Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet as a response to what he saw as the “dehumanization” of science fiction, that is, the idea that science fiction had become too much about the strange and wonderful technology that authors could dream up and had moved away from exploring mankind’s place in the universe (as had been the focus of science fiction novels such as the work of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells). Due to this, Lewis uses his tale of travel to Mars to specifically explain what he believes about humanity’s nature and argue that humankind cannot forget their moral duty to each other and to other beings, no matter how scientifically “advanced” they might become.
Lewis finds ways to represent the opposing views on the purpose of science fiction and what those views say about the place of humans in the hierarchy of the universe. Lewis starts by using his characters Dr. Weston and Mr. Devine, an English physicist and businessman respectively, to show his distaste for the view of the pursuit of scientific knowledge as the endless march of progress and the inevitable triumph of human kind. Lewis sees that perspective reflected in modern science fiction novels that praise such characters for their use of strength and intellect to dominate others. Both Weston and Devine focus on what they can gain from exploiting Mars (Malacandra, in the vernacular of this planet’s inhabitants), either in terms of material wealth or in terms of a new colony for mankind to spread their version of civilization. In contrast, Lewis represents his own perspective on science fiction novels as a place to explore the fundamental nature of humankind through the human protagonist Dr. Ransom. Ransom comes to appreciate the Malacandrian species on their own terms and learns to accept his place in this society as a moral human who considers the well-being of others. He also comes to accept humankind’s place as a rational being (hnau) no better or worse than the other hnau of Malacandra. Ransom learns that living by the rule of those beings which are above hnau – the eldila, and specifically the head eldil, called the oyarsa – leads to a more fulfilling life.
Lewis then turns to what he considers proper morality, starting from the Christian idea that all humans fall short of their moral duties of caring for others and must be taught how to do what is right and reject what is wrong. Lewis defines right and wrong in terms of what is in line with the wishes of the ultimate ruler of the universe and what benefits the most people (and aliens). Oyarsa (the specific oyarsa of Malacandra, and the head of their moral system) proclaims Mr. Devine “broken” for forgetting the higher duty of hnau to consider things beyond the material world. In the same way, Dr. Weston is “bent” because he considers no one beyond humankind, staying too loyal to his idea of his own kind while ignoring moral injunctions to respect other types of beings (and indeed individual humans as well). Ransom learns that all humanity has a “bent” or sinful nature due to the failure of the oyarsa of Earth (The Bent One) to properly show humans their place in the universe and the need for obedience to the Old One, who rules the entire universe. Lewis thus sees humanity as fundamentally morally deficient, calling back to the Christian notion of original sin which proclaims all humans as sinful from birth. Yet Lewis sees a path back to the natural order of life, should humans accept that they are not the most superior beings in the universe and subsume their own desires to the greater good as Ransom does at the end of Out of the Silent Planet.
Human Nature and Morality ThemeTracker
Human Nature and Morality Quotes in Out of the Silent Planet
There was something about the whole scene suspicious enough and disagreeable enough to convince him that he had blundered on something criminal, while on the other hand he had all the deep, irrational conviction of his age and class that such things could never cross the path of an ordinary person except in fiction and could least of all be associated with professors and old school-fellows. Even if they had been ill-treating the boy Ransom did not see much chance of getting him from them by force.
“I consider your philosophy of life raving lunacy. I suppose all that stuff about infinity and eternity means that you think you are justified in doing anything—absolutely anything—here and now, on the off chance that some creatures or other descended from man as we know him may crawl about a few centuries longer in some part of the universe.”
“Yes—anything whatever,” returned the scientist sternly, “and all educated opinion—for I do not call classics and history and such trash education—is entirely on my side.”
Ever since he had discovered the rationality of the hrossa he had been haunted by a conscientious scruple as to whether it might not be his duty to undertake their religious instruction; now, as a result of his tentative efforts, he found himself being treated as if he were the savage and being given a first sketch of civilized religion—a sort of hrossian equivalent of the shorter catechism.
On Malacandra, apparently, three distinct species had reached rationality, and none of them had yet exterminated the other two. It concerned him intensely to find out which was the real master.
"Which of the hnau rule?" he asked.
"Oyarsa rules," was the reply.
At last it dawned upon him that it was not they, but his own species, that were the puzzle. That the hrossa should have such instincts was mildly surprising; but how came it that the instincts of the hrossa so closely resembled the unattained ideals of that far-divided species Man whose instincts were so deplorably different? What was the history of Man?
He was one with them. That difficulty which they, accustomed to more than one rational species, had perhaps never felt, was now overcome. They were all hnau. They had stood shoulder to shoulder in the face of an enemy, and the shapes of their heads no longer mattered. And he, even Ransom, had come through it and not been disgraced. He had grown up.
“No,” said Whin. “I have been thinking. All this has come from not obeying the eldil. He said you were to go to Oyarsa. You ought to have been already on the road. You must go now…”
They were astonished at what he had to tell them of human history—of war, slavery and prostitution.
"It is because they have no Oyarsa," said one of the pupils.
"It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself," said Augray.
"They cannot help it," said the old sorn. "There must be rule, yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by hnau and hnau by eldila and eldila by Maleldil.”
“It was not always so. Once we knew the Oyarsa of your world—he was brighter and greater than I—and then we did not call it Thulcandra. It is the longest of all stories and the bitterest. He became bent. That was before any life came on your world. Those were the Bent Years of which we still speak in the heavens, when he was not yet bound to Thulcandra but free like us. It was in his mind to spoil other worlds besides his own.”
"Trash! Defeatist trash!" he shouted at Oyarsa in English; then, drawing himself up to his full height, he added in Malacandrian, "You say your Maleldil let all go dead. Other one, Bent One, he fight, jump, live—not all talkee-talkee. Me no care Maleldil. Like Bent One better: me on his side."
He could not feel that they were an island of life journeying through an abyss of death. He felt almost the opposite—that life was waiting outside the little iron egg-shell in which they rode, ready at any moment to break in, and that, if it killed them, it would kill them by excess of its vitality. He hoped passionately that if they were to perish they would perish by the "unbodying" of the space-ship and not by suffocation within it. To be let out, to be free, to dissolve into the ocean of eternal noon, seemed to him at certain moments a consummation even more desirable than their return to Earth.