Sunday 17 February 2013

The Deathworld trilogy, by Harry Harrison

I bought these books about forty years ago and hadn't read them for almost as long, so I was pleased when the first of them was chosen as the book of the month by the Classic Science Fiction discussion group. Since they are all very short by modern standards, only adding up to one average-sized modern novel between them, I read the two sequels as well.

Deathworld is set in a far-future universe in which humanity has colonised 30,000 worlds (with no mention of any alien civilisations) and features Jason dinAlt, a gambler with limited telekinetic powers which enable him to cheat. He is recruited and bankrolled by Kerk Pyrrus, a formidable native of the planet Pyrrus, to win a large sum of money to purchase weapons which the people on his planet need to survive. It emerges that Pyrrus is ferociously hostile to humanity; not just in its double gravity and violent extremes of weather and climate, but in a flora and fauna which keep evolving at a rapid rate to attack the settlers as viciously as possible. As a result the Pyrrans are formidable fighters, their whole lives geared to survival.

Bored with his existence, dinAlt is intrigued by what he hears and decides to travel to Pyrrus with Kerk. Surviving with some difficulty and a lot of help, he gradually realises that there is something odd going on and believes that humanity doesn't need to live in such a state of violent warfare with the planet's biota. However, the Pyrrans are so focused on survival that they have no time for his theories and dinAlt has to put his own life on the line to try to change the situation.

Like most heroes of contemporary SF, dinAlt regards himself as far superior to the rest of humanity, but his self-confidence takes a battering on Pyrrus where he struggles with the high gravity and is demonstrably inferior in fighting skills to the average eight-year old. His intelligence wins out over the brute force of the Pyrrans in the end, though. Read with modern eyes, the story has a certain allegorical feel - of a population whose own actions are changing their environment in ways which make it more hostile to themselves, but who are too wrapped up in their own way of life to want to make the necessary alterations. But Harrison wrote this long before concerns about climate change emerged.

Deathworld 2, originally titled The Ethical Engineer, directly continues the story with dinAlt on Pyrrus, from which he is abruptly kidnapped by Mikah, a representative of a group of religious fundamentalists who have decided to bring the now famous dinAlt to trial for his various earlier misdeeds as an example to others. However, Mikah's ship crashes on an isolated planet with a primitive human civilisation based on slavery. As might be expected, the resourceful dinAlt manages to cope with the situations he keeps finding himself in, while planning how to get off the planet.

This is a slightly strange sequel as dinAlt, whom we knew from the first book as someone whose only skill was as a psi-aided gambler, suddenly morphs into an engineer with a comprehensive knowledge of early technology and with no mention of psi powers at all. The story is full of arguments he has with Mikah, in which the merits of dinAlt's rationalist atheism are hammered home in a decidedly unsubtle way. This aspect of the book is not helped by the fact that Mikah is portrayed as a cartoonish parody of a blindly religious fanatic, totally incapable of coping with the real world. If this doesn't appeal, you can skip this book and go straight to the third volume without losing anything.

Deathworld 3 is something of a return to form, and to former issues. Jason dinAlt, once again on Pyrrus with his local girlfriend Meta, has a plan to offer the Pyrrans something other than perpetual war with the local flora and fauna. He has discovered a planet dubbed Felicity possessing valuable mineral resources which lie undeveloped because of the violent opposition of barbaric natives almost as ferocious as the Pyrrans. He recruits enough Pyrrans to take on the task but runs into far more problems than he expected. The fierce locals are led by Temuchin (a name borrowed straight from Earth history - it was the original name of the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan) who proves a hard nut to crack. But dinAlt eventually discovers a solution by reading up on ancient history.

I remembered the stories as fun reads; short, fast paced and entertaining, with a wry sense of humour, as Harrison novels usually are. That is still true, although they appear rather simplistic by modern standards. Despite this, they're still worth the time to read.

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