I finished Big Planet by Jack Vance tonight. January is Vintage Science Fiction month – as sponsored and encouraged by Little Red Reviewer on her blog. This is the second Vance novel I have read. Big Planet was first published in 1957 by Avalon/Ace. The novel had some revisions and whatnot and was re-released in 1978. The copy that I read was the TOR 1989 edition. I took an actual photo (with my phone) of my two copies – the Ace 1967 and the TOR 1989. I owned the Ace and then found the TOR for only $2 so decided to use that as my “reading copy.” The cover art for the Ace is by Ed Emshwiller (very famous) and the TOR art is by David Hardy. Since it’s Vintage Science Fiction month, I thought I’d read this novel because it’s quite vintage and well known.
Overall, this is a rather ridiculous novel. It does show it’s age. There are a couple of interesting moments, but overall it’s nothing fantastic. I say this having read the novel in 2013. I don’t know how this read to someone in 1960, let’s say. The main complaints are as follows: characters are flat and empty, viewpoint regarding women is decidedly not feminist, and the story reads like an extended Star Trek “away team mission.”
Big Planet – a horribly heavy-handed name which states the obvious – is a planet that absorbed the diaspora of cultures from Earth; cultures that were exiled or unwilling to accept Government Rule. After hundreds of years, the original “culture groups” that arrived on Big Planet spread out, intermingled, and developed. Thus, the inhabitants are earth-like cultures, but yet they are scattered and have no singular ruling body governing them. Instead, there is an Earth Enclave, which is presumably a base of some sort where Earth periodically sends commissions to interact with Big Planet and its cultures. An embassy of sorts, I suppose.
The novel begins with a commission en route to Big Planet. We meet the characters rapidly and without any finesse. The ship is attacked (from within) and brought down far from its destination at Earth Enclave. The survivors find themselves stranded in a village. It is estimated that they are at least 40,000 miles from Earth Enclave. Big Planet has many resources, but metal (ore) is not one of them. Therefore, at least to start, the survivors are relatively wealthy. However, without much further ado, they all agree to trek off to Earth Enclave. This is obviously just to get the story moving forth – but let’s consider this further. Stranded (after a crash landing) in a primitive culture 40,000 miles away from base, with very little in the way of supplies or implements, this group of eight fellas decides that it is a good idea to head out. And, interestingly, the main character, Claude Glystra just assumes command. He suddenly becomes the leader of the band and not one of the others really even questions this. We aren’t even given any background on Glystra to help with this. Perhaps he is ex-military or something – but we get nothing to assist with the suddenness of his command-taking.
So the group sets off. And right away there is this tag-a-long girl who seems really naive and helpless. Make that a count of nine. But then not too long after, adventures begin because this group is attacked. Basically, its all a big plot to take down this commission by some dude named Charley Lysidder. Lysidder employs armies, spies, and religious-types to help him recapture Glystra. I highly doubt Glystra is really that big of a threat. Why go to all this trouble? Even if this guy makes it 40,000 battling the natural and exotic perils, what can he possibly do then besides complain to Earth about Big Planet? Ultimately, Big Planet is really beyond the scope of Earth’s rule, anyway. And what does Glystra care? A moral code is about the only reason he has to stop Lysidder, at first. Finally, a sense of revenge or personal justice plays in. Basically, the whole premiss of the novel is a bit forced and stretched.
There is one interesting culture that we meet in the novel. The Kirstendale city is maintained by an interesting populace. They keep their wherewithal a secret and it takes Glystra awhile to piece it altogether. Nevertheless, it’s an opulent city full of manufactured intrigue and facade. Ultimately, it would be interesting to investigate this city and expand this into a series of stories or something. It’s about the only thing creative in the novel, to be honest.
Anyway, Glystra’s group’s numbers dwindle as they deal with threats and peril. Most of the time they are riding on six-legged beasts called zipangotes. These are like dinosaur, horse, panther things. They can be used to ride or as pack-animals. Generally, the “nomadic” races use them to ride around on and raid and terrorize everyone else on the planet. The other way the group travels is by monoline. One of the things Vance does in this novel is periodically give us rather intense descriptions of mechanical things. He uses fairly technical terms and describes them just as if one were seeing them with one’s own sight. Unfortunately, I was unable to really get a picture of any of these things in my mind. I don’t know if I wasn’t focused or if I just could not get the words sorted out. Anyway, Vance clearly had something in mind and tried to get us to understand these mechanical things, too. The monoline is like a trolley that ports people by sail and gravity by “air” across a huge stretch of land. Traders use it, too, and knowing this, the monoline gets attacked a lot by hostiles.
The ending was predictable and the villain was obnoxious and yucky. I am glad I read the novel, because I love reading and I love science fiction. However, there is not a whole lot in here that can be recommended to readers in 2013. It’s a short read. Not very sweet.