Big Planet by Jack Vance
(Gollancz/Sterling, $14.95, 218 pages, paperback; first published cut 1957; further cut 1958; this version 1978; this edition 2000, reissued 2002.)
There have been countless sf novels over the years set on huge planetary surfaces or their equivalents, the prime examples probably being Larry Niven's Ringworld (1970) and Bob Shaw's Orbitsville (1975). It was perhaps as a result of the success of these two novels that in 1978 there was published in book form Jack Vance's 1952 Startling Stories serial that is widely regarded as having been the granddaddy of them all. Although it was good that the book was back in print, and a restored version at that -- earlier, 1950s book editions having been cut -- the reissue may have been a bad publishing move, since, despite its title, Vance's novel has very little in common with those other works.
For a start, it cannot sensibly be read as sf (although it has a sciencefictional underpinning) but picaresque fantasy of a kind vaguely reminiscent in some ways of the works of James Branch Cabell and in others of those of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The term "planetary romance" is often used in connection with this work to indicate that, while fantasy, it's not quite science fantasy (there's nothing supernatural or magical here), yet it's not really science fiction either. There is no genuine attempt to persuade the reader that the events of this book could ever really happen, no invocation of the voluntary suspension of disbelief: while it wouldn't be impossible deliberately to stage such events, the chances of them ever coming about otherwise are so close to zero as makes no difference.
This isn't just a fusspot and fundamentally irrelevant terminological matter. Rather, it relates to the way in which one can read Big Planet -- and it also explains the reference to Cabell a few lines ago. The art of world-building in either fantasy or sf includes the conscious attempt to convince the reader that the world built somehow "really" exists, even if its landscapes are purely mental ones and endure only until the book is closed. Like Cabell, Vance in this book (and of course others) declined the chance at world-building, preferring instead to construct scenarios which the reader is forced to accept purely on their own terms.
This is an extremely difficult writing trick to pull off -- well, anybody can do it, but the difficulty lies in keeping the reader's interest sustained. After all, as a single example, a basic requisite for engrossing fiction is generally taken to be the creation of plausible characters to whom the reader can relate emotionally (and, depending on the character, identify with). But, if the setting of the novel is merely a painted backdrop upon which the artist's brushstrokes are manifest, it is constantly borne in upon the reader that the characters, too, are mere artifices. Who cares about the fates of people who, one is ever reminded, aren't real?
Well, there are other ways to keep a reader reading, among them the constant inventiveness of the writer's imagination and the grace and stylishness of the writing. A few good jokes -- verbal, situational or conceptual -- don't hurt either.
I'm not certain Vance actually does pull off the trick in Big Planet, primarily because the plot is unfulfilled.
What is that plot? Sometime in the past, Earth colonized an enormous but low-density planet; despite the planet's size, the surface gravity here is not much different from on Earth. The planet is desperately poor in metals, which must almost exclusively be imported. The policy of the Earth government is not to enforce its laws outside the confines of the Solar System. Thus the colonists on Big Planet were all the kooks and oddballs who couldn't fit in at home, tempted here by the prospect of effectively unlimited space in which to indulge whatever practices they wished.
Now the tyrant Charley Lysidder, Bajarnum of Beaujolais, is attempting the takeover of, if not the whole of Big Planet -- which would probably be impossible -- at least a sizeable percentage of its surface. He is doing so with considerable ruthlessness. Earth has sent various missions to try to halt this, but all have vanished. The latest, headed by Claude Glystra, is nearing the giant world when sabotage forces a crash-landing. In order to survive, Glystra's plucky little band -- aided by hormone-rich local girl Nancy, must somehow trek forty thousand miles across the surface of the planet to the safety of Earth Enclave (in essence, the Terran Embassy). No planes, trains or automobiles to help them on this journey: because of the paucity of metals, Big Planet's technology is rudimentary. Also, of course, the Bajarnum is aware of their existence and will do his best to stop them.
Off they go on their forty-thousand-mile trip. They have various adventures and encounter various fantasticated societies. But the ever-diminishing group -- almost all get killed off en route -- don't in fact get further than a tiny fraction of the distance before Vance runs out of steam and the curtains come down on the play: the evening's entertainment is over.
Yes, the guy gets the gal despite all vicissitudes and misperceptions; but that's not exactly a surprise and, anyway, these have never been real characters. The Bajarnum and his tyranny are somewhat arbitrarily terminated; again, hardly a shock twist. The zillion other social problems that plague Big Planet are left unaltered: the massacres, child-rapes, tortures and the like are permitted to continue in the not-so-merry fashion of the past. In sum, there's a strong sense of coitus interruptus as one finishes page 218; to put it another way, it's as if one had paid for the Magical Mystery Tour and all that happened was that the bus went round the block and dumped you back on your own doorstep.
Yes, there's some inventiveness here. A few of the fantasticated societies are fastidiously intriguing, although none has the wit and quasi-plausibility of those depicted by, say, Eric Frank Russell in his tales in The Great Explosion (1962) and elsewhere. Yes, there are one or two good jokes, but they don't stick in the mind (at least, not in this reviewer's mind, because I've been sitting here desperately trying to remember one). And, yes, the writing is stylish by comparison with much else of what was on offer in 1950s pulp sf magazines; but a little too frequently, now, what must have seemed stylish half a century ago reads instead as simply affected.
Picking up this very attractive new edition, I tried to remember anything at all about my first reading of Big Planet, some twenty or more years ago, and all my memory could come up with was a vague sense of dissatisfaction on having finished the book. To be honest, this was why I decided to read the novel again, to discover what it was that my youthful self had so obviously missed out on. Yet, on finishing Big Planet in 2002, my feelings were exactly the same: Well, that was OK, I guess, quite fun in places, but, er, so what?
All of that said, Big Planet is one of those books that anyone seriously interested in the evolution of fantasy/sf should ... well, not so much read as have, at some stage, read. It is significant to the history of the genre even if no longer, as a novel, especially significant in itself.
Elsewhere in infinity
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© John Grant 7 August 2002