Planet of the Damned (Harry Harrison)

2 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
Planet of the Damned is an action oriented sci-fi adventure story about a man trying to save a planet from thermonuclear armageddon.  I guess the most pronounced twists on the standard perfect-hero-saves-the-world formula is a strict deadline looming before all life on the planet is obliterated and the fact that the people populating the threatened world appear at first to be alien and difficult to comprehend even though they eventually turn out to be standard noble savages.  It was written while the Cold War was in full swing, so there is a bit of the whole “war is futile and peace is the only answer” subtext going on that will probably seem heavy-handed to modern readers.  This probably also explains the strict deadline to thermonuclear annihilation, as living under that looming threat wouldn’t have been sci-fi to people of that era but instead a grim reality.  The technology is also decidedly anachronistic in some ways, as the author had no way of predicting the technological innovations that have subsequently remade society.  I wouldn’t say this is a terrible book, but I wouldn’t recommend it, largely because I think sci-fi has evolved significantly since it was written and most things written today are simply better.

Greater Detail:
Brionn Brandd has spent his entire life training to win a planet-wide contest known as The Twenties.  As he emerges victorious, he is confronted with a past winner of the contest and compelled to agree to a mission to save an entire planet that is going to be destroyed by its ruler’s barbaric aggressiveness.  Brionn has a mere 72 hours on planet to convince a distrustful population that he is on their side and find out the secret as to why its cruel ruling class would pursue a course that is tantamount to suicide, then to stop them.

There is certainly some profound longing expressed by the author in any summation of the plot of this book.  You can’t help but assume that the author wishes that someone would prove themselves superior in morality to the rest of the people on the planet and stop the Cold War that appeared to be heading inexorably towards our own day of reckoning.  While Planet of the Damned is poignant as a reminder of these heartfelt sentiments that no longer really apply today, I’m not sure that they really resonate with modern issues or modern audiences.  I suppose an argument could be made for global warming, asteroid strikes, or bioterrorism as an applicable replacement, but the specifics of the book would have to be glossed over for any of these threats to really substitute well.

The technology and setting very much reflect the period that the book was written in rather than any modern realities as well.  Computer information is stored on tapes, bulky wall mounted air conditioners jut from every building, and nothing as sophisticated or useful as a smartphone is to be found outside of a spaceship.  The author does some hand waving about a great galactic empire that broke up, leaving some people in extreme deprivation and savagery, but honestly the setting feels pretty much like everyone woke up in 1962 and found that their cars could drive through space faster than the speed of light.

There is something powerful and interesting when you as a reader discover a well-crafted sci-fi setting and explore with the author how things are and why.  I didn’t get that resonant feeling ever while reading Planet of the Damned.  The universe feels at best like a series of hastily slapped together set pieces unconnected by any real unifying theme.  While Planet of the Damned might be interesting to read for historical context of sci-fi from this period, I think its value as entertainment has largely faded as the passage of time has made its themes irrelevant.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
Planet of the Damned, to me, had one great moment, when the hero emerges from the the contest of the games that shaped him and lands on a new planet he must save that is full of possibility.  I had to think hard to find another book that perfectly encapsulated that shining moment and then I remembered Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series starting with Split Infinity.  The hero plays through a series of complicated games that are created by a weird matrix of choices by the participants and, after emerging largely victorious, the hero is sent to strange new world.  The new world is a bit more fantasy-based than sci-fi, but if that doesn’t scare you off, anyone interested in Planet of the Damned for anything other than the anachronistic elements would probably like Split Infinity better.

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