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Harry Harrison dead at 87
Harry Harrison obituary
Popular author of science fiction with a serious purpose and a subversive wit
Harry Harrison, who has died aged 87, was a writer from the world of American comics and science-fiction magazines of the 1950s. An amazingly prolific author, who gradually took on more serious themes as he matured, Harrison is probably best known for the book that inspired the Hollywood film Soylent Green (1973). Directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Charlton Heston and Edward G Robinson, Soylent Green was an uncompromising view of a world a quarter of a century into the future, in which massive overpopulation has created a critical food shortage. The solution is an alleged soya/lentil substitute – the plot concerns the discovery of the true nature of the stuff.
harry harrison obituary Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series, from 1961, ran to 12 titles
The original novel was called Make Room! Make Room! (1966). Harrison said wryly that the film "at times bore a faint resemblance to the book". It was a serious, thoroughly researched novel, written at a time when there was little discussion of the population time-bomb. Although overpopulation was a common theme in far-future science fiction, Harrison's idea was to depict a near-future society (year 2000) that many of us, or our children, would live to see. It marked a change of direction for Harrison, although it was an early sign of a trend in his work that was not to emerge in full until some years later.
His most popular and best-known work is contained in fast-moving parodies, homages or even straight reconstructions of traditional space-opera adventures. He wrote several named series of these: notably the Deathworld series (three titles, starting in 1960), the Stainless Steel Rat books (12 titles, from 1961), and the sequence of books about Bill, the Galactic Hero (seven titles, from 1965). These books all present interesting contradictions: while being exactly what they might superficially seem to be, unpretentious action novels with a strong streak of humour, they are also satirical, knowing, subversive, unapologetically anti-military, anti-authority and anti-violence. Harrison wrote such novels in the idiom of the politically conservative hack writer, but in reality he had a liberal conscience and a sharp awareness of the lack of literary values in so much of the SF he was parodying.
He was born in Stamford, Connecticut, the only son of Henry Dempsey and his wife, Ria (née Kirjassoff). Dempsey changed his name to Harrison soon after Harry's birth, but the son did not find out until he applied for a passport, aged 30, that his own name was still Dempsey. He then changed his name legally to Harrison, but in later years sometimes used Hank Dempsey as a pseudonym.
In 1943 he was drafted into the US Army Air Corps, where he became a sharpshooter, a military policeman, a gunnery instructor, and a specialist in the prototypes of computer-aided bomb-sights and gun turrets. One of his last literary projects was a novel based on this period. He was so bored during his service that he learned Esperanto – he was an active Esperantist for the rest of his life. But overall the army experience vested in him a hatred of the military that was to serve him well as a writer later on.
After discharge he went to Hunter College in New York to study art. He became a student of the American painter John Blomshield, continuing to take private tuition from Blomshield after he finished college. By the end of the 1940s Harrison was running a small studio that specialised in selling illustrations to comics and science-fiction magazines. For years he thought of himself as a commercial artist rather than a writer. He then moved on to editing some of the magazines.
As the market for comics began to shrink, and then expire, Harrison started writing for science-fiction magazines. The paltry financial rewards led him and his family (he married Joan Merkler in 1954) to want to move from New York. The chance came with what seemed at the time like a large payment from a magazine for his first full-length novel, Deathworld. He drove his family in an antiquated camper van to Mexico and remained there for a year.
It was the first of many international moves, something that became characteristic. He went from Mexico to Britain, then to Italy, then to Denmark. He liked Denmark and stayed for seven years, seeing it as a perfect place to bring up his children, but eventually he realised that unless he made a conscious decision to leave, they could easily remain there for ever. The family moved back to the US, to San Diego, California, where he reckoned heating bills would be low, but by the mid-1970s he was back in the UK. He moved on to Ireland, where he and Joan settled for many years; because Harrison had an Irish grandparent, he was able to take out citizenship, and by taking full advantage of the Irish scheme for writers and other artists, he enjoyed tax-free status thereafter.
A long association with the British writer Brian Aldiss allowed Harrison to express his deeper convictions about the way science-fiction literature was published, criticised and understood. In 1965 Harrison and Aldiss published the first issue (of two) of the world's first serious journal of SF criticism, SF Horizons. Together they edited many anthologies of short stories, each one illustrating the major themes of SF, and although not intended as critical apparatus the books were a way of delineating the unique material of the fantastic.
As committed internationalists, the two men created World SF, an organisation of professionals intended to encourage and enhance the writing of non-anglophone SF. World SF was launched in 1979 in Dublin, with later meetings in countries including Sweden, Italy, Austria and Yugoslavia. The Harrison award was created to improve the international status of SF. As an editor he published the Nova series of original stories (1970-1975), and with Aldiss the anthologies Best SF and The Year's Best SF(1967-76).
From the outside, the serious side of Harrison probably looked anomalous. For many years he remained a staunch supporter of and contributor to Analog, the SF magazine edited by John W Campbell, a doctrinaire editor who had no interest in literary values. And this was the period in which Harrison was publishing novels with titles such as Montezuma's Revenge (1972), A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (1972), Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers (1973), and a book about SF art called Great Balls of Fire (1977). But, as Harrison himself once said, irony comes in many forms.
His seriousness was manifest in more intensely felt novels such as Captive Universe (1969 – a Book of the Month Club choice in the US), Skyfall (1976), Stonehenge (1983 – written with the academic Leon Stover) and the Eden series of books, starting with West of Eden (1984). One of his last projects was to write his autobiography.
Harrison was an extremely popular figure in the SF world, renowned for being amiable, outspoken and endlessly amusing. His quickfire, machine-gun delivery of words was a delight to hear, and a reward to unravel: he was funny and self-aware, he enjoyed reporting the follies of others, he distrusted generals, prime ministers and tax officials with sardonic and cruel wit, and above all he made plain his acute intelligence and astonishing range of moral, ethical and literary sensibilities.
Joan died in 2002, a devastating blow which led to Harrison's full-time return to Britain. Two children, Todd and Moira, survive him.
• Henry Maxwell Harrison, science-fiction writer, born 12 March 1925; died 15 August 2012
"If you’re going through hell, keep going." - Winston Churchill
Last edited by Manticore; 15th Aug 2012 at 07:00 PM.