Back in college, I took an interterm course that appeared to be an easy grade. It simply required the students to read a certain number of books chosen from a list of famous novels, and to participate in one discussion on each of them.
I found it more difficult than I expected, mainly because it required me to read rather faster than I generally do (though I’m a fairly fast reader), and because some of the books I chose (like The Brothers Karamazov) were pretty long.
But I recall in particular one book I read that summer. It was Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. I remember it in part because I found it unusually repellent. It’s a book (in case you haven’t read it, which a lot of people haven’t nowadays, and I’m OK with that) by an intellectual who had the misfortune to grow up in a small Minnesota town (Sauk Centre), and who just had to write this book in order to tell the world how soul-destroying life in such a town was (though why we should be interested in the opinion of an author whose soul has been destroyed is not explained). The book itself centers on a young woman from Minneapolis who marries a man from the town of “Gopher Prairie,” and how she struggles to maintain her intellectual and artistic life in its barren environment. I learned after I’d read the book that it’s supposed to be humorous, and I’m glad someone told me, because I’d have never guessed it.
The one thing I recall most clearly about Main Street was a realization I came to while reading it. I couldn’t understand why this book was supposed to be so important, until I realized that it was a pioneering work. Up until then, American literature had generally celebrated the small town as the source of American strength, goodness and wisdom. Lewis was the first writer to convince Americans that small towns were places where they actually didn’t want to live, spiritual swamps inhabited almost exclusively by rubes, yokels and bigots. It’s hard to get the original impact of Main Street today, because Lewis’ revolutionary manifesto has become our popular prejudice.
Much the same thing might be said about the work of another writer named Lewis—C. S. Lewis. Lewis broke into the field of the science fiction novel in 1938 with the publication of Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in his “Ransom” trilogy. It tells the story of an Oxford academic, Elwin Ransom, who is kidnapped by a couple of ruthless scientists and brought against his will as a sort of “experimental animal” on a rocket voyage to Mars. On Mars, Ransom gets free of his captors and makes contact with three indigenous Martian races. He comes to love and respect them, and takes their side against the human invaders.
I got to thinking about Out of the Silent Planet again when I heard about the re-make of The Day the Earth Stood Still that’s about to be released. (I don’t think I’m the first person to note that you can hardly make a better casting choice than to have Keanu Reeves play somebody only pretending to be human, so I won’t mention that). I trust and hope that this version won’t eclipse the classic Michael Rennie/Patricia O’Neill film, which I preemptively declare better in every way.
The premise of this film (certainly of the original and surely of the remake) is that enlightened aliens land on earth and are met with unreasoning misunderstanding and violence by the inferior humans.
What intrigues me is that this is an example of the same sort of thing that happened with Main Street—an idea (aliens good, humans bad) that was once edgy and revolutionary has now become conventional wisdom. And in the case of extraterrestrials, nobody deserves more credit for the change C. S. Lewis and Out of the Silent Planet.
Lewis, by his own account, wrote OOTSP to a large degree as an answer to the novel Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon. Stapledon’s epic described a distant future in which human beings flee a dying earth and colonize Venus, exterminating an intelligent native species in order to do it.
For a scientist of Stapledon’s generation (although he lived from 1886 to 1950, which made him only about a decade older than Lewis) it didn’t seem outrageous to assume that human beings had a sort of Darwinian right to obliterate any species that interfered with their survival. Science, and scientific philosophy, have obviously evolved greatly since that time. Today the average scientist isn’t at all sure that human beings deserve to survive at all.
But oddly enough, one of the writers who pioneered this less anthropocentric view of life in the universe (in the popular mind) was the Christian, C. S. Lewis. The difference between Lewis’ work and what we see today is that he wrote, not out of disgust with humanity itself, but out of a sense of reverence for God as Creator, and for all created things as His handiwork.