Deathworld 2: The Ethical Engineer by Harry Harrison
Deathworld 2: The Ethical Engineer is the second of Harry Harrison’s novels set on Pyrrus, the planet that tries to kill most humans who set foot upon it. In the first DEATHWORLD novel, space rogue Jason dinAlt discovered the secret of Pyrrus and negotiated a very tense peace between the planet and its two human colonies.
Now Jason has a new problem. A man named Mikah, who represents the religious Truth Party, has arrived to arrest Jason for fleecing casinos across the universe. The purpose is to display Jason’s decadence and sinfulness so that they can topple the government of Cassylia which has been using “Jason Three-Billion” as a poster child to advertise their casinos. Mikah kidnaps Jason and on their way back to Cassylia for trial by the Truth Party, they are shipwrecked and enslaved on a planet that sports a curious mix of primitive tribal cultures with varying degrees of technological advancement. Jason must use his knowledge and skills to get them off the planet.
Harry Harrison is great when he’s writing pulpy science fiction adventures with roguish protagonists. I loved the first few books of his STAINLESS STEEL RAT series, which were just that. But sometimes Harrison decides to acquire an agenda and whomp us over the head with it. This happened with some of the later STAINLESS STEEL RAT books (I stopped reading them because of it) and it’s happened here in Deathworld 2.
In this case, Harrison wants to show us that people who believe in some sort of Truth are just wrong. That’s fine. I don’t agree, but it’s fine with me if Harrison takes that viewpoint. The problem here is that it’s so badly done. Harrison makes his point in two ways. First by making Mikah, Truth’s proponent (and an obvious Straw Man), a ridiculous idiot who gets frustrated with Jason and keeps resorting to calling him names such as “Limb of Satan.” Second by defending his no-Truth argument merely by having it said over and over by a character we’re supposed to think is smart and knowledgeable because he’s suddenly a brilliant engineer. There is no substantial discussion, just a back and forth like this:
“There is no Truth, no Life, no Mankind. At least not the way you spell them — with capital letters. They don’t exist.”
Mikah’s taut skin contracted into a furrow of concentration. “You will have to explain yourself,” he said. “For you are not being clear.”
“I’m afraid it’s you who aren’t being clear. You’re making a reality where none exists. Truth — with a small t — is a description, a relationship. A way to describe a statement. A semantic tool. But Truth with a capital T is an imaginary word, a noise with no meaning. It pretends to be a noun, but it has no referent. It stands for nothing. It means nothing. When you say, ‘I believe in Truth,’ you are really saying ‘I believe in nothing.’”
Gosh, it sounds like Terry Goodkind, doesn’t it? Both characters become self-righteous zealots who constantly interrupt the action to bore us with long meaningless lectures about the nature of Truth. This made it impossible to enjoy the story and I ended up skimming a lot of it. I hope DEATHWORLD will get back on track with book 3.
I’m listening to the audio version of Deathworld 2 that Jimcin Recordings produced in 2011 and which was just produced on CD and distributed by Brilliance Audio. Jim Roberts does a fine job with the narration. His rhythm is stilted sometimes, but he has a good voice for this sort of story.
Deathworld — (1960-1968) Publisher: DEATHWORLD centers on Jason dinAlt, a professional gambler who uses his somewhat erratic psionic abilities to tip the odds in his favor. He is challenged by a man named Kerk Pyrrus (who turns out to be the ambassador from the planet Pyrrus) to turn a large amount of money into an immense sum by gambling at a government-run casino. He succeeds and survives the planetary government’s desperate efforts to steal back the money. In a fit of ennui, he decides to accompany Kerk to his home, despite being warned that it is the deadliest world ever colonized by humans… DEATHWORLD! DEATHWORLD is one of the classics of the Golden Age of science fiction, born in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr.