Who Goes There?
It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a “complete” novel here, and unlike last time this one is actually complete. Today’s novel, Big Planet, is a rare case where the magazine version of the novel serves as the basis for the definitive text, as opposed to the first book publication. I’m not even sure what Jack Vance’s first novel would be. Wikipedia says Vance’s juvenile novel Vandals of the Void was his first, but this was published after the magazine versions of Big Planet, Slaves of the Klau (magazine version titled Planet of the Damned) and The Five Gold Bands; and then there’s The Dying Earth, which may or may not count as a novel (I personally don’t count it). Thing is, Vance wrote a lot, especially from the ’50s through the ’70s. If you read enough Vance you pick up on certain pet themes of his and certain quirks (we might say limitations) which can grate on one’s sensibilities. I like Vance because he’s convenient to mine for review material.
But Vance is arguably the most important American SFF writer of the 20th century that the fewest people have read; his most famous work, The Dying Earth, has fewer than 10,000 ratings on Goodreads as of this writing. To put this in perspective, The Shadow of the Torturer, the first part of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun (ya know, that science-fantasy series nerds will tell you is criminally overlooked) has more than double the ratings. Wolfe fans ought to read Vance at some point, since the former clearly owes a debt to the latter; but this also applies to fans of tabletop RPGs, whose mechanics (particularly those of Dungeons & Dragons) take after Vance’s depiction of magic in the Dying Earth series. Especially for his fantasy, Vance has left a distinct mark on genre fiction in the latter half of the 20th century, although not many people are aware it’s his mark.
Big Planet is science fiction from start to end, though, and unlike The Dying Earth it did not inspire a future trend; rather, what makes Big Planet unique for its time is its dedication to mixing planetary adventure with scientific plausibility, with a strong dash of anthropology. This is a novel where the setting is the main character—that while we find out little to nothing about the human characters propelling the action, we do get many passages in which Vance fleshes out the many locales and societies on Big Planet (for that’s the planet’s name). Because this is a fairly episodic novel, without any real subplots, I won’t be doing a point-by-point rundown but instead will focus on the novel’s ambitions and flaws as an experiment—for it’s certainly an interesting novel, though not a perfect one.
First published in the September 1952 issue of Startling Stories, which is on the Archive. Whereas Startling Stories tended to publish borderline novellas and abridged or easly versions of full novels, Big Planet appears complete here at about 60,000 words, and for a quarter-century (according to Wikipedia) this would be the best version of the novel you could find. The first several paperback editions, including the Avon edition in 1957, were abridged in some way, so keep that in mind if you’re into collecting vintage editions. Nowaodays, though, you can find a complete and in-print version of Big Planet easily, with the Spatterlight Press paperback being your best bet. The Spatterlight Presss edition also comes with an enlightening introduction by Michael Moorcock as he admires both Vance and Big Planet while recognizing the novel’s unusual place in Vance’s oeuvre.
We start with a ship that’s heading for Big Planet, a ship containing a commission team from Earth who are supposed to get info on a certain rascal named Charley Lysidder and bring him to justice. Why? Because Lysidder is becoming the biggest warlord on Big Planet, which is a high benchmark because Big Planet is filled with warlords and slave traders. The commission team is headed by Glystra, who will be our protagonist (he doesn’t seem like it in the first couple pages, but watch out), followed by Cloyville, Bishop, Pianza, and some redshirts. We spend about a minute on the ship before everything goes to hell; there’s a spy aboard. The skipper and first mate get their throats cut and the ship crash lands on Big Planet, 40,000 miles from Earth Enclave, basically an embassy and the only safe space for Earthmen. “To land anywhere on Big Planet except Earth Enclave meant tragedy, debacle, cataclysm.” Never mind literally halfway around the world. It turns out that Big Planet bears its name for a good reason.
We get casualties before we’ve even landed on the planet and there are more once we do, including the ship’s stewards and a nun who did not have any lines up to this point and whose body is not even recovered. (Be sure to put a pin in that last part.) It’s bad enough that Glystra and the survivors landed on the other side of the planet, but also they have no means of getting to Earth Enclave in a timely fashion; a trip, assuming they make it, will take weeks. The reason for this is that not only is there no electricity for Big Planet tech, there’s very little metal—to such an extent that metal is measured by the ounce. Big Planet has a wide diameter (yeah, duh), but it manages to have about the same gravity as Earth by virtue of being very poor in metals. Indeed the locals who discover the crashed ship waste no time in tearing it apart for scraps as the materials alone would make them rich.
There are no spaceships or cars on Big Planet—also no birds, for some reason. You’ll have to hoof it, or find a wagon or some alternate means of transport that doesn’t require metal or electricity. This is all pretty near, by the way. Vance goes out of his way to explain why Big Planet is an Earth-like setting, complete with gravity that doesn’t crush the human characters, by explaining that in some ways it is like Earth—only it lacks metals. The energy weapons Glystra and others carry are valuable because they’re powerful and accurate (there’s something called an ion-shine, which I don’t even know what the fuck that’s supposed to look like so I just think of it as a raygun), but they can also be traded for precious resources and information if need be simply becausse of the rarity of the materials. Importing metal to Big Planet is illegal (or rather the Earth federation has enforced a metal embargo on Big Planet) probably so as to not upset the balance—hence one of the reasons why Glystra wants to take Lysidder to Earth authorities.
There’s one other thing: the people on Big Planet don’t fuck around. Glystra and his team will come across bandits, cannibals, despots, and if they’re really unlucky, Republicans. For both better and worse, Big Planet is a sandbox wherein damn near anything is possible so long as you don’t need 20th century technology (or shit, even 19th century technology) to achieve your goals. Any pre-industrial system of government would be possible here. We don’t read about socialist collective farms, but it’s not hard to imagine those existing—successfully—on Big Planet. The whole thing has a whiff of pastoralism about it, not so much in the Clifford D. Simak tradition but in how Vance seems to think that people, if left to their own devices, will gravitate towards feudalism or agrarianism. If you read enough Vance you’ll get the impression that he a) hates cities, and b) is consistently wary about organized religion, which is curious for classic SF.
Oh, one more thing…
The team gets a recruit in the form of Nancy, a Big Planet native who apparently has nothing better to do with her time than accompany a bunch of soldiers and bureaucrats on what amounts to a suicide mission. Nancy is not this woman’s proper name but for the sake of my sanity, and because every other character calls her Nancy henceforth, I’m calling her that. She’s the token woman of the group, which sounds… a bit dubious. I guess it’s better than nothing, but don’t go to Nancy looking for a layered character with a rich interior life, because she will only disappoint you. Then again, Glystra is the most developed character here and that’s by virtue of being the guy who gets to call the shots; if he was in the position of say, Corbus (the ship’s chief engineer, now Glystra’s right-hand man) or Bishop then we would find out basically nothing about him.
Nancy joining the team is inexplicable, and even Glystra can’t help but notice this—though it doesn’t occur to him that Nancy knows something he doesn’t. It could also be that Nancy is attractive and Glystra is too busy getting bricked up in the middle of the mission to think about how this may not be a random encounter for long. Get this:
Something was out of place. Would a girl choose such a precarious life from pure wanderlust? Of course. Big Planet was not Earth; human psychology was unpredictable. And yet—he searched her face, was it a personal matter? Infatuation? She colored.
Is he projecting? Is he dense? Maybe.
Going back through my notes, it’s striking me how many characters show up and how many of them I’ve already forgotten about. There are episodes early in the novel that aren’t exactly Shakespearean; this could be explained by the team being a little overcrowded at first, although it does get whittled down as the novel progresses. Who the hell is Darrot? I don’t remember anything him except that he was on the ship, and then he gets killed off unceremoniously, “his dead face turned up.” There are run-ins with bandits and a very odd scheme involving river monsters that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around, only being able to surmise that it involves locals being tricked into thinking that these beasts are carnivorous. We meet so many people in the first half of the novel that it almost becomes like a joke. “If [Glystra] set about righting the wrongs of everyone they met, they would never arrive at Earth Enclave.” I guess this is a price one has to pay with an episodic structure, because it’s like we’re on a riverboat at a theme park and we’re watching all the sights on the river’s edges but we’re not allowed to wallow in them.
Something I noticed about Big Planet that makes it stick out from most Vance I’ve read is that it lacks the affected language of Vance’s Dying Earth stories—indeed, much of his work in the ’60s onward. This is not merely the result of Big Planet being an early work, because The Dying Earth precedes it and that “””novel””” has some of the most purple prose you’ll find in American fantasy fiction. No, it’s more, I suspect, that Big Planet was written with magazine publication in mind; and yes this was still early in Vance’s career, before he had garnered a reputation as one of genre fiction’s most baroque practitioners. Vance’s tendency to adorn his prose with fancy vocabulary and have his characters in a rather mannered fashion, lacking verisimilitude, can turn some readers off, so those same people might find the straightforward (to the point of curtness at times) language of Big Planet to be refreshing; personally I don’t like or dislike it.
It’s here that we reach the cutoff point, though, because about halfway through the novel we get to the best part and Vance’s purest bit of invention for the novel. We’ve come across a few villages and groups of scoundrels up to this point, but we have not encountered a city—which is where Kirstendale comes in, for the precious few chapters we spend there.
There Be Spoilers Here
The team comes across a trolley service that makes travel a bit less painful, though it’s still no match for cars back on Earth. It’s here that we enter the most memorable location in the novel: the decadent city of Kirstendale. The midpoint and indeed much of the back end of the novel is concerned with Kirstendale, either as a setting or as a carrot on a string for Our Heroes™ since it represents the height of culture and luxury on Big Planet—which naturally means it has a few caveats. Compared to what has been dealt with up to now, though, Kirstendale is a paradise. “It was the largest and most elaborate settlement the Earthmen had seen on Big Planet, but it was never a city which might have existed on Earth.” It’s no wonder that Cloyville decides to stay behind in Kirstendale once the team gets moving again.
The class system in Kirstendale is pretty weird; it’s hard to describe. Not only is metal a precious material here (as expected), but the city and its environs are barren as far as animals fit to be eaten goes. Meat is a luxury that has to be imported, and in a pre-industrial world, without planes or even steamships, you can guess how expensive bringing in meat would be. As such Kirsters (as they’re called) are generally vegetarian, although it’s implied that they will resort to eating bugs if they see it fit. Prestigue in the city is also pretty much entirely performative, in that it’s not your family line or even how much money you have that detemines your status as much as how you carry yourself, such that someone can act as both master and servant in the span of a single day depending on what clothes they’re wearing. As far as I can tell Vance was a conservative, but his playing with class barriers—poking fun at the tenuousness of class division—must’ve tickled Moorcock’s pickle. This is the most entertaining and inventive section of the novel.
If you read enough of this novel you may be wondering where that bastard Lysidder is. Like where he at? The fuck? The man does not even appear, let alone have a line of dialogue, until the final stretch the novel. Glystra meeting Lysidder face to face is one of those moments, like Charles Marlowe meeting Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, where the man has been shrowded in so much mystery as to become a mythological figure. This is made more stark by the fact that once we do get to Lysidder, Corbus and Nancy are the only fellow travelers in the party left—and Nancy turns out to have been working for Lysidder the whole time. Wow, the woman who’s been acting a little suspicious for dozens of pages is the spy! Indeed she was disguised as a nun at the beginning of the book, hence her secrecy and the fact that we never saw the body; she had faked her death, only to take on the role of a simple Big Planet girl once the team sets out.
Glystra takes it easy on Nancy because
she’s a woman her partnership with Lysidder is framed as abusive… or so she says. Glystra and Corbus come up with a different plan for Lysidder and his henchmen, which on a reread surprised me more than it must’ve initially. Having hijacked Lysidder’s “air-car,” Glystra decides to drop the scoundrel off in the middle of nowhere, far out enough where going back to his hideout would probably be suicide—but technically it would be possible to survive in this new environment. “If you stay here, you’ll probably have to work for a living—the worst punishment I could devise,” Glystra tells Lysidder half-jokingly, and that’s the last we see of the novel’s villain. It’s not all a loss for Lysidder, though; if his final argument with Glystra is to make the case that forcing Big Planet under Earth rule would be a mistake then the villain wins, because Glystra and Corbus end up not going to Earth Enclave after all.
Precious commissions to Earth Enclave are said to have never returned, mostly probably because they meet a grisly end, but there’s the implication that those who survive don’t come back because they find Big Planet to be a sort of Eden—a garden untarnished by industrialism and imperialism. With the resources they already have, Glystra and Corbus would be rich enough to become landowners, maybe even return to Kirstendale and catch up with Cloyville, and ultimately they decide that’s better than to have Big Planet become yet another satellite for Earth. Sure, conditions are rough, and even at its most decadent it’s not a place for the weak, but Vance seems to be telling us that maybe it really is better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. A bit of an unconventional happy ending, but I like it.
A Step Farther Out
So there you have it. In some ways Big Planet is a simple novel; it reads almost like an escort mission in a video game, which if you play your fair share of games doesn’t sound like a good time. True enough it does threaten to get monotonous at times, partly because of the characters being little more rounded than cardboard and coming and going through the narrative as they please, but it also shows Vance refining his craft as a novelist. Its best parts, which could almost work as short stories in themselves, read like episodes in a larger narrative, though this is not a fix-up like The Eyes of the Overworld, the first real novel in the Dying Earth series. In hindsight the episodes blur together with the exception of the first stretch, the episode in Kirstendale, and the finale, which admittedly is a pretty good finale by Vance standards. This is an early work that shows Vance trying to write a conventional adventure SF novel of the period and failing to the degree, which makes it more memorable than some of its peers.
Given the intricacies of what we do see of Big Planet, this is the kind of setting that could serve as venue for a trilogy of novels, each one over 500 pages long; but because Vance came from a generation of SFF writers who believed in not wasting the reader’s time, we’re left with two slim novels. We did eventually get an indirect followup with Showboat World in 1975, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t share anything with its predecessor other than the planet itself—which is just as well. Vance loves exploring settings, but for better or worse he’s not much of a plotter, which would explain why I struggled to recall what happened in Big Planet prior to this reread. No doubt I’ll forget again, but I’ll remember Kirstendale.
See you next time.