Science Fiction writer Harry Harrison was more than just a friend to me: he was an inspiration, and a mentor. I discovered his work through the 2000AD adaptation of his first Stainless Steel Rat novel, scripted by Kelvin Gosnell and drawn by Carlos Ezquerra.
I loved the protagonist – super-crook “Slippery” Jim diGriz – so much that I went out and bought the novel. And the next one, and the one after that… And didn’t stop until I had a complete collection.
Harry was born in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1925. As an only child, and the son of a freelance printer who rarely settled down (“We’d do midnight flits,” Harry said in an interview with Paul Tomlinson in 1999. “The ice man would come with his horse and cart, and move the whole house into another apartment.”), young Harry had few close friends and instead devoted his attention to the early pulp SF novels and magazines.
In 1943, on his eighteenth birthday, Harry was drafted into the military. Faced with a choice of the army, navy or air corps, Harry chose the latter, because he figured his odds of surviving the war were greater: the air corps had thirty-five people on the ground for each one in the air.
He received an honourable discharge in 1946, and later that year began an art course at Hunter College in New York, where he became close friends with renowned comic artist Wally Wood. Harrison and Wood soon set up their own studio (thereafter, Harry always referred to his workplace as a studio, rather than an office or a study) and began drawing comics for E.C. and other publishers, and illustrations for science fiction magazines.
Harry frequently found that the comic scripts he was hired to draw were not of the best quality: “Very badly written things, with nine-panel pages and five hundred words in captions and dialogue,” (interview with Bill Spicer for Graphic Story Magazine, 1973). He would rewrite the dialogue – and often the plots – to make the stories work.
In 1951, stricken with an illness that made drawing difficult, Harry decided to try his hand at writing a science fiction story, which he sent to Damon Knight, editor of Worlds Beyond. Knight liked the story – “Rock Diver” – and published it.
Harry continued writing and illustrating, and in August 1957 published a short story called “The Stainless Steel Rat” in Astounding Science Fiction. This was followed in 1960 with “The Misplaced Battleship” and in 1961 the stories were combined, expanded, and published as a novel.
It’s for the Rat adventures that Harry is most well-known, though the movie Soylent Green comes a close second. The movie was loosely based on Harry’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! Its famous twist ending was a creation of the producers who believed that the theme of overpopulation wasn’t strong enough to shock the audience. Harry wasn’t happy with the changes, and after that was much more hesitant about allowing his works to be Hollywoodised.
Harry’s attitude to story-telling was simple, and effective: make it easy for the reader to grasp, make it fast (“Take out half the commas!” he used to tell me), make the readers care, and – whenever possible – make them laugh. Even many of his more serious works, such as his classic anti-war novel Bill, the Galactic Hero, are peppered with wry humour and gloriously over-the-top caricatures.
In 1989, Harry read my first real attempt at a novel, and tore it to shreds. Rightly so: it was rubbish. “You’ll get better,” he said, “but only if you keep writing. Quit and you’ll learn nothing.”
Though he was well-versed in the sciences Harry rarely wrote “hard” SF, preferring to keep the technical stuff in the background. He once told me, “In good science fiction, the science isn’t as important as the fiction. Get the story right first, then make the science fit. Otherwise you get crappy stories.”
He was a wonderfully larger-than-life character who was immensely popular among the SF community, as evidenced by the reaction to his death: I’ve been running his website – www.harryharrison.com – since its inception in 1999. On the day the news broke, the number of visitors to the site shot up to almost 150 times the daily average.
I like to think that in the far future, perhaps on some distant planet, there’ll be a giant statue of Harry Harrison, erected by his countless fans to commemorate his great works and his indomitable zest for life.
Tourists will come from all over the galaxy to see the statue and pay their respects. And off to the side, one particularly gullible rich off-worlder will be wondering why the ink is still wet on the title deeds to the statue, sold to him by a certain James Bolivar diGriz…
This tribute was originally published in 2000AD issue #1800, 12 September 2012, reprinted by kind permission of Rebellion. 2000AD‘s adaptation of Harry’s novels The Stainless Steel Rat, The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World and The Stainless Steel Rat for President have been collected as a single graphic novel, available from the 2000AD Webshop.