Big Planet

available in French here:

Essay by Stefano Sacchini* -2019

original article in italian :

* Stefano Sacchini is an Italian blogger specializing in Vance and ancient China.

Excerpt from Big Planet :

« Glystra walked a little way into the swamp, testing the footing. The round boles, ash-gray overlaid with green luster, prevented a clear vision of more than a hundred feet, but so far as Glystra could see, the ground was uniformly black peat, patched with shallow water. If sight was occluded horinzontally, vertically it was wide open; indeed, the upward lines of the trees impelled the eyes to lift along the multitudinous perspectives, up to the little blot of sky far above. Walking gingerly across the black bog, Glystra felt as if he were two hundred feet under water, an illusion heightened by the flying creatures, which moved along the vertical aisles with the ease of fish. Glystra saw two varieties: a long electic-green tape with filmy green wings along its body, rippling through the air like an eel, and little puffs of foam drifting with no apparent organs of locomotion. »

4th page summary: (Spatterlight press)

Big Planet is a fantastic world populated by an odd assortment of splinter societies, where beauty and evil dwell in uneasy proximity. The tyrant Charley Lysidder- self-styled « Bajarnum of Beaujolais »- seeks to rule the planet, and Claude Glystra leads a commission from Earth to investigate. But Glystra’s ship is sabotaged in orbit, and crashes to the surface far from safety; Glystra must trek 40,000 miles across the vast planet to Earth Enclave, if he is to succeed- or even survive…

In September 1952, Startling Stories magazine, edited  by Samuel Mines, published Jack Vance’s Big Planet (L’odissea di Glystra o Il Grande Pianeta). The same work was published in volume form by Avalon Books in 1957, but in a heavily revised version.

Right from the cover of the magazine, on which New York artist Walter Popp depicted a beautiful young girl in a harlequin costume in the middle of a gunfight to the sound of death rays, readers had no idea that they were about to read something destined to change the course, if not of science fiction, at least of a particular branch of it. Indeed, it was with this novel that Vance unwittingly gave a strong impetus to the genre of the « planetary romance », a branch of science fiction that sets its adventures on a planet other than Earth and whose general theme is the exploration and discovery of the wonders of this exotic and often primitive planet » (source: Wikipedia).

Written after a long stay in Positano, at the end of a trip to Europe undertaken by Jack and his wife Norma in the late 1940s, Big Planet was to be a model for many writers of the following decades.

Prior to this, alien worlds were, for the most part, no more than more or less picturesque backdrops for intrepid adventures in the much-loved style of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The fantasy literature of the first half of the twentieth century was full of desert worlds, a la Mars, or lush ones, as imagined on Venus. Little or no attention was paid to « worldbuilding »: the plants and animals, as well as the societies and civilisations encountered in these works, served above all to astonish the reader, to evoke mysteries and feelings of fear or surprise. But they almost always lacked logic and credibility.

With Vance, it’s the planet that becomes the real protagonist. More than the adventures of Glystra and his group of castaways, what holds the reader’s attention are the human civilisations that have developed on the Giant Planet in the half a millennium since its discovery, under the warm light of the Phaedra sun. The Californian writer creates a model of planetary romance that will enjoy enduring success: just think of Robert Silverberg’s abundant Majipoor saga, or, closer to home, the immense planet on which the novel Il gioco degli immortali (1999), by the late Massimo Mongai, is set. Without the work of the San Francisco minstrel, the epic Dune (1965) would probably never have seen the light of day, at least in the form we know it today: it was in 1952 that Frank Herbert began to frequent the Vance household, forging with Jack a friendship that was to last a lifetime.

Emshwiller 1957

The world described in the book is quite simply gigantic, as vast as it is metal-poor and therefore of low density, with a gravity comparable to that of the Earth, a mild and welcoming climate; an ideal place to welcome those dissatisfied with technology, revolutionaries, hermits and in general all extravagant and non-conformist communities. It’s no coincidence that the first to colonise this benevolent world were, in the imagination of the great Jack, groups of naturists looking for a place to live freely and, above all, without clothes. This type of planet is often found in novels set in the Oikumene and its later evolution, the Gaian Expanse: worlds outside the boundaries formed by Earth laws, the ideal breeding ground for an infinite number of complex civilisations, all proudly and sometimes absurdly attached to their own rules and traditions. The only elements that remain unchanged in space and time are stubbornness, eccentricity and, sometimes, ridiculousness, characteristics present in all human civilisations.

Vance has fun imagining a planet populated by strange cults, extreme cultures, idealists and exalted people of all kinds. The American author is adept at painting a fascinating picture, populated by strange peoples and exotic civilisations, sometimes inspired by those on Earth, sometimes original and eccentric. There is even a case of a utopian society, apparently aristocratic and exclusivist but in reality intimately egalitarian, embodied by the town of Kirstendale: an almost unique case in the whole of Vance’s output, where the faults of human communities are emphasised, exaggerated and often mocked rather than their merits.

If there is anything to be said, not just for this book but for Vance’s entire work, which is otherwise designed for pure entertainment, it is that the historical development of the human race since prehistoric times has been a succession of follies and fanaticisms which, through ignorance, have been taken too seriously. The result has been a history punctuated by tragedies, wars and holocausts. As Davide Mana, a great science fiction fan and expert, points out, the aliens in all of Vance’s work will always be few and unintelligible, and foreignness, when it appears, is almost always the result of cultural evolution. The Giant Planet is no exception to this rule, and here again human dignity, the only enduring value in Vance’s universe along with love, is not a right but must be conquered and defended, by any means necessary. Finally, in a refined science-fiction setting, the reader is treated to sword and knife fights, imposed not by anachronistic rules of chivalry or bluster as in Flash Gordon’s Mongo or John Carter’s Barsoom, but by the shortage of metals and sophisticated tools that forces the inhabitants of this incredible world to lag behind technologically.

Steve Hickman 1978

The plot, as in other works of the period (such as The Diying Earth or The Five Gold Bands), has a mosaic structure: rather than a linear and homogeneous development, it takes shape from the sum of a series of episodes linked together by short interludes. The element that gives coherence to the whole, in the great tradition of the adventure novel, is the theme of travel. In this case, the destination is the distant outpost of Earth after the spaceship carrying the protagonists crash-lands on the planet following sabotage. The story is enriched by the certain presence of a traitor in the group of survivors.

The various characters, including the protagonist Claude Glystra, lack in-depth psychological introspection, sometimes appear stereotypical in their characterisation and many are little more than extras. There is a strong tendency to polarise good and evil into extremes, in contrast to other works where more nuanced and less Manichean positions prevail. For example, the character of the villain Charley Lysidder is simple and not very multi-faceted compared to those of the Demon Princes in the eponymous series, who are much more articulate and complex. Nor does the dialogue have the verve and humour that characterise other works. It cannot be ruled out that Vance, who was relatively young and not yet inextricably bound up with the baroque style of recent decades, opted in writing this text for simple, commercial prose, closer to the then predominant tastes of popular publisher John W. Campbell Jr.

But the real strength of the novel lies in the description of the vast landscapes, the inventions of the natives to overcome the shortage of metals (the monoligne in particular) and the elaborate social forms that have developed independently, not forgetting the twists and turns and picaresque adventures that punctuate the plot right up to the last chapter. Immense landscapes unfold before the reader in a succession of vivid images, with a richness of colour that is unique in the panorama of science fiction literature. The author manages to give the impression that behind the characters and places described lies a reality teeming with life, full of wonders and mysteries just waiting to be discovered.

The work is peppered with echoes of Burroughs, Clark Ashton Smith and, above all, Catherine L. Moore. No less important are the personal experiences of Vance, a person who has always been passionate about travel and curious about other cultures, even those far removed from the United States. An inexhaustible source of inspiration and ideas.

Emshwiller 1957

As far as the cuts are concerned, Big Planet, for the 1957 edition, was the subject of so many interventions that Vance’s expert, Patrick Dusoulier, wrote the article « Big Planet, Big Scissors… » (published in Cosmopolis 25, April 2002, a publication that collects the critical material produced for Vance’s complete edition between 1999 and 2006), which analyses the great quantity and quality of the editor’s interventions, aimed at reducing the text and ridding it of overly explicit references to sex and nudity. Those wishing to read Big Planet in English in its original version can now easily obtain the edition edited by Spatterlight Press (the publishing house of Vance’s estate) and published in February 2017.

An immature work in many respects, riddled with clues that Vance himself would later develop in other works (the Tschai and Durdane cycles in primis), Big Planet nevertheless retains a timeless appeal in the eyes of vintage science fiction fans, and is recommended reading if you want to combine pleasure with discovering the origins of a much later production.

In 1975, Jack Vance also returned to the Giant Planet, with the entertaining Showboat World, still faithful to the mission he had always set himself: to entertain the reader…

« … the function of fiction is essentially to amuse or entertain the reader. The mark of good writing, in my opinion, is that the reader is not aware that the story has been written; as he reads, the ideas and images flow into his mind as if he were living there. The utmost accolade a writer can receive is that the reader is incognizant of his presence. » Jack Vance

Used references:

Chuck MILLER – Tim UNDERWOOD (essay), Jack Vance (Writers of the 21th Century), 1980.
Jack RAWLINS, Demon Prince: the Dissonant Worlds of Jack Vance, 1986.
“Vance, Jack”, in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (essay by John Clute & Peter Nicholls), 2nd edition, pp. 1264-1266, 1993.
Giuseppe LIPPI, “Il grande planetario di Jack Vance”, in L’odissea di Glystra, 2008, pp. 231-235.
Jack VANCE, This Is me, Jack Vance! (Or, More Properly, This Is I), 2009.
Michael MOORCOCK, “Foreword”, in Big Planet (Spatterlight Press), pp. i-iii, 2017.

EBOOK available here :

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