martian Seal Creature is Only a Giant Martian Seal Creature

Sometimes, as a retired English-major (though not very good one), I make the mistake of looking for "meaning" in novels to the exclusion of all else. Not with all books, certainly not with beach reading, but mostly with books written by intellectuals. I don't suppose I am the only one who does this, though I wish it weren't so. Because, as in the case of Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis, I occasionally come dangerously close to missing out on a terrifically magnificent adventure story because I'm just so fixated on tweezing out the "meaning" of it all.

First, the back o' the book plot summary:
Out of the Silent Planet begins the adventures of the remarkable [philologist] Dr. Ransom. Here, that estimable man is abducted [by two English adventurers] and taken via spaceship to the red planet of Malacandra [Mars]. Once on the planet, he eludes his captors, risking his life and his chances of returning to Earth. First published in 1943, Out of the Silent Planet remains a mysterious and suspenseful tour de force from one of our best-loved writers.
I mean, how dense am I? The back of the book practically smacked me upside the head with the announcement that this was an adventure, but I swear I spent the first quarter of the book trying to figure out what Lewis's game was. Was this book really about mythology vs. history? No? Allright, then was it really about the need for humility in science? Again no? Surely, if nothing else, it must be about Christianity, right? This is Lewis, after all. But I was wrong on all counts. It's not that there isn't a bit of mythology-as-history in there, and a sprinkling about the arrogance of a certain kind of scientism, and maybe even a jigger of Christianity in there. But that's just because Lewis wrote it, and these things color how he sees the world. In all honesty this book is just the story of a clever Oxford don who finds himself ON MARS, with two blokes who want to kill him, and how he uses his particular set of smarts to escape and survive on a strange, inhabited planet.

Once I let go and just enjoyed it as a story, I must say it was tremendous. There are at least three episodes that had me weak with suspense, and it was charming to read how space travel and Mars were imagined by someone who lived before NASA. And as one of the very first science-fiction novels, I was impressed by just how many of the hallmarks of the genre are already in place here, without any of the over-imagined bloat that I dislike in so many more modern sci-fi novels. It's beautiful, spare and exciting.

When I went hunting for an image to associate with this post, I got the video clip below in my search results. It's from the movie Shadowlands, and it made me feel worlds better about overthinking the book at first. "Far greater minds than mine," as you will see:


Megan said...

Reminds me of this:
Rosencratz, etc. movie: "Heads, heads, heads, heads..."
Our Heroine: "This symbolizes that we have entered the realm of absurdity:
Me: "Oh, I thought it was just a two-headed coin".

Our Heroine said...

Oh, Megan! You made me laugh so hard a) because it is so true! and b) because I remembered you fell asleep promptly after this scene!