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Big Planet
Jack Vance
Orion Millennium Books, 218 pages

Big Planet
Jack Vance
John Holbrook Vance was born in 1916. Over a career spanning many decades, he has garnered many honours. They include the Edgar Award in 1960, the Hugo Award in 1963 and 1967, the Nebula Award in 1966, the Jupiter Award in 1975, the Achievement Award in 1984, the GilgamXs Award in 1988, the World Fantasy Award in 1990, and the Grand Master Award in 1997. He has used many pseudonyms including Alan Wade, Peter Held, John Holbrook and John van See. Jack Vance's original manuscripts for several of his books are kept at Boston University's main library in the manuscripts department.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Emphyrio
SF Site Review: Ports of Call
Jack Vance Tribute Site
Jack Vance Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nick Gevers

As its jacket copy claims, Big Planet -- a particularly welcome entry in the in the Gollancz Collectors' Editions series -- was instrumental in the development of the planetary romance form in SF. Originally serialized in a magazine in 1952, it was issued in abridged book form in 1957; and for that period, it was revolutionary. Big Planet, the conceptual template for all Vance's baroque lawless locales to come, was perhaps the first attempt at a convincingly complete imaginary world in genre SF. Instead of a thinly rationalized displacement of the opulent East or some other mundane historical epoch to an extraterrestrial setting, Big Planet was fully thought through, its ecology, economics, technology, and political organization carefully formulated, so much so that the conviction persists that it is not the characters who serve as the book's protagonists, but rather Big Planet itself. Its superbly delineated cultures and landscapes persist in the reader's mind long after its specific incidents fade; and this immortality of description is hugely augmented by the fact that Big Planet can be seen as the inspiration for countless other SF worlds, rigorously constructed in line with its example. Big Planet lives on in Arrakis, Gethen, Helliconia, Urth, and many other famous fictional locations...

Big Planet was Vance's first major SF novel, his second book of importance after his equally seminal fantasy cycle The Dying Earth (1950); and like The Dying Earth, Big Planet was a triumph of ironic narration. At every turn, Vance was engaging in acute social satire and tricks with perception. His plot centres on a mission by a group of Earthmen to Big Planet, which, vast and metal-poor, is infinitely barbaric, an endless tapestry of backward and predatory societies, and as such deeply problematic for the refined liberal consciences of the people of Earth System, the civilized majority Big Planet's colonists left behind. Big Planet is a sea of inhumanity, and arms smugglers are investing its nastier tyrants, in particular the impishly titled Bajarnum of Beaujolais, with the power to become more brutal yet. Claude Glystra and his team of investigators arrive in Big Planet's solar system determined to make a difference, to end the illegal arms trade and related dealing in slaves, and thus defang the Bajarnum. But Vance's cunning narrative suggests from the start the impossibility of this project: the space travellers are as disparate and in conflict as Big Planet's inhabitants, and their ship is sabotaged, crash landing in Beaujolain territory. Now, instead of intervening from on high, Glystra and his colleagues must escape the Bajarnum's troops and agents, and strive somehow to reach Earth Enclave, which lies on the other side of the planet.

Within larger contexts of idealism radically challenged and the powerful rendered powerless, Vance makes many telling points as his richly dramatic adventure story unfolds. The members of the expedition, gradually picked off by crafty enemies as they flee the Beaujolains, perforce adopt barbaric habits of their own: murder, desperately destructive ploys, the taking of concubines, the cruel manipulation of the strange cultures they encounter. And all the while, the question of what constitutes civilization comes under scrutiny: the Beaujolains may be barbarians, but what then are the far more savage cannibal Gypsies and Rebbirs of the Steppes? And if Earth constitutes the acme of humane order, what should one think of Kirstendale, a highly cultivated city state which appears to have found quite reasonable answers to the problems of social inequality? What price Earth's assumed monopoly on wisdom when the seers of Myrtlesee Fountain have discovered logic in its quintessential form? The most thorny paradoxes faced by anthropologists -- concerning the relative values to be attached to differing social adaptations, and the feasibility of external intervention in morally problematic indigenous dispensations -- are very intelligently dramatized in Big Planet, and no easy resolutions are proposed. In that respect the novel's conclusion is brilliantly and deviously apt.

Big Planet, then, is thoughtful adventure fiction, important because it first raised issues and first employed techniques subsequently integral to the entire SF genre. It contains many incidental pleasures: evocative descriptive prose, highly charged and witty dialogue, hilarious set-piece confrontations between adversaries, interludes of nightmarish violence; it is still a work of deft exciting fluency; it is an authentic masterpiece, the true founding father of the planetary romance, that sub-genre of masterpieces.

Copyright © 2000 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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