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Reviews of Big Planet (1952)

Review by clong (2007-03-25) Contains spoilers. View anyway.


As far as I can tell, this is the book that spawned the "trek across a land which is lined with an unending array of unique cultures that don't know anything beyond their neighbors, a land which is so huge you'd never get to the end" subgenre (paving the way for books like Ringworld, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, etc.), a subgenre that I gather is sometimes referred to as “planetary romance.”

The story follows a group of Earth based scientists whose sabotaged ship crash-lands on a big planet called, you guessed it, “Big Planet,” leaving them with a couple of high tech weapons, a forty thousand mile trek through barbarian lands to safety, and the knowledge that at least one of the survivors is a traitor. Big Planet has a few clever turns, but I found much more to dislike than to like (and I have generally been a pretty big Jack Vance fan).

The world-building is inconsistent: a couple of the societies are intriguing and original while others are only briefly sketched and couldn't possibly function. My favorite society was the one where everyone lives like royalty one third of the time, but has to live like a servant to royalty the other two thirds of the time. The society which had amassed great wealth by duping people into thinking they offered the only safe passage through a perilous danger (the illusion of which they themselves had created and maintained) was also rather clever.

Vance starts us out with a big cast of characters which, except for our protagonist and the lovely native girl who becomes the party's guide, are anonymous and completely interchangeable. But don't worry about trying to keep track of who's who. . . most of them will be killed off in the first few hundred miles of the forty thousand mile trek to safety that the group undertakes.

By far the biggest problem with this book is the last twenty pages. The ending is ridiculous. It's like Vance suddenly got bored with the idea and said "well enough of this, it's time for the good guy to win and get the girl and everyone to live happily ever after and be done with it." It would have been sooooooo much better if the girl (who to nobody's surprise turns out to have been a double agent who has fallen in love with the man she was supposed to lead to disaster) had sacrificed herself to save the protagonist from the trap she had helped to spring, leaving him alone (or with one or two other survivors) and still facing the final 39,000 miles to safety after only having learned that none of these thirty nine thousands were likely to be much like the first thousand (not to mention offering the opportunity for sequels).

One final comment is that this book is really much more fantasy than science fiction.



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