Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Deathworld by Harry Harrison

DeathworldI was visiting my daughter and her husband last weekend, and had brought my Nook along. While browsing for some light reading, I found a copy of Deathworld, which I'd enjoyed many years ago, and figured I'd give it another read. Harry Harrison has written some pretty fun adventures over the years, such as the early Bill, the Galactic Hero antics, and the Stainless Steel Rat series. There were only three books written in the Deathworld series, and this one started them off.

Jason din Alt is a gambler, whose dirty little secret is that he has a bit of psi ability, which lets him see the outcome of the dice and sometimes even gain a little telekinetic control over them. He's relaxing in a bar on Cassylia (seems like that's the beginning scene in a number of early SF novels) when he is approached by Kerk Pyrrus, the ambassador of the planet, Pyrrus, with the opportunity of a lifetime for a gambler. Kerk will stake him to 3 million credits, which Jason must parlay into 2 billion, and anything he wins above that amount he can keep.

Kerk and his friends need the money to buy armaments for their battle against the flora and fauna of Pyrrus, which is incredibly inimical to the humans living there. The planet is extremely rich in heavy metals, and for various reasons, the colonists will not leave, despite the long odds against them.

Jason takes on the challenge, wins the money the Pyrrans need and, bored with life on the civilized planets, tells Kerk that he wants to return with him to Pyrrus, to see what it is like there. He has a shipboard romance with another colonist, Meta, while en route, but she drops him like a hot potato as soon as they arrive on the planet. The planet is so dangerous that even residents who have been away for a short length of time must take a refresher course to keep them alive vs. the constantly evolving plants and animals. Jason is put through a survival course that six year old children attend, and is provisionally allowed to go out on the surface with a bodyguard, a crippled eight year old boy.

Jason is puzzled as to why the entire planet seems to be constantly at war with humans, and does a little investigating on his own, discovering in an old mouldering ship's log that when the original settlers landed, things were not nearly as dangerous, but eventually the settlers were fighting for their lives on all fronts. He also finds out that there is another group of colonists, whom the miners hold in contempt, the Grubbers. When he cadges a ride with one of the people who trade with the grubbers for food that they seem to be able to grow, unlike the city dwellers, he finds out that they are not really barbarians, but that they have learned to live in peace with the wildlife, and only have a hardscrabble existence because the city Pyrrans won't allow them to have vital technology - medicine, for example.

Din Alt decides that he is the only one who can save the Pyrrans from their madness, and cons both the grubbers and the miners into going along with his plans. Of course, not all of his plans survive contact with the enemy, but eventually a solution of sorts is obtained.

A quick, interesting read. I'll have to dig out Deathworld 2 and 3 one of these days and see if they're also as good as I remember.

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