He was quite unable to point Earth out to them in the night sky. They seemed surprised at his inability, and repeatedly pointed out to him a bright planet low on the western horizon—a little south of where the sun had gone down. He was surprised that they selected a planet instead of a mere star and stuck to their choice; could it be possible that they understood astronomy? Unfortunately he still knew too little of the language to explore their knowledge. He turned the conversation by asking them the name of the bright southern planet and was told that it was Thulcandra—the silent world or planet.
"Why do you call it Thulc?" he asked. "Why silent?" No one knew.
"The séroni know," said Hnohra. "That is the sort of thing they know."
Author: C.S. Lewis
Synopsis: While on a walking tour of the country, philologist Dr. Elwin Ransom is kidnapped by fellow professors, drugged, and taken into space with them as a human sacrifice to an alien race on Mars. Before he can be handed over to the sorns, he manages to escape, befriend a community of natives, and learn their language well enough that when he meets his fellows again—before the Malacandran judge and ruler, Oyarsa—he stands some chance of learning what the expedition was all about and finding a way safely home.
Notes: In the decade or so since I first read Lewis' Space Trilogy, I've re-read Perelandra once and That Hideous Strength many times, but never—till now—returned to the the first in the series.
It's a short read, and might be called light if not for the fact that as with most of Lewis' fiction, the more you understand of what Lewis knew and studied and believed, the more you'll get out of the tale. I'm not referring just to Christianity. This book made me wish I understood astronomy much more than I do. Lewis, as Michael Ward has pointed out, followed the night sky carefully and understood medieval star symbolism; his imagined landscape for Mars is fanciful, but his concept of the physical relation of the planets is almost certainly scientific (based on the science of 1938), and his astronomical imagery probably has imports that my rudimentary understanding can't make out.
For those of us accustomed to Star Wars and Star Trek, Ransom's space travel seems quaint and more native to fantasy than science fiction. The Mars Rovers have also made it clear that our neighboring planet looks more like Tatooine than Lewis' watered handramits (lowlands) and spiky harandra (mountain ranges). And the Rovers have given us no more sign of hrossa and pfifltriggi than of attractive humanoid races running around in gold lamé and pleather.
None of that mattered to me as I read; Lewis' vision of Malacandra, like that of Narnia, was too beautiful. Once I got past wondering what weird and possibly dangerous chemical would make water actually blue, rather than reflectively so, I lost all disbelief in the gorgeousness of the warm waters, the elongated trees, and the poetic and thoughtful and creative races that lived there.
Ransom's interaction with the various beings belonging to Mars was fascinating. A writer more interested in detailed culture-building might have played out the early work of the linguist dependent on an alien tribe, but Lewis showed more interest in philosophy. He skipped ahead to Ransom's having enough knowledge of the language to talk about the relationships between the creatures and the arts and sciences, as well as between the creatures and their god, Maleldil.
Maleldil, like Aslan, directly correlates to God. It's not so much allegory as, more or less, "that's what the people of this imaginary world call Jesus." Unlike the Pevensie children, Ransom never deals directly with Maleldil; he works instead with the eldila and Oyarses, who are an interesting study in angelology—another subject that Lewis surely knew much more about than I do. Maleldil stays offscreen, but Ransom talks of him and of human sin and weakness with Oyarsa.
That climactic conversation covers expansionism, the claims of science against morality, and the difference between loving humanity as a concept and actually loving humans. As such, it becomes—again, not allegory, but an in-narrative thought piece championing humility, respect, and religious-based morality against an old progressive ideal. It's fairly obvious about making its philosophical points, but then, so is Star Trek. Like the best of all science fiction and fantasy, anyway, the story takes the reader out of this world with the intent of looking back and learning more about himself and the planet he comes from.
It's a beautiful tale, and a fairly easy read despite the philosophy. And as far as the Space Trilogy goes, it's just the beginning; the other two, to my own feelings at least, only get better.