Harry Harrison’s The Deathworld Trilogy consists of three works: 1960’s Deathworld, 1964’s Deathworld 2, and 1968’s Deathworld 3. Alternate titles: Deathworld, The Ethical Engineer, and The Horse Barbarians. All were serialized in the same magazine, which was known as Astounding when Deathworld was published and Analog when the other two came out.
(The Deathworld series is much longer. More on that later.)
Deathworld (AKA Deathworld)
Professional gambler Jason DinAlt has a slight but telling edge; a hint of psionic talent1. Success breeds boredom. When brutish Kerk of the planet Pyrrus approaches Jason with a proposition, it’s a welcome distraction. Kerk would like Jason to use his powers to turn the millions Pyrrus has saved into the billions of credits it desperately needs for supplies. Failure will mean Jason’s death (Kerk is not a forgiving man) but at least the stakes are interesting. Unsurprisingly, Jason wins.
Intrigued by Kerk’s character and by comments that Kerk made about his homeworld, Jason insists on accompanying Kerk back to Pyrrus. He persists despite Kerk’s gloomy prediction that Jason will soon be killed.
The lone city Pyrran city exists in a permanent state of siege; the native plants and animals of Pyrrus are lethal and aggressive. The constant warfare and the world’s high gravity have shaped the Pyrrans. The survivors are dour, stubborn, strong, and have hair-trigger reflexes. Any dispositions or customs that don’t support the war effort (humour, curiosity, families) have been abandoned.
Jason soon realizes that he cannot match the locals in physical endurance or combat skills. His Pyrran lover Meta, whom he met on the way to Pyrrus, dumps him once she realizes he is such a weakling. He is assigned an eight-year-old guardian; the kid is better equipped to survive than he is.
But this off-world loser does have the emotional distance to see what the locals are refusing to admit: the population has been declining for centuries and is doomed in the long run.
He could explain to the locals that they are doomed but he believes (correctly) that the Pyrrans would kill him rather than listen. Jason decides to use his unique skills to end the state of siege. Victory is not, alas, guaranteed.
Deathworld 2 (AKA The Ethical Engineer)
Jason’s efforts on Pyrrus’ behalf are interrupted when a would-be reformer named Mikah kidnaps him. Mikah objects to Jason’s previous success at gambling. The kidnapped Jason wrecks the navigational computer on Mikah’s ship and the ship crashes on an isolated world.
This world was isolated during a galactic dark age. By the time that Jason and Mikah end up there, the planet has degenerated into a Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes. The strong prey on the weak and nobody is well off.
As one might expect, Jason soon sets about improving things. His superior knowledge of science and technology puts him at the top of every guild that he encounters, from machinists to electrical engineers. Since the local guilds jealously guard their secrets from each other, Jason has a breadth of knowledge unmatched by anyone on the planet. He hopes to use his skills to nudge the world towards peace.
His plans are continually thwarted by Mikah.
Deathworld 3 (AKA The Horse Barbarians)
Jason’s plan to save the Pyrrans has worked — up to a point. All the Pyrrans who welcome a friendlier relationship to the local wildlife have left the city. Left in the city: those who cannot change. Rather than leave these people to their inevitable deaths at the teeth, claws and caustic fluids of the Pyrran wildlife, Jason decides to find some other world to which the last city folk can relocate.
Jason selects the heavy-gravity world Felicity. No killer plants there. There are, however, killer humans. The original settlers have devolved into nomadic barbarism. Jason’s plan seems likely to turn into a death match, Pyrrans versus nomads. The Pyrrans, bred for violence, are likely to win. Yet again, Jason puts his thumb on the scales.
He infiltrates the local nomads, who have recently united under war leader Temuchin. He joins a raid into the slightly more civilized lowlands, which is carried out mercilessly. All part of Jason’s cunning plan.
The Deathworld books are straightforward adventures. The hero, however, is not the usual mighty-thewed adventurer. He’s a thinker, a planner. It’s too bad that he’s not as bright as he thinks he is and that his plans seemed doomed to fail. They don’t, because the author was on his side.
This could have been a parody of adventure novels, but Harrison played it straight. He also played it fast and easy. He deployed idiot plots. He did NO scientific research. The books are full of scientific howlers2. By the time he wrote the final novel, he couldn’t even be bothered to conceal his source material3. Harrison seems to have been aiming at a saleable series of quickly produced adventure novels suitable for the undiscerning reader (by which I mean a John Campbell long past his glory days).
Still, points to Harrison for using the Deathworld series to subvert the “endless conflict breeds superhumans” idea popular in Astounding/Analog. The Pyrrans may be strong, fast and aggressive, but they are not bright and that, along with their inability to see their world as anything but hostile, dooms them in the long run. The barbarian world in the second novel would, had it been written by, say, Frank Herbert, produced a hardened race against which the galaxy could not stand. In Deathworld 2, all their civilization can manage is paranoia and poverty.
The Deathworld books haven’t aged badly. They were dire in the 1960s and they are still dire. Any criticisms I might make now could have been made by an educated reviewer forty years ago. Perhaps they were (comments?). But the fans seem to have liked the books; Deathworld was a Hugo finalist, along with A Canticle for Leibowitz, Rogue Moon, The High Crusade, and Venus Plus X. Go figure.
I just now learned that there were four more Deathworld novels. All were collaborations with Ant Skalandis, and Mikhail Akhmanov, and all were published in Russia. As I do not speak or read Russian I cannot comment further.
Deathworld 3 seems to be out of print.
1: It also made it far more likely that Harrison would sell this story to John W. Campbell.
2: In the last volume of the series, the nomads’ plateau is ten kilometers above the lowlands … but there are no differences in air pressure. The author also imagines primitive ropes ten kilometers long that do not break under their own weight.
3: Temuchin = Temujin. Barbarian nomads = Mongols. Rotoscoped history.