Due to a number of stars that exploded in its vicinity, the planet Pyrrus is rich with valuable radioactive ores. A fortune can be made by anyone willing and able to exploit this resource - unfortunately, every last living creature on the planet is fanatically dedicated to killing humans. So goes the premise of Deathworld, and by the time the novel opens the human colonists have been fighting a brutal war with the whole ecosystem of Pyrrus for 300 years.
Published in 1960, Deathworld is the first novel by Harry Harrison (1925 - 2012). After a stint in the US Army Air Corps, Harrison worked as an illustrator and comics artist - notably for the controversial and influential EC Comics in the late 1940s. This experience would prepare him for his career as a science fiction author, which he began in earnest in 1951 with his first story sale. Deathworld establishes the style Harrison would become known for, being a fast-paced adventure infused with intriguing themes.
The main character of the novel is professional gambler and rogue Jason dinAlt, who is often seen as a prototype for Jim diGriz, the protagonist of Harrison's later and better-known Stainless Steel Rat series. dinAlt serves as an audience surrogate in the novel, as he is compelled by curiosity and ego to visit the deadly planet Pyrrus.
There, he finds a human colony locked in unending conflict with the many extremely aggressive species of the planet. Even small children carry guns at all times, and armoured trucks are needed to traverse the thick, poisoned jungles. The Pyrrans use a rigorous, Spartan-like system of training to which dinAlt is subjected before he can even think of leaving the sealed buildings of the planet's only city. Despite this, their numbers are dwindling and the colony appears doomed.
In some ways, dinAlt is quite unlike the typical square-jawed SF hero. He may have a limited psychic ability, but he freely admits that he is far from a physical equal to the rugged Pyrrans. His real power, and the aspect of his personality that drives the story, is his willingness to question and learn. While Pyrran society has become ossified, focused only on survival, dinAlt continually seeks to discover why the planet is so hostile to human life. While our hero blows apart numerous hostile creatures and participates in various exciting battles, his real heroism is in his efforts to make the people of Pyrrus think differently about their situation, and even to change their minds.
dinAlt's discoveries about the history of Pyrrus allow this brisk and fun novel to also touch thoughtfully on numerous themes, from ecology to militarism and reconciliation. Deathworld is one of a number of SF novels which are seemingly an influence on James Cameron's Avatar - lines spoken by Colonel Quaritch in the movie would fit perfectly in Harrison's story:
"You are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen. Respect that fact every second of every day. If there is a Hell, you might wanna go there for some R&R after a tour on Pandora. Out there beyond that fence every living thing that crawls, flies, or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes."
Deathworld and Avatar also press home the same conclusion - that coexistence, and not violence, is the path to a better future. That Harrison was able to deliver his message within the context of such a readable and exciting novel is very much to his credit.