Harry Harrison: Galactic Hero

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.

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