Big Planet (1952) Book Review and Analysis
By Jack Vance
A surprisingly engrossing and entertaining classic science fiction, where the star of the show is the planet itself. As usual, I found this book at a used book store and purchased it due to the amazing cover.
The story is quite simple. A small group of Terrans crash on Big Planet, a world colonized centuries ago by different groups, all of whom have remained isolated from one another and have thus evolved socially in different ways. The survivors elect to travel 40,000 miles across the world in search of their original quarry and a way home.
This book surprised me. I honestly thought it was going to be a bit of a slog, given how pre-post-modern the writing style is, but it’s closer to Star Trek than Forbidden Planet in terms of pace.
There was also a surprising twist on the part of a female character that I'll talk more about below. The twist itself didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, but I didn’t expect Vance to carry through with it.
The other characters are rather boring. Claude, our main man, is very much an unconflicted, rah-rah typical hero. He’s not very deep, overly just in his decisions, and boring. All the other men blend together so much that when they die I barely blink. It is interesting that Claude, the main character, is a person of colour, something that wasn’t seen that often in the 1950s. Clearly, it is not him on the cover.
The places don’t get enough detail. Except for one zone, we’re given a thin overview of the society by either another character telling us or some omniscient narration explaining it. We also don’t spend nearly enough time in any of the locations.
Yet, there were two interesting concepts that kept me reading. Big Planet has no metal deposits, so the colonies have remained somewhat “as is” in terms of technology. It was interesting to see how different groups adapted to this. I also found it fun that the world’s currency was metal, given how precious a commodity it is.
There were some fun silly tech and alien creatures, and a giant pile of weed.
Overall, I found it more interesting conceptually than as a story. It’s far too short and the characters are rather bland, but it was a fun, short novel with the occasional poetic line.
3 / 5 Zipangotes!
There's not a great deal of tech in this book. The one that features most is the "monoline", a monorail system where the cars run using sails. It's actually pretty clever, though I have no idea who is maintaining the track or the cars. What is this? SNOWPEIRCER?
There is the typical "futuristic" weapon, a sort of taser-like gun called an ion-blast. At one point Claude makes a joke saying he's "an electrician" who "carries death in his every gesture". Then he shoots a dude to death. So, shout-out my partner who is an actual electrician, though I don't think he Emperor Palpatines people at work.
There's also a minor cameo of my FAVOURITE tech. Yep, microfiche again! This one is a “portable microfilm library”. Love it.
Analysis - Here be Spoilers!
Given the time period that this novel was written in, I assumed I would have a lot to say about women. I do, but surprisingly not all of it is a rant about how the novel reinforces stereotypes or regulates women to the background.
But, let's get the worst part out of the way. There is a lot of “head-patting” of grown women. Most of the stuff the men say is still rooted in 1950s mentality. Like, “a pretty girl can cause trouble” and “This march is no place for the girl. There’s bound to be friction, inconvenience.” *rolls eyes*
The group is also attacked by a giant dragon-thing (a "griamobot"). Of course, Motta screams. Wouldn't you? But they call her reaction to a terrible water monster “mindless piping” and after it dives into the water there is a comment about “hysterical women”. Give me a break.
Ok. That's out of the way. Oh, and this novel does not pass the Bechdel test. We have a few women, but they don't talk to one another. I didn't expect it to pass, to be honest.
Let's do a deeper dive into what actually impressed me. So we have Natilien-Thilssa (aka: Nancy). She starts off as a nurse to the main character (a usual way to introduce a woman back then), but then quickly asserts herself by accompanying the men despite their disapproval. I gave a hearty "tell'em girl!" Then Nancy confused me because she quickly became hesitant, nervous, and not doing a whole hell of a lot. For a woman who proclaimed to be well-traveled and adventurous, she undoubtedly was not. I assumed it was due to poor characterization of women, but then, lo and behold! It is revealed she was nervous, hesitant, and rather passive because she was, as someone suggested earlier on (and was ignored), "one of the Bajarum’s secret agents”. She has a story arc! What! Granted, we never see her internally struggle with this (that would have ruined the twist), but she has agency and grit, and despite not really fighting she has a major role in the story rather than existing as a side piece. Bravo, Jack Vance.
We also have two other women of note: Motta and Wailie. These two young women show up wandering the desert and demand to be taken on as slaves, claiming that slaves have it better than being a woman in their original tribe. Weird, but at least they have goals. I liked these two. They didn't give two craps about the guys (neither of them fell in love and both disappeared when better circumstances arose) and they are the ones who explain and instigate a river crossing. Besides, how could I not love two teenage girls threatening to stab a bunch of old wizards?
Overall, women aren't treated terribly in this book. They don't feature heavily and they are infantilized by the men, but the story itself gives them some things to do.
I mentioned this before, but Claude, the main character, is described as "dark-skinned". Given the race relations in 1950s America, it seemed notable to me that he was the main character. All the other dudes are white, but it doesn't seem like Claude's race is a point of tension. Vance was imagining a future where "race doesn't matter". It's commendable for the 1950s, if not the real type of conversations we need to be having today.
The 1950s had a lot of experimentation with different concepts of social organization. The city of Kirstendale is one of these. It's a community where everyone works two hours (in the shops, factories, or as a servant) in order to have one hour as a "lord". While rather impractical (how does that work for, say, doctors, or even children?), it was an interesting idea. I've never come across that concept before in any sci-fi book.
I have to talk about Zygage. I wasn't sure whether this was an anti-drugs or pro-drugs book; in truth, I don't think it has an agenda. As such, I thought it was hilarious that everyone got blitzed at one point and that Claude was sentenced to death by overdose. The best part was how regular old vitamins counteracted the effects to the extent of preventing death! No need for safe injection sites! Just give everyone a multi-vitamin. Ridiculous. But also, quite amusing.
*I will give a novel a 1 if there is no representation at all. A book would get a 0 if there was disparaging characterization or horrendous stereotypes.
“The wind was light, blowing in vagrant puffs, and the trolleys coasted hardly faster than a man could walk. The lake lay nearly mirror-calm, with a peculiar yellow-gray glisten on the surface, like the film of a spiderweb. The opposite shore was lost in the haze far out, where three or four boats were visible, manned, according to Osrik, by fishermen of a tribe who held the land in superstitious dread, and never in the course of their lives set foot ashore.”
“A spatter of meteorites scratched bright lines down the sky.”