Monthly Archives: January 2015

Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison!: It Seemed Like a Good Idea At The Time  (Tor, 2014)

It was a relatively obscure Harry Harrison story (“Captain Honario Harpplayer, R.N.”) which contributed to my becoming a science fiction reader. The joke – that “Harpplayer” was colour-blind instead of the slightly more famous Hornblower’s tone-deafness – was in truth a weak one (and it was some years before I actually encountered Hornblower and got the point!), but there was a sense of fun about it which I responded to when, later, I found the Stainless Steel Rat and the adventures of Bill, the “Galactic Hero” – and by then I had read some of the novels ­Bill was reacting against. Yet Harrison was also a writer of fine adventure sf, and his treatment of themes like religion, politics, and overpopulation were refreshingly dissident.

Less  an organised biography, more a collection of reminiscences, Harry Harrison’s memoir often come across like listening to him at the bar take you across his life, from his travels from the USA to Europe and back again, his passion for Esperanto, and his career as a writer ranging from melodramatic “confessions” for the men’s magazines to some of the finest sf of the last century. Sadly, Harrison died before the final touches could have been made to this memoir. Occasionally, chronology slips – In the middle of telling us of his California sojourn, Harrison says that “I was contacted by Alex Cox *. . . He had made the classic Repo Man”. That film was made 1984. But next page, there is an encounter with Gene Roddenberry; “Star Trek was in its early weeks” (p. 215). And dating is sometimes absent – of five anecdotes about HH’s Russian publication, (pp295-307), three are dated and two can only be worked out from context (and the sequence isn’t chronological). So as a book from which we can reconstruct the full details of Harrison’s career, this sadly isn’t the full glass, but as the nearest thing his many fans can get to listening to the man himself, this is a joyful experience.

Early days and his life in the military are full of the detail which was going to find itself transformed into Bill, the Galactic Hero and his career as a struggling writer is given full attention. He talks about writing comic strips – Flash Gordon and Jeff Hawke put bread on the table for a while – and about of ghosting for Leslie (“The Saint”) Charteris. Much of Harrison’s fiction was published by John W. Campbell in Astounding, and, as a writer whose sympathies always lay firmly on the left, Harrison’s admiration for Campbell’s maverick mind and astuteness as an editor – throwing out ideas to be picked up and turned round into fiction – is plain, even as he makes it clear that they were poles apart politically.

He has the raconteur’s eye for detail and the dramatic underpinning of amusing squalor – the broken urinal in the accommodation for a Russian convention, the dreadful food in England in the 1950s – and (not always combined in the same place) a sharply intelligent critical eye. His comments on the transformation of the excellent novel of overpopulation Make Room! Make Room! into the dully obvious Soylent Green are a lesson in themselves. The film’s script, from its meaningless title to its fake shock-revelation, comes in for some justified hammering. But his praise for its visual excitement and Edward G. Robinson’s ability to act a “nothing” script makes you want to see the film again.

Harrison gives us glimpses of far-away worlds, such as the 1957 Worldcon when, “at the so-called banquet, the convention president, John Wyndham, proposed the loyal toast to Her Majesty the Queen. . . . Just like life in a historical novel, spoiled only by those few fen of republican leaning who did not stand up and join in, yet another social discovery.” But he’s also a writer of today, a shaper of the way sf has changed for the better to become more international and more critical. It’s worth reminding ourselves that, when the aims of the recent London Worldcon for “diversity” were much to the fore, it was Harrison and a few of his companions (most notably Brian Aldiss) who created the space for such aims. Harrison’s internationalism, fuelled by his interest in Esperanto but also by the popularity of his work outside the USA and England (Deathworld in particular was an underground hit in Russia under communism) makes him one of the most interesting writers of his time: very much part of science fiction and fandom as it developed after the Second World War, but aware that the war had exploded an old order and a new one waited in the wings, and wryly critical of the way the field could collapse back into insularity.

This is a storyteller’s memoir; the reminiscences of a man with much to tell, to be shared with a few drinks and among convivial company. Listening to Harrison’s voice, we are invited into the circle, to become part of that convivial company, and to share his memories. He will be missed.

*Whose excellent Kickstarter-funded adaptation of Bill, The Galactic Hero has just (December 2014) had its first showing. Made by Cox’s film students at the University of Colorado, this captures the satirical comedy of Harrison’s novel really well. More on it later, I hope, but in the meanwhile Alex Cox’s blog has info about it.


A Message From Mars

This restored film from 1913, billed as the first full-length British science fiction film, is available for view from the BFI website as part of their late-2014 sf film season, and well worth the visit, I might say. It’s not something I knew much about (when watching it, I realised that I had confused it with George Du Maurier’s 1898 novel The Martian), but on consulting the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction discovered that it is in fact based upon a popular play by Liverpool-born Richard Ganthony which apparently had been filmed in New Zealand in 1903 (this version remains lost) and re-adapted in the USA in 1921.

Ganthony’s play was first performed in 1899, so my erroneous connection with Du Maurier’s novel might have something in it. Mars was very much in the news at that time, and numerous authors were fascinated by the planet.. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, itself influenced by the theories of the American astronomer Percival Lowell, was serialised in 1897 and published in book form the following year. The German author Kurd Lasswitz’s Auf Zwei Planeten (Two Planets) also about an older Martian civilization contacting Earth was also published in 1897. In 1901 Nikola Tesla claimed to have received radio signals from Mars; a claim which probably inspired the march by Raymond Taylor, “A Signal From Mars” ( . Edwin L.Arnold’s swashbuckling Lt. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905) is said to have influenced Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “John Carter” series.

Co-written with Wallett Waller and starring actor-manager Charles Hawtry (not my mum’s favourite “Carry On” actor) in what seems to be a typically louche role, A Message From Mars is an entertaining and amusing morality tale. Although billed by the BFI as a science fiction film (a term which of course would have been meaningless in 1913) , there’s little science in it and even the viewer through which the Martians examine Earth is pretty much your standard crystal ball. In fact, what we have is very much a retelling of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Our Martian, Ramiel having committed a crime, is degraded by the “God of Mars” and told that he can only regain his place by reforming Horace (Hawtry), who is seen displaying curmudgeonly and miserly tendencies such as watching a Punch and Judy show and refusing to add anything to the showman’s collection. We see more of Horace when his fiancée Minnie (Chrissie Bell) arrives to be taken to a dance only to discover that he would rather sit by the fire with a whiskey-and-soda and read a magazine. Not surprisingly, she gives him her ring back and heads off to the dance with her admirer Arthur (Frank Hector). We also see a tramp (Hubert Willis) knock hesitatingly on Horace’s door with a letter of recommendation from one of Horace’s friends, saying that he is a good workman and deserves help. Horace’s reaction is to throw the man out.

Discovering the Martian emissary in his room, Horace is (at first unwillingly) forced into re-evaluating his ways by this sinister brooding figure, portentously folding his arms and striking attitudes. Ramiel shows Horace how Minnie is having a grand time at the dance with Arthur, and they witness a man knocked down by a speeding car. The embarrassed Horace is persuaded to help, but not after some petulant hand-in-pockets pretending he’s not there as a concerned crowd gathers around the injured man. Reluctantly he hands over money for the medical bill.  But this is against his will and doesn’t count. So Ramiel punishes his pride by transforming him into a beggar and (with the tramp he threw out) Horace, who earlier has patronisingly tipped a police constable to call him a taxi, is reduced to grovelling for pennies opening the doors of the coaches taking people from the very dance he should have been at with Minnie, and shooed away by indignant authority-figures. When his “mate” collapses, Horace humbles himself by pleading for help. Finding a sovereign in his pocket (magicked there by Ramiel?), he shares it with his partner. His job done, Ramiel returns to Mars. Horace takes the tramp home and feeds him, then is interrupted by the news that a neighbouring house (in a poorer district) is on fire. Horace rescues the children from the house and brings them home for a slap-up feed. Released from his sentence, the Martian is received back into the fold, Minnie, who has persuaded her Aunt Martha (Kate Tyndale), to accompany her back to Horace’s house after having an unexplained premonition that there is good in Horace after all, sees that the change in him and takes her ring back; and all is well.

Moral whimsy rather than science-fiction adventure or speculation, A Message from Mars is nevertheless worth the effort that’s been put into it. Much in the film is only semi-explained, but audiences would have been familiar with the plot from the play, and the tie-in novel published in 1912 by Lester Lurgan, a pseudonym of the prolific Mabel Knowles (better known as “May Wynne”). The acting styles would also have helped audiences pick up the story: as said above, Ramiel is a melodramatic “moral chorus” and Hawtry, rather oddly described as a “young man” (he is much older than Bell but the difference in their ages rather convincingly (to my mind) portrays Horace as someone set in a groove of selfishness) is excellent at displaying his childish sulkiness through facial expressions and posture. We may not be quite convinced by the Martians as Martians but A Message From Mars is a neat and entertaining piece of social commentary which shows the way science fiction-like images were rapidly entering popular entertainment in the early 20th century.