I’m embarrassed to admit that I became a Jack Vance fan only late in life. I blame a misspent youth.
I first discovered him through his short fiction — especially “The Dragon Masters” and “The Moon Moth,” two brilliantly imaginative tales of far-off worlds. But I was slow to discover his novels and I’ve spent the last few years trying to catch up.
The one I want to read next is Big Planet, his 1952 novel of a massive but technologically backwards world known simply as Big Planet, settled over the centuries by a host of criminals, malcontents, and outcasts from Earth. Claude Glystra is sent to Big Planet to investigate rumors of a dark plot against Earth, but his ship is sabotaged and crash-lands 40,000 miles from his destination. Glystra and his crewmates must undertake an impossible journey on foot across a dangerous landscape filled with aliens, human colonies isolated for centuries, and the treacherous agents of his enemies.
Big Planet was Vance’s first major SF novel, and it is one of the classic adventure fantasies of the 1950s. It has been reprinted over a dozen times. I have several different paperback editions — and they are, in fact, very different. All I have to do is figure out which one to read.
[Click on any of the images for bigger versions.]
Big Planet was first published in the September 1952 issue of Startling Stories (above left, with a typical pulp cover by Walter Popp). If pulp magazines of the 1950s are to be believed, men of the future will spend the majority of their time blowin’ stuff up, while women will spend it reclining in the foreground. Clearly, the original edition is a fine choice, except for one problem: I don’t have a copy.
Fortunately, I have multiple copies of the next major edition: the 1958 Ace Double (D-295; middle pic above, cover by Ed Emshwiller), where it was paired with Vance’s 1952 novel Slaves of the Klau. But there’s a problem with this one, too — it’s substantially cut. Magazine versions were usually expanded for later publication, but the reverse happened with Big Planet. It was published in hardcover by Avalon Books in 1957 in a substantially cut and edited version. It was that version that was reprinted in paperback by Ace.
Well, that’s disappointing. I’m still fond of the Ace paperback though, partly because it has one of the most evocative descriptions of the novel on the inside front cover, probably penned by Donald A. Wollheim:
The gigantic world known as Big Planet had become a wilderness of strange peoples and weird cultures as a result of having been the dumping ground for every crackpot and malcontent that ever emigrated from the Earth. Somewhere in its unmapped vastness a plot was being hatched to disturb the peace of the mother world’s civilization.
Claude Glystra was sent to Big Planet to foil that plot. But his spaceship crash-landed far from his objective — 40,000 wild and woolly miles from it. He and his companions would have to walk the distance — a trek that would have daunted a dozen Marco Polos — and at the same time fight off not only the wild beasts, the wilder natives, but the wily schemes of their foeman and his secret agent among them.
Big Planet is a terrific adventure, packed with the excitement, color, and new concepts which have gained it the unanimous applause of science-fiction readers everywhere.
The original text was finally restored for the 1978 Ace edition (above right; cover by Vincent Di Fate). This is the one to read. Fortunately, it’s still easy to find, and in fact I had a copy for years — until I mailed it to Howard Andrew Jones when he told me he was interested in reading it last year.
Well, let’s look at our other options. There are several handsome British editions, including the 1982 Coronet edition (above left; cover by Jim Burns). You guessed it: I don’t have a copy of that one. Ditto the 1989 VGSF/Gollancz paperback (above middle, cover by Brian Waugh.)
Fortunately, the book was reprinted again here in the US in 1989 by Tor (far right; cover by David Hardy.) Believe it or not, this one was a little trickier to find than the nearly 60-year-old Ace Double edition, but I eventually landed a copy. Hurrah! And if this turns out to be the edited version, believe me, I’m going to be cranky.
If you’re in the market for a copy of Big Planet yourself, I recommend the 2002 Gollancz SF Collectors’ Editions version, the most recent paperback edition I was able to verify exists (below left; cover by Jim Burns again). If you don’t mind an omnibus edition, Gollancz also reprinted the book in an SF Gateway Omnibus just last year, bundled with Vance’s The Blue World and The Dragon Masters and Other Stories (October 2013).
There are also easily available ebook editions from both Gateway/Orion and Spatterlight Press.
Big Planet was popular enough that Vance returned to the setting 23 years later with the standalone novel Showboat World, published in paperback from Pyramid in 1975 (above center, cover by Vincent di Fate). Showboat World had its own healthy publishing history, including a 1981 DAW reprint with a gorgeous David B. Mattingly cover (above right.)
Big Planet is a slender little book (my Ace paperback edition is scarcely 158 pages), which I think is part of its charm. I’m delighted to see Jack Vance’s novel remain in print for very nearly six decades and I expect it will return to print in many more handsome editions in the future. Keep an eye out for it.
We’ve covered several Ace Doubles recently, including:
ATTA/ The Brain-Stealers by by Francis Rufus Bellamy and Murray Leinster
The Ship from Atlantis/ The Stolen Sun by H. Warner Munn and Emil Petaja
Vulcan’s Hammer / The Skynappers by Philip K. Dick and John Brunner
The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream by G.C. Edmondson
Bow Down to Nul / The Dark Destroyers by Brian W. Aldiss and Manly Wade Wellman
Gateway to Elsewhere / The Weapon Shops of Isher by Murray Leinster and A. E. van Vogt
The Cosmic Puppets / Sargasso of Space by Philip K. Dick and Andre Norton
The Beast Master / Star Hunter by Andre Norton
Big Planet by Jack Vance
City Under the Sea by Kenneth Bulmer
The Forgotten Planet (Planets of Adventure) by Murray Leinster
Six Worlds Yonder / The Space Willies by Eric Frank Russell
Sentinels of Space / The Ultimate Invader by Eric Frank Russell and Donald Wollheim
Ring Around the Sun/ Cosmic Manhunt by Clifford D. Simak and L. Sprague de Camp
The Trouble With Tycho/ Bring Back Yesterday by Clifford D. Simak and A. Bertram Chandler
The Last Planet (Star Rangers) by Andre Norton
A Touch of Infinity/ The Man With Nine Lives by Harlan Ellison
Kirkus Looks at Donald A. Wollheim and the Ace Double
Tales of Outer Space/ Adventures in the Far Future edited by Donald A. Wollheim
The Pirates of Zan by Murray Leinster
See all of our recent Vintage Treasures here.