Big Planet (1957) is Jack Vance’s third published novel. Barely longer than a novella, the book nevertheless features many of the ideas and imaginative storytelling that would come to make the writer so well known in fantasy circles. Big Planet itself home to a seeming unlimited variety of wild cultures, species, and fantastical creatures, the storytelling is full-on planetary adventure. Though the idea would later be revised and expanded in The Tchai (Planet of Adventure) series, this is the roots of fantasy travelogue.
Big Planet is the cross-planetary adventures of Claude Glystra and his crew after they crash land in strange circumstances on the titular planet. Landing at a point far distant from the only civilized locale on the massive world, Glystra and the others, with a limited amount of supplies, set off on the 40,000 mile journey with little hope of surviving the wilds. Making matters worse, they know a traitor exists in their midst. Bajarnum de Beaujolais, a self-made ruler who hopes to build a power base on Big Planet, has an agent planted among them. The other schemes the delusional Bajarnum has cooked up are for Glystra and the reader to stumble into.
Starting to break away from the crowd, Big Planet finds Vance presenting a story that departs from many of the norms typifying the era’s sci-fi and fantasy. So while Son of the Tree, The Houses of Iszm, Abercrombie Station, and most of his early short fiction do little to distinguish the author, Big Planet does. The snappy, clever dialogue of his later novels may be lacking, but the trademark imagination comes in heaps. The fantastical creatures roaming the planet’s rivers and forests, the cultures calling the steppes and valleys home, and the variety of measures and transportation devices implemented due to the planet’s lack of metals are readily identifiable as Vance. This novel, alongside The Languages of Pao, find his singular voice beginning to take shape.
Along with imagination and story, there is also a touch of theme to Big Planet. Earth presented as a civilized, orderly place (perhaps too much so for Glystra’s liking), Big Planet represents a wilder, more nostalgic land, a place where people live in closer touch with nature but in fear of the myriad dangers. A sci-fi wild west scenario, swindlers and bandits roam the land, as do dangerous animals and tough living conditions. The overall state of affairs putting a great value on strength in independence, one can almost see Vance yearning for yesteryear, times when the strong and independent could forge their own path in the world.
The problems of Big Planet are a common complaint of most of Vance’s early fiction. The ideas so brilliant and appealing, they flash too quickly in front of the reader’s eyes. 150 pages seeming only to brush the surface of the planet’s immense possibilities, this book deserves to be unpacked in a similar fashion to the Tchai, Blue World, or any other of Vance’s fiction which goes into more background detail.
In the end, Big Planet is a fast-paced, planetary adventure that shows Vance on his way to making his literary voice his own. The presentation of Glystral and the crew, and their stumbling upon a wide variety of peoples, creatures, political interests, and modes of transport as they make their way across the exotic land, begins to define Vance’s identity in fantasy. Though the book is presented with the relative simplicity of so much of the author’s early fiction, the imagination is all there, making the book a worthwhile and unique read.