The story starts with Dr. Elwin Ransom hiking down a country road in the English midlands, around 1940. He is a professor of philology at Cambridge and is on a walking tour for his summer holidays. As evening closes in, he is looking for a place to spend the night.
As he passes a farm house, a woman comes out, thinking he is her son. Finding he is not, she explains she is worried about him, because he is late home from work and simple-minded. He works at a big house further up the road. Ransom agrees to look in and see the boy goes home safely, also thinking he may be able to stay the night there.
The grounds of the big house are thoroughly locked up, but Ransom, compelled by his promise, works his way through a hedge and looks about. He sees some factory-like buildings and a strange round bulk in the dark. He also comes across a fight – two men subduing a boy. Ransom interupts. The boy is the woman's son, who is terrified of "going in there" – pointing to the round bulk. The two men are Dick Devine (an old schoolmate of Ransom's, though they disliked each other) and a Professor Weston. They claim the boy took fright at nothing and send him home. Ransom does not believe them but still accepts Devine's invitation to come in for a drink.
The drink is drugged. Ransom makes a futile effort to escape, then passes out. He comes to in a small cabin like that of a ship, with strangely brilliant stars shining through a skylight. He feels oddly light and thinks he is ill, but Weston soon informs him that he is in a spaceship of his own invention, explaining the odd effects. Weston refuses to tell Ransom why he and Devine have kidnapped him but assures him its for a great cause. Weston also refuses to tell Ransom where they are going, though he informs him the native name is "Malacandra." He refuses to say anything about the natives, though it is now clear this is not Weston and Devine's first voyage.
Ransom is surprised to find space full of light and color, and begins to think the old term "heaven" is more appropriate. He finds it difficult to be as frightened as he knows, rationally, he ought to be.
His fear returns when he overhears Devine talking with Weston. From the fragments he catches, he gathers that he is to be turned over to "the sorns" when they reach Malacandra. Ransom resolves to kill or die rather than be turned over to these aliens.
After some weeks, they reach Malacandra. They land at a camp set up on their previous voyage and start to unpack. The camp is by the shore of a brilliantly blue lake, surrounded by strange, red landscape. Ransom keeps an eye out for an opportunity to escape, even if into an alien wilderness.
The humans suddenly spy some figures across the lake, humanoid but grotesquely tall and thin. Ransom realizes these must be the sorns and bolts into the nearby red forest.
Ransom wanders aimlessly, noting that, though the local waters are warm as if from geothermal springs, the general climate is chilly. He seems to be wandering in a vast system of canyons, with tablelands far above. The vegetation is all in shades of red, very tall, and flimsy. The animals are likewise gangly. He encounters a herd of giraffe-like creatures, followed by some sorns; he flees from them.
Fear, weariness, hunger, strangeness, and disorientation make him start to lose mental coherence and he even begins to forget whether he is Ransom or someone looking after Ransom. Eventually, he sleeps.
The next day, he tries some Malacandrian vegetation and finds it edible. He wanders some more and comes to a wide river. A large animal comes up out of the water, startling him. What startles him even more than the animal's appearance is that it is clearly talking, though in an unknown language.
The animal looks something like a giant bipedal otter, seven feet tall, with glossy black fur, a round head, and hands. It is also wearing a utility belt. It is almost as startled to see Ransom as he is to see it, but the two begin trying to communicate and he learns that the creature is a hross. It leads him to a boat and takes him home to its village.
Ransom learns that this hross is named "Hyoi" and spends some months in the hross village. A trained philologist, he sets about learning their language as fast as he can. The hrossa (plural of "hross") live in simple reed huts near bodies of water and practice farming. Their main arts are poetry and music. They make no sophisticated artifacts but trade with others for a few things, such as a beautifully engraved golden bowl. Ransom learns gold is plentiful on Malacandra and now understands Devine's interest in the place. He also sees figures of sorns ("seroni" in the plural) engraved on the bowl.
Ransom tries to ask if the sorns rule the hrossa, but lacks the Malacandrian vocabulary. As best he can understand, both hrossa and sorns are ruled by "Oyarsa," who lives in "Meldilorn." When he asks if Oyarsa made the world, he gets vehement denial. He is told that "Maleldil" made the world and, despite the language limits, learns that Maleldil is a monotheistic God.
In addition to having a high religion, the hrossa are naturally temperate and monogamous, and have no crime or war. They don't even have a word for evil, "bent" being as close to the idea as they come.
One day, Ransom sees a little hross girl talking to the air. He thinks she is pretending, but she says she is talking to "the eldil" and is surprised that Ransom can't see it. From later enquiry, he learns that "eldila" are immortal, nearly invisible and impalpable, servants of Maleldil, and Oyarsa is the most powerful eldil on Malacandra.
Meanwhile, rumor has reached the village of a "hnakra" in the waters, a dangerous aquatic monster like a shark or ichthyosaur. Ransom asks how Maleldil could let the hnakra loose on the world, but is told that hunting hnakra is the hrosses' favorite sport, even if (or even because) it is dangerous. Ransom is honored, though frightened, to go on a hnakra-hunt with Hyoi and his brother.
Just as they are about to set out in their boat, Hyoi spots an eldil coming to them across the water. Ransom sees nothing, but clearly hears a high and inorganic-sounding voice, telling them that "the Man should go to Oyarsa." Ransom wants to go on the hunt and does not want to confront whatever Oyarsa is, but Hyoi starts back for shore. However, just then a hnakra attacks and the hunt is on of necessity.
The three of them win, and are just congratulating each other back on shore when Hyoi is felled by a rifle-shot. Before the hross dies, Ransom tries to confess to him how "bent" humans are, but Hyoi names Ransom "hnakra-slayer" with his last breath.
Hyoi's brother says the only thing to do is to send Ransom to Oyarsa immediately. He quickly tells him the route to Meldilorn, Oyarsa's seat: Ransom is to follow a road up into the mountains, to Augray's Tower and ask Augray's help for the rest of the trip. Still stunned, Ransom obeys and leaves.
The "road" is a narrow trail. As he ascends, Ransom rapidly runs out of air and can see the darkness of space above. He can also see what he had learned from the hrossa – he had been living down in a system of wide canyons, called "handramit," where most of the water, air, and life of Malacandra were. He was heading up onto the "harandra," the high tablelands that were the true surface of the planet, nearly airless.
With his last strength, as night is closing in, he reaches the tower and finds that, as he feared, Augray is a sorn, fourteen feet high, less humanoid than sorns look from a disstance, and covered with feathers. But the sorn is kindly and immediately gives him oxygen, which the hrossa also need when they come this way – though not so urgently as a human.
Augray quickly deduces that Ransom is from a heavier, hotter world than Malacandra and suspects he is from "Thulcandra," the "Silent Planet." He shows Thulcandra to Ransom in his version of a telescope and Ransom can see that, indeed, Thulcandra is Earth. Why is it called "silent"? Augray does not know; Oyarsa would know. (The sorn then feeds Ransom, who is surprised to be given cheese; he learns than the alien giraffes he encountered on his first day on Malacandra are dairy herds tended by sorn children down in the handramits.)
The next day, Augray sets off on the trail across the mountainous plateau, with Ransom riding on his shoulder, equipped with a tank of oxygen. They pass several sorn settlements and stop for the night at the house/lab of an eminent sorn scientist, where Ransom is grilled for hours about Earth. It becomes clear to him that there is a division of labor among the races of Malacandra: while the hrossa are artists and farmers, the sorns are scholars and scientists, and each is relatively incompetent outside their fields. Neither race is master.
The next day, Augray takes Ransom the rest of the way to Meldilorn, which is a tranquil island in a lake, topped with a grove of trees – not at all what Ransom expected for the seat of the planetary ruler.
Once on the island, Ransom begins to "see" eldila as much as humans can, as barely visible patterns of light, best glimpsed with peripheral vision. He also finds a set of standing stones, richly engraved. One depicts a map of the Solar System, and determines once and for all that Malacandra is Mars. Each planet on the map is shown being ridden by a winged flame with a faint suggestion of a face – all except Earth, which has a jagged mark where the flame must have been struck out.
While he puzzles over this, he hears a chipping noise, turns, and finds he is having his protrait engraved on another stone. The sculptor is a pfifltrigg, the third race of Mars. It has a tapir-like face, a frog-like body, leaps a lot, and is energetic and excitable. It also wears clothes and carries lots of tools. Chatting with it, Ransom learns that the pfifltriggi live in cities on the dry sea-beds of Mars/Malacandra. Whereas hrossa are performing artists, pfiffltriggi create art objects and are the engineers of Malacandra. The picture it is working on shows three grotesquely stylized humans emerging from Weston's spaceship.
Ransom spends the night on Meldilorn in a house with all three Martian races. In the morning, an eldil voice summons him to meet Oyarsa. He heads up to the grove at the top of the island, where he finds a great crowd of Malacandrians of all species, flanking the path. He can tell the air above is full of eldila, too. Nervously, he goes to the top and waits. Soon, a barely visible presence sweeps up the path and greets him. Ransom has met Oyarsa.
Oyarsa asks Ransom why he has been so reluctant to come to him. Ransom briefly tells of his capture by Weston and Devine. Oyarsa now sees there has been a massive misunderstanding. He tells Ransom that the two humans came to Malacandra once before. Oyarsa sent sorns to teach them the language. The sorns reported how Weston and Devine were obsessed with collecting gold. Oyarsa sent by the sorns, inviting the humans to meet him. When they refused, he sent saying they could take no more gold until a human came to him. So they packed up and went back to Earth. Oyarsa now sees that Weston and Divine thought Oyarsa (or the sorns) wanted a human to punish, or as a sacrifice, and came back to provide Ransom in that role.
Oyarsa also explains that Earth is the "silent planet" because only it, alone in the Solar System, is cut off from communication with the other planets. Like the others, it has an Oyarsa, but our Oyarsa rebelled against Maleldil eons ago, wreaked havoc across the Solar System, and was beaten back to Earth and beseiged there. Oyarsa has heard basically nothing of Earth since then.
Ransom is about to start telling Oyarsa of conditions on Earth (realizing this is going to be more a matter of theology than natural history) when a party of hrossa arrive, with the bodies of three hrossa (inclidng Hyoi), and Weston and Devine, captive.
Devine and Weston do not spot Ransom in the crowd, and Weston thinks Oyarsa is a ventriloquism trick. When Oyarsa demands an explanation for the violence, Weston blusters and threatens in pidgin Malacandrian, then promises trade goods (plastic beads) in return for cooperation. He spots an elderly hross dozing in the crowd, thinks it must be the ventriloquist-shaman, and drapes the cheap necklace over its head. This only causes the hross to wake up and excuse itself to go off for a nap, leaving Weston dumbfounded and nearly apoplectic. We learn what Malacandrian laughter sounds like, and even eldilic.
Oyarsa orders Weston taken away to have his head soaked in cold water for his own good, and meanwhile conducts a funeral for the slain hrossa. This culminates in the sheer dematerialization of the corpses, which suitably impresses Devine.
Weston is brought back and Oyarsa demands an explanation again. Devine is only interested in the gold, but Weston wants to make a grand speech about human civilization and progress. However, his Malacandrian isn't good enough. He asks Ransom to translate, but his Malacandrian is still rather elementary, and anyway the language doesn't have enough weasel-words. The result deflates Weston's efforts. Example:
"I may fall," said Weston. "But while I live I will not, with such a key in my hand, consent to close the gates of the future on my race. What lies in that future, beyond our present ken, passes imagination to conceive: it is enough for me that there is a Beyond."
"He is saying," Ransom translated, "that he will not stop trying to do all this [invading Malacandra and exterminating the natives] unless you kill him. And he says that though he doesn't know what will happen to the creatures sprung from us, he wants it to happen very much."
Oyarsa, needless to say, is not impressed, though he does understand what Weston is driving at:
"I see now how the lord of the silent world has bent you. There are laws that all [people] know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little, blind Oyarsa in your brain."
He dismisses Weston and Devine, then has a long, unrecorded interview with Ransom. At the end of it, he offers to let Ransom stay on Malacandra. Ransom declines, though with a pang.
Oyarsa then orders the humans to return to Earth or die trying (very likely, since Earth is no longer in opposition to Mars). Oyarsa sets the spaceship to disintegrate after a long enough flight, gives them extra oxygen, relieves them of their guns (except a secret one for Ransom), and tells Ransom they will have an unseen escort of eldila.
The return trip is an exercise in pure endurance, but they make it. In a postscript, Lewis describes how he happened to contact Ransom and learn the whole tale from him, and hints at further adventures.
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2010