fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Forgotten Planet by Murray Leinster science fiction book reviewsThe Forgotten Planet by Murray Leinster

There is a wonderful old term used to describe a feature of Golden Age science fiction novels: BEM, an acronym for “bug-eyed monsters.” Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, you see, the covers of many sci-fi pulp magazines featured illustrations of bulbous-orbed, invariably menacing aliens and other creatures; just do a Google Image search for the Thrilling Wonder Stories periodical and you’ll see what I mean! But anyone wanting to actually READ a book with more BEMs than any 10 other sci-fi books of the era combined would be well advised to pick up Murray Leinster’s The Forgotten Planet. This Golden Age classic not only features bug-eyed monsters, but also monsters — and scads of them — that just happen to be giant bugs! Leinster (1896 – 1975), who was born William Fitzgerald Jenkins in Norfolk, Virginia, would go on to write some 40 sci-fi novels and 10 books of short stories, copping a Hugo Award for his novelette “Exploration Team” in 1956. Along with Sidewise in Time (1950) and Colonial Survey (1956), however, he is perhaps best known for this tale of hypertrophied insects run amok. The contents of the book originally appeared as three separate stories: “The Mad Planet” (in the 6/20 issue of Argosy All-Story, the publication that also ran many Tarzan and John Carter outings by Edgar Rice Burroughs, as well as works by Abraham Merritt), “The Red Dust” (in the 4/21 Argosy) and “Nightmare Planet” (in the 6/53 issue of Science Fiction Plus); Leinster cobbled the three into a “fix-up novel” that initially appeared as a Gnome Press hardcover in 1954.

In The Forgotten Planet, the reader is introduced to the titular world, one which is never vouchsafed a name by the author. A sterile, barren hunk of rock, the world had been seeded by Earth ships with bacteria to break down the minerals into soil. Almost 1,000 years later, another ship had seeded the world with all sorts of plant and insect life, after which a “card file was upset” and the recorded details of the planet were lost. Hence, the nameless world was completely forgotten (more on this in a moment), and when the spaceliner Icarus crash-landed there many years later, with several thousand passengers, there was no hope of rescue. Some 40 generations later still, in the lowlands of the forgotten planet, the descendants of the Icarus passengers live in a state of reverted barbarism, subsisting on the ubiquitous giant fungi and cowering from the teeming swarms of gigantic insects (more on this in a moment, too) that rampage everywhere. We meet Burl, a 20-year-old, and the other members of his small tribe, who exist in their primitive state with no knowledge of fire or even basic tools. Burl’s lot is completely changed one day, however, when he is accidentally swept 40 miles down the local river, floating atop a large piece of fungus. In the book’s first section, Burl makes his way back to his tribe alone, learning to think and use tools and weapons (the broken legs of dead beetles make for handy spears!) while fighting off monster spiders and fleeing from a marauding swarm of giant army ants. In the book’s middle section, Burl must lead his tribe to a new location, to escape the advent of the red puffball fungi, whose spore dust causes instant death. Finally, in the concluding segment, Burl decides to lead his tribe of 20 out of the swamplike lowlands completely, and up to the mountainous heights, where the course of life on the forgotten planet will be changed forever…

Leinster’s novel asks the reader to swallow two very implausible propositions as it proceeds. First, the matter of a lost punch card that results in the planet being forgotten for centuries. Putting aside the matter of Leinster’s seeming belief that we will be using punch cards rather than computers to store information hundreds of years in the future, I could accept this plot point; after all, there ARE billions of worlds in this galaxy alone, so perhaps forgetting about one of them is not too implausible after all (and I suppose it IS possible that those punch cards are meant to be used with computers). The matter of the giant insects is something else again, and I’m not sure that a mere hothouse environment would account for the 40-foot-wide butterflies, monstrous spiders, 40-foot-long millipedes and other terrors that the author casually dishes out. And then there is this question: If you were seeding a barren world from scratch, why in heaven’s name would you want to introduce leeches, mosquitoes, army ants and other such nastiness? Why import poisonous Amanita mushrooms? Anyway, if one can overlook these factors, what is left is one helluva thrilling book, written in the old-fashioned tradition.

And yes, The Forgotten Planet IS quite generous in the action department, with any number of exciting sequences. My favorite: Burl, while using his new spear to fight a giant tarantula, falls, along with the monster, into the web of another spider! Talk about your double trouble! In other wonderful segments, Burl shows his tribe how to use weapons in combat (Burl’s initial realization of how an animal fragment might be used to kill may resonate with readers who recall the “Dawn of Man” segment in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey); Burl leads his people across a plain filled with thousands of the lethal red puffballs; and the tribe climbs through the planet’s perpetual cloud cover, only to see the sun and the stars for the first time. That elusive “sense of wonder,” so valued by Golden Age sci-fi, is brought about wonderfully well by Leinster in this final segment. And dog lovers (I know you’re out there!) should just eat up the scene in which humans and canines encounter one another for the first time after a 1,000-year separation. Marvelous stuff, truly!

Leinster, it should be said, is often a very effective writer, although some of his descriptions can be a tad vague; for example, when Burl crawls into a “three-foot tunnel,” is that three feet high, three feet wide, three feet deep or what? He makes up his own words on occasion, such as “atavar” and “ensmalled” (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), is guilty of some ungrammatical turns of phrase (“a busy world which teemed with life” instead of “THAT teemed”), and sometimes contradicts himself (in chapter 1, for instance, the white puffball spores are said to be “deadly poison”; in chapter 6, the author tells us that they are “harmless”). And in the Author’s Note, in his listing of entomology books that the curious reader might consider seeking out, he mentions Edge of the Jungle by Ralph Beebe; that should be William Beebe. But these are minor matters. As I said up top, readers who are desirous of some exciting man vs. giant bug action could do a lot worse than The Forgotten Planet, which gives the reader more BEMs than 1950s giant-bug flicks such as “Them!,” “Tarantula,” Beginning of the End,” “Monster From Green Hell” and “The Black Scorpion” combined! And on a curious note, the sentence “That clicking roar continued, but in Burl’s ears it was almost drowned out by the noise made by the halo of flies accompanying him.” Could THIS possibly be the source of the famous Alice Cooper song title “Halo of Flies”?!?! If so, I think I’m bugging!


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....