Friday, March 1, 2019

Eugenic Monsters: Race and Disability in Out of the Silent Planet


"Our right to supersede you
is the right of the higher 
over the lower"

Professor Weston
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The Rise

Out of the Silent Planet is the story of a impoverished child with intellectual disabilities, Harry, whose life and liberty set to be sacrificed so mankind (the masculine here is intentional) may progress to a new stage of development or at very least make a lot of money for a few scientists and industrialists. That is the plan, until a foolish professor of philology, Dr. Ransom, saves him from the eugenic duo who are his employers turned captors. As a result, Dr. Ransom replaces the boy as the victim and thus adopts the adventure which was set forth as a disability narrative. Indeed, the author, C.S. Lewis, seems to put a lot of work into the first few chapters illustrating the similarities between the victim (Dr. Ransom) and his captors: all white cisgender heterosexual men of education from England during the waining years of its role as a colonial empire. The loss of an overt disability narrative comes in order to make a statement about eugenics: anyone can be its victim, even a tenured professor with no small degree of social and economic privileges. Yet we may all be challenged to speculate as to what the story would have looked like if Harry and not Dr. Ransom had been allowed to go on the journey. How would that change the narrative? 

The scientist (Dr. Weston) and his financial backer (Mr. Devine) live in a place called "The Rise" where they are working on the space ship which will bring them back to Mars (called "Malacandra" by the native peoples) and its rich reservoirs of gold. The name of the estate, "the Rise," signifies the philosophies of the partnership. First, they regard themselves as above other peoples in intelligence, social status, and worth for the species. In contrast to their great role in history as pioneer and proto-colonizers of Mars, Harry is expendable. The name, the Rise, seems to reflect the step ladder of evolution and intelligence that eugenicists used to designate some peoples as ideal and others as feeble-minded strains on humanity. Second, the pair seeks to "Rise" humanity out of its current state into a new condition. Promptly, they wish to turn humanity into an interplanetary and later interstellar species. In the long run, they hope to assist humanity in its evolution into a new kind of super-human humanity. Third, the Rise is the literal place where these space travelers will rise off the planet into the heavens. Beyond the name, the estate is closed off to the world by large fences and black-out curtains. Secrecy and exclusivity defines the location's functioning. As Lewis argues in The Abolition of Man, eugenics and similar applications of science do not benefit all humanity but only those portions of humanity that exclusively control the resources, tools, and use of the sciences. The secrets, wealth, and future that Mars may offer humanity will be collected, hoarded, and dolled out by the gate-keepers of The Rise who will capitalize greatly from their position. Even the interior of the house, which is described as sophisticate squaller reflects the personalities of people who regard themselves as very important but who do not attend much to the conditions or methods that seeking their goals produces. All the world might likewise be turned into a trash-heap if their important lives and work are allowed to continue.
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Hnau


Upon arriving on Mars, Dr. Ransom encounters a series of intelligent species, which are very distinct in form and society but which are all given the designation "Hnau" or "sentient." These encounters and reactions to the diverse peoples can be examined for the cultural and historical associations given to different traits on Earth. The first to be encountered are the Sorns, giant long-limbed feathered humanoids that Dr. Ransom flees. The philologist wonders at them being insect-like before he sees them. After seeing them, he describes sorns as giant or ogre like. Later he considers them like goblins. Finally, he settles on them being like angels or ancient philosophers. He fears them as hyper-intelligent and cruel aliens who seek to eat him. Only later does he come to know them as hermits, introverts, scientists, inventors, and sometimes shepherds. At this point, he gains a respect for them which never quite equals warm affection. Dr. Ransom however does become very affectionate with the Hross, a species of otter-like humanoids. He encounters one on the water and fears him as a giant beast. Once he hears the hross speak, Dr. Ransom jumps out and makes his first friend on Mars. Brought to the hross's home, he discovers them to be hunters, gatherers, crafts-people, warriors, and singers. It is among the hross that Ransom spends the most time and forms the greatest ties. Only near the end of his journey does Dr. Ransom meet the pfifltriggi who are frog-like industrialists, stone and metal workers who live underground in a highly organized matriarchal society. At this point, Ransom is open to recognizing the ways in which difference in body, temperament, and society do not equate to differences in intelligence or morality. All are different on Mars but all are equally hnau.


Learning to unlearn the eugenic patriarchal colonialist and white supremacist impulse to create hierarchies among peoples is one of the most prominent character arcs that Dr. Ransom undergoes while on Mars. At first, Ransom fears all creatures that are not like him. Second, he learns to see intelligence as it appears in other kinds of bodies. Third, he is corrected again and again when he tries to determine which of the three resident species on Mars is the superior ruling class. At this, Dr. Ransom finds that not only is his understanding of the facts incorrect but that he is importing a hierarchical way of organizing information and relationships. Fourth, Ransom comes to see the different forms of embodiment, intelligence, and society as equal in value even as they are distinct. Fifth, when he meets people of his own species again, Ransom sees humanity as perhaps less "Hnau" than the martians, coming to describe himself and his peers as broken or "bent Hnau." The peoples of Mars console Dr. Ransom by suggesting that it is perhaps the great homogeny of humanity, rather than its diversity, that has caused the desire to create hierarchies. On Mars, the differences between peoples were evident for countless generations and so an appreciation was ingrown for differences in body, mind, and culture. On Earth, they speculate, the fact that there is not a fundamental difference between Ransom and his captors, between Ransom and Harry, or perhaps even between people of different nationalities, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and abilities spurs a desire to create artificial or superficial divisions and hierarchies between peoples. With some education or time spent on Mars, as Ransom has experienced, humanity might be able to better see all the members of the human species as equally "hnau."


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Code-Switching

Out of the Silent Planet begins and ends with a eugenic dialogue but whereas the initial speeches given by Weston and Devine go unanswered in the first case (largely because Dr. Ransom is incapacitated for much of it), the speech that comes at the end of the book is answered by wisdoms greater than the scientist. These dialogues function to frame the book, the majority of which is highly metaphorical and lyrical in its logics, with plain speech articulation of the themes and problems of eugenics. The ability for the scientist and industrialist to be answered in the second set of speeches is representative of the lessons that the protagonist and thereby the readers have learned on Mars. In fact, the long speech that Weston makes before the assemblies of Mars about eugenics, colonialism, and racial supremacy is literally translated to the martians by Ransom and thus de-coded for the reader as well. The translation exchange, with Weston espousing his rhetoric and Ransom giving the plain speech version, is a good example of close-reading exercises. Readers and students can learn the form and purpose of critical summaries and co-switching from these passages. For instance, the segments of Weston's speech are much shorter than the translations that Ransom gives because the latter does the hard work of unpacking key terms and explaining leaps in logic which the eugenicist makes implicitly. A class exercise might follow the same form or even use the same text, with students being given portions of the speech or similar passages from other eugenicists and then being tasked with taking on Ransom's role of translator. This would reinforce the lessons of the book and also give students practice in close-reading rhetoric and giving paraphrases which unpack rather than merely restating.


After a series of failed attempts at establishing dominance, based on tricks of European colonizers such as the presentation of beads, Weston launches himself into a speech with a few distinct threads that reflect the themes of the novel. The main speech consists of five segments followed by a question and answer with the leader of Mars. First, Weston tries to establish humanity's superiority with boasts based on modern western European nationalism, eugenics, and racial supremacy talking points: science, industry, weaponry, architecture and capitalism. Second, Weston makes the leap in logic that because of these cultural and technological advantages, he believes that his race was the inherent moral superiority. Third, Weston extends his logical leaps even further, claiming that life and evolution naturally position such a superior race above all other peoples, with Nature commanding one race to live and all others to die. Fourth, the natural supremacy of his race means that they are the destined rulers of all habitable or resource-rich lands, justifying not only world-wide colonization but interplanetary colonization. Fifth and finally, Weston asserts that the destiny of his race as the natural rulers of the universe is so absolute that not even his death will stop it. After each of these exchanges, Ransom translates the coded dog-whistle rhetoric into plain speech racism, sexism, colonialism, and ableism which also highlights the irrational leaps in logic and the logical inconsistencies. Following this, there is an exchange between the leader of Mars with Weston in which he deconstructs the primary figure which his speech claimed to represent: the race. The leader unpacks his claims and actions to show that it is not the form of the body, nor the possession of intellect, nor even the shared humanity which Weston loves in his idolatry of his "race" but rather the mere "seed" of his race which is insists must continue unabated. The leader then challenges his love this "seed" which Weston desires to be immortal with the stark reality that not only do all lives and all planets die but even genealogies of sees must die out. Is it not better, he implores, for living things to have the goal of living good lives rather than merely trying to live long lives?

Each of these points can be broken down as part of a class discussion or serve as themes by which the wider novel might be understood. The themes of the Rise, Hnau, and Code-Switching runs throughout the book's discussion of the peoples, the physical environments, and conversations. It could be a task to find these threads and give presentations that summarize how the book shifts from the Weston to the Ransom perspective by the end of the book, or rather, how Ransom's perspective shifts from aligning closer to Weston to finally taking on a martian point of view by the end.

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