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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

C.S. Lewis, Sci-fi, and the Normality of Peace

What C.S. Lewis can teach us about peace.

Image Credit: Brett Jordan via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

In two past articles, I’ve written about the politics of legendary writer and Christian, C.S. Lewis. In his books, Lewis famously marries a healthy love of community and nation with a skepticism towards intervention. Lewis loved community, but despised meddlers and gossips.

Part of the reason Lewis is loved as a writer is his keen ability to notice when society views evil things as normal and to unmask the evil. Such is the case with his first book in his Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, where Lewis shows us that peace should be viewed as normal.

Lewis’s Space Trilogy is, in my view, one of the most underrated sci-fi stories. I’ll try to keep spoilers in this article to a minimum, but if you want to read the first book with no spoilers, I recommend you read Out of the Silent Planet first.

Why Would Aliens Want War?

One of the easiest ways to understand what Lewis is doing in Out of the Silent Planet is to look at the context in which he is writing. The book was published in 1938, when sci-fi works like H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds dominated.

In an article “Rehabilitating H.G. Wells: C.S. Lewis’s ‘Out of the Silent Planet,’” author David Downing argues that much of what Lewis was doing in the Space Trilogy was challenging sci-fi tropes he found objectionable. He says the novel started when “Lewis and his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien agreed that there simply were not enough of their favorite sort of stories available [in the sci-fi genre], so they decided to try their own hand at it.”

Lewis goes out of his way to point out his debt to Wells in the novel, but it’s clear he disagrees with many Wellsian takes on sci-fi. One disagreement in particular stood out to me. Unlike the violent, malevolent Martians in The War of the Worlds, the extra-terrestrials in Lewis’s book are peaceful.

Brilliantly, Lewis makes it clear that the characters, like the reader, share the bias in assuming the creatures will be evil. The protagonist, Ransom, in his first encounter with one species of extra-terrestrial called the sorn, is repulsed and flees the scene. It didn’t help that Ransom was taken by other humans against his will. In that sense he had some reason to fear the sorn. But the only reason he was taken was that the other humans feared the sorn. The sorn simply wanted to talk, but the humans believed it was demanding a sacrifice.

As a reader, this point dawned on me slowly. The natives call the planet that Ransom lands on Malacandra, and there are several rational and animal species on the planet. As I read through the novel, I kept wondering, “Which of these is going to be the bad species? Which alien is the antagonist?”

Ransom shares this thinking. As he continues on the planet, he befriends a different species known as the hrossa who teach him the planetary language. In interacting with the hrossa, he tries to uncover which of the species on the planet rules the others. Which species is in control?

He slowly discovers that things are not as he expected. It isn’t the case that one species violently controls the others. Rather, each one specializes in a few things, and cooperates and exchanges with the others. This seems so foreign to Ransom that he’s skeptical that this could be true at first. However, he slowly discovers that the only hierarchy is a willing submission of all three species to the divine order.

As we continue through the book, Ransom soon discovers that the planet Malacandra is actually what we call Mars. Again, Lewis makes the contrast clear between his own works and works like The War of the Worlds. Mars, despite having been named by humans after the god of war, is a peaceful place.

The Martians are not violent invaders. Ransom asks about violent conflict: “If both wanted one thing and neither would give it… would the other at last come with force? Would they say, give it or we kill you?”

The Hrossa can’t understand why that would ever be necessary. Why would they want something like violence or war?

It’s a beautiful reframing of the issue. Peace is normal.

Half-Rational

It’s important to point out that Lewis doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater with respect to humanity. He doesn’t make the mistake of claiming humanity is a broken group that is irredeemable. The book isn’t some angsty misanthropic manifesto.

While it’s true that some humans are part of the antagonists of the book, they (in the character of Ransom) are also tools of God to fight against the evil in the universe. There is no direct word for “evil” on Malacandra because it isn’t needed; the closest thing they can come up with is the equivalent of the English word “bent.” Evil does not have its own existence. It’s a distortion, or bending, of the good. Humans are not irrevocably broken, but they are often bent.

Violence, in the form of a gunshot, first comes to the planet from the other humans who came with Ransom. After the gunshot, Ransom, who was initially afraid to tell the Malacandrans that humans were violent, must explain to them what happened.

To understand his explanation, you need one last piece of Malacandran jargon. The rational, or sentient, creatures of Malacandra have their own word to differentiate sentient beings from non-sentient animals: hnau. If a creature is hnau, it is rational. After the gunshot, Ransom explains:

They [the other humans] can throw death at a distance with a thing they have made. I should have told you. We are all a bent race. We have come here to bring evil on Malacandra. We are only half hnau.

Here Lewis highlights another point. Peaceful cooperation and exchange are both morally good and rational. To engage in unprovoked violence is to abandon rationality and embrace chaos.

The Heavens

Lewis’s point is clear and obviously true. Peace is normal. War is an aberration. Non-violent cooperation and competition are healthy. Unprovoked violence is a disease.

To Lewis, the most depressing part of the sci-fi landscape is that it focuses on the cold, quiet, hostile setting of “space.” In contrast, Lewis looks up at the sky and sees the Heavens. The Heavens are peaceful, full of vibrancy and light. It is our own planet, Earth, where you find silence and violence. However, when you look toward the Heavens, you get a glimpse of the undisturbed beauty that exists outside of our silent planet.

Lewis famously uncovers the Christian truths that underlie myths, and his Space Trilogy is no exception. To Lewis, the distinction between the peaceful Martians and the violence brought by humans is a subset of the larger conflict between good and evil, or, more precisely, God and the devil.

As such, Lewis’s revelation that we accept violence as the norm and project that norm onto beings throughout the universe is only a small part of Out of the Silent Planet and an even smaller part of his Space Trilogy as a whole.

If you want to understand the fundamental lesson Lewis is trying to teach in these books, I can’t recommend the books enough. Lewis remains in the top echelon of writers for his ability to use writing to highlight goodness and peace while unmasking our bent acceptance of evil and violence as normal.

Additional Reading:

8 Times C.S. Lewis Displayed Brilliant Political Commentary in the Chronicles of Narnia by Peter Jacobsen

Why C.S. Lewis Thought Healthy Patriotism Curbs Excessive Militarism by Peter Jacobsen


  • Peter Jacobsen is a Writing Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.