Sci-Fi’s Sultan of Satire: Harry Harrison
Updated: Mar 19, 2022
By John C. Alsedek:
As I’ve doubtless rattled on about in past columns, my early science fiction, fantasy, and horror reading was greatly influenced by the massive collection of paperbacks that my parents had on the front porch. Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and H. P. Lovecraft were just some of the authors whose work I immersed myself in during my preteen years. But as I got to be 14/15, I started discovering my own set of genre writers, and one of my very favorites was Harry Harrison. Harrison is probably best known to the general public for penning the novel on which the motion picture Soylent Green was based: Make Room! Make Room! But in science-fiction circles, he’s considered one of the all-time great satirists, a writer of epic adventures that didn’t take themselves—or anything else—too seriously.
Harry Max Harrison was born on March 12th, 1925, in Stamford, Connecticut. His birth name was Henry Maxwell Dempsey, but the family name would become Harrison not long afterward (Harrison legally changed his last name to match that of his parents in 1955). The son of a three-quarters Irish father and a Russian Jewish mother, Harry’s artistic interests as a youngster were less geared toward writing and more toward drawing. After graduating from Forest Hills High School in 1943, Harrison was drafted, but because he’d had the foresight to attend Eastern Aircraft Instrument School in New Jersey and become a certified aircraft instrument mechanic, he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Forces, his preferred branch of the military.
During his three years of World War II service, he ended up in a variety of roles: gunsight technician, gunnery instructor, sharpshooter, military policeman, and even as a specialist in prototype bomb sights and gun turrets. His experience in the military would prove invaluable in his writing, providing an authentic feel to his more martial subjects. However, it also fueled in him an anti-militaristic bent that colors some of his best works, such as Bill the Galactic Hero (more on that in a bit).
Upon his discharge in 1946, Harry enrolled in Hunter College and began doing illustrations for comic books, most notably EC Comics’ Weird Fantasy and Weird Science. For a time, he paired up with Wally Wood, with Harrison doing the layouts and Wood doing the inking. Harrison also began editing magazines and also started doing some writing, both as a ghostwriter and under house pen names, for syndicated comic strips such as Flash Gordon.
The first work published under his own name was the short story "Rock Diver," which appeared in the February 1951 issue of Worlds Beyond, a publication for which he had previously done illustrations. But it wasn’t until 1960 that he truly "made it," when his novel Deathworld was published.
Deathworld was a blueprint of sorts for much of Harrison’s work going forward—a solid sci-fi adventure with elements of satire/humor in the mix. Deathworld told the story of professional gambler Jason dinAlt, who is hired to win a fortune by the settlers of the planet Pyrrhus, infamous as the most dangerous world in the known universe because literally everything there has one purpose: to kill humans. But dinAlt comes to discover just why that is, and maybe—just maybe—how to break the cycle. Deathworld was a hit, spawning two sequels and opening the door for his next big creation, The Stainless Steel Rat.
The titular hero of The Stainless Steel Rat is James Bolivar diGriz, master thief/con man/charming rogue, who is recruited by the Special Corps, a secret anti-crime organization made up of former criminals. The diGriz character and basic premise of The Stainless Steel Rat were first introduced in a pair of short stories published by Astounding magazine in 1957; those two stories were used as the basis for the first portion of Harrison’s novel. The Stainless Steel Rat kept much of the adventure aspects of Deathworld but leaned more heavily into the humorous aspects, proving to be so popular that it inspired eleven sequels; the last of which, The Stainless Steel Rat Returns, was published in 2010, just two years before Harrison’s death.
As a teen, I looooooved The Stainless Steel Rat series. But my all-time favorite Harry Harrison work remains his 1965 novel Bill the Galactic Hero. This is Harrison at his best, taking the action/humor mix of The Stainless Steel Rat and moving it five steps over into the purest satire. He tells the story of Bill, a farmboy (sorry, Technical Fertilizer Operator!) who is shanghaied into the military and accidentally becomes a Hero of the Empire . . . only to (also accidentally) become a deserter and fugitive from justice on the city-planet of Helior.
Harrison’s dislike of the military comes through loud and clear in Bill the Galactic Hero, which was widely praised by veterans for just how spot-on he got things like basic training and the boredom of everyday life outside of combat. The book was a parody of the entire genre of military sci-fi, and Harrison took good-natured aim at two authors in particular: Isaac Asimov, whose metal-girthed world Trantor (from the Foundation trilogy) was spoofed by Harrison’s Helior; and Robert Heinlein, whose Hugo-winning paean to the military Starship Troopers was very clearly the inspiration for a lot of Bill the Galactic Hero’s best jokes. Asimov was reportedly greatly amused by Bill the Galactic Hero . . . Heinlein, not so much.
Be that as it may, Harrison was a very well-regarded figure in the science-fiction community, as explained by novelist Christopher Priest:
"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."
Harrison continued writing well into his mid-80s, and on his passing on August 15, 2012, some of the biggest names in the genre sang Harrison’s praises. Yet none of them got it quite as right as the great Harlan Ellison, who sadly stated, “It’s a day without stars in it.”
Beyond writing, one of Harrison’s greatest interests was in Esperanto, the "auxiliary language" created in the late 19th century by Polish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof. Harrison stated that he was able to “write and speak it with an automatic ease I have never been able to capture in any language other than my native English” and incorporated Esperanto into his most famous works, such as The Stainless Steel Rat and Deathworld series. He was even a member of multiple Esperanto organizations, including Esperanto-USA, the Universala Esperanto-Asocio, and the Esperanto Association of Ireland.
So, I wonder what he thought of the 1966 cult film Incubus, which starred William Shatner and was acted entirely in Esperanto? We may get to find out, for we’ll be taking a look at Incubus next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.