Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, January 24, 2013

1960: Deathworld (Harrison, Harry)

Valued for nostalgia, not artistic merit, obviously (3/5)

Deathworld has been on my “to-read” list for a long while but I’ve never come across a copy of it at a second-hand bookstore. Nearly all the works of Harry Harrison seem to have a cult following for one reason or another, but having read two of his novels and one collection, I haven’t seen much to be impressed about. I summarized both The Jupiter Legacy (1965) and In Our Hands, the Stars (1970) as being simple and linear: a plot based on one man with one big problem with little attention paid to either the start or end of the novel… wouldn’t you know, Deathworld exhibits these exact same characteristics and also comes away with a 3 of 5 star rating, just like the two novels above and the collection, Prime Number (1970). I’d be willing to try Make Room! Make Room! (1966) or The Stainless Steel Rat (1957), but I really don’t think Harrison can redeem himself after a steady string of mediocre science fiction.

Deathworld (free on Project Gutenberg) was originally serialized in three 1960 editions of Astounding Science Fiction: January, February, and March. The synopsis which follows is taken from the inside page of the first Bantam edition from September, 1960:

“Survival School was the Pyrran substitute for Kindergarten. Even the tiniest tots packed guns, and they knew how to use them.

The teaching method was simple: rooms were set up full of native animals, real in substance, but deactivated. Each time a child approached a dangerous animal a loud speaker blasted: "Kill Instantly!"  Eventually, killing became a reflex....

The final examination was the exposure to the live terrors of Pyrrus. Failure meant instant, violent death.”


On a furlough, Jason dinAlt, a gambler with a penchant for high stake risks, is approached by a bulky man who he wittily assumes is a “retired wrestler” (1). The densely built man is named Kerk Pyrrus and hails from a planet with the name as his surname; he also happens to the ambassador to a number of planets. Kerk’s issues a proposition to Jason: take the twenty-seven million credits earned from two years of mining, gamble with it, earn him three billion credits, and Jason can have whatever earnings are above that mark. How could Jason resist? Little did Kerk or the Casino staff know, Jason has a psi-talent which he uses to influence the roll of the dice. His game is craps and he hauls in the money, but not before the pit boss and the Casino security nearly capture him and his hard-earned loot.

Assuming persecution, Jason decides to be a passenger with his sixteen million credits on Kerk’s ship which is returning to his home planet of Pyrrus. He’s initially leery of joining because of the large amount of war machines which have been procured with the winnings, but Jason considers his services valuable to Kerk and his planet, a solid enough conviction which woos Kerk into accepting Jason, albeit with one condition: obey all instructions regarding his personal safety.

Pyrrus: “It is everything a humanoid world should not be. The gravity is nearly twice Earth normal. The temperature can vary daily from arctic to tropic. The climate—well you have to experience it to believe it. Like nothing you’ve seen anywhere else in the galaxy” (11-12). The planet’s geology is the result of having “thirteen super-novas in the immediate stellar neighborhood” (12) explode and give the planet its dense collection of minable heavy elements. Volcanic tantrum and thirty meter tides only exacerbate the planet’s eccentric axial tilt of nearly forty-two degrees. If the climate or natural disasters don’t claim the lives of the colonists, it may be the flora and fauna of Pyrrus because everything is “armour-plated, poisonous, claw-tipped and fang-mouthed” (12-13) if it “walks, flaps or just sits and grows” (12-13). “Ever see a plant with teeth—that bit? I don’t think you want to … Death is simple, but the ways of dealing it too numerous to list” (12-13).

Arriving on Pyrrus isn’t as simple as stamping a passport and taking a taxi to the hotel—months of training must be enduring; kinesthetic knowledge about the gravity, technical knowledge of the machines which guard life, and biological knowledge of what can kill and how (which is pretty much everything: grass, trees, insects, etc.). After months of training with six-year old children, Jason deems himself ready, a point grudgingly held by Kerk. With an eight-year old boy to protect him, the entrance lock opens and the first beasty is already slain: a stingwing oozing venom. Welcome to Pyrrus, AKA Deathworld.

Ditching the kid, Jason seeks out Kerk in the co-ordination and supply department to ask him about the history of the planet and why the wildlife is so dangerous. The answers are abrupt and empty, which spurs Jason into seeking his own answers, but the very questions he asks the natives make their blood boil with innate rage. In the library, he discovers one document which describes early Pyrrus as being a very livable place. Somehow, between the early days and the modern days, the city has become increasingly deadly. On hearing that there are “grubbers” which inhabit the forest, Jason is eager to see why these human “traitors” are able to live in the jungle without being consumed by it.

Stumbling upon one Pyrran who tries to outright murder him, Jason and Naxa soon realize that they share a common trait—they both have psi abilities. While Jason used to use his ability for gambling, Naxa utilizes his power for taming animals. This revelation is an epiphany for Jason, who uses this knowledge to further understand why the wildlife around the city is so fierce, why the “grubbers” are able to live in the jungle, and why life is only getting more deadly for the colony of thirty thousand souls.

However, after generations and generation of living to fight with the ever-penetrating claws and venom of the wildlife, they have grown content with the struggle: “The Pyrrans took satisfaction from any day that passed without total annihilation. There seemed no way to change their attitude” (55-56). Even Jason “tried to find one life form that wasn’t out for blood. He didn’t succeed” (32). But with this discovery of the sensitivity of the wildlife to psi-powers, Jason is determined, though admittedly “no doctor of social ills” and “not trying to cure this planet full of muscle-bound sharpshooters” (120), to change the tacit belief of the Pyrrans, that war can be stopped and peace can endure. Everyone hates this idea.


There are a few pages which are heavy in detail about the perils found on the planet Pyrrus, then there are a few sections which highlight the lethality of the wildlife of Pyrrus, but the entire basis of the novel is singular: big scary planet, hence the blatant title of the novel, DEATHWORLD. This is the sort of simple novel which is spun from a single idea, merely one example of many from the same era. Considering my previous Harrison reads, this “spun from a single idea” trend of writing a novel seems to be his forte, a rather dull forte to establish for yourself.

With an entire planet to play with, to explore, to lose himself in, Harrison oddly keeps the reigns taught in regards to indulging in his imagination. The physical aspects of the planet are detailed within a few pages. The flora and fauna, by far much more deadly than anything else on the planet, are casually mentioned in a few tense action sequences with their array of fangs, teeth, stingers, points, venoms, and poisons. A more focused synthesis of the wildlife is largely ignored, only mentioning a few unique species, never their relationships with each other or the environment around them; the should-be spectacle is given a cursory glance, at best.

Again, the details of the planet are the most drawing aspect of the novel. Rather than stretching the details out into a mediocre 124-page plot, a type of visitor’s guide or travelogue would have been more encompassing (think: Hitchhiker’s Guide to Pyrrus). The Pyrrans are an interesting lot for a short time, but their belligerence and stubbornness erode the attention of the reader because of their one-dimensionality; they’re all cut from the same cloth: built with muscle and bred for fighting. Only Meta, Jason’s part-time love interest but soon forgotten about after a few chapters, can encompass Jason’s understanding of Pyrrus. The rest, aside from the “grubbers”, fight tooth-and-nail until Jason orates, almost pontificates, his belief to the city dwellers, by which they are miraculously converted to his line of thinking and nod their head in appreciation.

I’ve never been a science fiction reader who appreciates the use of psi or telekinesis in the plot. It’s always been a fuddy-duddy science with very little actual science behind it; it’s more fanciful postulation or human idealism. More often than not, there is no biological basis or impetus behind the function and use of telepathy, psi, telekinesis, etc. Much like Jason’s use of psi; he has psi and that’s the end of that line of inquiry.

With all that said, at least it is mildly entertaining in terms of action and originality. Perhaps when the dialogue becomes playful with the brute sarcasm of a leering knave does the reader smile and suppress a giggle here and there. Then again, sometimes the dialogue is just plain dull and/or didactic. For much of the novel, the reader is either learning about the planet or learning about Jason’s intentions.


Like Joachim says of Gordon R. Dickson, “he might be average, but not all that horrible”, I feel exactly the same about Harry Harrison—four books of his read and I have yet to find any singular quality or trait which elevates him to a “grandmaster” ranking (from 2009), aside from the reminiscing of reading Harrison in other people’s younger days. While this book may have sparked the imaginations of teenagers in the 1960s, Deathworld has aged to become merely one more pulp novel from the same era.

As stated in the introduction and lightly touched upon in the previous paragraph, my ambition to read Harrison’s bibliography is next to nil. I gather that the important works of Harrison’s are attached to sentimental value rather than actual artistic value to the genre of science fiction.


  1. Nicely put final two paragraphs. Sci-fi publishing in Harrison's day was an entirely different world than any of the ages--golden, silver, new, accelerated, and otherwise--that have transpired since. With popularity has come competition, and with competition has come an improvement and diversity of quality. Pulp is still published (and bought!) today, but the number of options for discerning tastes is more than ample. Perhaps too ample, but that is a topic for another day.

    I don't always comment, but I do regularly visit your blog. Keep it up!

  2. Just so you know Jesse, science fiction is LESS popular than it once was.... So, unfortunately, this comment doesn't really make any sense in this context, "With popularity has come competition, and with competition has come an improvement and diversity of quality. Pulp is still published (and bought!) today, but the number of options for discerning tastes is more than ample." At the time Harrison was famous, and there was plenty of variety in 60s science fiction -- from extremely experimental to literary to pulp... But, it was in no way only pulp...

    1. You’re right; my statements were too generalized. I in no way intended to downgrade all that was produced in the Golden Age to pulp. I have not read anywhere near as much as you, but I’m aware of the era's diversity. What I was trying to express is the difference between pulp sci-fi then and now. Writing sci-fi in the Golden Age was like designing cars in the early 20th century. You had near complete freedom to create as you saw fit, little chance of emulating the aesthetics of others (purely from an artistic view, publishing concerns aside). Accordingly, the ideas produced seemed novel, regardless of whether they were developed with integrity or not. Today, however, the context in which writers produce sci-fi is more competitively tight. It’s difficult to be original. The ongoing history of the genre is producing innumerable points of comparison, bolstered by improvements in knowledge available, space, technology, science, etc. This drives the desire (in some writers, at least) to be fresh and new and not repeat too much of what others have done. Many others, however, play it safe and recombine old, proven ideas in merely semi-original fashion. Where there was once a broad, empty canvas, there are now established sets of sub-genre and sub-sub-genres, catering to a variety of interests and tastes. Pulp today is still pulp, but it has added degrees of complexity due to the historical context, improvements in knowledge, and sub-genre expansion. Accordingly, the Golden Age produced many high quality writers and books, but I think the depth of sci-fi is now greater than ever due to these points, even if the sales ratios cannot compete with previous era’s. In other words, would Harrison’s work be considered up to standard by publishers today?

  3. Umm, the Golden Age of science fiction is generally consider to have occurred from 1938-1946 -- not the 50s or 60s... So again, I don't really get your statement. There was still pulp being written in the 60s but it was an era of intensely variegated sci-fi.

    You're generalizing again -- "Where there was once a broad, empty canvas, there are now established sets of sub-genre and sub-sub-genres, catering to a variety of interests and tastes." Even in the 60s there was pulp, social science fiction, more technologically heavy sci-fi, space opera, etc etc etc etc.

    You seem to be adhering to a paradigm of everything improves over time -- which is fallacious at its core and incredibly presentist....

    1. I'm wondering if I should continue this discussion? I nowhere state the Golden Age occurred in the 50s and 60s... Perhaps you might look a little closer at my argument?

      I am in no way questioning the diversity or quality of the Golden Age. I start by arguing that the social, scientific, and literary context of the time was vastly different than ours now. Writers of the era were working in a medium largely untouched save by a few brave souls prior. From the reader's point of view in 1938-1946, things must have been continually fresh, every sci-fi book staking out new territory in style, story, and theme. By contrast, writers today are working on a canvas covered with the lines, scratches, colors, marks, and images of nearly 80 straight years of sci-fi publishing. And, along with being judged aside their peers, they are also being judged in the historical context--against the variety produced in the Golden Age, not to mention the variety produced between. With writers looking to build upon the positive accomplishments of previous generations, to fill the tiny, interstitial spaces left over, or to be the first to cover territory opened by advances in science or technology, complexity is the natural result. So, it's not that I believe everything improves over time, bar none. It's that increasing complexity has raised the overall genre bar for sci-fi to date. Probably there will be a reversion some day, but I don't think so soon. To get down to brass tacks, perhaps we could compare a list of styles and sub-genres today with styles and sub-genres then? :)

      But to get back to the original argument and the point of 2theD's review, pulp of the Golden Age is so much more conspicuous compared to that of today, regardless of the quality works existing at the time.

    2. I guess I was simply confused about your comments because the book under discussion, Deathworld is from 1960. Hence, I might have misunderstood your argument. I apologize.