Caution: Some cognitive dissonance may result when a tale of a macho hero, who one-handedly saves a planet while armed with guns and muscles and toughness and stuff, simultaneously triumphs scientific humanism, empathy, non-violence and cooperation.
Planet of the Damned is a tale with heart, but that heart is buried under the bulging pectoral muscles of a cardboard hero. It’s high brow scifi for the low brow geek.
Brion Brandd (that’s Branduh-duh) has just won the Twenties, the Anvharrian Olympics of mind and might– a true competition for the Renaissance man: chess, wrestling, sword-fights, poetry, etc. But Ihjel, a former Twenties victor, immediately recruits Brion for a mission to help save the planet of Dis from suicidal destruction. With Ihjel as his mentor, Brion discovers he has innate empathic abilities, which he must use to understand the barbaric inhabitants of Dis. Brion and Lea, a knock-out Terran biologist, work to stop the threats of nuclear annihilation between Dis and its neighboring enemy planet, the peace-loving, normally anti-violent, Nyjord. The pacifist Nyjordians set a deadline to destroy Dis unless the ruling Dis (Dissidents?) give up their cobalt bombs, (which are not pretty blue powder bombs, I checked).
But hold on to your brain snakes. Don’t discount the story for the naked lady cover art… yet. Harrison tries to balance superficiality with substance, although it’s a muddled attempt with a sometimes contradictory message. Two powers, Nyjord and Dis, are in the cross-hairs of a violent impasse with threats of imminent nuclear destruction. Nyjord is a planet so committed to peace that it is willing to annihilate its mortal enemy. Could this be Cold War commentary disguised as rollicking adolescent geek-bait?
Despite its pacifist message, Planet of the Damned spares no opportunity to shed blood. Brandd, the infallible hero, curses his violent predicament. “He was almost ready to accept death himself, rather than kill again.” But he does kill again, and again… and again. He kills for survival. He kills out of vengeance. He even kills for science (to provide a specimen for Lea to dissect.) But the violence has a purpose: to demonstrate that the unbending non-violence of the Nyjordians is more detrimental than Brandd’s style of personal combat. His body count will never outnumber the deaths caused by a nuclear bomb. Through his hero, Harrison seems to argue that some violence is necessary to prevent total annihilation. In other words, a hot war is preferable to a cold war.
Or perhaps he’s just saying that peaceniks are too uptight. Either way, it all melds into a sort-of analogy of symbiosis, where Ulv, the default Dis diplomat explains, “‘Nyjord is medvirk.’… A life form that cooperates and aids other life forms. It may kill in self-defense, but it is essentially not a killer or destroyer” (Loc. 2254). If this is Cold War commentary, the critique is over the method of war, rather than the conflicting ideologies. Neither side is evil, but are just doing their jobs to defend themselves and protect their people–much like the people and other lifeforms on the harsh desert planet of Dis.
On a side note, I think it’s odd that a lot of female writers get pigeonholed into the “soft scifi” category because their stories involve speculations on biology, political science, and sociology. Planet of the Damned does the same thing, but would never get that label because of its muscles and grunts and rip-roaringness. Harrison even commits some surprising blunders in the physics department: every planet has an Earth-like 24-hour rotation, and planetary weather seems to be uniform, regardless of latitude or axis position. He also seems to have some very naive ideas about the speed of human evolution in relation to adapting to harsh planetary environments.
Ultimately, Planet of the Damned is just a so-so story. Brionn is the unflinching, untiring, infallible hero who succeeds in every situation. Lea is… well, she’s in the hospital most of the time, but when she’s awake, she acts as his loyal, unquestioning sex kitten who tells him he’s right, and falls madly in love with him. The Dis inhabitants are dunderheaded drolls who will die without our hero’s interventions. The leader of the enemy is a cold, calculating pacifist, willing to destroy an entire planet in order to preserve the peace. But Brionn is infallible. He is always right. And everyone will love him and appreciate him in the end.
Should you read it? Maybe. Despite it’s mediocre predictability, the message is compelling and the machismo is endearingly funny.