Visions of Paradise

Saturday, March 28, 2009


When Harry Harrison was selected as the next SFWA Nebula Grandmaster, my first thought was that he did not seem to have the credentials for such a status. In my column The Old Kit Bag for The Reluctant Famulus I decried Harrison being so honored instead of more deserving writers such as Greg Benford (16 Hugo and Nebula nominations, 2 wins), Michael Bishop (24 nominations, 2 wins), C.J. Cherryh (9 nominations; 3 wins), Samuel R. Delany (30 nominations, 6 wins), Joe Haldeman (17 nominations, 10 wins), George R.R. Martin (30 nominations, 6 wins), Larry Niven (27 nominations, 6 wins), John Varley (24 nominations, 5 wins), Kate Wilhelm (24 nominations, 5 wins) and Gene Wolfe (28 nominations, 2 wins).

I have always considered Harry Harrison a typical example of a “B” writer, whose fiction is enjoyable but not in the category of a Grandmaster. Other examples of “B” writers are Christopher Anvil, Chad Oliver, John Barnes, A. Bertram Chandler, Michael Coney, Suzette Haden Elgin, Randall Garrett, Keith Laumer, James H. Schmitz, Bob Shaw, James White, S.M. Stirling, and David Weber. Enjoyable work, but generally not the type of “A” material as can be expected by such grandmasters as Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Simak, Norton, Bester, Silverberg, you get the idea.

My immediate second thought was that I had read less of Harrison’s fiction than of several other “B” writes listed above, most of it in Analog in the late 1960s when he was one of John W. Campbell’s stable of authors. Stories with titles such as “The Man From P.I.G.” and the serial The Horse Barbarians (which I believe became Deathworld 3 in book form). Enjoyable stuff, but not the type of fiction I would rave to my friends about.

To be fair though, I decided I should read more Harrison fiction, see if my impression of him based on a handful of Analog stories perhaps underrated him. People who responded to my column in TRF unfavorable mentioned such Harrison works as Make Room! Make Room! and his Deathworld series. Since both were currently available in the Science Fiction Book Club, I decided to read three Harrison novels and ordered Deathworld.

The first book, aptly entitled Deathworld 1, started out simply enough as the protagonist, a professional gambler Jason dinAlt, is basically forced by a man calling himself a planetary ambassador to win a billion credits which the man plans to use to buy weapons for the settlers on his planet to use against the native plant and animal life in their struggle to the death to survive on their adopted world. Initially the story is an easy-paced thriller which bore resemblances to Jack Vance’s Galactic Cluster stories. I anticipated this was how the entire novel would be, nor was I surprised when it sequéd into a Vance-like mystery as to why the nonintelligent life on a planet world is continually mutating into more deadly forms for the sole purpose of destroying the human inhabitants.

Unlike Vance to some extent though, the mystery was not just a thin hook to hang a planetary adventure on, but was the main focus of the novel, and a fairly interesting mystery at that. DinAlt dealt with the inhabitants of the deathworld’s only city as they were inundated with plant and animal attacks daily. He found a way to leave the city and contact the “grubbers,” whom the city dwellers considered savages who had somehow found a way to survive in the midst of the native life. DinAlt was surprised to find they were not savages at all, nor were they under attack, but instead had found a way to live peacefully alongside the native life whose only attacks were focused on the city dwellers.

While I enjoyed Deathworld 1, it was still a “B” novel which did not stand up to a lot of thought. How could a mere gambler suddenly become brilliant enough to determine the solution to the inhabitants’ endless war with the native life, when for generations they had not only been unable to reach any similar conclusions themselves, but had also devolved almost into fighting machines virtually unable to handle any thoughts not completely related to their survival? This was not a deep book, nor was it intended to be, but the type of light reading good for passing a few evenings after work is over. I recommend it to people looking for enjoyment on the level of Chandler/Schmitz/Laumer/White who will not be disappointed in it.


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