Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Book Review - Deathworld

I haven't read a ton of science fiction. My genre reading often leaned towards fantasy more than sci-fi. The author, Harry Harrison, was apparently quite a prolific writer and seemed to be generally well liked so when Deathworld came on my radar and I decided to give it a try.

I enjoyed the way the book introduced the reader to the fiction of the universe being presented. Our main protagonist is a man named Jason who lives his life as a professional gambler. He is introduced to us during a conversation with the other primary character, Kerk, a large and ultra-strong man from the planet Pyrrus. During their initial conversation we learn that Kerk is ambassador to Pyrrus and they make money mining and trading. We see a moment of amazing quick draw as both men pull their guns in suspicion of one another. And we learn that Jason is a gambler who, according to Kerk, can seem to win whenever he wants to.

We later learn that Jason trades the risk of losing big to the risk of angering the high money players and casinos by using psychic abilities to manipulate the odds in his favor. As a result, Jason is often making hasty get aways from one big win after another. Kerk hires Jason to gamble money for Pyrrus and within a couple of chapters Jason's victory has angered the wrong people and we have a high speed getaway that could be something out of a mid-20th century gangster movie but instead is souped up with sci-fi vehicles and weapons and a getaway plan involving manipulation of class and cultural biases.

In the short span of these early chapters, we not only learn a bit about the character but we also find out about the universe that Harrison is creating. It's one with the gritty underbellies of casinos and gambling much as we might find on Earth but with added sci-fi elements of beings both psychically enabled and super-strong.

I really enjoyed the way the book quickly established so many key elements without berating the reader with endless pages of exposition or boring futuristic history lessons. Instead, we're given a fairly fast paced plot and character driven romp using concepts we're familiar with to introduce us to the nuances of the fictional universe. The writing may not be perfect, but as a lesson in how to "show" rather than "tell", it earned my nod of approval.

As the book continues, we learn about the Pyrrus, the Deathworld of the book's title. Kerk and his people are in a constant war. Not against another nation or advanced alien race but against the planet itself and all of the plant and animal life on Pyrrus. Jason is given a chance to leave but his curiosity draws him to the planet and he sees firsthand how every plant and animal seems to have adapted not only to be deadly to humans but to have an active desire to hunt down and attack the human colony where Kerk and Jason land.

I won't spoil the plot of the book other than to say that Jason's curiosity leads him first to see if he can train himself to survive on the planet in the same way that the native Pyrrans do but also to try and deduce why the planet and its creatures are attacking the humans. His quest for answers seems fruitless but he's persistent and the end result was interesting and unpredictable, at least to me.

I found the sci-fi elements generally believable. Naturally there were some things that felt a bit dated which is understandable considering the book is nearly 60 years old. And yet, the way plot, characters and technology worked together felt natural. The language and behaviors also seemed to generally transcend time and work well enough. I remember reading some Heinlein and Bradbury stories and finding myself laugh sometimes at the "Leave it to Beaver" interactions and language that sometimes happen. There are some moments in Deathworld that felt a little stilted but generally it felt alright.

It was also refreshing to see a female main character that wasn't a simpering damsel in distress. There were small twinges of male-centric ideals in the book but not nearly as much as some other older novels I've read. I think part of this could be due to the concept that on Pyrrus everyone must become fully able to defend themselves against everything the planet throws at them. Thus the women, as well as the men, must be strong and fully capable. Jason's initial observations of Meta, the main female character, seem to balance between the stereotypical chauvinistic thoughts and other more modern and equitable treatment of women. It's not perfect but it was better and more thoughtful than some stories I've read from the era.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The writing was simple and to the point while also carrying enough depth of plot and character development to make for a fun and interesting story. The story arc was intricate enough to propel from one segment to another and keep me guessing as to the final trajectory and yet the whole progression felt fairly natural. While I approached this as a sci-fi novel, the science-fiction elements often took a back seat to the adventure and exploration. I enjoyed the fact that the science and technology didn't become a character unto itself. The story was entertaining and the ending was fun. I was happy to learn that there are two more books following the adventures of Jason. I'm not sure when I'll read them but I've put them on my radar and I look forward to reading more in the future.

3.5 out of 5 stars

View all of my reviews on

No comments: