C. S. Lewis' view of Mars in Out of the Silent Planet Andrew Lang and Joe Ninowski Oral Roberts University C.S. Lewis and the Inklings Conference 2011
Summary of Out of the Silent Planet (United Kingdom: John Lane Ltd, 1938) hardcover. Cover art by Harold Jones. Image Credit: Mars Book Covers ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/44823747@N02/) First published in 1938, Out of the Silent Planet is the story of Ransom, a Cambridge professor, who is kidnapped by two men and taken to the planet Malacandra (Mars) to be used as a human sacrifice. However, when they arrive, Ransom escapes and runs into the Malacandran landscape. It was this unique environment, climate, and vegetation that C.S. Lewis created that fascinated so many people when Out of the Silent Planet was first written.
The Canals of Mars: Popularized by Percival Lowell From Mars as the Abode of Life by Lowell, 1908.
"Leaving aside the older and now generally discredited explanations that the canals are gigantic water channels, that they are cracks in the universal covering of ice, and that they are grooves cut by colliding asteroids, we will turn to the explanations held as more probable by the astronomers of the present day. Much of the oldest of these considers them to be caused by narrow ditches, which crossing the desert regions of the planet, furnish water to vegetation growing along their banks. It is these comparatively broad bands of vegetation, and not the narrow water-channels themselves, which are visible in our telescopes. The chief advocate of this view at the present time is Professor Lowell, who has adopted it as the foundation of his theories of Martian civilization." -Mars by William Henry Pickering, 1921 The Canals of Mars: Popularized by Percival Lowell
In Out of the Silent Planet , these 'canals' are deep valleys known as handramit (Malacandran for "low earth") in the surface of the normally dry, arid Martian surface called harandra (Malacandran for "high earth"). The Canals in Out of the Silent Planet "The handramit was no true valley rising and falling with the mountain chain it belonged to... it was only an enormous crack or ditch, of varying depth, running through the high and level harandra ; the latter, he began to suspect, was the true 'surface' of the planet" (64). "Ransom grasped the implications: handra earth, harandra high earth, mountain, handramit low earth, valley. Highland and lowland, in fact" (62).
Vegetation on Mars From "Mars as the abode of life" by Lowell 1908
Colorized Antoniadi Map of Mars (1929) and HST. Image Credit NASA
Water: "There was something about its behavior under the very gentle breeze which puzzled him... [The waves] were the wrong shape, out of drawing, far too high for their length, too narrow at the base, too steep in the sides" (44). Landscape of Mars in Out of the Silent Planet Vegetation: "The purple stuff was vegetation: vegetables about twice the height of English elms. The stalks... rose smooth and round, and surprisingly thin, for about forty feet: above that, the huge plants opened into a sheaf-like development, not of branches but of leaves, leaves as large as lifeboats" (45). Climate: "Like the lake they were warm, and the air was warm above them, so that as he climbed down and up the sides of the gullies he was continually changing temperatures" (50).
<ul><li>What we know about Mars today - we have robots there </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Average temperature ~ -55C </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Surface atmosphere pressure is ~ 1% of the Earth's. It is composed mainly of carbon dioxide (95%) and contains only a trace amount of oxygen. Not survivable. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Canals? No. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Vegetation? No. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Water? Yes, some, in the form of subsurface ice and some at the poles (the polar caps are mostly dry ice) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Life? No life has been found...yet. </li></ul></ul>
Lewis' Depiction of Gravity on Mars Throughout Silent Planet , Lewis does a uniquely adequate job of describing the characters' and landscapes' reaction to the lower level of gravity on Mars than that of the gravity on Earth. "He had sufficient science to guess that he must be on a world lighter than the earth, where less strength was needed and nature was set free to follow her skyward impulse on a superterrestrial scale" (49). "As he stood gazing into the deepening gloom a sigh of cold wind crept through the purple stems and set them all swaying, revealing once again the startling contrast between their size and their apparent flexibility and lightness" (50). "Here, he understood, was the full statement of that perpendicular theme which beast and plant and earth all played on Malacandra" (54). ( directly in reference to the mountains of Mars.)
"I took a hero once to Mars in a space-ship, but when I knew better I had angels convey him to Venus. Nor need the strange worlds, when we get there, be at all strictly tied to scientific probabilities. It is their wonder, or beauty, or suggestiveness that matter." "When I myself put canals on Mars, I believe I already knew that better telescopes had dissipated that old optical delusion. The point was that they were part of the Martian myth as it already existed in the common mind." -Words from C.S. Lewis' On Science Fiction Lewis' Actual Understanding of Mars
Conclusion : C. S. Lewis' view of Mars in Out of the Silent Planet Out of the Silent Planet is an imaginative, descriptive tale set in a setting unlike any other. Taking his characters to Mars, Lewis colorfully paints the planet using the science of the time as a foundation for his environment. By placing a habitable living environment in the canals of Mars, Lewis is able to construct a world similar to Earth, albiet with distinctive geological differences in vegetation, gravity, and landscape. What's important to take from his work, however, is that while it may be hard for modern readers to relate to or enjoy Silent Planet , Lewis uses the most popular theory on Mars of the time to craft his story. That perspective is very useful to have when reading any book set in a period of time before our own.