Harry Harrison was a popular science-fiction author that created a number of memorable series titles and characters. His most popular works are those involving the Stainless Steel Rat and Bill, the Galactic Hero. While I haven't explored those titles yet, I did enjoy my first foray into the author's To the Stars trilogy, Homeworld, originally published in 1980. Needless to say, I continued my space-travels with the second installment, Wheelworld, published one year later.
This trilogy, which has nothing to do with another of Harrison's works called Deathworld, is fairly easy to understand and enjoy, so those of you loosely reading science-fiction should be tall enough for this ride. In Homeworld, readers learn that in the 23rd century, Earth is ran by a one-world government administered by the United Nations. The rich make up a conglomerate of authority that rules the proles, the other class of humans that simply exist as slaves in manufacturing and service. Earth's rich and powerful controls the outlying planets and moons, creating slave planets that simply manufacture goods to ship to Earth. The people on these planets live a life of labor, void of any knowledge of human history.
Jan (male), the series hero, is a microchip whiz that lives a life of luxury on Earth. He figures out the whole conspiracy that forces the proles into servitude and tries to stop it. By teaming with the Israelis, the only country that isn't part of the one-world government, Jan learns about the hushed human history, the plight of mankind, and the big lie fed to the world by “big brother”. By the end of Homeworld, Jan is captured, his sister is murdered, and he is sentenced to life as a slave on a farming planet.
As Wheelworld begins, readers learn that four years have passed since Homeworld's final page. Jan is living on the agriculture planet Halvmork. Here's the deal on this planet, because it is an integral part of the story. The planet, which is much smaller than Earth, is off-tilt by a few degrees which creates one massive season every four years. On this planet, there is twilight on one side of the planet and temperatures hovering around 80s degrees for four consecutive years. Jan, and the other harvesters, grow corn during this time. After four years, the weather shifts on that part of the planet to 150 degrees and nonstop sunlight. So, after four years, Jan and the others await ships to arrive to take the corn back to Earth. Then, via mobilized transports (like large tanks), the entire population travels thousands of miles to the other side of the planet to take advantage of the four year period that is twilight and 80 degrees there. Cool, right?
This population of slavers has its own governing body, an old woman who is antiquated in her ways and butts heads with the forward-thinking hero. Jan is in a romantic relationship with the old woman's daughter Alzbetta, and the two want to become married but it is forbidden. This is a splendid side-story that propels the book's central plot. As the book begins, it is harvest time and the four years is coming to an end. The sun is beginning to shine and the forecast is heating up. But, the ships don't arrive, which is a major problem.
Jan makes the decision to take all of the corn on the motorized trek across the planet. His reasoning is that the ships may arrive on the other side of the planet and the corn will be needed there. But, the old woman refuses to do this so Jan has to strong-arm her family to do the right thing. This creates a physical fight between Jan and a family enforcer, which leads to a riveting trial and execution thing at the book's end. But, the real pleasure of Wheelworld is the “wheeling” across the planet as the team fights through volcanic ash, huge crevices in the Earth, swarms of insects, and the human turmoil and factions that develop on the road trip.
Honestly, Wheelworld can work perfectly as a stand-alone novel. It is a road trip adventure as Jan and the team work their way from Point A to Point B to avoid natural disasters. In some ways, the book reminded me of Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny as a futuristic obstacle course pressed for time. In the trilogy, this is really the hinge that gets from the Earth action in Homeworld to the Earth War story in Starworld. But, regardless of your approach, Wheelworld is a fantastic novel and a great reading experience.