Thursday, March 20, 2014

C.S. Lewis Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet part 2

Despite having been drugged and forcibly abducted by a slimy school chum and a Nietzchean physicist, Dr. Elwin Ransom, a philologist on vacation, is actually starting to enjoy his involuntary journey through the heavens. At least he was until he overheard his one-time pal Devine discussing with his colleague Weston the sorns.

The spaceship lands on the planet Malacandra, which is the name given to it by its inhabitants. Weston never does tell Ransom which planet of the Solar System it is; his policy is to keep Ransom in the dark as much as possible. They land in what appears to be a broad canyon several miles wide near a structure that Weston and Devine built as a base camp on their previous expedition. Ransom helps Weston and Devine unload the spacecraft and then he sees a strange creature approaching.

For days now, Ransom has been having nightmares about the mysterious sorns that Devine hinted about. His ideas of alien life have been shaped by the tentacled Martians and the insectoid Selenites of H.G. Wells, but this looks nothing like what he expected. The creature is tall and elongated, looking from the distance like an ambulatory stick-man.

Devine had boasted that Ransom would be too terrified by his first sight of a sorn to flee his companions; but Ransom knows that the two intend to hand him over to these creatures and so he’s not about to trust any of them. He’s too terrified not to flee. He bolts and runs off into the alien forest.

After wandering through the forest alone for some time, he comes across another strange creature: a tall, otter-like thing which Ransom at first takes for a beast until he realizes that it is trying to communicate with him. Instantly his instincts as a philologist take over.
A new world he had already seen – but a new, an extra-terrestrial, a non-human language was a different matter. Somehow he had not thought of this in connection with the sorns; now, it flashed upon him like a revelation. The love of knowledge is a kind of madness. In the fraction of a second which it took Ransom to decide that the creature was really talking, and while he still knew that he might be facing death, his imagination had leaped over every fear and hope and probability of his situation to follow the dazzling prospect of making a Malacandrian grammar.
Ransom learns that the creature is a hross, and accompanies him to his village. The hrossi are an open, friendly people who welcome the strange visitor from another planet and teach him their language.

I think it's significant that when Ransom first meets the hross, he starts out by trying to learn the creature's language instead of trying to teach him his. I had it in my head that Lewis made a point that in doing so Ransom managed to avoid the mistake many colonialists and missionaries make of inflicting his own culture on a new one instead of trying to understand it.

Except that in re-reading the passage, I couldn't find Lewis saying that. And thinking about it more, I realized that I was thinking of a passage from a different science fiction novel, (I'm thinking it was Anne McCaffrey's Decision at Doona).

Be that as it may, the fact remains that on the whole, Ransom doesn't try to impose his own culture on the hrossi; and by living with them, learns much more about Malacandra than Weston and Devine do.

Early on in the novel, Weston speaks rather sneeringly about Ransom's area of expertise, not considering philology to be a "real" science -- reflecting what C.P. Snow called "The Two Cultures" as well as the later distinction drawn by fans between "Hard SF" and the more wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff. But this is really unfair of him. When Ransom meets the hross, it is his scientific curiosity which overcomes his initial fear. All through the book we see Ransom trying to analyze the things he encounters; trying to extrapolate the rules of Malacandrian grammar, constructing hypotheses about Malacandrian life and society and revising those hypotheses as he acquires new evidence -- just as a character in an H.G. Wells story would.

They seem to have a simple, stone age culture with the most basic of tools, their economy is based largely on agriculture, and they enjoy composing and reciting epic poetry. Despite their primitive culture, they do understand the idea of other planets and that Ransom has come from one. They guess that it must be the one they call Thulcandra, or the Silent Planet.

There are three intelligent races, or hnau, on Malacandra: the hrossi, the pfifltriggi and the séroni (which Ransom realizes must be the plural of sorn). The three species are ruled by someone called Oyarsa.
Like a character in a Wells novel, as Ransom bit by bit learns about the world in which he’s been thrust, he develops theories to explain what he’s found – which he frequently winds up tossing or at least revising as he learns more.

The hrossi bear some resemblance to the the Navi from the movie Avatar. I suppose this is mostly because both races are furry and extremely tall, and both have a primitive but idealized society. (And both races serve a more powerful intelligence of which the human visitors are unaware).

In one passage, Lewis describes the hrossi in a way to which I think furry fans could relate:
...the rationality of the hross tempted you to think of it as a man. Then it became abominable -- a man seven feet high, with a snaky body, covered, face and all, with thick black animal hair, and whiskered like a cat. But starting from the other end you had an animal with everything an animal ought to have -- glossy coat, liquid eye, sweet breath and whitest teeth -- and added to all these, as though Paradise had never been lost and earliest dreams were true, the charm of speech and reason. Nothing could be more disgusting than the one impression; nothing more delightful than the other. It all depended on the point of view.
There is no strife or warfare among the hrossi. They do not seem to have a word for “bad”; the nearest word Ransom can find to describe something wicked is “bent”.

Which is not to say that there is no death in this world. A large predator creature called a hnarka is spotted in the lake by the village and the hrossi plan a hunting party to kill it. Ransom is eager to join the party; he wants to feel like he’s a contributing member of the community; but the hunt is interrupted by the appearance of an eldil, another type of being on Malacandra which does not seem to have a physical body. Ransom cannot see the eldil, although the hrossi can. The eldil delivers a message that Ransom is to go to Oyarsa.

Ransom isn’t sure he likes this idea. He reckons that this Oyarsa is some kind of arch-sorn and he still fears them. But when one of his hrossi friends is shot by Weston and Devine who have finally caught up with him, Ransom blames himself and realizes that he can linger among the gentle hrossi no longer.

NEXT:  Brought before Oyarsa, and Weston’s Case for Humanity

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