Deathworld, by Harry Harrison
Published 1960, by Bantam Books
Humans have colonized many planets in the galaxy and in most places they live in sealed bubbles that provide a breathable atmosphere. But on one planet, life has become nothing more than a daily fight for survival. Every living thing on Pyrrus seems intent on destroying humans. Fast evolution provides all plants and animals with poisons, weapons and armour and the single-minded desire to kill people.
Jason dinAlt has a bit of psychic ability which he uses to make a living as a gambler and con-man. He’s approached by the ambassador from Pyrrus, Kerk, to use his skills to increase their money. Intrigued by the man and what he says about the planet he’s from, dinAlt can only see the challenge. He ignores the warnings everyone gives him and convinces Kerk to take him back to Pyrrus. He spends months in ‘school’ with Pyrrus’ children where he learns how to respond to the many deadly things that want to kill him. Eventually, he persuades them to let him out where he finally grasps his arrogance. From there he gradually learns what the inhabitants of Pyrrus can’t – why the planet is responding in this way.
There was a lot to like here. This is very much fiction of ideas; character development is sacrificed to plot and theme. It’s very fast paced and I liked that. I enjoyed the exploration of militarist culture and the impact that has on people. These are ideas and experiences that are relevant in any time.
Sometimes the trope of outsider coming in to solve the natives’ problem is paternalistic. In this case, I think the realistic depiction of Pyrran society helped avoid that. The people are so completely consumed by survival that they can’t spend time thinking about the bigger picture. Thinking is a luxury when your every waking moment has to be dedicated to staying alive.
My only criticism is – where are the women? It’s not even that the major characters are male, it’s that there is only one woman to be seen at all. The pilot of the Pyrran transport ship, Maya, is female and she gets as much character development as any of the male characters (which is to say, very little). She’s tough, smart, sexually confident and as capable as any of the men. Which is great. But she is the only woman in the book. The croupiers in the casino are male. All the children are male. The librarian is male. There’s another society of humans on Pyrrus who’ve learned to live in harmony with the planet (ish) and dinAlt spends some time with them. No women are mentioned. Where do the children come from? We talk a lot about the lack of gender equality in modern SFF and Deathworld puts this into context somewhat. Women are irrelevant to the human story in this book, as in anyone not white or straight. Fortunately, it’s fun enough despite that.
I suspect I might be talking about these issues a lot as I work my way through book mountain.