Think of Mr. Sammler’s Planet as Earth and then some. Despite what sci-fi editors say, the book isn’t a sci-fi novel, although I can see how one can make that mistake considering how it mentions the moon a lot (but by that standard, Moon Palace would be called sci-fi too) and frequently refers to H.G. Wells. That’s not to say that sci-fi fans wouldn’t enjoy it, and I’d bet many would find it a nice change of pace, but this is as mainstream and as literary as the rest of the phenomenal author’s work.
This is one of those stories that operates something like Zeno’s Paradox of the tortoise and Achilles, in that there’s a story that advances at a very steady pace, but at the same time hurtles and bounds into the past. It’s not that the past won’t catch up with the present, but that the present won’t overtake the past. In the linear portion of the story, the action basically follows the fiasco that follows after Mr. Sammler’s well-meaning but not-quite-right daughter decides to steal an academic’s manuscript about the moon all because her father is a scholar of H.G. Wells, and she thinks this manuscript will somehow help Sammler better understand Wells’ novel The First Men in the Moon. Mr. Sammler, an unimposing soul, has to find a way to correct everything without a social eclat.
While that story develops, the bulk of the novel involves Sammler looking back at his life, and trying to get his thoughts in order. Being a hypercivilized well-read intellectual makes such a task a serious chore. Through the novel, we get to read several lengthy paragraphs about politics, history, ethics, and morality. Bellow himself, before becoming a novelist, went to college for anthropology, and this interest in the myriad ways of the masses of men followed him throughout his life and informs much of this book.
Bottom Line: Mr. Sammler’s Planet is an absorbing, thought-provoking, and surprisingly uplifting book despite how some of the subject matter is quite depressing (a subplot involves memories of surviving the Holocaust).
If you like the work of Saul Bellow and have already read Mr. Sammler’s Planet, check out The Victim.
Also, I think I should probably include the cover to this book in my series about my favorite old wacky book covers.
If you’re looking for something new to read, do me a favor and at least consider reading my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories.
Check out some of my other book reviews.