Reorienting Ransom

I meant to post my notes from last Wednesday’s second week of the Out of the Silent Planet class but work life got very hectic and then I spent most of my last three day weekend until Memorial Day playing Aardwolf. I will do better this week, I promise – notes posted by end of week at the latest.

And I discovered a feature of GoToWebinar too late, at the end of the second session, that allows me to save the current slide as an image. Going forward, I’ll capture each slide so my notes make more sense to myself and others. Of course, I always include a link to the video of the session that’s published within a day or two by Signum University (see link above or click here).

Week 2 

Read: Chapters 6-10 

 Date: January 15, 2020 

8:53 PM ~ Joined webinar, organizer has not arrived.   

9:02 AM – Webinar started, but we’re holding.   

9:07 PM – Broadcast started; 41 attendees, 1 presenter 

Two moots in February 
Spring Semester started at Signum U.   

Table of Contents

Session Slide “First Encounters” 

Just blasted off, 85k from Earth, Ransom was coping with his situation.  This begins, the meat of the entire book.  Lewis is an apologetic about the fact that one of the thing he really loves about SF as a genre, it enables . . . it’s very similar to fantasy . . . the thing they have in common is the what if games you can play.  Still generally operating under physical rules as they were understood at the time.  There is still a lot of scope for imagination.  Given a set of parameters, what might life be like on a different planet.  A lot of people dislike his spaceship.  Lewis makes no effort to explain the science behind it.  Winston refuses to answer any questions about the science behind the spaceship.  Corey thinks it’s a bit clever.  Lewis is not at all interested in the mechanism of how the spaceship travels.  He needs to be Ransom from Earth to Malacandra.  He’s very interested in the journey, he’s not interested in the motive power.  He’s interested in the experience of being in the heavens.   

Try to figure out what the book is trying to do.  Not fair to say you don’t like this book because it’s not another book.  Lewis is no scientist.  And it was the 1930s.  It’s hard for us to enter into the full emotional experience of what the word and concept of outer space evoked in the 1930s.  Things are not the same since the moon walk.  Or after Star Trek and Star Wars.  We’ve seen so many videos of real astronauts on real spaceships.  It’s hard to put ourselves back in a place before that was common knowledge.  It’s not about guessing.  Some SF books try to do that.   

Lewis does some of that.  It’s not the science he’s interested in.  What he is interested in are two things:  space and the other planet as a framework.  He invites us to enter into this secondary world he has created.  Secondary belief in a secondary world.  In some of his essays on SF . . . one of the reasons he finds SF a genre increasing in popularity during the 20th century; Earth keeps getting smaller and smaller.  In the 15th and 16th century, you just went deep into the forest.  Then, later on, after the 18th century, you have to go to islands.  But with Verne you had to go to the Center of the Earth.   Opens vista for imagination.  Space is not the final frontier but the next logical frontier.   

Moving on to next slide at 9:22 PM 

Return to Top

Slide: “Ends and Means”

This is one of the core concepts underlying the book.  Especially in the early part where Weston is the spokesperson for this idea.  Advance of science and Progress and what this means.  Weston is an idealist.  He is not … seems fairly clear to me … Lewis is not trying to say anything in particular about physics or physicists.  Weston is not meant to be read as a caricature of a physicist.  He is the mouth piece of the modern intellectual, who believes wholeheartedly in these high ideals.  Eternity is being put into the hands of the human race to further it.   

Weston considered the boy subhuman (a lab rat) but considers Ransom a human.  To many modern people the reference to vivisection seems odds.  It means cutting open and experimenting on an animal while it is still alive.  It increased our knowledge, but many believes it was wrong.  The ends don’t justify the means.   

Contemporary example … murder mystery fan … Dorothy Sayers … Whose Body?  … the guy who ends up as the course, is handing out anti-vivisection pamphlets door to door.   

Why bring up vivisection?  Ransom stating he disagrees with it and has always disagreed with it.  IT is important that this is before WWII and the atrocities.   

In Chapters 6-10, Weston and Devine drop out of the story.  They will be back towards the end.  They serve somewhat as a framing mechanism.  

Another example of people sometimes judging a book to fail at a thing which it is not attempting.  A very great deal of modern literature is focused on characters.  Well-rounded believable and dynamic characters may possibly be the senaquanon (sp?) of modern literature.  A fixation of the modern world.   

Lewis is not ignorant of this.  He speaks in his critical literary essays, there are other features.  He gives Lewis Carroll as an example . . . Alice is not a dynamic nor a well-rounded character.  She’s deliberately flat.  That’s why the books are so successful.  Everything else is so colorful and bizarre.  Lovecraft’s characters are an afterthought and the ideas are the focus.   

Weston and Devine are not designed to be dynamic characters.  The two of them are there in large part to represent and voice ideas.  Ransom on one hand and Weston and Devine on the other.  They represent two very different sides.  A dramatization of the implications of the trends of this modern thought.  They give voice to trendy modern thinking.  We are not supposed to become invested in them (Weston and Devine).  Primarily they are the spokesperson of these ideas.  Ultimately we are looking back at the Silent Planet (our world).  This book at the end of the day really isn’t about Malacandra, it’s giving us an entirely new perspective on our world.  It’s crucial that they don’t change as characters.  When we come back and meet them again, Ransom will have a totally different perspective and we will have a chance to refresh ours.   

Unless you read a substantial amount of non-modern literature . . . character-centric is comparatively new.   

Devine’s name is deliberately ironic.  His attitude is about the profane, not the divine.  If this was a morality play, what would their names be.   

Moving on to next slide at 9:40 PM; 45 attendees 

Return to Top

Slide:  “Present and Future”

Ransom does not spend much time arguing his side of things.  He doesn’t try to dispute with Weston.  The closest thing that he does is the characterization in that first paragraph.  he takes Weston’s grandiose description . . . the future of the human race is in our hands … Ransom argues that’s all propaganda.  He not only is saying the ends don’t just the means; he is also saying you are fooling yourself about the ends. The rhetoric you are using about yourself about your grand idea, isn’t honest.  Putting it on doubtful uncertain things.  You want our descendants to live indefinitely, but is that a worthy or good thing?  What is the core of your belief?  Why do you want that end?  Why do you think it is so wonderful?  It is worth killing other people that maybe you increase the odds that some of the descendants might live a bit longer?  Why do it?   

Lewis is not saying really at heart it’s not all base and crude . . . he acknowledges that Weston is an idealist.  Ransom questions the grounds of his ideals. Weston believes in something greater than himself.  This is the primary difference between Weston and Devine.  Devine does not have lofty ideas.  He’s the flip side of the coin.  It’s not a problem of being self-centered but rather being empty.   

Next slide at 9:47 PM; 46 attendees 

Return to Top

Slide “New Experience and Old Myth”

Second Dana – what does that mean?  Greek mythology.  In what form does Zeus appear to Dana?  She is the one locked in a tower by her father and he comes to her in a beam of golden light.  Danaë is the normal spelling; wonders if it was a typo or the English version.   

Danaë receiving Jupiter in a Shower of Gold, by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller (1787)
Danaë receiving Jupiter in a Shower of Gold, by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller (1787)


“Sweet Influence” a very specific reference.  According to medieval and Renaiisance cosmology, the rays of the stars, planets and sun they have many different kinds of influences on the world.  Sunlight causes gold.  Venus’ light produces copper.  Also affects people.  That’s where lunacy comes from – the influence of the moon, often temporary madness.  Mars causes iron.  What metal does Jupiter cause?  Where the idea that you are affected at birth by the planets etc.  Tin is the metal inspired by Jupiter (Sarah got it).  Mercury is easy.   

They also influence events.  The outbreak of wars.  Calamities.  Great plenty of harvest.  All things under the influence of different planets.  It was believed the Earth was the center.   

Ransom’s experience in space.  Lewis is describing a total paradigm shift in Ransom’s perception.  He has to completely reorient himself.  Ransom has read many old books.  He knows the medieval ideas of space (aka the heavens).  Realizes it’s more like the descriptions of the medievals instead of the moderns.   

Surrendering to this new idea, this reorientation of his imagination and his mythic ideas.  What if there is more to the old myths than you think?  What if the old concept of the heavens is more true than the modern concept of space?   

Weston’s discovery is the power of the sun’s rays.  He powers his spaceship with this secret discovery.  He’s not surrendered to it though.  That’s really interesting.  It’s not for nothing that we are told this thing.  Weston’s goal is to exploit the power.  He is self-centered in that way.   

Next slide at 10:02 PM; 44 attendees 

Return to Top

Slide “Abroad in the Heavens”

The important concept introduce here and that Ransom is wrestling with – the idea of the mythology that follows in the wake of science.  Many things which … Lewis argues and I agree with him … that in the modern world there is a lack of distinction.  Lewis does not use the word myth in the way we do in modern times.  A myth is a much more important thing; a thing people believe in; a concept, an archetypal idea.  The point he is making about space, what we have learned about the solar system, a mythology has grown up in the modern mind (up through the 30s).  Modern definition of myth is something that is untrue but yet people still believe it.  We as human beings are inveterate mythmakers.  He is pointing out the link between the mere statements of fact and the concept and ideas they evoke, the feelings, the overall worldview that they bring forward that they encourage.   

The myth of Progress; that the world is trending toward perfection.   

Next slide 10:08 PM 

Return to Top

Slide “Filling in the Blanks”

Corey loves this as a literary technique.  Invites us to fill in the blank.   

What do we learn from this conversation?   

Devine reveals his severe amorality.  Note the contrast between Weston and Devine.  He’s justifying why it’s okay to bring another human being to sacrifice.  Weston has acknowledged in the initial conversation with Devine on earth, why it was better to take the neighbor boy instead of Ransom.  Devine makes no attempt to conceal or deceive his motives.  He does not share Weston’s ideas; he doesn’t care anything about the future of the human race.  He doesn’t need justification.  Science and industrial capitalism.  Devine does seem to impute some sympathy for the inhabitants to Ransom.  What does Devine bring to the mission?  Capital.  Money.  That seems to be the reason.  Alien genocide against human sacrifice.  Devine managed to get slavery, rape and torture all into one punchline, in a jocular careless manner. 

Next slide at 10:18 PM 

Return to Top

Slide “Ransom’s Calling”

Somebody or something has sent for him.  Irony of this passenger.  Seeing evidence that Ransom had been called.  He ends up here because he was doing the right thing.  It turns out to be a horrible calling.  He’s been summoned to execution; to be sacrificed.  To some primitive statue that these savages all worship.  Ransom also had been rather self-focused.   

Next slide at 10:22 PM 

Return to Top

Slide “Presuppositions”

Awesome sentence … vermiculate or crustacean  

Is Ransom Catholic?  I can’t think of any positive evidence that would suggest it in text.  He is a philologist like Tolkien.  Not a mistake on Lewis’ part; doesn’t want to pigeon hole him.   

H. P. Lovecraft memorial plaque at 22 Prospect Street in Providence.
H. P. Lovecraft memorial plaque at 22 Prospect Street in Providence.

Had Lewis ever read Lovecraft?  Better Lewis scholars than I would be able to confirm that.   

It is important to remember that Ransom does not stand outside of the modern world; he represents it but the difference is he is willing to let go his modern ideals.  These reactions when thinking about being handed over to this alien race; the mythology that has grown in the modern mind fueled by HG Wells and Lovecraft; has bread a dark mythology; wed it with horror.  We will see more of him wrestling with this.  Recall that Ransom is a child of the modern world as well.  He is a victim and a participant in the modern mythologies.  This is as inveterate for him as it was for . . . (lost audio) . . .  

One more point about the suicide.  Lewis is making this extreme statement; Ransom operating within the perspective he has always had of the modern world; in this moment he is imagining being handed over for sacrifice; he is overpowered; they overcome his moral convictions, which are very strongly held.  He believes suicide is wrong, a sin.  In the face of this, all he can hope is to be forgiven.   

Lovecraft died in 1937; Out of the Silent Planet published in 1938 

Astounding Stories, January 1934
Astounding Stories, January 1934 cover referencing Colossus by Donald Wandrei

Robert Brown doing research for Corey for many many years. 

Quoting Dale Nelson; virtually certain Lewis was buying the magazine Astounding which certainly included Lovecraft.

 Colossus by Donald Waldron in  

Next slide at 10:35 PM 

Return to Top

Slide: “Light and Dark” 

We’ve reached chapter 6! 

Another glimpse into Devine’s character.  Ransom has been given eternity and infinity; experiencing in new and different ways as they approach Malacandra.  The further away you go from the sun, the less intense the light.  It doesn’t mean that the power this mythic potency of the heavens would tail off.  Devine makes a joke comparing it to an advertising jingle.   

Corey has a theory about Devine.  There’s a word that Lewis and Tolkien both use sometimes; almost never within; very rarely in their fiction, but not infrequently in their essays.  I’ve never been 100% sure what they mean by using the word vulgar.   

Next slide at 10:43 PM 

Return to Top

Slide “A New Perspective”

Another reorientation 

This reversal of the modern space mythology the idea that our planet our radically central viewpoint, an oasis of light life creative surrounded by an empty dark void.  Loops back around to a point Lewis makes very convincingly … (lost audio) … the old geocentric concept shifting to the heliocentric, made man less important.  It is the opposite of what actually happened.   

Pop Quiz:  According to Dante, what is the very center of the world, the entire solar system?  Satan.  More specifically Satan’s genitals are at the gravitational center of the Earth.  Hell, Satan, Satan’s groin.  By contrast if you read the writings of Galileo they didn’t see it as a demotion but as a promotion.  Now the Earth can takes its place in the heavens.   

Cristiano Banti's 1857 painting Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition
Cristiano Banti’s 1857 painting Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition

Ransom’s shifting of perspective . . . his final healing from this modern myth of space is an absolute reversal.  The Earth and planets are not islands of reality floating in the void.   

More change will happen to this perspective but it is a radical shift.  Lewis is introducing through his subcreation.  If there is a point about this SF, it’s not to guess about what might happen in the future; but to travel, be transported to a different world; have things we take for granted changed and turned on their heads.  

Next slide at 10:50 PM 

Return to Top

Slide “First Impressions”

Another addon to the mythological shift he’s undergoing.  He assumed alien worlds would be one of two things:  Rocky desolation or a network of nightmare machines; instead it’s beautiful.   

Subcreation very similar to what happens in fantasy.  The thing that Out of the Silent Planet has in common more with the War of the Worlds rather than the Lord of the Rings is that the fundamental “what if” frame is not about what if the ancient stories of elves have some grounding in truth and there really was a time when there was magic in the world.  That’s not the “what if” he’s asking.  It’s fundamentally a scientific one.  The dominant element is “what if” you were on a planet with lower gravity but it has everything else – water, plants, weather, animals – with less gravity how would that change things?  Case in point:  The shape of the waves looks wrong to Ransom.   

Next slide at 10:58 PM 

Return to Top

Slide “Further Subcreation”

What would plants be like growing in a world with lower gravity than Earth?  Here is Lewis’ subscreative answer to that “what if.”   

Next slide at 11:00 PM 

Return to Top

Slide “The Sorns”

Notice the fundamental bias of Ransom’s point of view.  Why are the Sorns so terrifying?  Can you see the pattern in his description?  Dvorak?  They look like people but not enough like them.  Not quite human.  They are appalling to him.  He is looking for human face and shape.  Ransom approaches the Sorns with an absolutely unquestioned anthropomorphic centric perception.  The uncanny valley effect.  The assumption is our form is the norm.  If he were not constantly comparing . . . he wouldn’t have this reaction.  Ransom is a very terrestrial creature; a terrestrial modern.  Earthbound perspective.  Spaceship like a tiny planet.  They’ve brought their assumptions with them.  With almost no self-awareness.  That is the most important gap that is going to open up between them is that Ransom is coming to change.  His attention will be drawn to these assumptions and perspectives and mythological frameworks that he brings to the framework as a representative of Earth.   

Stopping here at 11:09 PM 

Return to Top

The Sorns

And there you have it. My notes from the second session. This class was much faster paced, as you can tell from the time stamps, and not as much discussion with the participants. I also had trouble staying awake during the last half hour and may have dozed off for a few minutes more than once.

Once again, if you made it this far, I’m very impressed. Next week/This week I’ll have slide snapshots to include in my notes.