Book Review: HARRY HARRISON!, HARRY HARRISON!

A fittingly witty and sarcastic memoir by a great author

71PgtEtuyZLHARRY HARRISON! HARRY HARRISON! A Memoir by Harry Harrison
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; 1 edition (November 4, 2014)

I loved Harry Harrison when he was alive, writing and kicking.

Now that he’s gone, I love him even more!

An opening that I hope delivers some small measure of Harry’s unique sense of satire and wit, the likes of which we will likely never see again.

No, I’m not glad that Harry Harrison – comic book artist and author, author, artist, editor, world traveler, Esperantist, humorist, satirist, fan – is gone.

But I do love his irreverent, no-holds-barred, fresh and refreshingly open book of memoirs and there is no doubt in my mind that this book could only have been published once reports of Harry Harrison’s demise were no longer greatly exaggerated.

It is clear to me that Harry chose to do honor to himself, his career, his family, colleagues, friends, fans and his body of work by delivering an unflinchingly honest and entirely personal set of memoirs and anecdotes that he himself believe framed and informed his life as one of the greats of our genre.

HARRY HARRISON!, HARRY HARRISON! A Memoir By Harry Harrison was prepared by Harry with the assistance of his daughter Moira* who eventually ended up taking dictation as Harry approached both the end of this book and of his life. David Hartwell, Tor’s editor (who has known Harry a long time) shepherded the final work to a close – sadly incomplete because Harry did not live long enough to finish.

Tastefully and respectfully, rather than try to “do things the way Harry would do them”, David has chosen to present them in the form received, breaking the book into two sections, with Part One being a roughly chronological autobiographical account of Harry’s journey from charter member of the Queen’s chapter of the Science Fiction League in 1938 to SFWA Grand Master in 2008 and Part Two being a series of essays on subjects Harry obviously considered important (the film based on his novel Make Room!, Make Room! – which the title of this memoir riffs on- John W. Campbell, his West of Eden series, Alternate History, the Stainless Steel Rat, Bill, The Galactic Hero) and of which David informs us Harry’s intention was to interleave into the first section but died before being able to do so.

Opening this delightful read is a personal chronology of Harry’s life – born in Connecticut, moves to New York (happy circumstance, it was here he would discover comics, pulps and fans), drafted into the army during World War II, getting married, having children and roaming the world.

Placed midway through is a nice hefty section of photographs taken by family and friends.

In many ways, Harry’s story is similar to many other Cambellian era authors, highly intellectual, creative individuals not quite sure of which way to go in life, bumping up against science fiction, finding something there, falling into relationships with people who could help their careers – more through circumstance than through deliberation – recognizing their opportunities and – at least in Harry’s case – almost literally seizing them by the balls and turning them into a career.  A career that has benefited readers and the genre at least as much as it accrued to Harry’s benefit.

I first made Harry’s acquaintance through the pages of anthologies he’d edited – mostly with his life-long friend Brian Aldiss – a Best Of series (based on a hole in publishing schedules and designed to beat all the other Best Ofs to market – it ended up coming out six months later than planned) and, while I appreciated his gift for unearthing gems that had been overlooked by others, it wasn’t until I read Bill, The Galactic Hero, that I understood that science fiction could be humorous.  And not just funny, but bitingly, sarcastically and pointedly funny.

I was introduced to that novel as “the answer to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers” (obviously by those who insist on treating that novel as a fascist’s manifesto) and I was hooked.  Here was an author who took the basic concepts of science fiction and played with them.  As is illustrated by this short passage from the novel:

“No, they don’t use the old sub-space drive any more…

“Then we’re going into hyper-space?”

“No such thing.”

“Or we’re being dissolved into our component atoms and recorded in the memory of a giant computer who thinks we are somewhere else so there we are?”

“Wow!” Tembo said, his eyebrows crawling up to his hairline.  “For a Zoroastrian farm boy you have some strange ideas!  Have you been smoking or drinking something I don’t know about?”

“Tell me!” Bill pleaded.  “If it’s not one of them – what is it?  We’re going to have to cross interstellar space to fight the Chingers.  How are we going to do it?”

“It’s like this.” Tembo looked around to make sure that First Class Spleen was out of sight, then put his cupped hands together to form a ball.  “You make believe that my hands are the ship, just floating in space.  Then the Bloater Drive is turned on-”

“The what?”

“The Bloater Drive.  It’s called that because it bloats things up.  …

…”Now – see my hands?  As the energy gets weaker the ship gets bigger,” he moved his hands further apart. “It gets bigger and bigger until it is as big as a planet, then as big as a sun then a whole stgellar system.  The Bloater Drive can make us just as big as we want to be, then it’s turned the other way and we shrink back to our regular size and there we are.”

Or this:

Bill slid into the recently vacated position and stared with unseeing eyes at the screen before him.  Little moving blobs of light.

In large letters, just above the screen, was printed: GREEN LIGHTS OUR SHIPS, RED LIGHTS ENEMY.  FORGETTING THIS IS A COURTS-MARTIAL OFFENCE*.  “I won’t forget,” Bill mumbled, as he started to slide sideways from the chair.  To steady himself he grabbed a large handle that rose before him, and when he did a circle of light with an X in it moved on the screen…He jiggled it a bit and it moved over to a red light, with the X right over the light.  There was a red button on top of the handle, and he pressed it because it looked like the kind of button that is made to be pressed.  The gun next to him went whffle…in a very subdued way, and the red light went out.  Not very interesting;  he let go of the handle.

“Oh, but you are a fighting fool!” a voice said…”I saw it,” he breathed.  “Until my dying day I won’t forget it.  A fighting fool!  What guts! Fearless! Forward against the enemy, no holds barred, don’t give up the ship…”

It isn’t until you read Harry’s own account of his stint in the military (as a gunsight and ball turret technical specialist, double drafted into servicing .50 caliber machine guns and driving a truck) that you see where everything in Bill comes from – and why Harrison’s take on it was so fittingly sarcastic.  I’m re-reading it now (to honor Mr. Harrison’s memory) and laughing even harder than when I read it the first time.

These insights into the causes and inspirations for his fiction are illuminating and informative, but the one thing that really stands out is Harrison’s willingness to be honest – both with himself and his readers.  He probably regarded this memoir as the last thing he would ever write and obviously made the decision that he was not going to pull any punches.

We unfortunately live in a time when the autobiographies, biographies, memoirs and reminisces of the late and great are all too common.  And all too commonly, an editorial hand (self-imposed or external) seems to rob us of the deep and heartfelt detail of their subjects.  Not so Harry’s final say.

I was quite surprised (pleasantly so) to run across a number of character sketches of many of the primary actors in Harrison’s life, people who influenced – or could have influenced – his career.  To say that Harry obviously took his own counsel in such things is an understatement.  Here are a few of the pithier observations that are sprinkled throughout the book:

Another of the things I did back then was to edit Amazing – I was editor of the magazine that started it all!  I did it for the money.  The publisher who owend it then, Sol Cohen, didn’t have any great respect for science fiction. I knew him from my days in comics.  He wouldn’t believe I was an artist, so he sat me down in a room and gave me a penciled page and said, ink it.  He should have stayed in comics. He was one of the more desperate publishers.  When the bastard bought the rights to the magazine Amazing – the oldest SF magazine in the world – he got bound copies of the whole magazine, and he would tear stories out to put in for reprints. Fantastic Science Fiction, Great Science Fiction, and Thrilling Science Fiction were all reprint magazines from stories torn out of Amazing.

On an all-expenses paid trip to Rio de Janeiro for an international SF film festival, Harry, Brian Aldiss and J. G. Ballard took to the cafes in mid-morning to watch a veritable parade of World SF pass them by on the street:

First to pass was Forry Ackerman, fan deluxe.  I hailed him.

“Where are you going, Forry?”

“To see a film.  Forbidden Planet.”

“Haven’t you seen it before?”

“This is my thirty-fifth time.”

“Forry, I want you to meet some friends of mine you may have heard of.  Forry, this is Brian Aldiss and Jimmy Ballard.”

“I’ve read every word these guys have written.  Would love to talk but…”

“We know – art before pleasure.”

#

“Hey Van, a moment please.  A. E. van Vogt, two friends of mine, Brian Aldiss and James Ballard.”

“I’ve always wanted to meet Mr. Ballard.”

“The same from me. I’ve been told that at your Dianetics Institute you can cure various kinds of cancer….”

…Van talked for half an hour telling us how Dianetics was curing cancer, and neither of them broke up pissing themselves as they should have.

“Gentlemen – I must interrupt for an old friend, Bob Heinlein…”

I did quietly ask Heinlein if he’d read Bill, The Galactic Hero.  He said, “No, I never read other author’s novels.  But after that he never talked to me again, so maybe someone read it to him.

Harlan Ellison – no, he was too quick for us.  But Poul Anderson…Bob Sheckley…Damon Knight…Phil Farmer…it was that kind of day and place.

#

Star Trek was in its early weeks and already hitting the charts.  So I should have been flattered when Gene Roddenberry called me in.

“You know, Harry, this show eats ideas, zipping round space and all that…”

“I know.  And I’m here to help.  How about some bright new twists?  Two, maybe three of them, new and applicable to your show.”

“That’s what I want!”

“Three ideas at a time and they’ll only cost five hundred dollars each, a bargain.”

“We’ll, I don’t know…”

Well I knew.  Ideas are gold in Hollywood.  He could have afforded it ten times over.  But he was just a schlock merchant who would always think cheap.

Yes, that was Harry.  Witty, adventurous, wielding a BS scalpel sharper than anything ever invented on the spur of the moment by Dr. Coypu.

I miss Harry Harrison.  This memoir eases that a great deal.  The man had fun with his life, shared it with us in his novels and now gives us one, last, fitting offering.  That and a heaping helping of porcuswine would make any fan’s day.

A fine bibliography by Paul Tomlinson accompanies the text.

It’s out tomorrow – November 4th.  Give it a read.

(*I can’t help but think that the first battle scene in Galaxy Quest – “I think we’re the green thingie” is a deliberate homage to Bill.

In 2011, Moira promised to pass along my offer of installing Harry as one of the Editorial Advisory board members for our efforts here.  She promised to do so if the opportunity presented itself, as Harry was very ill at time.  Unfortunately, she was never able to do so.)

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