Deathworld strikes again

A long long time ago, when I was an early teenager, I read more or less everything I could get my hands on which had the label “science fiction” attached to it. At that age, one doesn’t discriminate very much, and the books I remember most fondly are not necessarily classics of that era.

One book that I read relatively soon after its publication, in the usual cheap and grotty paperback format, was Deathworld, the first published novel of the American SF writer Harry Harrison. Like a lot of Harrison’s work, it conceals a serious message behind a light-hearted, well-written adventure story. As I dimly recall (and the novel is long out of print) it concerned a planet in which every plant and every animal was lethal to human beings, and seemed to have no purpose in life other than to kill them. Naturally, the humans on the planet had adapted themselves and developed weaponry to be able to survive in such a hostile environment, but that environment itself always seemed to become more hostile.  It became clear at the end of the novel that the problem was not actually the planet itself, whose flora and fauna had no particular feelings about humans one way or the other. Rather the problem was the humans themselves: in attempting to control and domesticate planet they were simply forcing it to evolve and fight back against them.

Although the book was published in 1960, it’s not hard to see some kind of foretaste of the thinking that led to the Vietnam war, nor to the present chaos which reigns throughout the Middle East. The book incorporates, in a light-hearted fashion, the simple idea that  that how others behave to you is dictated to a large extent by how you behave to them. The fact that Harrison was a political liberal, and went on to write a series of anti-militarist novels (notably Bill the Galactic Hero) rather suggests that he had seen at least elements of the future coming.  But then it’s surprising how often science-fiction, even when written with modest ambitions, is remarkably prescient about the future. I don’t think the current Endless War, in which our policy is to attempt to put out fires by drowning them in petrol, would have surprised Harrison, nor his hero Slippery Jim Di Griz one little bit.

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