Season For Battle Wounds

The Deathworld Trilogy — Harry Harrison

Dw 1 2 3

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.

 ~oOo~

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 is available here (Amazon), here (Amazon.ca), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

Deathworld 2 is available here (Amazon), here (Amazon,,ca), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

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.


Comments

  • Mike Schilling

    In used to own that very same SFBC omnibus, lo these many years ago.

    • Jack Dominey

      It was one of (IIRC) ten books for a dollar I got on joining SFBC in my early adolescence. Still on the shelf, although the Corben dust jacket is long gone.

  • Steve Wright

    It's always seemed to me that the first book is distinctly different from the others - it makes a bigger deal of dinAlt's psi powers and the vague empathy he feels with the world. In books two and three, he's much more of a Slippery Jim diGriz style omni-competent schemer, and his psi power isn't mentioned (even though it surely would have come in handy on the unnamed planet of the mediaeval Esperantists.) Books two and three feel to me like Harrison slipping back into familiar habits, after trying something different (and possibly better) in the first book.

    • Ryk Spoor

      Same here. The first book is significantly better, in my view, than the second and third. Not only because it's establishing the world, but also because Jason's really being forced to play a dangerous game with his supposed allies, and with only absolutely minimum information. I can enjoy Deathworld 1 easily (though DinAlt himself is a dick, him being surrounded by other dicks mitigates it a bit), but 2 needs a bit more work on my part, and I don't think I've ever re-read 3.

      Harrison's To The Stars trilogy is overall better, I think, than most of his other work, and makes use of Harrison's standard approach far better.

      • Goljerp

        The other thing I don't like about the two sequals is that, in order for the plot (such as it is) to continue, there's a fair bit of emotional progress that's made by the end of Deathworld 1 which gets magically lost so that there's a plot for 2 (and 3).

        On another note, I somehow[1] posess a trade paperback omnibus of 1, 2, and 3 plus a short story, "The Demothballed Spaceship" (copyright 1973). I assume it (the omnibus) came out around 2004, based on the copyright of the cover art, and it was published by BenBella Books. However, poking around their website today finds no evidence of it being in print (or existing), so those looking for it must look in their favorite used bookstore.

        [1] probably from the time when James and I were, in one way of thinking, cow orkers, although very distantly so.

        • James Nicoll

          Wait, I did a report on the Ben Bella edition. Let's see what info I had on it...

          Pub date 2005. Price 14.95 US. ISBN 978-1-932100-41-9

        • Robert Carnegie

          ISFDB says "The Mothballed Spaceship" also appears firstly in "Astounding: John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology" (edited by Harrison; UK edition title substitutes "The" for "Astounding"), "The Best of Harry Harrison", and "Stainless Steel Visions", one edition of which is annotated "ebook?" - but why a question mark, isn't it quite easy to tell?

          As for the stories' flaws, I think I was a young enough reader to be swept along by most of the action. But the stories are noticeably very different. It is somewhat a stretch to see the different planets they are set on as different types of "deathworld". I think I did find the titles emphatically exciting - Deathworld, Deathworld 2, Deathworld 3 - although on reflection it could also suggest a -lack- of imagination and variety.

          As far as I recall, the story about boarding an abandoned battleship that doesn't want you to, goes about how such things usually do, and is well and wittily done, without being parodic.

  • Mike D

    Deathworld Three is available, but not in North America

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Deathworld-Three-Book-Gateway-Essentials-ebook/dp/B005LB9HG6/

  • Shem

    I read the first couple a very long time ago. The only thing I recall is Harrison repeatedly noting that Jason's high-gravity, warrior-woman girlfriend had slender, "watch strap-like" muscles, and not big muscles like a man. Because God forbid the female lead in a science fiction book look like Holley Mangold.

    • Robert Carnegie

      She can still kick a bishop through a stained glass window. (I don't remember if this occurs in the series. It may.)

  • Dan Blum

    As I recall, Harrison's Brion Brandd books (Planet of the Damned and Planet of No Return) were very much like the Deathworld books, but not even as good.

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