C.S. Lewis is best known for his classic fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia. But he's in his best form in the sprawling Space Trilogy. And the first volume "Out of the Silent Planet" is a solid, dreamy slice of imaginative science fiction with deep philosophical underpinnings.
Philologist (studies languages) Dr. Ransom is on a walking tour of England when he encounters a former despised schoolmate, Devine. Things take a nasty turn after Devine and his accomplice Weston drug Ransom, and load him onto a spaceship. Over the course of a month's interstellar travel, Ransom learns that they are travelling to the planet Malacandra (Mars) -- and worst, he's destined to be a human sacrifice.
Ransom manages to escape after they land, and finds himself alone in an alien world. He soon is taken in by the otterlike hrossa, and learns that there are three sentient species on Malacandra: the peaceful poetry-loving hrossa, the workaholic pfifltriggi, and intelligent seroni. When a hross friend of Ransom's is killed by the murderous humans, he sets out to find the mysterious, powerful Oyarsa, who might be able to help him and stop his kidnappers.
"Out of the Silent Planet" is no space opera. Lewis avoids most of the tendencies of typical sci-fi in favor of a more H.G. Wells approach. Big fleshy plants, sentient otters, decreased gravity and petrified forests really give it the feeling of another planet without using cheap tricks.
The most striking idea of "Planet" is the people who populate it -- three dissimilar species, who work together and have no problems like war, starvation, lies, power-lust or any of the other problems that human beings have. It's a stark contrast to our own world, and it illustrates a lot of Lewis's own Christian beliefs without being preachy or silly.
The tone of "Planet" is generally very somber and thought-provoking, with long stretches of ethical and philosophical dialogue. Parts of it almost seem like a dream, very eerie and surreal, and the dignified personalities of Oyarsa and his underlings are beautifully done. But Lewis rips loose with some comedy from time to time, like Weston trying to bribe the various natives with a cheap necklace and Tarzan-esque threats of "Why you take our puff-bangs [guns] away? We very angry with you!"
Lewis based Ransom partly on his pal, fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, and Ransom is a nicely done hero; he's not boring or preachy at all, but merely a "stranger in a strange land" who almost goes bonkers once or twice, but manages to triumph. Weston and Devine, on the other hand, are arrogant and dumb in an all-too-recognizable way. And the inhabitants of Malacandra take a little getting used to, but they're pleasant once you do.
"Out of the Silent Planet" still stands up as a vivid and beautifully-written piece of science fiction. You think you know C.S. Lewis after the Narnia Chronicles? Try the Space Trilogy.