Thursday, August 16, 2012

Died: SF Author -- Legend! -- Harry Harrison

I was sad to recently learn that Harry Harrison passed away. According to his official web site, he was 87 years old.

Harrison remains one of my favorite authors, and I had the privilege of interviewing him a number of years ago. The conversation never saw the light of day, and with Harrison's recent death, it seems like as good a time as any to put this out there for everyone to read. (Re-reading it all these years later, I wish I'd talked about more than just his satirical writing. Ah well.)

He was a nice, friendly man, someone who had no problem chatting with me for a surprisingly long time. I'm glad I was able to speak with him, and I'm sure he'll be sorely missed, both inside and out of the science fiction community.


Harry Harrison came away from his time spent in the United States Army Air Corps having learned a lot: He knew how to shoot, and had a sharpshooter medal to prove it; he could repair and use the Sperry Mark 1, a secret targeting computer; and he taught himself the universal language of Esperanto.

But more than anything else, Harrison learned to hate the military.

The author drew on this animosity when he wrote his classic piece of science fiction and military satire, Bill, The Galactic Hero. The story focuses on Bill, a hapless draftee conscripted into a military that treats bureaucracy like a fetish, awards mindless devotion and excessive violence, and generally runs amok through space, stomping whoever gets in its way. Full of black humor, the novel never misses an opportunity to point out the pointlessness of war and the stupidity of a military-industrial complex.

Drawing on his experiences in World War II, Harrison ended up crafting a novel that rings frighteningly true today.

But Harrison has built his fame and success on a whole foundation of characters and stories. The Stainless Steel Rat, and the many other books in the series of the same name, is a chuckle-out-loud adventure tale about a youthful thief whose intelligence, ingenuity, and unmatched fighting ability keep him one step ahead of law enforcement. Like a twisted Horatio Alger, Harrison delights in documenting the Stainless Steel Rat’s development from an untested would-be criminal to a mastermind whose legend extends across the galaxy.

Harrison has a serious side, too, as evidenced by novels like Make Room! Make Room!, which addresses the threat of overpopulation, and The Streets of Ashkelon, wherein an atheist attempts to save an alien race from the onset of Christian missionaries. Harrison had sat on the latter story for years until science fiction writer and editor Judith Merrill announced that she planned on putting together an anthology of original work written to take on the various taboos imposed upon writers during the Fifties and Sixties. Unfortunately, the book was never published and Harrison's story remained unpublished for over a year until Brian Aldiss—himself a daring purveyor of boundary-busting sf—purchased it for an anthology he was editing called More Penguin Science Fiction.

Novels like Bill the Galactic Hero and The Streets of Ashkeon demonstrate Harrison’s devotion to honesty, even in the face of public discomfort. Cultural sensibilities be damned; if a story makes people squirm, it probably needs to be told.

Harrison’s talents lie in his ability to write satire that never devolves into either preaching or angst-fueled rhetoric. He lets the events and characters in his novels tell the stories, and he never forgets the importance of a compelling plot. He’s able to sustain an idea long enough to thoroughly explore it without ever boring the reader or beating his subjects into the ground.

Harrison began his career in science fiction after the war, working as an artist and supplying work to such genre magazines as Galaxy and Worlds Beyond. He also illustrated comics, working closely with famed artist Wally Wood on a variety of titles, including EC’s detective and horror line. They eventually ended up on Weird Science, which Harrison initially suggested to the publisher. Harrison took a break from comics for a while, but eventually returned for a stint on the newspaper strip "Flash Gordon."

He began writing at an early age, but turned to the medium professionally when illness prevented him from completing some art for the magazine Worlds Beyond. With nothing better to do, he began writing a story, “Rock Diver,” which the magazine’s editor, Damon Knight, purchased for $100. From that point on, Harrison was a regular contributor to that, and many other magazines.

Harrison never stays in the same place for long. He was born in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1925, but his family moved to Brooklyn when he was two, and a few years later, settled in Queens. It was there that he grew up and got his education. He was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1943; they sent him first to Mississippi, then to Denver, Colorado; Laredo, Texas; and finally Panama City, Florida. After his discharge, he moved back to New York, where he took art courses, worked as an illustrator, and eventually began to write.

As soon as his freelance career took off, Harrison and his wife, Joan, moved down to Cuautla, Mexico. A year later, taking advantage of a cheap flight arranged so that fans could travel to the first Worldcon outside of the U.S., Harrison and Joan moved to Bromley, Kent, in the U.K. They then lived in London for a while, before continuing on to Italy, New York again, Denmark, back to England, across the Atlantic (and the continent) to San Diego, and finally to Dublin, Ireland, where they live today.

Harrison has written more than 60 novels, encompassing not just satire and social commentary, but also sf adventure, alternate histories, and mysteries. He’s published six non-fiction books, and has appeared in numerous collections. Harrison has edited more than a dozen anthologies, often in close association with Brian W. Aldiss. He has won numerous awards and honors, including the Nebula in 1973 for the film Soylent Green, which was based on Make Room! Make Room! 

DOC ATOMIC: What is it that you love about science fiction? What keeps bringing you back to it? 
HARRY HARRISON: It started as a kid, you know, during the Depression. A very gray world, a very poverty stricken world. So I found something that gave a little bit of life to it, and color. Like all writers, I read everything—fiction, non-fiction. Science fiction just woke me up and had that extra bit, went that extra bit, that normal fiction did not.

What was that extra bit for you? 
A sense of wonder, something completely different. It tests the brain, it tests the emotions, it tests the intelligence. It was a much bigger, fuller, more complete form of fiction than anything else going down the pike at the time. It wasn't very well written by hindsight, but when you're 12 years old, what do you know?

This was all the early pulp stuff. At that point we're talking about Amazing, Astounding... 
Absolutely. I started reading the pulp magazines when I was seven or eight years old. I formed a fan club with other fans when I was 13 in Queens, New York. Went to the first convention ever in 1939 [Worldcon], so it was the hobby that really kept me moving very much through school, during school. I kept reading it in the army. I came home after the war, and I'd made a career as a commercial artist—but I was illustrating SF magazines, doing book jackets and science fiction, which I loved. I was writing a lot of stuff as well. I eventually wrote some science fiction which sold and that was that. I never turned back.

Did you know as a kid that this was something you wanted to be involved with on a professional level? Could you even imagine being involved with it on a professional level?
Not really. Well, in a way, yes. I mean, I knew all the writers in New York and we had lots of meetings. I enjoyed meeting editors and artists—it was just a pleasure to meet them, but I had no idea that I would get involved myself.

I know I wasn't sure at the time whether I wanted to be a writer or an artist. I went to art school after the war, and then became a very good artist. I lived on that and started editing magazines and started writing for them and that was it. A kind of automatic transformation.

It seems like your career really took off when you returned from the war.
Very much so. We all felt very left behind after the war. We'd been away for three or four years. The kids we graduated high school with were now graduating college, and we were in a hurry to catch up.

It was a good time for science fiction. They started with a half dozen and ended up with 30, 40, 50 magazines in a few years. Pulp magazines and films. It was a very active field and there weren't very many good practitioners. We who were fans became semi-professional and professional. The ones who could do it, did it. The ones who couldn't, dropped by the way.

There was a lot of talent in that for some reason. It's gone now. We were all short story writers, novel writers, editors. A lot of the people like myself and Fred Pohl, were writers and editors. It was a very small community and we all knew each other, and we traded favors back and forth. It was a nice time to grow up.

I've always been interested in the early days of science fiction, because it seems to me like the fans and the professionals mingled and mixed to a much greater extent than they do today. I always assumed that it was because the field was so much smaller at the time. Was that part of it?
Oh, yeah. The thing was, there were very few pros in those days. The first generation writers like Robert Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt were older people who had written other things as well as science fiction. But we fans who came back from the war, we're now 18, 19, 20, 21, we were professional fans and had been fans a long time. And there was a lot of opportunity to write this stuff.

The good ones graduated to become the second generation of pros. Myself, Jim Blish, Fred Pohl, David Knight. These are all people I knew through fandom, who came from New York—the heart of publishing in the United States—and became successful.

The writing was crude, perhaps boring, But it waxed enthusiastic. In the end it became very good. Then experimental stuff came in, and sf died. It's one way of thinking about it.

There was so much interaction among the fans and the professionals back in the early days. I have these visions of everyone working together, hanging out, helping each other. Was it like that?
In a way it was, because we had no money, we were all poverty stricken, all poor from the Depression and poor after the army. We didn't have any money but we had a good life together. We'd chip in a quarter each for a party and buy bottles of beer. A 25 cent bottle of beer was 20 cents in those days, with five cents back on the bottle.

In New York there was a five-dollar loan that went around from hand to hand. The amount of money I borrow from you, I give that money to somebody else. It was a very warm ambiance, fans and pros overlapped a good deal. People married each other and they divorced, and they married somebody else's wife. It was a very social scene there, all of which I think is pretty well gone now.

It's gotten so big. You go to a convention and there's thousands of people.
It's unbelievable. I went to the Worldcon in Boston and there were 8,000 people there. I was also invited to the Comiccon in San Diego, and there were 80,000 people.

But you know, at a convention of 80,000, you don't see people you know. You make appointments with people. You don't meet them by chance, just rarely. You go to enjoy yourself, have a holiday, and see publishers. I make sure I see my publisher at least once a year, and they mostly show up at conventions. I see them there. I do my best. It's a nice social life.

When you were first getting into science fiction, did you ever imagine it would get this big?
No idea. Never even thought about it. We knew it was a ghetto field. We knew we were in the pulps, and we had to tear the covers off of those magazines just to read them in front of our parents. My friend's mother threw out my magazines I loaned to him.

But we didn't care about mainstream. We'd try and cultivate it every once in a while, but then we finally gave up on the idea altogether. We felt superior to them, with the fan activity and the fan speak. People who don't read science fiction in fandom are called “Mundanes.” We felt the rest of the world were Mundanes. We didn't want to talk to them and we could care less about them.

So is it fair to say that the mainstream sort of snuck up on science fiction?
Science fiction quietly invaded the mainstream, although the mainstream won't admit it yet. We started selling books out of category and the category expanded. It was always a very, very small market. A hundred thousand would be a good sale for a science fiction magazine. Campbell sold 250,000 one year. That was fantastic. Books, two or three thousand copies. Paperbacks, 10,000, 20,000 copies. It was a very small field. 

Going back a bit, having started as an illustrator and then shifting over to writing, did you find the process of approaching science fiction visually different from the way you approached it through words? I’m talking more about the way you thought about it and approached it creatively.
Yes. I know physicists who play the piano very well. There's nothing wrong with having two or three arts in your life. I loved science fiction and I wanted to be an artist—I was an artist. I still illustrated science fiction. But when I started writing novels, I found with my visual sense, I could get that across in words as well, and all the training I had visually came out in my writing.

In hindsight, I look back in my years in the comics and I realize that the very first bit of writing I ever sold—I'd just come out of the army, out of art school—was to Writer's Digest. It was an article on how to write for the comics. My first sale was to a professional magazine, which meant I had certain talents I wasn't even aware of at the time.

I was analytical. I could understand scripts. At that time I was editing comics. I got a job editing magazines. I found I could do that as well as draw and write both.

You had done two cover illustrations for Damon Knight’s Worlds Beyond, and then illness drove you to writing, correct?
In one sense. I was still working as a comics artist, but I was doing a lot of illustrations, too. I had friends in New York and I did magazines, I did book jackets, and I was still an artist. I illustrated the first two issues of Worlds Beyond. The third issue, I was doing illustrations for it and I got the flu. I had a very high fever and was in bed and couldn't draw. But I had an idea for a short story. I'd already sold a lot of men's adventures and articles to a lot of magazines.

So I wrote this short story and brought it to Damon Knight, and said, “Damon, let me ask you. You write science fiction—what'll I do with it?”

He said, “I'll buy it from you and I'll give you $100 for it and change the title.”

So my agent was Fred Pohl, and I said, “Fred, Damon paid me $100 for this story.” He looked at it and he said, “I'll put it in an anthology.” That was $200.

I was being paid $5 for the illustrations. So $5, and now $100. It’s a big difference!

But for a whole comic page in those days I was getting $25 or $30 for drawing and inking an entire page. We worked two-up, 12 by 18 inches.

I found I could do my writing. I was more successful in writing than I was in art, and I wasn't that interested in hacking out comic art anymore. So I had original stuff in science fiction. And I took one step sideways, one step back, and starting editing pulp magazine.

All of a sudden I was a writer, not an artist.

Was that surprising to you? Had you anticipated becoming a writer?
In a way. I wasn't sure if I wanted to be an artist or a writer. But we were all young and very strong. I can remember a guy sold a short story, the most incompetent story I read in my life. I said, “God, if he can sell that piece of crap, I can write better than that.” So it was an open field. There were a lot of magazines lying around. I knew I could sell anything I wrote. I was pretty good.

I was doing men’s adventures, 2000 words of absolute nonsense, and the good ones I sold for about $400 to $500 to Argosy. So I knew I could write. I knew I was successful, knew I was better than the other guys around, and I just forged ahead.

You need a little chutzpah to go into a room with a typewriter and a piece of white paper all by yourself. You have to feel you're doing something good and something important, and if it works out that proves you were right.

It's one thing for you to know that you're good and to understand your own abilities. Was there ever any trepidation on your part in handing it off to other people who'd been doing it for a while, who were professionals in this field already? Or had you already gotten past that?
I'd gotten past that as a commercial artist. All I knew were writers and artists, and I was Harry the artist in New York with all the science fiction professionals. They were good friends of mine from fandom days, and now they were editing magazines, they were writing. We were all friends. We sort of grew up after the war after the military. We helped each other a good deal. Those were good days then.

I mean, when I was editing I'd buy stories from my friends and commission articles. Then when I was writing, I'd call editor friends and get some work from them. It was a much more wholesome, rousing kind of life then. Now it's money making and doesn't have quite that same effect.

[Back then] We were included out of the mainstream. We knew we were in a ghetto and we didn't mind it. We wouldn't let the press come to conventions. They’d only talk about little green men from space. We had an extended family of fans and professionals. We all knew each other and we got along.

The best market was Astounding, with John Campbell. I sold my very first novel to him as a serial and sold it to Bantam for a book. I said, “That's not bad, my first novel.”

After that I think I sold John three or four serials. That was the only way to make money in those days. John was paying three cents a word, and you sell a serial in three parts, then you sell it to a book afterwards. Paperback. There were no hardbound books in those days.

I actually started getting some money I could almost live on. That's when I left New York and moved to Mexico to go freelance. It was very cheap in those days. I wanted to work on my first novel, which I couldn't do in New York. We decided to take a chance, my wife Joan and I, and the year-old baby.

“Let's get out of New York and see if I can my living as a freelance writer.” If everything fell apart and we'd cable my wofe's dad, say his grandson was hungry, and he'd cable us money. And we'd go back to New York, I'd get another crappy job. We'd get another crappy apartment and we'd have lost nothing. But we would have tried. So we left New York in '56 and never went back.

Some writers have told me that they’re surprised by the art that comes back to illustrate their stories. It becomes clear to them that the artist never read a word of the pieces. How did you approach sf illustration?

I've had rotten covers, I’ve had rotten illustrations of my stories. I try and make the publisher listen to me, but you can't control it. They're bastards, the art directors. They couldn't care less.

But I would read the story before illustrating it, or I'd already be familiar with it—I knew the writer's stuff.

I've written stories to match covers for Galaxy. Fred Pohl was the editor at the time. He was only two or three days a week in the office in New York, and when he wasn’t there, the publisher would buy crappy paintings from indigent artists for science fiction covers. And Fred would have them in his office and I'd come over to see him, and he'd tell me that if I match a story to the painting, I’d get a cover story!

But there should be more feedback between the artist and the writers, because most artists don't really care very much. They don't read the stuff. In fact, most artists are pretty stupid when you get down to it. I mean, it doesn't require intelligence to be a very fine artist.

Did you find that being a fan gave you an advantage over other artists?
No. I wasn't doing it full time. I was grinding out comics full time. But when a new editor would come in, he'd say, “Harry, we want some art,” and I'd go down and talk to them. I did a book jacket for the publisher of Gnome Press, Marty Greenberg. It was just more of a hobby for me. I liked science fiction and I loved reading it, but I wasn't getting paid big money from it. But I was keeping my hand in.

I was pretty bored by comics by that time, and trying to get out of it. Lucky I did.

I would have thought that working in comics would be a perfect place for you to combine your interests in art and writing.
I found it a very mediocre field after a while, but I did make a living off comics. After I went freelance, I still could always write comics. So I wrote English comics. I wrote "Flash Gordon" for 10 years. I knew comics so well, I could always add to my income by writing them. But I just did it because I could do it very well and I could do it very fast, as a way of getting more money.

As soon as I started selling my novels, I got out of comics completely. Fans would tell me, Harry, maybe you don't like comics but you made a living as a comics artist working for E.C. Comics publisher Bill Gaines.

Which was true, but I was never going to be the very top artist in the field. I hate to be mediocre. I found as a writer, I was right near the top, so I got out of it.

You were working with Bill Gaines at a time when E.C. was doing some great stuff. Good enough, one could say, to attract the attention of Congress and nearly get itself shut down.
That was only with the horror comics. Bill was turning out crap. Wally Wood and I worked for him. We did Western romances, rangeland romances, and horror comics. That's all Bill was doing. The horror was doing very well. That got the investigation and everything going. We did talk Bill out of rangeland fiction, and we talked him into doing a science fiction comic, Weird Science.

They wouldn’t let me write because I was an artist, so I wrote in my wife's name and she turned them in. I wrote a lot of that early stuff. 

You helped revive Flash Gordon in the comics. 
That's right. Alex Raymond, who did the original, died in a car accident during the war. After the war, Sputnik went up and rockets were getting interesting. King Features owned the rights of Flash Gordon. They hired Dan Barry, and he wasn't much of a writer so he hired other people to write the scripts for him.

I was living in Italy at the time and he was living in Paris. I wrote to Dan and said, “How many ex-science fiction authors do you know living in Europe?” So he came down to see me in Italy and I started writing the thing.

I knew all about science fiction, of course, and I knew what he wanted. I did years of Flash Gordon and I just couldn't face it anymore. When I first started, I was doing a year's scripts in three months. But by the time I'd finished, it was taking me a week to write a week's comics.

Where you enthusiastic about taking on such an iconic character?
Yeah. I had collected all the early Flash Gordon, I'd read it and I was glad to develop a new character and work for a syndicate. It was a bit of a challenge, and I worked very well and for a number of years. So that kind of comics I did enjoy very much.

William Tenn says that science fiction is the perfect vehicle for satire, because the powers that be ignore it, and the people who read it really pay attention to the ideas and take them to heart. Would you agree with that?
I do! You know, I got one of the basic ideas behind Bill, the Galactic Hero from William Tenn. He talked about all those stories with thousands of space ships and battles. He said, “What about the tail gunner on one of those ships? What would his life be like?” So that's what I wrote.

The only way to write about the military is black humor. You have to laugh at the bastards. They're pretty unhumorous themselves. I read Candide, and Catch-22 came out, and that's really the way to handle it. From that, I got Bill, the Gallactic Hero, which is still being read, I'm happy to say.
I once had a fan come up to me, a guy with a scar on his face. “I'm a combat marine sergeant,” he said. “I read Bill, the Gallactic Hero.” 

I'm waiting for him to chop me down, and he then says, “I think it's the only story about the war that's absolutely true.”

Another guy, a green beret, said the same thing. He read it to his squad at night in Vietnam.

When writing satire, there’s a fine line between telling a good story and simply preaching. 
That's right, but that's why satire works. If you try and do a straight war novel, an anti-war novel, you'd be preachy. But with humor you're not preachy—you're vulgar, you're broad, you're funny, and you're interesting.

In one of the Stainless Steel Rat stories, I wrote, "The higher a rank an officer is, the more of an alcoholic he is. Lieutenants and captains get drunk every night, majors get drunk all day on Saturday and Sunday. Generals are drunk all the time.” It's an absolute lie, but I got away with it because it's a bit of a satire. It's what every G.I. wants to believe.

While working on Bill, did you ever find yourself drifting too close to preaching? Or did it ever start swinging in the other direction, with the book getting too goofy?
No. I used a structure of [Robert Heinlein's] Starship Troopers for certain parts. I did a parody of other science fiction writers. But what I found is that I was writing very slowly. I couldn't get more than about a thousand words, twelve hundred words done a day. Humor is very difficult. I'd laugh at it and then the next day I'd go in and it read like crap. So I learned very early on if you laugh when you write it, don't change a word of it. Of course, the next day it's very familiar and not funny in the slightest. So you have to bring it out deep within yourself somewhere, bring up the jokes, put them down, and go on to the next page.

I think some writers go overboard when they do humor in science fiction. I had an illusion of reality at all times. It was sort of a mad illusion, but it still seemed to make sense on its own, horrible, terrible level.

But I lay it out like it is. I don’t cover your eyes in any way. I think that’s why the professional soldiers liked the book.

When my mother read the book, she said, “I didn't know you hated the army so much,” and didn't laugh at anything in the book.

I've never been in the military, I've never been near the military.

Right, nor will you go now. I met a fan once—pot belly, beard—and he said, “Mr. Harrison, you may have saved my life.”

He enlisted in the army after high school. That night he read Bill, the Gallactic Hero and he tore up his enlistment papers.

Maybe I did save his life. Why not? Literature has a lot to say for it, a lot of responsibility as well. Make Room! Make Room!—the book is there to tell you how bad overpopulation is so you go out and do something about it. It's what science fiction does very well, shakes the finger at you. Shape up or ship out!

Science fiction is a very literate field and open to anything, open to humor, open to mind-smashing concepts. Some of the modern writers, they don't think very much. They don't really get up and get it all done the way they should, and you get mediocre writing. I can't stand mediocre writing.

I went to a very interesting panel at Philcon a couple years ago where they talked about the use of science fiction props. Writers and fans can just say “ray gun” and everyone knows what they’re talking about. “FTL,” and everyone knows it means “faster than light.” And they know what that implies. The writer doesn't have to create these things.
No, he doesn't. That's what’s bad with a lot of modern science fiction, as well as all science fiction written for the cinema and television. Those guys use the props of science fiction. They have a time machine, they have rocket ships. You push a button and you get there automatically. In Star Wars they pressed the FTL and the stars go zipping by outside the windows. That was well done but it was all props and no content. They're all standard government issue science fiction ideas, and it looked great and it sounded great and it worked very well. But it was all props.

You had trouble getting Bill, the Galactic Hero published at first, from what I understand.
Very much so. We were all fans. We were juvenile. The editors treated sf as such. They never let the words “hell” and “damn” into a story. No sex, no cursing. I remember telling myself, “Harry, you don't have to stick to these rules. You can break out of it, you can do something different.”

My first two or three books were adventure stories. I knew adventure sold, like DeathWorld. I wrote variations on a theme. The first book that got me out of the mold was Bill, the Gallactic Hero. It didn't sell, of course. No one wanted the damn thing. My publisher bounced it. Damon Knight bounced it—and he had commissioned the thing!

Eventually, Fred Pohl serialized it in Galaxy. Michael Moorcock serialized it in New Worlds. It went on to be translated in about 30 languages.

This last Worldcon in Glasgow, Joe Haldeman and I were on a panel discussing why liberals write military science fiction. At one point, Joe said, “How many in this audience have read Forever War,” and almost every hand went up. He asked, “How many have read Bill, the Galactic Hero,” and every hand went up. Admittedly it's a Worldcon full of science fiction fans. But still, if more than 30 years later we’re in a room where everyone present has read our books, then they’ve done okay. So I can’t knock it.

Deathworld (1960)
The Stainless Steel Rat (1961)
Deathworld 2 (1964)
Bill, the Galactic Hero (1965)
Plague From Space (1965)
Make Room! Make Room! (1966)
The Technicolor Time Machine (1967)
Deathworld 3 (1968)
The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge (1970)
The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World (1972)
Skyfall (1977)
Homeworld (1980)
Wheelworld (1981)
Starworld (1981)
A Rebel in Time (1983)
There Won’t Be War (with Bruce McAllister, 1991)
Stars and Stripes Forever! (1998)
Stars and Stripes in Peril (2001)
Stars and Stripes Triumphant (2003)

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