Monday, November 30, 2009

Review: Out of the Silent Planet

As a general note, I thought CS Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet, was a pretty interesting read, as far as science fiction goes. I do have my criticisms of it, however.

Long story short, it is about a man, Dr. Ransom, who is abducted by two other men and taken to Mars in a spaceship. While there, Ransom runs away from his captors and encounters three different races of intelligent beings on the planet. The book jacket promised me "sophistication and piercing brilliance of its insights into the human condition." And, to be fair, I think it does offer insight into humanity's overinfatuation with itself with respect to other beings. Or, I should say, man's overinfatuation with himself, with respect to other beings. Especially female ones.

For upon venturing around Mars, it quickly dawned on me that, while Mars was quite diverse from a racial standpoint, Mars was inhabited entirely by male beings!

Okay, I say that in jest. Well, only half in jest. After finishing Lewis' book, I still ended up being unsure as to whether female beings existed on Mars as (a) Ransom was not seen actually talking to any and (b) they were alluded to but never actually "seen" by the reader. Maybe they were busy fixing supper or something while the male Martians did more important things.

I then began wondering if Lewis had created, a la Ursula Le Guin perhaps, some sort of sci-fi novel in which, by intentionally omitting references to female beings, he was making some sort of meta statement on sex and gender inequality. And then I thought, nah. Why give credit where it's not due? Lewis, in inventing yet another Piercingly Brilliant Novel About The Human Condition, probably just didn't think to actually talk all that much about female beings. Isn't it interesting how so many books that fall into the category of Universal Great are nearly devoid of half of humanity (or Martianity, as the case may be)!

One of the first beings on Mars that we see Dr. Ransom encountering is a hross being. The narrator describes the creature thusly:

"It had a coat of thick-black hair, lucid as seal skin, very short legs with webbed feat, a broad beaver-like or fish-like tail, strong forelimbs with webbed claws or fingers, and some complication halfway up its belly which Ransom took to be its genitals" (55).

Here we see that the narrator, upon first encountering the Martian hross, calls it an "it" and does not gender it. This is both because Ransom at first takes the hross to be some sort of animal or beast, devoid of humanity, and because the creature's "genitals" are of questionable sex. Once the creature began talking in its own hrossian language, however, Ransom realized that the creature was a rational being like how humans are rational. Once Ransom comes to this realization, he automatically begins gendering the hross as "he" and "him" even though the thing's sex is not actually known or apparent. Ransom choosing to gender this being as male goes unexplained and unnoted. Maybe we are to assume that the hross thingy is giving off dood vibes.

What we do learn is that, in this invisible way, Ransom has made male beings the default Martian beings, as males are on Earth.

We see this centering of males more overtly a short while later, when a hross explains to Ransom the mating rituals of "the hross." Now, first, many people believe that criticism of the so-called gender neutral masculine is a case of Political Correctness Gone Awry (tm). Perhaps, but I also believe that it is more than that. For one, the very phrase "gender neutral masculine" is an oxymoron and two, its usage can often be unclear.

For, some writers will use the "generic he" sometimes to refer only to males and then other time to refer to both men and women. Doing so is quite lazy and only leads to confusion and lack of clarity. Observe, on page 74:

"Is the begetting of young not a pleasure among the hrossa?" [asks Ransom.]

"A very great one, [human]. This is what we call love." [said the hross.]

In this exchange, it seems as though the term "the hrossa" signifies both male and female hrossa given that the two beings are discussing mating patterns among the race of "the hrossa." Yet, because Lewis has used "man" earlier to mean "men only" at times, and to mean "men and women" at other times, the reader does not know whether or not to assume that. A bit further down, it becomes clear that the hross is referring only to male hrossa, despite the fact that he claims to be making a statement about "the hrossa" in general:

"... This love, you say, comes only once while the hross lives?" [asked the human]

"But it takes his whole life. When he is young he has to look for his mate; and then he has to court her; then he begets young; and then he rears them; and then he remembers all this, and boils it inside him and makes it into poems and wisdom." [explained the hross, emphasis added]

Here, we learn that those who comprise the category of "the hrossa" are male. We learn all about the mating activities and lives of "the [male] hrossa," while learning that the female ones are objects to be acted upon by the real hrossa, that is, the males. The females themselves are not full hrossa as their experiences in life, love, and (ironically) the begetting of children is something Other Than the experience of "the hrossa." Clearly, the above male hross has collapsed the male experience into the general hross experience and views them as identical, completely discounting the experiences of (presumably?) half of the population of Mars.

Meanwhile, some of us are left wondering, what is the experience of female Martians in all of this Very Important Martian Stuff?

The status of women is mentioned in mere sentences. The pfifltrigg are a Martian race that allegedly holds "their" women in more account than the other races (115). Maybe this was Lewis throwing a crumb to Vagina-Earthlings who might read his books too. Yes, pfifltrigg treat women very well indeed despite the fact that (a) they are mentioned once in the whole book, (b) are spoken of in the possessive as though they are not agents, but objects of the males, and (c) Ransom never actually talks to any.

This invisibility of Lady Martians goes rather unremarked upon throughout the novel as the narrator and Ransom himself ponder More Important Issues about mankind (in the most literal sense of the word, of course).

Thus, Lewis has imbued his male Martians with the same unfortunate male-centric fauxbjective faults that many male Earthlings possess in the real world. What, if not for illuminating such errors, is science fiction for? And so, on second thought, I think Lewis' critics are correct in noting that Out of the Silent Planet is a "piercing[ly] brillian[t]" statement on the human condition. It just meets the criterion in a way that many critics do not realize and in a way that Lewis himself probably did not intend.

As a visitor to Lewis' Mars, I saw a dying planet that was almost entirely devoid of female beings. They either weren't considered important enough to remark upon or, it was a planet in which male Martians enslaved "their" female beings and then put Earthling visitors under some sort of bizarre hex so they would not notice or remark upon the utter absence of Lady Martians.

The alternative, that Lady Martians were completely absent from this book that has Piercingly Brilliant Insights About the Human [sic] Condition and neither Lewis nor any of his raving critics noticed, is too grim to take seriously.

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