Planet of the Voles
Reviewed date: 2023 Mar 31
Their warship destroyed by the hostile Voles, two men emerge on the jungle world. Lost to Earth, they swear revenge on the whole planet.
These two men—one an artist and observer, the other a crude technician—find other humans on the planet, drugged and useless; and an underground movement near starvation and incapable of combat. Their quest through quicksands of treachery and deceit comes to an astonishing climax they could never have been prepared for . . .
The first paragraph of the back cover blurb is lies. The Voles did not destroy their warship. The Voles flooded the ship with gas, killing those on board but leaving the ship intact. That's the first lie. Second, the two survivors are not lost to Earth. All they have to do is refuel the ship with water from the nearby planet, and hightail it back through hyperspace to Earth. Third, they don't swear revenge on the whole planet. They're just trying to escape back to Earth.
The second paragraph has fewer lies. There are two survivors: Tomas and Jon. Tomas is indeed an artist and an observer on this ship filled with genetically engineered warriors. As for Jon, the book calls him an engineer, not a technician, and to characterize him as "crude" is unfair. Even if we assume Jon is not an engineer per se, he is at worst a highly skilled technician skillfully performing a critical role on the ship. Nothing is crude about Jon.
Setting: Humans, Volvanians, bio-wombs, engineered warriors
Humanity has spread out across the galaxy, but now finds itself in a war against the alien Volvanians. Humans have long ago left their aggressive ways behind them, so to fight the invaders Earth has genetically engineered a warrior class, grown them in bio-wombs, and trained them from birth to be fighters. Earth's warships are manned entirely by warriors, with the exception of a few artists to boost morale and engineers to keep the ships running.
Hyperspace and special rocks
Humans found a very special solar system with very special rocks. These rocks, and only these rocks, can travel through hyperspace. So they take big chunks of asteroids and turn them into huge warships, and pilot them through hyperspace. Voles, interestingly, can traverse hyperspace without the need for the special rocks, so there seems to be something that humans are not understanding about hyperspace. It's all hand-wavy junk science, though, so pay no attention to any of this except that the bit about the special rocks becomes important later on.
The Voles are humanoid, and seem little different from humans. A human with some quickly-applied facial prosthetics can pass for a Vole. Voles do have some telepathic powers that become significant later in the book.
The book title is Planet of the Voles and that's usually how they are referred to, but the story sometimes calls them Volvanians. The manuscript could have used another editing pass before being printed.
Curiously, both the Terran warship and the destination planet are unnamed. That seems odd. The Volvanian mothership is unnamed as well, but presumably that is because the story is told from the point of view of Tomas and Jon, who would not know the alien ship's name. But to have their own warship lack a name, and the planet also remain nameless? I hesitate to accuse the author Charles Platt of not putting his full effort into this book, but something seems amiss here.
After some internet sleuthing I dug up this: in a 1977 letter to Science Fiction Review, Platt admits Planet of the Voles "was produced in a week when I first arrived in New York and was desperate for cash." Science Fiction Review, #21, May 1977 (page 34)
Since I'm digging up old stuff, here's a 1979 letter where Platt refers to Planet of the Voles as a satire. Jackie! All the Famous Braodsheets [sic], page 15 Maybe. If so, it's not successful. But presuming it is a satire makes it more likely that the more outrageous bits of writing are intentional.
One more: in Science Fiction Review #47, Summer 1983, page 28 Platt suggests his early books were jokes, and laments being judged on them: "I had this tendency to do jokes. GARBAGE WORLD was the first joke; in fact, its original title was TURD FROM THE SUN -- just designed to be a totally anal fantasy, since I was known to have an interest in that kind of bad taste. And then PLANET OF THE VOLES, and other things equally embarrassing which I just couldn't resist. … I never imagined them lingering on years later to embarrass me."
But I digress. Back to the book review.
Tomas is the ship's artist. He was bred and grown in the bio-womb like the warriors, but he has no aptitude for fighting. He produces art for the warriors, which helps their morale, but they look down on Tomas and disrespect him. Those who don't fight are considered inferior. Tomas feels out of place and longs to be accepted by his womb-brothers.
Battle in hyperspace
The warship is headed to liberate a training outpost on a remote planet that has been attacked by Voles. While the ship is transiting hyperspace, Tomas goes EVA to get some photographs of the ship for his artistic pursuits. While he is outside, he witnesses an impossibility: a Volvanian ship has followed them into hyperspace. The Volvanian ship attacks. The warriors are unprepared and the battle is swift and brutal: Volvanian gas kills everyone on board. Curiously, though, the Voles do not destroy the warship. They move off instead. As they do, they pass so close to Tomas that he can look right into the Volvanian ship and see the faces of the Voles. He notices one face, a woman, who seems eerily familiar.
With the Volvanians gone, Tomas re-boards the ship. The warriors are dead. Everything is intact and undamaged, but most of the fuel—they use water for reaction mass—has been vented into space. Tomas finds only one survivor: Jon.
Jon, like Tomas, has no aptitude for fighting. He's an engineer. After entering hyperspace, the drive tube gets fouled with rock dusk, and it's Jon's job to polish up the tube to get ready for the next hyperspace event. During the attack Jon was wearing a pressure-suit and cleaning the drive tube, and the pressure-suit protected him from the Vole gas.
The warship exits hyperspace and automatically drops into orbit around the destination planet. Tomas and Jon decide the best course of action is to refuel the warship and return to Earth. The fuel they need is water, so all they have to do is fly a troop-carrier down to a lake, load up, return to the warship (all while avoiding the Voles), and then traverse hyperspace back to Earth. Easy-peasy.
Tomas kinda-sorta crashes the troop carrier, but they survive. Unfortunately Tomas gets himself captured by the Voles. Curiously, though, the Vole gas—which should have left him unconscious for weeks—wears off in an hour. The Voles, not suspecting he is alert, have left him unbound and unattended. Tomas steals some documents—including a photo of the Vole commander, the woman he saw during the encounter in hyperspace—and escapes. He finds Jon in the forest, and the two of them make contact with the local resistance.
Zombies and the resistance
Yes, there is a resistance. It turns out the Voles did not kill the humans on the planet. Instead, the Voles destroyed the food supply and planted an edible alien fruit in their place. Anyone who eats the fruit becomes a zombie: no motivation, no will, little rational thought. The majority of the warriors have become zombies, and the Voles leave them alone, unmolested. Only a handful have not eaten the soporific fruit, and they are the resistance. But without weapons they have accomplished little.
Special rock dust
Tomas realizes that while he is uniquely immune to the Vole gas, Jon was not protected by his pressure suit after all. It must have been the rock dust in the drive tube that counteracted the gas. With this knowledge, Tomas and the resistance quickly revive the zombie warriors by feeding them special rock dust. Now with a full army at their disposal, they attack the Vole stronghold on the planet.
The humans defeat the Voles. While the warriors are reveling in their bloodlust and the glory of combat, Tomas comes face to face with Gavina, the female Vole commander. (All the Vole commanders are female.) Gavina reveals the awful truth: Tomas is not different just because he's an artist. He's different because he's the product of a Vole plot. As Tomas was being grown in the bio-womb, Gavina used her telepathic powers to manipulate his genes: Tomas, though he looks human, is a Vole.
Gavina asks Tomas to fulfill his destiny: as a Vole in a position of trust inside Earth's military, Tomas can manipulate events to ensure a Vole victory in this war.
Tomas refuses. But this revelation has made him aware that he will never feel at home among humans. Tomas and Jon take the warship and strike out on their own. They will not go back to Earth, but will go out among the stars to find their own way.
Or something. It doesn't make much sense.
Book Review: Planet of the Voles, Charles Platt (1971) [sciencefictionruminations.com]: "1/5 (Terrible) ... lacks any real enthusiasm, earnestness, or intelligent thought."
Planet Of The Voles-Charles Platt (1971) [vintage45.wordpress.com]: "a not all that exciting novel. Even though it’s a quick read, don’t waste your time with it."
Planet of the Voles by Charles Platt [mporcius.blogspot.com]: "While it was disappointing and at times embarrassing, I didn't find reading it a painful experience, and I don't regret reading it. The beginning is an OK adventure story, the end interesting in a bizarre way."
Review by James Blish in Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 1972 (page 30): "There isn’t an original idea in the entire book, and the plot itself is full of loose ends and holes, large and small."
Review by Paul Walker in Luna Monthly #40, September 1973 (page 30): "[The] main trouble with it is that it has not one new, or even interesting, idea to offer."