Harrison, Harry. Deathworld.

NY: Bantam, 1960.

This was Harry Harrison’s first novel and I can remember reading it in high school, when it originally appeared in ASTOUNDING (which is also why it’s rather short for a novel). It was popular enough to engender a couple of sequels, though most fans probably identify Harry first with the “Stainless Steel Rat” series.

It’s interesting, by the way, to read a science fiction novel written fifty years ago (and a bit appalling to realize that’s how long it’s been). For one thing, it always surprises me that virtually no SF author of that time predicted personal-size computers or any other form of digital electronics, and their idea of miniaturization was laughable by today’s standards. The starship pilots do the math for plotting a hyperspace jump in their heads, assisted by a calculator. (Writing a decade earlier, Heinlein’s space pilots used slide rules.) You would expect folks like that to be experienced predictors, but it almost never happened.

Jason dinAlt is a professional gambler with a knack for winning far more often than he loses — with the assistance of an undependable psi talent. He takes on a commission from a representative of the planet Pyrrus to build a very large stake into a huge sum at a casino on another world, which he duly accomplishes. Pyrrus, he’s told, is the deadliest world ever to be colonized by humans and the money is crucial to its survival. Jason has basically run out of challenges in his life and after hearing this description, he decides to go and take a look for himself. And Pyrrus certainly lives up to its reputation: Every living thing there, from the microorganisms and the grass on up, seems intent on killing the colonists. And if the fauna and flora don’t do you in, the tectonics and the climate will. Jason has to go through extensive survival schooling with the local five-year-olds before he can even go outdoors. And even those kids are armed and deadly. (Another comment: The super-sidearms they all carry — or wear, actually — apparently fire cartridges. Since everyone gets off perhaps a hundred shots per day, they must be reloading all the time. Why didn’t the author give them some sort of energy-beam weapon? Today, of course, it would be deep-charge lasers.) This extremely hostile environment also means everyone is fixated on survival, with no energy or inclination left over for creativity or any other ordinary human impulse, which doesn’t do much for Jason’s love life.

In any case, that’s just the set-up. There’s a mystery about Pyrrus that carries the plot, and which Jason sets out to investigate. The planet, which survives economically by mining and exporting radioactive ores, and which has been human-inhabited for three centuries, still has only a single modest settlement, plus a few outlying mining camps. Not only is the city’s population not expanding, it’s actually contracting; the Pyrrans are slowly losing their battle with the planet. Moreover, the struggle seems to be centered on the only large settlement, and has been ever since the first colonists’ arrival. There are even communities of “grubbers,” who trade food to the city for hardware, who actually have reached a harmonious balance with the native life-forms. So what’s going on here? I won’t give away the maguffin, which was original for its time, except to note that Jason’s psychic abilities will prove useful. Younger readers, whose knowledge of science fiction is mostly 21st-century, really ought to go back and discover some of the Golden Age authors, of whom Harry Harrison is one of the most entertaining. (As it happens, this one is available from Amazon as a free Kindle download. That’s just the kind of person Harry is.)

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Published in: on 25 September 2012 at 5:41 am  Leave a Comment  
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