C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, the first part of his acclaimed Space Trilogy, has captivated my imagination since my first reading as a high school student. Now, as a teacher, each time I return to this story with my students I continue to be struck by new imaginative insights into the nature and meaning of the Christian reality. On its surface, the novel is an interplanetary adventure of a kidnapped professor and his captors, but Lewis’s science fiction goes beyond mere fantasy. Out of the Silent Planet creates a world steeped in the Christian imagination, one in which all the drama of the natural and supernatural creation finds its place. Such a work of fiction is more necessary now than ever.
After we finish reading the novel, I often ask my students whether what we just read was a true story. They are always quick to give me an incredulous look and exclaim, “No Mr. Shay, of course not!” Now, of course they’re right – the events in this science fiction novel never actually took place – but I reply with a provocative, “Are you sure?”
In a particularly poignant passage, Lewis recounts the very beginning of our hero’s journey in space and his first realization that the universe might be a very different place than he’d imagined:
A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it had affected him till now- now the very name “Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean in which they swam… No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens…
The way we imagine the world has profound and far-reaching effects on the way we experience our lives. An imagination once formed is often difficult to change. Even after the novel’s hero, Dr. Ransom, experiences the surprising vitality of heavenly travel, he couldn’t help but remain trapped in his former ways of imagining. During his travels to the mysterious planet, Malacandra, Ransom overhears his captors ominously discussing its inhabitants. Ransom’s imagination immediately goes to some very dark places, imagining all manner of monstrously shaped creatures with naught but malice in their hearts. And, when he finally arrived on Malacandra, Ransom was shocked to discover that it was beautiful. The possibility that a word other than our own could be beautiful, and therefore good, had no place in Ransom’s darkened imagination.
I think the situation of Out of the Silent Planet’s hero is the situation many of us find ourselves in. We have long been steeped in the world’s ways of thinking. They form us unconsciously and make it difficult to imagine, much less experience, the reality of a higher world, especially a higher world of goodness and beauty. We cannot love what we do not know, the old Thomistic adage goes, but we cannot know what we cannot imagine. Since the modern imagination – fed constantly and unconsciously by a steady diet of worldly media – rejects the idea of a real supernatural order, we risk losing the ability to really believe in the God of Christian revelation. I have found, sadly, that the very idea of God is not simply puzzling, but inaccessible to the minds of many of my students. Even well argued defenses of Christian doctrine are met, more often than not, with some mix of bland apathy and plain incomprehension. It is not their fault, and they are not alone.
The world around us has unconsciously formed our imaginations to be skeptical and even dismissive of the claims of religion. The world’s thinking is in the cultural air we breathe and so it affects us all – even those of us who do our best to live as Christians. It is this harsh reality that brings me back to the question with which I challenge my students upon our completion of the novel: “Is it a true story?” As we begin to discuss this question, my students begin to give me examples of the many true spiritual realities conveyed quite beautifully in the novel. Truths like the meaning of human dignity, the damage wrought upon both society and the individual by sin, and a universe animated by the providential care of a good God. They discover that, while not a factually true story, Out of the Silent Planet is a true story in a much deeper and richer sense. This discovery brings to light the answer to their frequent question as to why we spent so much time reading a science fiction story in religion class. It is exciting to watch as they begin to imagine, some for the first time, a reality that has a place for God. They become like Out of the Silent Planet’s Dr. Ransom as they experience the beginnings of liberation from the modern materialist imagination so long unconsciously held.
This is the true power of the novel. It is, in a real and deep sense a true story. It challenges our modern imaginations, which often leave no room for the supernatural, to see the world anew. Once our imagination encounters such a world, even a fictional one, we, like Ransom, are given a choice. Will we remain attached to our old way of thinking, or will we step into the light and beauty of the heavens?
Justin Shay is a life-long Catholic from Minnesota who teaches humanities & religion to middle schoolers. He is particularly inspired by the beauty of words and their ability to move the heart to love the true and the good.