Review: The Forgotten Planet

Murray Leinster
1954

Murray Leinster was a pseudonym for William Fitzgerald Jenkins, a very prolific writer from Virginia in the US.  Get ready to celebrate as the State of Virginia has declared June 27th, 2009 as ‘Will F. Jenkins Day’ in honor of his achievements as a Virginian.  You can view the resolution here on the Virginian Government’s website.  I recommend you check it out as the resolution nicely itemizes his significant achievements as a writer and an all-round Virginian.

I enjoyed this book very much, and one of the reasons for this is that the pace is rapid right from the get go.  Well, not really right from the start; there is a more mundane prologue chapter that sets up the situation.  A sterile planet is terraformed over hundreds of years until it is inadvertently forgotten and lost from the records.  Lost that is, until the crew and passengers of an interstellar ship find it, only to be marooned on this world that never actually received the final stage of the terraforming process.  That is, never received higher animal life and the final push towards it becoming a world truly becoming of man.  Once this stage is set, the story begins.

But, a little more trivia before we get into the story.  Back in the ’70s, I remember enjoying a TV show called ‘Land of the Giants‘.  It was aired in the ‘States from 1968 to ’70 I think, but of course in New Zealand it didn’t get to air until several years later – early to mid ’70s if I remember correctly.  It was really cool.  Men (and women) against giant cats, lizards and people, negotiating giant foliage and utilizing giant everyday items such as needles and thimbles and things.  This book is in a similar vein.  Indeed, Murray Leinster wrote three novels in the late ’60s supporting the show.  This book is kind of like that – humans crash-land on a planet where everything is much larger that what we are used to.  In the case of The Forgotten Planet, the lack of the higher animals (mammals specifically) meant that insects and fungal life-forms – like mushrooms and things – are able to grow to giant proportions.

We pick up the story with our protagonist, Burl.  A member of a very small tribe of humans separated by about forty generations from the original castaways.  I got the impression that there are other tribes around, but it’s never explicitly mentioned. Humans have regressed.  They exist in the lowlands, permanent cloud cover overhead, rain every night, they have never seen the sky and the sun is but a slightly brighter fuzzy patch that traverses the clouds.  They eke out a kind of hunter gatherer existence, nibbling on the giant mushrooms and scavenging giant beetle meat when they can find it.  They lead a furtive life, always ready to bolt for cover whenever a giant spider or giant wasp is around.  Burl and his chums have dispositions not too dissimilar to that of a bunch of field mice.  Language appears to be rudimentary at best.  Indeed, there is no dialogue at all until page 132, and the dialogue from the entire book would only fill about one page, if that!!

Through a series of fortuitous circumstances, events and revelations, Burl starts to become more proactive and aware of their plight, and takes a leadership role within the traditionally leaderless group.  Guiding them eventually from their poor lot to a place where they find some companionship and is more secure from the highly hazardous wildlife they once shared their existence with.

Once the main story is underway, it cracks along well.  There is no let up, no down-time in the tale.  It’s a real-time non-stop adventure from beginning to just about the end.  Towards the end, we leave the immediate lives of Burl and the tribe and take a more detached viewpoint.  It’s a little disappointing as it would be nice to know Burl’s thoughts and feelings given the enormity of the events at the close of the story.

This again from Gnome Press, is three short stories cobbled together in novel form – a fix-up.  But unlike ‘The Philosophical Corps‘, it’s put together seamlessly.  Interestingly, the first two stories are from 1920 and ’21, and the third from 1953.  A long time between drinks.

There is plenty of scope in this for criticism of the outdated technology (the planet was forgotten because a punch-card fell off the stack and got lost…  was a solitary punch-card really the only record of this planet??), and some things about man’s regression on the planet that just don’t seem right (in Tom Godwin’s ‘The Survivors‘, the marooned population did more with less on a planet at least as hostile… admittedly they weren’t there for forty generations, but still…).

I’m not going to get into those questions, I raised them and we’ll leave it at that.  This is a very entertaining book.  Fast paced, well researched (in terms of the flora and fauna) and an interesting scenario.  I found it a real page-turner.

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