Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Mad Planet by Murray Leinster

Post-apocalyptic nature writing
Science fiction writer Murray Leinster’s novella The Mad Planet was first published in the June 12, 1920 issue of The Argosy magazine. The mad world referred to in the rather lazy, generic title is actually the planet Earth, 30,000 years in the future. Climate change has drastically altered the planet’s flora and fauna, and mankind has adapted into a new species in order to survive in the harsh environment. While Leinster acknowledges that human industry has raised the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, that is not the reason for the apocalypse in this story. Instead, fissures suddenly burst open in the Earth’s surface, and greenhouse gases spew forth from deep beneath the planet’s crust. The result, in the long run, is a world nearly devoid of plants, carpeted instead with various forms of fungi. The animal life of the 320th century consists almost entirely of giant insects and arachnids. The hero of the story, a humanoid named Burl, traverses through toadstool forests fighting off gargantuan spiders and waves of foot-long army ants.

One disappointing aspect of The Mad Planet is that the plot consists entirely of just one guy walking through this landscape. Through flashbacks, there is mention made of a human society existing in this world, but the reader sees almost no interaction between Burl and other members of the human race. This is the first book of a Burl series, so perhaps Leinster delves deeper into these future hominids in a later volume. Here the plot is only the barest of threads, as if the stage setting were far more important to Leinster than the narrative that takes place within it. That said, it is still a very good piece of science fiction writing. The way that Leinster directs the reader’s experience of this future Earth is more effective than, for example, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s descriptions of the lost world in his Land That Time Forgot series. Perhaps the lack of human contact succeeds in one respect, in that Leinster need not be stingy with the monster bugs. The prose is never boring, and Leinster adds a lot of creative touches that bolster the authenticity of this speculative world, such as when Burl crafts himself an outfit from a giant moth’s wing.

For the most part, the book feels like a naturalist’s essay on the ecosystem of a fictional universe, like some bizarre journal of an acid trip by John Muir or Henry David Thoreau. Beyond that, Leinster also includes some supplemental commentary on human development. Though existing 30 millennia in the future, Burl and his people are about as idiotic as mankind was 30 millennia ago, yet he still has the capacity to learn and grow, create new tools, and exercise rudimentary reasoning. Leinster delivers a positive message by using Burl to illustrate the unstoppable ingenuity of mankind, even in the face of deadly adversity. Really though, even that seems like just another excuse to show off this freaky fungi world and its giant insects.

Still, despite its faults, this is an entertaining adventure and an admirable work of sci-fi for 1920. For those who enjoy vintage pulp fiction, The Mad Planet is certainly worth a download and a couple hours of light reading.
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