|My copy's front cover|
The praise from FSF and Ellison is expanded upon on the first page, and Robert Silverberg joins the mix. Silverberg is quoted as saying, "One of the most terrifying visions ever to come out of science fiction." Not only is this a fragment, but it is not clear if old Silverbob was referring to On a Planet Alien or some other Malzberg work or Malzberg's entire body of work. The accolades from Ellison and FSF are even more cryptic: FSF calls Malzberg "a big frog in the biggest pond" and Ellison says the effect on him of reading The Destruction of the Temple "can only be described in terms of the Rape of the Sabine Women...."
|My copy's back cover|
The novel is full of unresolved mysteries and discrepancies in the text. Some of the characters doubt that the Federation's missions are benevolent, and suspect the Federation wants to make slaves of the primitives. The very existence of a Federation is doubted by some. The runes on the artifact are never deciphered. It is suggested that Folsom's ship may have actually flown through a time warp, and landed not on an alien planet, but the Earth at the dawn of mankind.
|A German edition|
|A British edition|
Malzberg is skeptical not only of the ability of people to explore other worlds, but of the value of doing so. Folsom claims that, despite having travelled billions and billions of miles to meet an alien culture, he feels like he has lived his whole life in a series of small rooms. Exploring space has not improved his life, and he doesn't see how meeting Federation members and joining the Federation can possibly improve the aliens' lives. Folsom even doubts that any technology, even the most rudimentary, has improved human life; when the alien Elder is reluctant to take custody of the papers which bear the secrets of the wheel, electricity, steam power, gunpowder and the rest, Folsom says, "...we didn't want it either, did we?...We would have been just as well without it...."
Malzberg's pessimistic attitude is, of course, a radical contrast to some of the science fiction novels I have read recently, like Heinlein's The Rolling Stones and Brackett's Alpha Centauri or Die! In those novels space exploration is an heroic expression of mankind's love of freedom and ability to overcome obstacles, and space is full of opportunities to make friends and secure valuable resources. In Malzberg's universe space travel drives you crazy, and the only opportunity it provides is the opportunity to expand the scope of human depravity. In On a Planet Alien Malzberg also seems to be satirizing Heinlein's oft addressed theme of the need to respect the captain of a ship. Even though I am more sympathetic to Heinlein's and Brackett's points of view, I find Malzberg's attitude amusing and a fun change of pace.
I enjoyed this one more than I did Mazlberg's Cross of Fire and The Men Inside, though perhaps not as much as The Falling Astronauts. Malzberg fans should really appreciate it, and I think it may be a good example of what Malzberg is all about, and so a good place to start for SF fans who haven't yet experienced Malzberg's brand of extreme pessimism and literary experimentation.