Fiction Reviews

The Deathworld Omnibus

(2019) Harry Harrison, Gollancz, £14.99, pbk, 569pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22837-5


Lest we forget, Harry Harrison was not just the author of a whole bunch of Stainless Steel Rat books, he also wrote a series about Bill, the Galactic Hero, and many other trilogies and other series, often in partnership with other writers, and many standalone novels, probably the most famous of which was Make Room! Make Room! which was turned into the film Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston.  He also wrote three 'Deathworld' novels which are collected here in an omnibus edition as part of the Gollancz “Golden Age Masterworks” series, which all share a similar design.  Sadly, unlike their reprints of classic E. E. Doc Smith 'Lensman' books, which were introduced by Mike Carey, there is no introduction here.

This omnibus edition contains the three Deathworld novels – Deathworld, Deathworld 2 and Deathworld 3 which were all originally published in the 1960s, having previously been serialised in magazines like Astounding Science Fiction and Analog.  Given their magazine origins, they are all fairly short, snappy novels with lots of action, and cliffhanger-ish hooks.  Deathworld 2 is the shortest (by a page) of the 3 novels, coming in at 175 pages spread over 17 chapters, while Deathworld 3 is the longest novel, spread over 201 pages and 23 chapters.  The first novel is dedicated to Joan (his wife), the second to legendary science fiction editor, John W. Campbell, and the third to Kingsley and Jane – could this be Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard?  Answers on a postcard, please.

One of the likeable things about Harrison is that some of his heroes aren’t as pure as driven snow, and that is the case here as the main character is a professional gambler called Jason dinAlt who has psionic powers that can help him win.  After winning a huge sum of money at a casino he ends up on the planet Pyrrus which is plentiful in valuable radioactive minerals but is deadly in almost every other aspect of its natural environment from earthquakes to volcanic eruptions and high levels of radiation, among other natural phenomena.  And that’s not forgetting the creatures that inhabit the planet, from the large animals which could easily crush humans to the microscopic that eat living tissue.  The settlers on the planet are fighting a losing battle to survive and Jason starts investigating the past and encounters the “grubbers” - humans who live out with the settlement and are able to survive despite the harsh environment – how can they do this?  And could their skills and knowledge be shared?

In Deathworld 2, Jason is back, but this time ends up on a different, harsh planet with little technology and people divided into primitive clans all fighting to outdo the other, and wanting to kill him.  Can he survive long enough to somehow get off this planet?  No spoilers here, but no prizes for guessing that he does and in Deathworld 3 we are another planet with two very different cultures – one living off the land and living in towns and cities; while the other is made up of nomadic clans, the leader of which is helped by Jason to breach an impassable cliff and conquer the other society, but what will the clans have to sacrifice to do it?

The 'Deathworld' books are great fun, well-written and pretty straightforward science fiction adventures, which are a bit clunky in places given their age and the times they were written in, yet worth reading by anyone who has encountered Harrison’s other novels and series but have yet to visit his Deathworlds.

Ian Hunter

See also Jonathan's take on The Deathworld Omnibus.


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