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Friday, August 31, 2012

Harry Harrison’s Final Message

“I have found that an action story with two or three levels of intellectual content below the surface enables me to say what I want to say.  I have also found that humor—and black humor—can carry ideas that can be expressed in no other way.”
--Harry Harrison

In Harry Harrison’s final novel, The Stainless Steel Rat Returns, Slippery Jim DiGriz’s space journey is prompted by his cousin’s arrival on Moolaplenty.  Although the planet’s rich inhabitants could benefit from easier access to food, they would rather import food than share their world with farmers and livestock.  Jim visits the planet Floradora, which initially seems a likely place to resettle his cousin’s community and their porcuswine.  Unfortunately, although the two resident societies trade together, neither will engage in dialogue with the other, nor do they want to share their planet with a third.  So Jim and company spend the second half of the novel on a planet called the United States of England, where radiation leakage on the ship that transported the planet’s original inhabitants has resulted in two races: one with pink (or a tanned, light brown) skin, the other with green.

It’s been a decade since I’ve read Harrison, and the narrative in The Stainless Steel Rat Returns seems looser and less nuanced than earlier efforts.  This novel was published in 2010, and the last novel he published was eight years previously, the same year his wife died.  While he suffered through grief, illness, and normal bodily decline due to age, this gap suggests that writing the book took more effort than usual.  As he was in his eighties at this point, and had nothing more to prove, I can only presume that he battled on with the novel because he felt he had something important and relevant to say to the world. 

Indeed, a quick summary of the plot suggests that Harrison saw much in the world that troubled him.  It seems odd that, living in an enlightened country such as England, where Church and Society preach the virtues of tolerance, that Harrison would skewer contemporary society for class, religious, and racial prejudice.  Yet hatred and prejudice can use tolerance as a shield.  Tolerance can be used to dismiss those whose appearance, beliefs, and practices annoy, irritate, and outrage. Tolerance is not the same thing as acceptance.  It is not equal to embracing and engaging, nor should it be confused with love.  

Perhaps it’s instructive that the larger, more established Christian denominations in America, the ones that are currently preaching the virtue of tolerance, are reeling from ongoing schism.  Nor can anyone in science fiction and fantasy circles ignore the fact that two of our greatest gatherings, Worldcon and Dragoncon, are currently held on the same weekend each year.  Instead of uniting our community, fans are forced to choose one event over the other.  Writers and other professionals must also support one over the other, based upon how they can best serve the majority of their fans.  And of course, while both groups tolerate each other, and even find ways to link the two events, everyone argues over the issues involved in being forced to choose one event over the other, and look for people to blame.

I take no sides on either of the two schisms mentioned.  (Thus it can fairly be said that I am tolerating both, and currently doing nothing to help close either divide).  But I am glad for Harrison’s reminder that, while tolerance makes coexistence possible, it can never unite.  And I smile at Harrison’s explanation of the biological mechanisms that gave the Greenies their skin color, diminished intellect, and violent natures.  I won’t tell you what it is, but I will hint that it mirrors an incident in the past of one beloved character in the Marvel Comics universe.  (And yes, he was in the recent “Avengers” movie).

I don’t know about you, but I think the guy still had it, right up to the end.  Thank you, Harry Harrison, for working so hard to craft your final message to us. 

In gratitude,
Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries

Related Internet Links
Writer George R. R. Martin’s Opinion on Worldcon vs Dragoncon
Artist John Picacio attempts to bridge the gap
Filk Musician Tom Smith makes his choice

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