Planet of Death by Robert Silverberg is an enjoyable read, but it was the first story/novel I’ve read of his that was this light on theme, which for me is central to good literature. I know that exploring complex themes is also of primary concern for Silverberg because he emphasizes theme in almost all of the forty-plus stories he included in his short story collections covering the period of time before his writing Planet of Death in 1960. In fact, of all the early stories I’ve read by him, only a few were written as pure action with no thematic attempt on his part.
Silverberg discusses in several places in the introductions to his short stories in In the Beginning and To Be Continued that he needed to write so many stories to make money and that not all of them showed him at his best, even as a young man. He cites a pivotal period in time when several writers he respected confronted him to let him know that they and others thought that it would do his career damage in the long run if he published such a large amount of stories of inconsistent quality. They told him that his high quality work would be forgotten because it would be overshadowed by his lesser work. I can tell from the collections I’ve read that Silverberg must have edited those stories out because what he includes is of such a high level. Planet of Death is certainly of the lesser kind.
Basically, the story is about a man named Roy Crawford, a successful hunter of yangs on the planet Velliran. Yangs, apparently, have fur that has become fashionable and valuable back on Earth. Crawford is so successful that he has a team of hunters who work with him, a group of workers who skin the yangs on-planet, and a system of delivery that takes the merchandise to Earth. He doesn’t ever have to leave Velliran: He gets paid upon delivery of the skins to the transport ship. His only character flaw is that he is easily angered, and we are given evidence of this flaw early on in the story during a hunting expedition when he hits a young hunter who doesn’t follow orders.
At about eighty pages, Planet of Death is a short novel, so Silverberg leads Crawford into trouble quickly: He is walking across the street after getting paid, and all of a sudden, he feels slightly disoriented and realizes he’s holding a knife. When he looks down, there’s a dead native of Velliran at his feet. He has no memory of what happened, he doesn’t know the dead alien, and several aliens in the vicinity claim they saw Crawford commit the murder. After a quick court decision, Crawford is sentenced to life imprisonment unless he leaves the planet forever within the next three days. Since there are no ships leaving in three days, Crawford is forced to sneak aboard a ship with a small crew made up solely of scientists. Crawford, who isn’t very educated, is forced to impersonate a scientist the team was waiting for.
The basic summary above sounds like a spoiler, but the publisher’s summary gives the same information, along with the final two teasers: Crawford and the scientists go to explore a planet that is so deadly that Crawford almost gets killed by creatures the minute he steps out of the ship. The second teaser is that inside the ship, Crawford discovers, is the man who committed the murder for which Crawford was framed back on Velliran. Will Crawford be discovered as an imposter? What will happen if he is discovered? Does the murderer on board know that Crawford was the man blamed for the murder he committed? If so, is Crawford’s life in danger? Even if Crawford survives this danger, will he survive the equally dangerous environment outside the ship? Finally, how was the original murder committed in the first place?
What do I like about this story? It’s fun and fast-paced. As is all of Silverberg’s writing, the prose is smooth and easy to follow, and I lose myself in the story. It is entertaining. I also like that he combines two genres: science fiction and crime fiction. He even incorporates some courtroom drama into the story, Law and Order style. The crime element is an interesting one. It’s difficult to write a good murder mystery of this type: The man accused of murder isn’t even positive he didn’t commit the murder. He doubts himself. It reminds me of the type of questions Philip K. Dick asks in his novels (and of himself in real life): Are we to blame for the crimes against us? How do we know? Can one ever know fully one’s own self? Dick, of course, would have played out this theme more fully, but Silverberg uses it merely as a quick plot device to get Crawford on the ship.
There are a few attempts at theme. One involves a critique of what we will eventually do to Earth in terms of overpopulation: Crawford, as a hunter, loves jungles and never wants to live on Earth again since all the forests and jungles have been cleared for human living. Another theme is about the way we find new territories and kill what we find in order to make money off of what are ultimately mere luxury items. None of these themes are sustained the way Silverberg sustains themes in most of his short stories and successful novels.
Perhaps the most prevalent theme is about violence. Crawford’s violence is his character flaw, and perhaps if he had not been a violent man, his claims of innocence might have been believed in court. But there’s another violent man out there: Why did he commit murder? I think the reason Silverberg ultimately gives will disappoint those who read the novel for plot only; however, thematically, I think the reason for the murder is significant. Finally, the nature of human violence is compared to the violence of nature, both on Velliran and the “Planet of Death.” Is there a difference, Silverberg might be asking, between violent nature and violent human beings? Are human being’s merely another part of what we call “nature”? Can we avoid our own violent tendencies any more than the natural worlds on Earth, on Velliran, and on the “Planet of Death”? Are all the differences actually only a matter of degree?
I’ve probably made the novel sound like it has more depth than it has, but as an English professor I always attempt to give intentional credit to authors: I like to assume that authors, particularly ones as good as Silverberg, have reasons for what they do. One does not accidentally write a novel and insert by accident all that goes in it. So, I do think the themes I’ve mentioned are ones that Silverberg is interested in, but he didn’t stop to tease them out with as much sustained complexity as he does in his other work.
If you are a Silverberg fan, by all means read Planet of Death. Or give it a read if you just want to enjoy a short, quick novel. I would have been frustrated if it had been three hundred pages of plot with little depth. The only reason I give it so few stars here is that it lacks thematic depth compared to many twenty-page Silverberg stories that were written in the few years before Planet of Death.