Claude Glystra rose towards consciousness like a water-logged timber. He opened his eyes; vision reached his brain.
He lay on a low bed at the rear of a plank-walled cottage. With a feverish movement he propped himself on an elbow, stared out the open door; and it seemed that he was seeing the most wonderful sight of his life.
He looked out on a green slope, spangled with yellow and red flowers, which rose to a forest. The gables of a village showed through the foliage-quaint gables of dark brown timber. The entire landscape was drenched in a tingling golden-white radiance; every colour shone with jewel-like clarity.
That’s right – two Vance reviews in a single day! And why not – he’s well known, amazing prolific, and his books are hella short. Given my goal of 70 books this year, I’m seriously appreciative of Jack’s brevity :).
That said…I’m sorry Mr Vance, this one just wasn’t very satisfying.
Big Planet – 3 out of 5 stars
Big Planet: a huge planet two or three times the size of Earth, has an atmosphere and gravity similar to Earth’s (apparently it is almost devoid of metals and is correspondingly less dense). Principally occupied by the indigenous plants and animals, Big Planet has been gradually settled by the flotsam and jetsam of mankind. Too big and too far away for Earth to directly control, and without metals or other resources to otherwise make the place valuable, fringe societies and extremist groups have headed to Big Planet for hundreds of years, each seeking to carve out a little slice of their concept of freedom. Many of these have devolved into small kingdoms and empires run by tyrants and despots.
A group of nine Earthlings lead by Claude Glystra have headed to stop the arms and slave trade on Big Planet, but crash land in the territory of one of worst of these despots – the Barjarnum of Beaujolais – and are forced to attempt a 40,000 mile trek across the dangerous planet to the Earth zone for safety.
This book was fine – OK even – but there were some real flaws.
Firstly, Big Planet is the LAZIEST naming of a fictional place since Mt Doom. Big Planet might be what it’s called by the uneducated masses, or maybe as a nickname, but apparently this planet is listed as ‘Big Planet’ in the star charts. I’m sure this leads to no confusion at all. Ugh, I just couldn’t take it seriously. (Of course, I live in Australia where we literally have a desert called ‘The Great Sandy Desert‘, so perhaps I’ll just shut up about lazy place names…)
Actually, now I think about my last review…Joe Smith? Vance wasn’t one for stretching when it came to naming anything!
Its not a hard scifi story so I didn’t expect Martian levels of science or believability, but even so the basic plot got me offside from the beginning. Trek 40,000 miles? Earth is just over 24,000 miles around. These guys formed a serious plan to effectively circumnavigate the globe. Twice. On foot. This isn’t a typo either – Vance makes this twice-round-the-Earth comparison himself in the book, and yet still went ‘Yep. Sounds like a reasonable plan, and totally not the ravings of an insane person’.
Perhaps needless to say, this really blew a hole in the suspension of disbelief for me.
Moving past this, Big Planet is a fascinating place with an interesting clash of imaginative cultures and creatures…each of which we see for two or three pages before they move on, generally after killing one of the party members. I know I criticized monoculture scifi in the previous review, but the opposite extreme wasn’t any better. There was no identifiable focus, no substance to any interaction with these multitudes of peoples. We see a single feature (which then defines them) and we keep walking. I think this was my main issue here – the book is only 150 odd pages, and Vance just introduced too many tribes/gangs/villages where the people were immediately antagonistic to our sorry little band. They wash past the reader without leaving impact or furthering the plot (which is pretty simple in the first place). I think that cutting the number of these interactions by half and exploring those left in more detail would have been a significant improvement.
Regarding the characters; they are almost all male with one single young, woman who is (surprise surprise) the love interest. Midway through the book a few more attractive young women bargain their way into the group, basically offering themselves as slaves…Which was a bit weird in my opinion. And most of the male characters are empty shirts as well, with only our hero Glystra taking any real actions or holding any conversations. Everyone else seems content to walk around, follow Glystra, and wait patiently for the planet to murder them.
I suppose I am being a little hard on Vance with this one, as he has a writing style I like, and his stories, (including this one) have some very good moments. But honestly Big Planet is just an ordinary scifi tale, with too little plot to hang its creative alien dressing on.
Another submission into the Vintage SciFi Not-a-Challenge hosted by Little Red Reviewer. If you’re interested in checking some other vintage scifi reviews out, I suggest that you check out some of the links she has posted!
2 thoughts on “Book Review: Big Planet by Jack Vance #VintageSciFi”
This brings back some long-ago memories: I know I read this book, but since it’s been a few decades, my recollection is somewhat fuzzy. Back then I did sort of enjoy it (enough to remember it, anyway) but your review pointed out how much our tastes can change in a relatively short span of time. We are now used to better, deeper characterization and a more balanced outlook, indeed, and that’s the main reason for the disappointment we feel when we travel down Memory Lane…
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I think you’re right – i expect more now. Whether that’s age or taste I don’t know.