Harry Harrison
The Deathworld Trilogy (1960–68)
Reviewed: 2002-12-27


  1. Deathworld (1960)
  2. Deathworld 2 (1964)
  3. Deathworld 3 (1968)

Jason dinAlt is a professional gambler, a man of ill repute, a survivor type who always falls on his feet. When we meet him, dinAlt is contacted by a mysterious stranger who proposes a deal the gambler can't resist. After winning mucho dinero from the local casino due to luck and some help from Jason's vague psi powers, and a subsequent flight from the goon squad, Jason follows his new partner to that one's homeworld Pyrrus, the most hellish human-settled planet in the galaxy. Twice terrestrial gravity, active volcanism, harsh and extremely volatile climate, and local life whose single purpose seems to be to fight the colonists. Memorably, Pyrrans never take off their guns that spring forth in the blink of an eye from power holsters strapped to their arms. And nothing less will do to survive on their planet. For the gambler, Pyrrus is a huge challenge and he resolves to find the mystery underlying the fierce combativeness of the planet.

Deathworld is something of a minor classic, but the moldy patches are becoming obvious. The characters are drawn in the crudest strokes, mere caricatures of human beings. Prose and plot are exercises in simplicity. If there is a saving grace, it is the original idea of the Pyrran mystery.

In the sequel, Jason dinAlt becomes marooned on a primitive world where slavery is one of the main fixtures of the local culture. Implausibly, all inhabitants we ever meet are depicted as morons. The most advanced societies are on the brink to the industrial age and dinAlt quickly rises through the ranks by using his superior knowledge of steam engines, electricity, etc., to impress the leaders. The speed with which dinAlt improvises working gadgets into existence from dimly remembered theory is another implausibility.

In the third volume, dinAlt takes a group of Pyrrans, who are losing the battle for survival on their homeworld, to a planet ruled by horse barbarians that violently oppose any attempts at off-worlder settlement and economic exploitation. The former gambler joins the barbarians and tries to subvert their culture from within. The action is more believable and compared to the other characters from the trilogy the barbarians' ruthless but genius leader is fleshed out surprisingly well.

These are simplistic adventure stories, the middle volume easily being the weakest. Jason dinAlt is an opportunist whose occasional flashes of moral consideration are offset by his happy killing of dehumanized barbarians by the score. Harrison wrote a final Deathworld story, "The Mothballed Spaceship" (1973, collected e.g. in Stainless Steel Visions) that fails to add anything of interest and again suffers from the author depicting everybody but the protagonist as the crudest idiots.

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