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BOOK REVIEW TWO

THE FORGOTTEN PLANET by Murray Leinster (1954)

Here’s the pleasantly surprising review I promised.

Before we tackle the book at hand, a few words about the author.  His real name was Will F. Jenkins (1896-1975).  He wrote over 1500 stories and articles in many genres over a writing career that started in 1916 with a story in The Smart Set and ended in the mid-1970s.  He used the name “Murray Leinster” for his sf stories, the first of which (“The Runaway Skyscraper”) appeared in 1919 in Argosy.  He’s probably best known for inventing the concept of parallel universes in his 1934 story “Sideways in Time.”

THE FORGOTTEN PLANET is a fix-up.  That means it was originally published as three separate stories (“The Mad Planet;” Argosy June 1920; “The Red Dust;” Argosy April 1921; and “Nightmare Planet;” Science Fiction Plus June 1953).   The sequence was reworked for a 1954 Gnome HB release. A 1956 Ace pb  followed.

Characters: The novel centers on Burl, a twenty-something hunter and gatherer slacker who lives on a hellhole of a planet.  He spends all his time a) frantically hunting for food and, b) frantically fleeing from the giant insects which dominate the region of the planet where his raggle-taggle band of  humans lives.  But, Burl is a guy who’s not content with this horrific existence.  His story, believably told, is one of the gradual evolution of himself and his band, which he drags up the social ladder (mostly protestingly) with him. Leinster does a nice job with a difficult task of depicting believable character growth. 84

Setting: The real star of this book is the planet of fungi, mushrooms, and horrific insects/bugs (spiders, ants, bees, wasps as well as gorgeous butterflies and moths) whose lives Leinster portrays with, sometimes, a tad too much detail.  The un-named sterile world had been seeded millennia before with primative life-forms by survey ships in preparation for future colonization.  But, as the book’s title implies, a series of circumstances resulted in all records of its existence being lost.  The primative life flourished, however, and many insectoid life-forms grew gigantic (despite the Cube-Square Law, or whatever it’s called).  Burl’s ancestors came to the world fleeing a disabled spaceship, and, in an enviroment of Big Bugs and poison fungi, decidiedly did not flourish.  The setting, like Burl’s character evolution, is quite believable, except for a bit near the end which I’ll give Leinster, because it does lead to such a satisfying conclusion. 93

Plot: Pretty simple. Burl teaches himself how to live like a man instead of a furtive beast, and drags his companions along with him. If some of the set pieces get a little repetitious, Leinster concocts plenty of colorful and exotic details to make up for it.  The episodic nature of the fix-up does not detract.   If the very ending is a little tacked on, it is also extremely satisfying. Probably, all and all, the Best Big Bug Book, ever. 91

Style: At the start Leinster makes the unusual decision to present this book as a narrative from the viewpoint of an omniscient storyteller because Burl is basically the only character in the first story (roughly the first third of the book), which makes it kind of difficult for dialog. Also, as depicted, all characters have a rather low level of mentality. Sure, they’re Homo sapiens, but the humanity has largely been beaten out of them by millennia with no discernible technology while living as prey to killer spiders and beetles. As they gradually rediscover their humanity, their thought-processes become more complicated and dialog appears (the first is a single spoken word on page 154). Passages of simple dialog then follow intermittently — and it’s probably better that Leinster chose the narrative approach over a lot of “Me Tarzan, you Jane!” repartee. In the descriptive passages Leinster’s prose is more fluid, certainly less restrained, and approaches a level of lyricality rarely seen in his other work. Nice job all around. 86

This book is currently tied with THE HAUNTING (Shirley Jackson) and THE MAN WHO COUNTS/WAR OF THE WING MEN (Poul Anderson) as the 10th best 1950’s sf novel, with a rating of 88.  The last paper edition that I know of was published in Oct. 2003, but it currently is available FOR FREE as a Baen Library ebook (check their website under the Baen Free Library) under the title PLANETS OF ADVENTURE, so you all have no excuse not to check it out.

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