Harry Harrison: SF Grand Master


Harry Harrison by Paul Tomlinson

What makes a Grand Master? I’m sure the Science Fiction Writers of America have their criteria, but it all really boils down to two things: personal achievements and contributions made to science fiction.

A writer’s achievements are generally easy enough to list, and having compiled Harry Harrison’s bibliography I can quote numbers such as 120 short stories, 60 novels, and 30-odd anthologies. Then there are the awards, which I’ve listed elsewhere, and other accolades, including appearances on the bestseller lists: the West of Eden novels and The Turing Option both qualify. The achievements then are pretty clear – the bibliography runs to over 300 pages.

But what about the contributions made to science fiction? They’re slightly less well documented, so I will concentrate on those. Looking back over a career which spans sixty years means I have to be selective, but even in the brief highlights below I think a couple of key factors stand out: Harry Harrison has always cared about science fiction, he’s always wanted it to be the best that it can be; he cares about the people who write science fiction, and has been active in professional groups from the Hydra Club through to the SFWA, as well as working as an editor to celebrate and encourage the best SF writing; and has worked to promote SF as an international literature.

Harrison also cares about science fiction readers, not only in terms of writing stories which will entertain us and challenge us, but also in ensuring that we think about the content of what we read – whether by mocking the excesses of space opera, or challenging a tendency towards glorifying violence or presenting a future peopled only by white Anglo-Saxons.

Here then is a brief trip through time, from the late 1930s to April 2009…

A Love of Science Fiction

Harry Harrison was introduced to science fiction at the age of seven when his father gave him a copy of Amazing Stories magazine. In November 1938 he was one of the 14 founding members of the Queens chapter of the Science Fiction League. In the Fall of 1940 he had a letter published in Captain Future magazine. And he contributed to at least one fanzine, Sun Spots, providing an illustration of a robot for the May-June 1941 issue. In short, Harrison was a science fiction fan. Who but a fan would so fondly recall his Buck Rogers space helmet from Woolworths? “It was made of some sort of fabric finished to look and feel like tan mouse fur and resembled a World War I flying helmet in most ways. It had an eye visor, broken off rather quickly, and stamped tin earphones.”

Editor, Teacher & Critic

Between 1968 and 1976, Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss edited nine annual volumes of Best SF. In the first of these, Harrison referred back to the Queens Science Fiction League, whose aim was to boost the popularity of science fiction, and said that SF had now been boosted: “The time has therefore come to end the uncritical boostings and to select the good from the bad – and draw attention to the results.” The editors intended to apply the critical standards to SF which was applied to mainstream literature, as suggested by Kingsley Amis in his critical overview of SF, New Maps of Hell. James Blish provided the ‘Credo’ for the first volume – which basically called for the best SF to be good science and good fiction.

Harrison and Aldiss had previously founded the critical magazine SF Horizons, which was published in 1964 and 1965. In their ‘statement of policy’ in the first issue they said that “… what SF must have before all its potentials can be realised is a wide and flourishing literature of intelligent criticism.”

In 1972, recognising that most of the existing awards in SF were given to works which were popular rather than of particular literary merit, Harrison and Aldiss founded the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science fiction novel of the year. Sam J. Lundwall wrote of the award: “What the founders of this award visualised was an annual prize for a novel chosen in a manner that would be completely unbiased – unprejudiced by popularity, friendship, chicanery or anything other than sheer literary merit. With this in mind a panel of judges was envisaged, people who would read every novel published in an annual period, read them with open minds and critical skills. The judges were to be writers, critics, academics, with proven talents in one or all of these fields. The only things they were to have in common was a knowledge and love of science fiction, this backed by literary or critical skills in fiction as a whole.”

A letter in the October 1973 issue of Analog from Poul Anderson complained that the first award had been given to something which ‘John W. Campbell would have instantly rejected,’ which led to Harrison observing that this meant it was “An award I am sure he would have loved because it instantly became involved in controversy when the first prize was presented. How John enjoyed a good argument and a good fight! That this fight sprawled through the letter columns of Analog for some months would have cheered him even more.”

As well as retrospectively recognising good science fiction, Harrison was keen to encourage the best new stories from writers. During the late 1960s he was editor of Amazing and Fantastic, and of the anthology series Nova. He was one of the first editors to buy short SF from Tiptree, and encouraged him/her to write a novel, giving advice on how to go about it, and encouraged Tiptree to emerge from hiding and meet the rest of the folk in New York’s SF community. In James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, Julie Phillips notes that Harrison, provided ‘useful advice’ for the rewriting a short story: “His patience with this new writer earned him Alli’s gratitude and loyalty, and in the beginning she sent almost all her stories first to him or Fred Pohl.” While David Gerrold acknowledges advice given to him by Harrison: “It’s hard to tell sometimes what Harry Harrison is talking about. He was recorded at 33 1/3, but he’s being played back at 45 … But if you pay attention, you can hear very clearly his commitment to excellence.” Harrison bought Gerrold’s first short story for the first Nova anthology.

During the early 1970s Harrison went on to teach a critical appreciation of science fiction as an elective course at Montgomery High School in San Diego. He also created a textbook – A Science Fiction Reader (1973) – with Carol Pugner, chairman of the school’s journalism department. Harrison also taught an extension course on SF at San Diego State University.

Harrison also contributed to the College English Association chapbook Science Fiction: The Academic Awakening, edited by Willis E. McNelly (November 1974); his essay ‘The Term Defined,’ attempted to define what science fiction was in relation to the ‘science fiction quotient’ of a story, as measured by a formula devised by Harrison and his son Todd, and named the Harrisons’ Axiom. Testing various stories against the axiom, his conclusion was: “The definition of SF is very firm at the centre and gets more and more ragged until it gets out to the very edge and ceases having a science fictional content at all.”

The World and SF

“That picture of the Earth with the Moon in the foreground should be in every classroom and home in the world,” Harrison wrote in Men on the Moon, celebrating the first lunar landing in 1969. “No national boundaries are visible at all. Isn’t that message clear enough?”

The first World Science Fiction Writers’ Conference was held in Dublin in 1976; it was organised by Harry Harrison. Delegates were all professionals in one or more aspects of science fiction, and the aim of the conference was to discuss ‘all the facets of our field, the writing and the publication,’ according to the programme book. “We shall also consider the basic nature of our literature and that consideration may be the most important aspect of this conference. We shall surely enjoy meeting each other and exchanging ideas, discussing mutual problems and perhaps finding solutions to them. But overall we shall consider just where we might be going. This meeting is unique and we have the chance now to make the most of the opportunity.”

Members listed in the programme book, were from the USA, Great Britain, France, the USSR, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany.

A second conference was held in Dublin in 1978, when the organisation World SF was founded. Its aim was to further scholarship, the interchange of ideas, the fostering of closer bonds, around the world. Harrison was voted its first chairman. Annual meetings of World SF were held around the world, including Sweden, Italy, The Netherlands, Austria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and China. In these ‘post-Cold War’ days of the internet and instant communication, its easy to underestmate the value of a forum where writers from the West and the East meet and could discuss their work.

World SF founded the Karel Award for excellence in translation of science fiction, and also the Harrison Award for improving the status of SF internationally.

As well as promoting science fiction internationally, Harrison has done much to promote the universal second language Esperanto: using it as the standard language in many of his novels, and speaking about it at SF conventions, led to him being recognised for his services to the Esperanto movement: in 1985 Harry Harrison was made an honorary patron of the Universal Esperanto Association, one of eight who included linguists, politicians, scientists, and other eminent individuals.

Harry Harrison spent the first 30 years of his life in the USA, then in 1955 moved with his family to Mexico. After a year there he moved to England, Italy, Denmark, and the Republic of Ireland. These countries seem to have been chosen almost at random, based on chance meetings with friends and friends of friends, to the extent that Harrison’s stock answer if questioned about any of these moves is: It seemed like a good idea at the time. Though he did once give a slightly longer explanation: “A writer lives by ingesting from life and from books. I can read the same books anywhere. But when I walk out of my front door into the arid, sidewalkless streets of Southern California – or into the streets of Oxford or London, I am entering totally different worlds.”

Harrison’s stories are equally well-travelled, having been translated into twenty or more languages – it is hard to give an exact figure as not all of the translations have been ‘official’ ones.

There Won’t Be War

Space battles have always held a fascination for science fiction readers, and the better stories concentrate on the reality of war, whether that be from the point of view of the science involved, or of the real impact of war on individuals and societies. In his autobiography, The Way the Future Was, Frederik Pohl said: “The best article I ever read on hand-to-hand combat in space was written by Harry Harrison and published in the fanzine Amra.” Other writers have also noted the realistic approach Harrison took in describing a space battle in the novel Starworld. Weapons and combat, then, feature in Harrison’s writing, but what you won’t find there is any glorification of war. Or indeed any respect for the military mind. The author’s hatred of the army comes from direct experience: he was drafted into the army when he graduated high school during World War II.

“The mixture of sadism, unquestioned authority, brutality, racism, intolerance, vulgarity, to name but a few, was the antithesis of everything that I believed in,” he wrote in an introduction to Bill, the Galactic Hero. “The better you are as a soldier, the worse you are as a human being. Unthinking obedience, rote learning, intolerance to others, nasty death to the enemy, vulgarity and alcoholism – dope now substituted for drink in the new Army – the individual sublimated to the mass mind.”

From Deathworld (1960) onwards Harrison’s stories have argued that military might, the use of force, is never the ideal solution; because even if you ‘win’ your victory is almost certainly a Pyrrhic one. No surprise, then that when the Vietnam war had the SF community publicly declaring whether they were pro- or anti-, Harrison spoke against the war.

A more recent attempt to present the case against the inevitability of future war was the Harrison and Bruce McAllister’s anthology There Won’t Be War (1991), published in response to the anthology series There Will Be War.

Scientific Humanism

There is no place for religion in the future that Harry Harrison imagines. Writing in The Humanist in 1961 he said: “The existence of a single world government in the future is so obvious a necessity that it is taken for granted. So is the free exchange of ideas without national boundaries, and the victory of science over disease, poverty, and ignorance. The world has advanced and man’s intellect has done it. Religion and superstition have had nothing to do with it. The dark record of organized religion in separating man from man, and its active part in the causing and continuing of war, is noted and remembered. When revealed religion is mentioned it is usually treated as one of the facets of a young and developing culture, something to be discarded with maturity.

“These ideas are rarely expressed in the combative, anti-church mood of the professional atheist. The attitude is usually that of the scientific humanist, searching for the solution to mankind’s problems through man himself. Revelation, miracles, and faith in the unexamined have been laid aside with the rest of the frailties of society’s youth.”

Harrison’s most anthologised short story – over 40 appearances – is ‘The Streets of Ashkelon,’ a bleak tale of the dangers of taking Christianity out to an innocent alien world. While the Hammer and the Cross trilogy features an alternate world where Christianity never became the dominant religion in the West. That the world and the universe would be better off without organised religion of any kind is a theme in many of Harrison’s works.

The Stainless Steel Rat

Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat stories “– hardly add to his reputation, popular as they are.” So wrote Brian Aldiss in Trillion Year Spree. He then goes on to quote a page and a half from The Stainless Steel Rat. The argument seems to be that because it is a humorous adventure story, then it can’t have any intrinsic value beyond entertainment. But Steven R. Carter has a different view. Writing in the critical journal Extrapolation, says that the three novels collected in The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat, “–although delightful to read, might be dismissed as the literary equivalent of cotton candy if one failed to note the number of interfaces in them and the humanistic viewpoint developed from the interfaces…” Carter goes on to say that “The humanising interfaces in this series are so pervasive that they seem to be intentional, but intentional or not, they add a significant dimension to Harrison’s novels that lifts them beyond the level of pulp writing.”

Carter also remarks on Harrison’s humanistic view on the treatment of criminals, where (usually) “the criminal is regarded not as a unique, totally evil creature to be destroyed but rather a warped human being to be salvaged and set in a new direction … one should not be overly eager to mete out harsh and, even more, irremediable punishments like death, to wrongdoers.”

Quoting the Stainless Steel Rat’s attitude towards violence – “Cold-blooded killing is not my thing…” – Carter sums up the underlying themes of Harry Harrison’s work:

“This statement goes to the heart of Harrison’s philosophy as represented in various works since it offers a key to his ideas about the brutalising effects of war (as in Bill, the Galactic Hero), a key to the dangers of superstition and too great a respect for any type of authority (as in Captive Universe), and a key to the need for international co-operation to solve the worldwide problems of overpopulation, poverty, and dwindling resources (as in Make Room! Make Room! and Skyfall).”

I’ll finish with one final quote from British writer and critic Kingsley Amis, which I think sums things up very nicely:

“There aren’t enough people like Harry Harrison in science fiction, or anywhere else for that matter. He seems to follow Kipling’s sound maxim for a writer, ‘When you find you can do something, do something you can’t.’ Harry will do you a comic space saga, a chilling mystery on an alien planet, an ingenious and inventive alternate world, and one of the grimmest and horribly plausible near-future nightmares I have ever read: Make Room! Make Room! One characteristic does run through all his very varied work: energy. He’s apparently incapable of writing a dull sentence.”

Raise your glasses please to Harry Harrison, Science Fiction Grand Master: Cheers Harry, and thank you.

– Paul Tomlinson, 22nd April 2009

5 Responses to “Harry Harrison: SF Grand Master”

  1. Paul Tomlinson Says:

    A few years ago, Michael Carroll and I put together a special 75th Birthday surprise for Harry Harrison – we got in touch with as many people as we could track down and asked them to write something in honour of the occasion. We gave Harry a print version of the contributions, and also made them available on the HH website.

    I thought I’d post a link to it here, because some of the comments made and stories told complement the above piece nicely. There are contributions from Sf writers and fans – some of whom are no longer with us, including the great Damon Knight, after whom the Grand Master award was renamed.

    As a fan it was great opening up my e-mail in a morning and finding messages from the likes of Damon Knight and Michael Moorcock and Joe Haldeman and Anne McCaffrey and… and… 🙂


  2. Burin Bache Says:

    I couldn’t think of any better Grand Master.

  3. HawaiianBrian Says:

    Nicely done Paul.

    A quick point: Harry deserves this simply for writing great adventure stories. Some of those are deceptively simple — as you’ve shown, there’s often more to Harry’s stories than meets the eye. Nevertheless, even the ones that are relatively devoid of ‘message’ can be appreciated as excellent, well-paced adventure stories, with great ideas, and likable characters. That point on its own is worth emphasising: it’s a difficult skill to learn, and some never do (e.g. Harry Turtledove!).

    All the best, Brian.

  4. Logan Says:

    At his panel at the UCLA book fair, he said he got into science fiction because he was too young to masurbate.

    • Paul Tomlinson Says:

      I’m sure that’s not something a refined gentleman like Harry Harrison would say…! 🙂

      Presumably the reason we don’t discover sex until our teens is that it at least gives us a short time beforehand to develop interests in other areas…

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