Big Planet is an early work by Jack Vance, and like much of Vance’s early output is a little uneven in quality. The plot is fairly straightforward. Centuries before the events of the story take place, a huge planet is discovered in a neighboring solar system. Despite its size (around 25,000 miles according to a later novel set in the same setting) the planet is of low density, with earthlike gravity and atmosphere, but lacking in metals, making ownership of any metal object valuable.
The planet has for many years been viewed as a place for outcasts and odd groups and individuals to go if they wished to escape the rigid constraints of the stellar areas under the direct rule of Earth. While this has worked out for the many groups and cults who emigrated to Big Planet, their descendants in many cases are trapped in various pockets of anarchy and slavery that exist on the ungoverned planet. One major problem is that on a world where few precious metals exist, children sold into slavery become a major source of wealth for those who wield power over their various sections of control. Calls for reform are sent out from time to time by “do-gooders” on Earth who are appalled by the rampant suffering they perceive as occurring on Big Planet and who wish to ameliorate the situation, but little has apparently been done until news comes of a tyrant known as Charley Lysidder, aka the Bajarnum of Beaujolais, who is attempting to create an empire on Big Planet, and who bases his economic and political power over conquering and enslaving his neighbors.
An Earth delegation is sent to Big Planet to see what can be done about stopping the Bajarnum, but before it can reach the sole area on the planet under Earth control, the aptly named “Earth Enclave,” their spaceship is scuttled by someone aboard and crash lands 40,000 miles from their original destination. At that point, the leader of the delegation, one Claude Glystra, determines that their only hope for escape from the forces of Lysidder is to trek the vast distance to Earth Enclave, setting up a classic “odyssey” theme and a chance to explore the vast area and various cultures of Big Planet in the process.
I wish I could say that this early story of Vance’s delivers, but compared to his later works it’s something of a disappointment. I first read it when Ace published an abridged version of it, but then later read the restored version (published in 1978) and have since reread it several times over the years. It’s fairly typical of 1950’s science fiction fare, as far as characterization and plot and writing style goes. The vaunted Vance style that was prevalent in The Dying Earth earlier and then later in works such as Lyonesse and Cugel’s Saga isn’t that much in evidence. The main hero is a dull and uninteresting character, and his female love interest is so forgettable that I still have trouble remembering her scenes in the book. The book is far too short, with an abrupt ending that resolves everything into a sort of happy ending much too neatly.
Having said all that, I still think the book is worth reading, simply for the grand concept of Big Planet itself and some of the unusual societies presented in the book. Here is a glimmer of the later Vance outré societies and cultures seen in works such as “The Moon Moth” and “The Last Castle.” Over twenty years after this short novel, Vance would revisit Big Planet much more successfully in Showboat World. For those reasons if nothing else, I recommend this work for the modern reader, both die-hard Vance fans who may have not yet read it as well as readers just now discovering the works of this unique author.
Big Planet — (1952,1975) Publisher: The objective of the mission from Earth: to stop the ruthless Barjarnum of Beaujolais from expanding his empire on the Big Planet… and prevent the world from falling under this tyrant’s domination. Then sabotage forces the craft to crash land, and the survivors face an epic 40,000-mile trek across the dangerous landscape. A SF landmark.