Cosmic Anthropology: Race and Reason in out of the Silent Planet

By Schwartz, Sanford | Christianity and Literature, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Cosmic Anthropology: Race and Reason in out of the Silent Planet


Schwartz, Sanford, Christianity and Literature


The most useful and least advanced of all human knowledge seems to me to be that of man [...]. For how can the source of inequality among men be known unless one begins by knowing men themselves?

--Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men

Something is wrong in your head, hnau from Thulcandra. There is too much blood in it.

--Oyarsa of Malacandra to Weston, Out of the Silent Planet

In his first venture into science fiction, Out of the Silent Planet (1938), C. S. Lewis presents an encounter between a trio of earthlings and the rational inhabitants of another planet. The fact that Malacandra (Mars) has three rational species, none with bodies identical to our own, gives rise to considerable confusion. The two villains, Devine and Weston, regard the most anthropomorphic Martian species--the sorns--as ignorant "primitives" or "brutes" and they shoot the seal-like hrossa as if they were mere beasts. The unwitting hero, Elwin Ransom, whom the villains have abducted in the mistaken belief that the sorns are demanding a sacrificial victim, labors under a different set of illusions. Influenced by his reading of modern science fiction, Ransom initially envisions the aliens as monstrous bestial predators, and although these preconceptions are soon dispelled he continues to assume that one of the alien species must dominate (and may well feed upon) the other two. This misapprehension of other rational beings as savages, beasts, or ghastly monstrosities suggests that Lewis is concerned not only with future interplanetary travel, his ostensible motive for writing the novel but also with existing conditions on our own planet. If nothing else, the peace and equality among the three Martian species, who live separately but never seek to subordinate one another, underscore the opposite situation here on earth--the propensity of a single rational species to split into factions that regard each other as inherently inferior to themselves or even as creatures of a different species. Why do we have such difficulty with honoring or even recognizing the rationality of the Other, and the equality it entails, when his or her reason is embodied in different shades of skin or in somewhat different forms of social practice? Would we regard one another differently, and treat the rest of the animal kingdom more compassionately, if rationality were distributed among several species and we could behold "reason in an inhuman form" (65)? (1)

As we shall see, one of the functions of Lewis's fictional collision between terrestrial expectations and extraterrestrial reality is to challenge the evolutionary assumptions of nineteenth-century anthropology, which continue to distort our relations to one another and to the rest of the natural order. At the same time, Lewis's most remarkable invention--a planet that possesses three rational species--provides a corrective or "cosmic" rationality ("De Futilitate" 68) that explores the implications of extraterrestrial intelligence and sets the stage for further reflection on the order of terrestrial creation. At the literal level Lewis draws upon the age-old speculative tradition of the "plurality of worlds" to suggest that rationality is not merely a "biological" phenomenon unique to our own species but rather a "spiritual" endowment that transcends its embodiment in any single species. At another level the openly imperial ambitions of Devine and Weston, compounded by their failure to acknowledge the rationality of the Malacandrians, recall the long and violent history of Western imperialism and the presumption of rational superiority that has colored Western relations to other peoples of the earth. Furthermore, since two of the alien rational species resemble nonhuman animals on our own planet, the novel also raises issues concerning our problematic relations to the beasts: the persistent confusion and moral quandaries over animal sentience, cognition, and consciousness; the (mis)use of the traditional distinction between rational and nonrational beings to rationalize our indifference and cruelty to other species; and, in light of our presumptive status as the one rational species on the planet, the tendency to lose sight of the fact that we ourselves are embodied creatures inescapably bound to the animal kingdom. …

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