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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Catching A Glimpse of Harry Harrison

Three decades ago, I discovered the Science Fiction Book Club through Starlog Magazine.  One of the first books I purchased was The Deathworld Trilogy by Harry Harrison, three action-packed novels set on a planet with plant life so ferocious that mankind’s grip upon it was tenuous at best.  Harrison wove an ecological message into these fast-paced stories, which launched me onto a love affair with his novels.

For several years, I read every book of his I could find.  Particular favorites were The Stainless Steel Rat series.  Unfortunately, I think I found his To The Stars trilogy rather bleak.  After the thrilling adventures of The Deathworld Trilogy (and the Brion Brandd novels), and the humorous adventures of The Stainless Steel Rat (along with others, such as The Man From P.I.G.), that simply wasn’t what I wanted from him.  So, thereafter I mainly purchased The Stainless Steel Rat books.  I don’t think this was a conscious decision, I think it was just how my interests developed.  After all, there are always new storytellers spinning new yarns, established authors I’ve not yet read, and books from other favorite authors to enjoy. 

News of his death late last week felt like an important part of my youth, and a continuing source of meaning in my life, had just been surgically removed.  So I turned to my final book of his, The Stainless Steel Rat Returns.  At first the novel struck me as unduly silly, and I had trouble getting into the story.  But then, just like his protagonist Slippery Jim DiGriz does when life throws hardship his way, Harry Harrison flipped my expectations on their head. 

When his brother arrives on Jim’s luxury resort planet of Moolaplenty, settling his brother’s debts drains his bank account dry.  So Jim visits his bank, while reflecting on the wonders of the modern banking system.  It seems as though after the last galactic bank crash, a wave of regulation swept through the industry.  Such investments as subprime loans, debenture bonds, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and derivatives are ancient history.  Now all banks are healthy, profit on a standardized one percent spread, and can only loan out money that they have in the bank. 

Bank managers are shackled to a ball made of improvium.  If they have a spotless record, the ball of this special metal is as light as a feather.  But should any inconsistencies in bank records be found, the ball will grow progressively heavier.  For grievous crimes, the ball may grow so heavy that the bank manager will be unable to move it.  In that case, he must rely on his sympathizers for sustenance, or starve to death.  Presumably, if the manager cleans up his act, the improvium ball will lighten.  At any rate, Jim cannot help but sing the praises of this new, heavily regulated system.  Then he asks for a loan, and finds that the bank can only give him a pittance for his nine-bedroom mansion, because that’s all the free cash they have on hand!

This is just one example of how Harry Harrison, in The Stainless Steel Rat series, mixes silliness with social commentary that covers both sides of any particular issue.  This is just one illustration of Harrison’s depth as a writer.  This is just one reason why I love Harry Harrison’s work.  Yet, after reviewing his biography, and his bibliography, I realize how many more books of his I could have enjoyed. 

I wish that, at a certain point, I hadn’t stopping reading any Harry Harrison books except The Stainless Steel Rat series.  While it wasn’t a conscious choice, I wish I hadn’t censored his phenomenal output, stereotyped him, and limited his ongoing impact on my life to one series and a single flavor of fiction.  I know it’s impossible to read everything that every author I like has ever written.  Still, I feel as though I only caught a glimpse of the prolific, and varied fiction of this SFWA Grand Master. 

I wish I had known Harry Harrison better.

In loving tribute,
Dragon Dave

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