Bored by life, Jason dinAlt is a gambling man, so when a mysterious stranger offers him millions of dollars to gamble with at a government-owned casino, Jason can’t resist, even though failure will probably result in his death. (It helps that Jason has some psi talents, even though they’re a little unpredictable.) After the casino episode, Jason finds that he must quickly depart the planet. When he learns that his mysterious benefactor is an ambassador of the most dangerous planet on the universe, he decides he’d like to go for a visit.
That’s how Jason ends up on Pyrrus, aka Deathworld. Due to its two moons, high gravity, and 42° axial tilt, the planet has a severe climate with dangerous tides, extreme weather changes, and unpredictable earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The only plants and animals that can survive in such harsh conditions are those that are even tougher and meaner than the environment. Humans who end up on Deathworld usually don’t live very long. Those that manage to survive are tough and hearty, but their population is decreasing quickly and the human race is in danger of being wiped out on Pyrrus.
When Jason arrives on Deathworld, he joins the youngest children and endures extensive survival training. When he finally gets free to explore the planet by himself, he discovers that there’s another group of people on Deathworld and their way of living is vastly different from the warmongering tribe he’s been staying with. How is it that this group is able to live at peace with the planet? Jason would like to find out.
Harry Harrison, best known for his STAINLESS STEEL RAT series, published his DEATHWORLD series as a serial story in Astounding Science Fiction. This novel, Deathworld, was published in 1960 and was followed by two sequels which were also originally serialized. An omnibus edition is also available. I read the audio version which is nicely narrated by Jim Roberts. It was first produced in downloadable format in 2011 by Jimcin Recordings and is now being distributed on CD by Brilliance Audio’s Speculative imprint. It’s 6 hours long. If you’re a member at Audible, you can get it cheaper there ($5.95). A public domain version with a volunteer reader is also available at Librivox, but I have not tried it and can’t vouch for the quality (if you can, please leave a comment).
Deathworld feels very much like a standard 1960 science fiction novel with its fast pace, roguish male protagonist, shallow secondary characters, beautiful female, cool gadgets, psi and precog powers, and ecology themes. The story is entertaining and unpredictable, with an interesting solution to the mystery.
One thing I particularly like about Harry Harrison’s stories is that he creates some great female characters, especially for 1960s science fiction. Angelina, the female protagonist of his STAINLESS STEEL RAT series, is as clever and ruthless as Slippery Jim. Jason’s love interest in Deathworld isn’t as awesome as Angelina, but she’s in a position of authority and she’s tougher than Jason.
What I dislike most about Harry Harrison’s stories is his lack of subtlety. There’s usually a lesson which Harrison gets across by creating ridiculously clueless characters for his protagonist to deal with. For example, in Deathworld, Jason has to mediate between two groups of people who hold silly prejudices about each other. In the last part of the book Jason spends a lot of time explaining to them how their actions brought about undesirable consequences. Jason comes across looking reasonable and intelligent, but only because the other characters are stupid and irrational. The lesson is about prejudice, hate, and human colonization. It’s a good lesson — it’s just so obvious. Deathworld will be most entertaining for readers who appreciate Harrison’s direct approach. I enjoyed it until the end when Jason started lecturing.