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Harry Harrison: 12 March 1925 – 15 August 2012

Harry HarrisonSo many individuals have had significant impact and influence upon our lives that it’s easy for the importance of those who have disappeared from our minds to dim and fade away. I hadn’t thought about Harry Harrison for many years – not in any meaningful sense, anyway – until this morning when I heard of his passing and felt a keen pang of loss and regret at the passing of one of my galactic heroes and, so soon after Ray Bradbury, another foundation stone of a bygone era of science fiction. I only met him once, getting on for 30 years ago at Birmingham’s Andromeda sf bookshop, and I’ve read none of his post-1980s output, but as a teenager his presence in my life was considerable and it extended well into my adulthood.

How I got into science fiction will be a familiar story to most fans my age. First contact was with those amazing early 70s book covers – magnetic portals through which a teenage imagination could hardly wait to pass – offering escapes into future Earths and other worlds and incredible hardware and aliens of varieties both scary and seductive and mind trips and illicit adventures. Next came tough choices imposed by scant pocket-money funds in the face of an entire genre section jam-packed with goodies. My first tentative steps were Asimov’s short story collections I, Robot and The Rest of the Robots; Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat series: all of them perfect gateway drugs in their own different ways, and all motivated me to seek out other work (i.e., devour everything else available) by their authors.

Harrison’s work stood somewhat apart from that of his peers because of its throwback space-opera scale and pace, and its unapologetic humour: faintly childish, prone to slapstick, but with poisoned barbs detectable even to a callow youth. James Bolivar (Slippery Jim) DiGriz is a terrific protagonist – a galactic master criminal with a set of scruples and ethics and a gorgeous, dangerous wife; brimful of attitude and a healthy disdain for governmental, military and corporate systems; a staunch atheist and a speaker of Esperanto. TSSR is part space opera, part crime caper, total potboiler and, to my younger self, utterly unputdownable. The first of the series appeared in my birth year, 1961, and by the time I picked it up eleven years later, there were three. Harrison succumbed to inevitable commercial pressure and eventually penned a dozen; latterly by-the-numbers and for the money, but the first couple are still among the fondest remembered, exciting, irreverent thrill rides of that heady time of discovery and shaping one’s own sense of wonder.

So I became hooked on science fiction, inevitably, and after the Stainless Steel Rat series and the Deathworld trilogy, I became hooked on Harry Harrison.

I kept up with Harrison’s output and gathered information about his life through the sf grapevine and a handy little anthology called Hell’s Cartographers, in which six sf authors including Harrison wrote essays about their life and working methods. The science fiction community was a fairly small church back then, and very open. American by birth, citizen of the world (he lived in the US, Mexico, UK, Ireland, Denmark and Italy), artist, commercial illustrator and former specialist, via his work in the US military, in weapons guidance systems. He had the perfect polymath personality for a sf writer: always restless (he taught himself Esperanto in the military), always seeking out the new and observing the world through a filter of intellectual irony, always willing to deploy satire and scathing wit to counter social inequalities and injustices. In addition to writing he was a prolific editor, both in his own right and in a powerhouse partnership with British colleague Brian Aldiss, with whom he edited several Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies and two volumes of sf criticism in the 60s when few people took sf’s literary credentials seriously (they also co-edited Hell’s Cartographers).

Aldiss edited three volumes of sf for Penguin in the early 60s and in 1973 they were collected as The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, among the most important and influential of all sf collections alongside Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972). The Penguin omnibus showcased some of the very best short fiction of science fiction’s ‘Golden Age’, and had perhaps the greatest impact on me of any sf anthology. Among many works of genius the standout story is Harrison’s An Alien Agony (vt. The Streets ofAshkelon). On Wesker’s World the natives are innocent, happy and free of superstition and dogma. John Garth, a trader, observes the arrival of a missionary priest whose attempts to bring Christianity to the natives through teaching the Bible are all too successful. The devastating climax, in which the natives quite reasonably try to obtain proof of a miracle for themselves, remains one of the most hard-hitting and acerbic exposures of religious paradox, yet the message is neither heavy-handed nor overwhelms the narrative. This small gem may well be one of sf’s defining pieces.

In addition to the short stories I lapped up his novel catalogue: A Transatlatic Tunnel, Hurrah (George Washington executed by the British in 1776, America still under colonial rule as preparations are made to link the two countries with a highway under the sea. Alternative history was never so much fun); Make Room, Make Room (one of the few serious examinations of the consequences of overpopulation, filmed as Soylent Green, proving that Harrison was more than capable of hard social sf as well as satire); In Our Hands, the Stars (an interstellar drive is given to Denmark in order to keep it out of the control of the US and the USSR, demonstrating Harrison’s distrust and hatred of military power); The Technicolor Time Machine (a blast of fresh air in high concept comic paradise – Hollywood gets time travel!); Skyfall; Lifeboat (with Gordon R. Dickson); the To the Stars trilogy Homeworld, Wheelworld and Starworld; and the Eden trilogy West of Eden, Winter in Eden and Return To Eden.

By this time (1988) however, the law of diminishing returns was firmly in evidence and, with regret, I tuned out of Harry Harrison. Tuned out but never forgot. And, crucially, never revisited either. With his passing I have opportunity and motive to go back to the marvels of my formative years and do The Stainless Steel Rat; Deathworld; In Our Hands, the Stars and the other novels and short stories all over again, as if for the first time, in memory of someone very important to me and to his genre, someone who gave people so much enjoyment through his work and knew when not to take life too seriously – and when to give it the full works.

RIP Harry.


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