Denver Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club


BIG PLANET
by
JACK VANCE
Big Planet cover 2002 Big Planet (1952, 1957, 1978)
a planetary romance

Gollancz trade paperback
cover art by Jim Burns
218 pages (left)

Ace paperback - 1957 copyright
50 cover price
158 pages (right)
Big Planet ace 1957 cover

From the back cover of the trade paperback:
       Charley Lysidder, the Bajarnum of Beaujolais was ruthlessly expanding his empire on the Big Planet.  The objective of the mission from Earth was to stop him and ensure that the whole world didn't fall under the domination of the tyrant.
       But when sabotage forced the spacecraft carrying the mission to crashland, the priority changed.  The survivors faced an epic 40,000-mile trek to safety, across the vast and unknown surface of the planet, harassed by monsters, the native people and the agents of the Bajarnum, and riven by their own deadly disputes.
       Rich, strange and powerful, Big Planet is an important landmark in the history of SF.  The sophistication of the concept of the Big Planet itself, with its huge size and negligible metal resources, and Jack Vance's subtly effective baroque style, changed the planetary romance for ever.

From the back cover of the 1978 paperback:
       "An excellent SF novel...a good-old-fashioned travel-among-wonders yarn, in which a small group of Earthlings crash on a planet overrun centuries before by assorted dissidents, who have set up the Galaxy's oddest assortment of splinter societies.  They set out to make a 40,000-mile trek across the unknown face of the planet, beset by monsters, natives, and each other.  It's good fun all through, and the wacky society of Kirstendale must be experienced to be believed."
-P. Schuyler Miller
Astounding Science Fiction

       "Big Planet is as vividly compelling as...The Worm of Ouroboros - and that's the highest praise I know.
       "...an unforgettable journey - twilight in Tsalombar Forest; the Tree-men and the Beaujolains; the Cossacks and Atman the Scourge; the fortress city of Edelweiss; the Magickers and the false griambot; the monoline....If you have a taste for pure, strong fantasy; if you loved Burroughs, buy this one."
-Damon Knight

Read for group discussion on July 23, 2003

Publication history of Big Planet
1952 Startling Stories, cut 1957, further cut 1958, full restored text 1978

Big Planet 1978 ace cover Another book cover:

Big Planet


Ace paperback, 1978
cover art by Vincent Di Fate
217 pages (left)
 

RATINGS:
How we each rated this book
Dan 5 Amy 6 stack of books 10   Wow! Don't miss it
8-9  Highly recommended
7    Recommended
5-6  Mild recommendation
3-4  Take your chances
1-2  Below average; skip it
0    Get out the flamethrower!
U    Unfinishable or unreadable
-    Skipped or no rating given
Cheri - Barb -
Aaron 6 Cynthia 3
Jackie 5 Ron 5
Christine - Mitch 3
Amelia -    

Aaron's Commentary   Jack Vance - Big Planet

Like most of Vance's work, Big Planet is an imaginative romp across a vividly conceived world, a more sophisticated version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars and Venus planetary romances.  Vance uses a fun adventure story to explore the implications of his premise of a huge world where anarchy reigns, a premise he justifies with reasons both physical (the planet is too poor in heavy metals to maintain a high level of technology) and social (the planet was originally populated by Earth's misfits).  This concept inspires some terrific imagery, notably the vast "monoline" travelers use to sail over the heads of would-be marauders for thousands of miles.  The social issues arising from dealing with this huge low-tech planet are also quite interesting.

For the most part, Vance adheres to pulp conventions - Big Planet was originally published in Startling Stories - but he defies the reader's expectations in ways that earlier pulp writers rarely did.  In one scene, for example, a character disappears in a seemingly idyllic town, and we are given to believe that something terrible has happened to him.  Instead, we finally learn that he has simply chosen to join the town's strange and amusing social system, where all citizens split time as both aristocrats and servants.

While I found this novel enjoyable, it has some obvious flaws.  The writing is hurried, to the point that one often must reread passages to figure out what is happening, which is especially distracting in the action scenes.  The disjointed writing is even more apparent in the expanded version that has appeared since 1978 than in the original 1957 book version.

The story is also short on characterization, with only the protagonist Claude Glystra fleshed out at all.  The bad guys are devoid of personality, the good guys almost indistinguishable.  Worst of all, the leading lady is a weak and unbelievable character, and as a result her romance with Glystra goes nowhere.

What do you think? Your comments are welcome. Please send them to vanaaron@excite.com

Bibliography:
Jack Vance (1916-2013) working name of US writer John Holbrook Vance.

Awards:
1961 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel for The Man in the Cage
1963 Hugo Award for Best Short Fiction for "The Dragon Masters"
1966 Nebula Award for Best Novella for "The Last Castle"
1967 Hugo Award for Best Novelette for "The Last Castle"
1984 World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement
1990 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for Lyonesse: Madouc
1997 SFWA Grand Master Award
2010 Hugo Award for Best Related Book This is Me, Jack Vance!

Beginning in the late 1940s, Jack Vance brought an evocative new voice to science fiction.  He is best remembered today for his Dying Earth series and for his planetary romances such as Big Planet.

The Dying Earth stories are set very far in the earth's future, told in a tone that smacks as much of fantasy as of science fiction.  These science fantasy tales have greatly influenced later writers, inspiring in particular Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.  The series is comprised of the novels The Dying Earth (1950), The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), Cugel's Saga (1983), and Rhialto the Marvelous (1984), as well as the novellas Morreion: A Tale of the Dying Earth, A Bagful of Dreams, and The Seventeen Virgins, all separately published in 1979.  (Michael Shea wrote another Dying Earth novel, A Quest for Simbilis (1974), but this book is not consistent with Vance's subsequent volumes in the series.)

Vance wrote a host of planetary romances, reinvigorating a subgenre previously dominated by pastiches of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  These include Big Planet (1957) and its sequel Showboat World (1975), the stand-alone novels The Blue World (1966) and Emphyrio (1969), and the following series:

Demon Princes Series
--The Star King (1964)
--The Killing Machine (1964)
--The Palace of Love (1967)
--The Face (1979)
--The Book of Dreams (1981)

Planet of Adventure Series
--City of the Chasch (1968, also called Chasch)
--Servants of the Wankh (1969, also called Wankh)
--The Dirdir (1969)
--The Pnume (1970)

Durdane Trilogy
--The Anome (1973, also called The Faceless Man)
--The Brave Free Men (1973)
--The Asutra (1974)

Alastor Cluster Series
--Trullion: Alastor 2262 (1973)
--Marune: Alastor 933 (1975)
--Wyst: Alastor 1716 (1978)

Gaean Reach
--The Gray Prince (1974)
--Maske: Thaery (1976)
--Galactic Effectuator (1980)
--Night Lamp (1995)
--Ports of Call (1997)
--Lurulu (2004)

Cadwell Chronicles
--Araminta Station (1987)
--Ecce and Old Earth (1991)
--Throy (1992)

Note that the Demon Princes, Alastor Cluster, Gaean Reach, and Cadwell Chronicles series are all set in the same universe, albeit in different times and places.

Among Vance's strongest stand-alone books are the Hugo-winning novellas The Dragon Masters (1963) and The Last Castle (1967), the dystopic To Live Forever (1956), and The Languages of Pao (1958), which makes notable use of linguistics.  Other Vance singletons, many published as half of an Ace Double package, include The Space Pirate (1953, also called The Five Gold Bands), Vandals of the Void (1953), Slaves of the Klau (1958, revised as Gold and Iron), The Houses of Iszm (1964), Son of the Tree (1964), Space Opera (1965), The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph (1966), and The Brains of Earth (1966).

The Lyonesse series is a trilogy of historical fantasies: Suldrun's Garden (1983, also called Lyonesse), The Green Pearl (1985), and Madouc (1989).

Vance's short fiction is collected in Future Tense (1964, also called Dust of Far Suns), The World Between and Other Stories (1965, also called The Moon Moth and Other Stories), Monsters in Orbit (1965), Eight Fantasms and Magics (1969), The Worlds of Jack Vance (1973), The Best of Jack Vance (1976), Green Magic (1979), Lost Moons (1982), The Narrow Land (1982), Light from a Lone Star (1985), The Dark Side of the Moon (1986), The Augmented Agent (1986), Chateau D'If and Other Stories (1990), and When the Five Moons Rise (1992).

Vance published a number of mysteries, mostly under his full name John Holbrook Vance.  The Man in the Cage (1960) won an Edgar Award, the mystery field's highest honor.  Other John Holbrook Vance mysteries include The Fox Valley Murders (1966), The Pleasant Grove Murders (1967), The Deadly Isles (1969), Bad Ronald (1973), The House on Lily Street (1979), Strange Notions (1985), and The Dark Ocean (1985).  Vance also wrote three mysteries as by Ellery Queen: The Four Johns (1964, also called Four Men Called John), A Room to Die In (1965), and The Madman Theory (1966); one as by Peter Held, Take My Face (1957); and one as by Alan Wade, Isle of Peril (1959, also called Bird Isle).


Links:
Jack Vance archive
Jack Vance - Wikipedia
Jack Vance: Big Planet - an infinity plus review
The SF Site Featured Review: Big Planet

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This page was last updated June 03, 2013