Sunday, October 09, 2016

Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison! by Harry Harrison

That may not quite be the laziest title for a memoir ever, but it's definitely in the top five. If it seems purely inexplicable to you, let me note that Harrison was the author of a novel called Make Room! Make Room!, which was later filmed as Soylent Green. Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison!, though, doesn't evoke that novel or its title in any way other than have two repeated words with an exclamation point after them.

Harrison's career is a bit like that: full of interesting moments that don't lead to very much, decent work that was mildly influential and mildly groundbreaking somewhat regularly, but never broke out hugely. He wrote Bill the Galactic Hero, a decent but slightly obvious anti-war satire in the mid-60s...and then cranked out a rapidly declining series of sequels. Make Room! Make Room! was a solid look at overpopulation...that was overshadowed within a few years by John Brunner's masterful Stand on Zanzibar. The Stainless Steel Rat was the first really popular funny SF series...which declined (not quite as rapidly as Bill) into dull later novels and was also massively overshadowed by later, funnier things from people like Douglas Adams.

In fact, looking back at his career, Harrison is really most notable for two things, neither of which are about his own writing. First, he was a co-founder of World SF, a group that brought together writers and fans from around the world into ever-larger cultural events and literary symposia, and which fostered a lot of connections between East and West, back when those were the major geopolitical spheres. And he was also a core figure in popularizing the invented language Esperanto.

HH2 is additionally hampered by being written during Harrison's final illness. About two-thirds of the book is in a polished, final form, covering his life in detail up through the late '60s and in a very scattershot fashion after that. The rest of the book is made up of essays on particular topics that he'd planned to integrate into the main narrative, but wasn't able to do so before his death. (It's not clear if the whole book was written as a series of discrete essays and then regularized, or if the main text was written more or less as it stands now.) It's inevitably an assembled book, one of the many posthumous works by a million authors that aren't quite what the author would have wanted, but as good as other hands could make it.

Harrison was a professional writer, and all of the prose here is by him, and it's all lively. (He was never a great writer, but always a readable one.)

He traveled a lot in his earlier years -- living here and there for two or five years, and then going to the next place -- and HH2 covers those years in some depth. And Harrison's voice is always so positive and gung-ho that it's a pleasure to read. He was not a major SF writer, I'm afraid, [1] and his work will be mostly forgotten in fifty years. But if you know who he is, and liked his books, you'll like this look at his life and work.

[1] Yes, he was named a Grandmaster by SFWA. No, I don't find that dispositive. In fact, I consider many of the last clutch of GMs to be a worrying trend in SFWA to everybody-gets-a-trophy-ism.

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