Storms, carnivorous plants, earthquakes, and all manner of teeth, fangs, and claws hungry for flesh on a planet whose two cultures are at sociological odds, Harry Harrison’s 1960 Deathworld is a Golden Age conceit imbued with New Age ideals. The title defining which side of the fence the main thrust of the novel falls upon, there is something for fans of each era to enjoy, but with much left unspoken in the middle.
Jason dinAlt, a gambler with psionic abilities, finds himself on the planet Pyrras after a ruse gone awry. Otherwise known as Deathworld, he must go through intensive training just to step outside the door of the facility where he’s been invited to stay and help solve Pyrras’ eminent problem. The flora and fauna predatory and only becoming more aggressive, the Pyrran population is dwindling each year, complete extinction a certainty if the onslaught of claws, creatures, poisons, and all other manner of menace are not put in check. The Pyrrans a scarred and calloused culture who rarely live to see old age, dinAlt, however, meets with resilience at all turns of his research, that is, until being thrust into life outside the secure facility. Survival taking a whole new twist the deeper into the jungle he moves, he holds out hope that Deathworld will not live up to its name—for himself or the Pyrrans.
As can be imagined given the above premise (and title), Deathworld is loaded with action. If the carnivores, viruses, poisonous grasses, tempestuous weather and seismological activity are not enough, life on the planet is evolving at a phenomenal rate. The fluctuating ecological state of the planet means citizens must continually be re-educated how to protect themselves. Entirely in this fold, dinAlt’s life on the barbed planet is filled with excitement—acid bombs, napalm, and rocket propelled bullets among it. If the planet’s environment, zoology, and microbiology aren’t trying to kill him, than his worldview’s clash with the native Pyrrans’ doesn’t help; the fighting is thus also of the hand-to-hand, pistol, and spaceship variety. The novel may suffer in many other ways, but at least the pages keep turning.
Characters largely one dimensional, dialogue typically melodramatic, and the story told as often as it is shown, Deathworld is not the most accomplished novel. Beyond dinAlt, the other characters: Kerk the bullheaded Pyrran, Meta the intelligent/beautiful/tough girl of the hour, and Reese the grubber, are stereotypes representing their side’s interests in simplistic fashion. Not helping matters is that their conversations have been pulled from the author’s rather than the characters' minds, resulting in a story that never fully allows the reader to settle into a suspended state of belief.
Aside from the action-adventure slant of Deathworld, the strongest aspect is the Pyrrans. Possessing a classic right wing/Conan-esque view (nature weeds out the weak, the strong survive, and do what you yourself must to live in this world), Pyrrans parallel Western, particularly American, values from several significant perspectives. The resulting fear and paranoia, emphasized by the thoughtless reaction and narrow-mindedness with which Pyrrans approach existence—‘the world is my enemy’ attitude—are likewise examined. Harrison nicely juxtaposing the Pyrrans with another group on the planet, the parallels to Western life become apparent in relevant fashion.
Reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin, the major theme of Deathworld is thus sociological/anthropological in nature. Holding up a mirror to Western society by presenting then examining Pyrran culture, how the tension is resolved is an ideal taken directly from the New Age movement the book was published during. There are explosions and tension leading up to the climax, but the effect and intent of the last chapter transcends the otherwise comic book story. Had Harrison created more believable characters, located them within a less outrageous setting, and had them speak to each other in a more realistic manner, the novel’s message would have driven itself deeper. As it stands, the seriousness of the discussion is drowned by the B-movie feel to the story, but cannot be faulted for intention.
In the end, Deathworld is a book which succumbs to the tenor of its title. Harrison writing an action-filled tale with attempted heart, its pulse fades as less-than-subtle writing takes over. The excitement level is kept high as the plot runs a nice gamut through the threats to life and limb on the planet, as well as infighting amongst the Pyrrans. But that intrinsically it does not speak to the realism of Harrison’s agenda leaves the novel’s message hurting. There are some interesting concepts in the wild-west jungle setting (e.g. the survival studies Pyrrans undertake from the cradle, the Pyrran worldview, etc.) but by and large these take a backseat to the B-movie format. Those who enjoyed Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse, Ursula Le Guin’s Planet of Exile, Samuel Delany’s The Fall of the Towers, and other such books may also enjoy Harrison’s.