Harry Harrison in Memoriam
Harry Harrison in Memoriam
(12/3 1925-15/8 2012)
In 1970, I began my professional life as a literary translator into Swedish. During the seventies, I was translating mainly science fiction, including two books by Harry Harrison: The Stainless Steel Rat (the first book in that series), and Make Room, Make Room.
In 1979, at the occasion of the publishing of my Swedish translation om Make Room, Harrison was guest of honour at an sf convention in Stockholm, so I got the opportunity to meet him.
He turned out to be a Yank of not quite the typical kind. He had lived in several countried, and everyhere he learned at least some phrases in the local language, perhaps sometimes with more gusto than expertise.
Besides, he never missed an opportunity to propagate Esperanto.
Some other Esperantists were present, too, and it was mentioned that the next Universal Congress of Esperanto were to take place in Stockholm the next year, in 1980.
And that was the beginning of my Esperanto life. I had studied the language already, but only in writing; this was my first contact with the Esperanto community as a living body.
I was to meet Harrison some more times: at sf conventions in Copenhagen 1980 and Stockholm 1990, and at the Universal Congress of Esperanto in Beijing in 1986.
Harrison was born in 1925. His mother was Jewish, from what is now eastern Latvia, then Livonia in Czarist Russia; his father was born in the USA in an Irish family.
During World War II, Harrison served in the US Air Force, as ground personnel; being dependent on his spectacles, he couldn't be a pilot.
His war-time experience convinced him that "a good man" and "a good soldier" are antonyms. The war made him a die-hard Pacifist.
To have something better than war to think about, he learned Esperanto.
After the war Harrison, as many others, had problems finding a good job.
He had begun reading science fiction at a very young age - something quite common among sf fans, I think. He was good at drawing, so for some years he earned his bread as an illustrator for sf magazines - there were quite a lot of them in the USA at the time - and as a creator of comics.
Then he fell ill, however, and his hand was not steady enough for the profession of an illustrator. Besides, there was at the time a rather wild discussion about comics as a great danger to the virtues of US youth, which caused some problems to the branch.
Hacking on a mechanical typewriter, on the other hand, did not demand a very steady hand - just a strong one - so he started writing instead.
And that turned out to be his real task in life.
At the same time, he began his international traveling. With his family, he first emigrated to Mexico - a much cheaper country to live in - then to Britain, then to Italy, then to Denmark, where he lived for seven years; and after some more moving around, he ended up in Ireland, where he stayed for more than twenty years. When he passed away, August 15th 2012, he did so in Britain.
Harrison obviously didn't feel quite at home in his native country. He was a citizen of the world, and disliked certain aspects of The American Way of Life. Once I heard him tell how he, after some time in Europe, was in the USA again, and had some problems with his typewriter. He brought it to a repair shop, but got the flat reply:
"I CAN'T REPAIR A COMMIE TYPEWRITER!"
The machine happened to be made in East Germany...
From a stylistic point of view, Harrison was somewhat chameleonic, and an important part of his fiction is parody and pastiche. For example, in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, an important role is played by the planet Trantor, all covered by a single, vast city; in Harrisons novel Bill, the Galactic Hero, appears a similar planet, called Helior - but Harrison tackles a slight problem, which Asimov neglected:
If a city covers a whole planet, where the - ahem - do you put the rubbish (including human fecalia)?
This book, by the way, is a good example of Harrison's pacifistic conviction, and a protest against the militarism that may be found in the book of many US writers, even of science fiction; the most (in)famous example perhaps being Robert A. Heinlein.
Harrison had an ambition to raise the literary level of science fiction, and he wished for a serious literary criticism of the genre.
Although some early writers of science fiction - e. g. Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells, to a certain extent also Jules Verne - did show literary qualities, it is true that during the 20th century the genre tended to concentrate on entertainment and ideas, not caring very much about the psychological side of its heroes. Besides, it became rather controversial; its fans accepted everything, its enemies nothing.
A serious criticism of science fiction was initiated by the British writer Brian W. Aldiss in the sixties. In 1964, he and Harrison founded a magazine devoted to this field: SF Horizons.
A prolific writer, a die-hard Pacifist and Esperantist, has passed away. May he rest in peace.