Harry Harrison… and “Flavour du Jour”

Harry Harrison died earlier this week, and the F&SF press and blogosphere is now filled with incredible praise for his work, much of which was truly ground-breaking and ahead of the time in which it was published. Rather belatedly, Harrison was inducted into the SF Hall of Fame in 2004, and received the SFWA Grand Master Award in 2009 – when he was 84, and already in ill health.

All the current praise is deserved, but its timing frankly once again raises some questions that are continually swept under the metaphorical carpet.

Where the hell was most of this praise when Harry really could have used it and had time to enjoy it?  Or for that matter, where was it for many other ground-breaking and influential writers [such as Fred Saberhagen] who sometimes were never fully recognized? And why do some many readers vote for awards for whatever the current literary or genre “flavor de jour” happens to be?

Harry’s death was noted by the BBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and innumerable other news outlets, and yet, in a writing career that spanned more than five decades, he never won a Hugo, although he was nominated twice, and shared in only a single Nebula (and that was for the movie Soylent Green, adapted from his book Make Room!  Make Room!).

Interestingly enough, now that George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series has become a popular HBO miniseries, his latest book – A Dance with Dragons – is now a Hugo and World Fantasy nominee for best novel, and Martin was just named a lifetime award winner by the World Fantasy Convention, at the comparatively young age of 63.  And pretty much all the other novel award nominees for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards have some or all of the following – strong and active PR, fanatical fan bases, extensive insider connections, and internet presences.

Harry, by comparison, just had his books and ideas behind him, and he was never a “flavor de jour.”  My salute to him and his books!



17 thoughts on “Harry Harrison… and “Flavour du Jour””

  1. Tim says:

    This may be off topic but I am not sure I would ever rate Harry Harrison as an SF great. I bought his Deathworld in the 60s and followed that series but the stainless steel rat series left me stone cold, or have the media decided to up his game in retrospect?

    For comparison, I would rate Roger Zelazny and Jack Vance far higher in ability.

    So what have I missed? Happy to be instructed.

  2. Many people would rate the stainless steel rate series higher than you did, and a number of critics have hailed the first parody novel Bill, The Galactic Hero as a great work as well. Also, his A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! might well be considered the forerunner of steampunk.

  3. Tim says:

    I will admit to have not read the last of these, so will give it a try. My view is of course subjective and you were generous in your response. I remember the criticism given to Keith Laumer and James Schmitz for their novels, when each of then could claim to have one Great Work.

  4. Pat says:

    The Stainless Steel Rat was wonderful for me when I was growing up. Bill The Galactic Hero was so great, reminded me of Star Ship Troopers, I now have to go buy it and re-read. And I loved his Deathworld series. I need it to be ePubed.

  5. Brian says:

    I regret to admit that I’m not very familiar with Harry Harrison. I seem to have missed a talented and special author given the tributes I’ve read above and elsewhere. Similarly, I was unfamiliar with Glen Cook (The Black Company and The Dread Empire series) until I read a tribute by Steven Erikson (The Malazan Empire) and how much Cook influenced his writing and approach to fantasy.

    Both authors slipped through the proverbial cracks because of the lack of “…strong and active PR, fanatical fan bases, extensive insider connections, and internet presences.” This is so common for awards (in music, movies, TV etc.) that I now ignore them completely. If I do give them a thought it is always to wonder who paid who and/or how many hours of politicking it took. My cynicism knows no bounds when it comes to this process.

    The common theme on your blogs of late is that politics, style and illusion trumps talent.

    Martin is another good example. I’ve read the first book of the series and have three more sitting on a shelf. I found it predictable overall. I don’t subscribe to HBO Canada so I haven’t seen the miniseries. I can wait until it is discounted. As for the violence, it does not bother me. I’ve read war history since I was a teenager. I found Robert L. O’Connell’s description of the Battle of Cannae (in “The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic”) to be far more graphic than I’ve read from Martin. So far.

    Finally, I would greatly appreciate it if I could get a recommendation for a book by Harrison; one that would give me a good introduction to him. Please and Thank You.

    1. Personally, I happened to like The Stainless Steel Rat — the first book about slippery Jim.

  6. Kathryn says:

    But Martin was fairly well known in genre fiction before he released A Game of Thrones (the novel!), let alone the show. And before HBO came along, A Song of Ice and Fire was a solid entry in most people’s “Must Read Fantasy”. Heck, Martin’s first Hugo nomination was in 1973! So no, I think Martin deserves a lot of his praise simply because of the work he’s done in genre fiction.

    But that’s not to say Mr Harrison didn’t do anything. I don’t know much of what he did. But I don’t think a lot of readers my age (~22) will have even heard of him or what he wrote. Why? Maybe it’s not being published now, maybe he’s been forgotten by genre fans, and so on. Plenty of reasons why he may not be appreciated.

    Yet is it not the case that so many people we consider ‘great’ weren’t actually that popular during their time? For all we know, Mr Harrison’s real popularity and success will (sadly) be after his passing away. Some authors, young and old, just can’t break through. They might sell enough to get by and to keep being published, but for whatever reason they might not find acceptance in the wider market.

  7. John B. says:

    I take up the thread in Brian’s second paragraph and recall that a few years ago some friends used to host an Oscars-watching party, at which whoever correctly guessed the most winners would him- or herself get a prize. I found that if I picked for each category the most inane possible choice, I would usually either win or place. (I suppose success with this method requires a high level of a particular kind of cynicism, though.)

  8. Joel says:

    I’m sorry to say that this was the first I’ve heard of Harry Harrison’s death. I have a very fond place in my heart and bookshelf for many of his works. While in my formative sci-fi/fantasy years he helped me deepen my love for the genre. Thank you Harry.

  9. Brian says:

    Thank you for the recommendation. My usual online source did not have any copies in stock. In fact, few of Harrison’s books are currently in stock there.

    However, a book seller in Calgary had a copy of “The Stainless Steel Rat” and it should be arriving via Canada Post within the next couple of weeks.

    Hopefully, his publisher reissues some of his past volumes so he can be enjoyed by his old fans again and by new ones. I just read a Wikipedia article about the series and Harrison’s use of humour. Because humour is interwoven throughout his novels, I’m a huge fan of Alan Dean Foster (“The Spellsinger”, “The Commonwealth”, “Icerigger” and “Adventures of Pip and Flinx” series). I’m looking forward to exploring something new.

    Thank you again.

  10. Emily says:

    As usual, your work can be good (but not great) and so long as your work becomes popular to the masses, your work will be considered great. The truly great works of F/SF are under-appreciated simply because by definition fewer people “get it”; the masses don’t want to have to think too terribly hard on a subject and often aren’t knowledgeable enough about the subject. Jordan’s books are good and not a difficult read, so are read by more people in this median skill range. Thus, more popular, and more touted.

    Want to be popular? Write for the masses, make sure you include ages from teenager and up, include some life and death issues, some mommy/daddy issues, a bit of love/loss of love, violence, and DON’T even think of explaining politics/economics/physics, etc. You now have the Harry Potter series, the Twilight series, Wheel of Time, Hunger Games, yada yada yada. Books in these series are read but not kept on my bookshelf.

    So I guess the question is, 100 years from now, what books we read and appreciate today (and in the recent past) will still be known, read and appreciated?

  11. Tim says:

    Responding toEmily. Harry potter #1 is deeper than you may believe. Given that JK did not attend a British public school, she brought out the family aspect of the house system incredibly well. Many pupils there had difficult bu monied family backgrounds, and so were we’re packed off to boarding schools which became de facto their family. This comes out very clearly in the film. I certainly related to it. Not the other film though…

  12. Anders K says:

    I didn’t know that Harrison still lived – to me, he was an “old guy” writer – similar to what Asimov described in his autobiography, his name was simply a category indicating the content.

    As a young consumer of books, I didn’t recognize that books did not spring fully written onto the shelves of libraries – a conviction I continue to cherish with regards to some of the less enjoyable books I’ve read – but is actually the end result of a sustained effort by (usually) one person, aided and abetted in their endeavors by a whole tribe of people usually only noticed in their absence or failure.

    Back to Harry Harrison – I found Bill, the Galactic Hero to be a good read, and the tweaking of social conventions are a nice touch, and rather rare in SF/F literature of that age, at least to my limited experience in the area.

    Harrison did not strike me as a writer to write a book to the current fads – what I have read of him felt like it was written in his way, which happened to work. I assume that what was published was what was possible to sell at the time – on the other, before we moan about the times stifling the man, I also consider the gate-keeping function of editors and publishers as vitally important, especially after reading a few self-published books.

    Lastly, would it be possible to get some sort of preview function on the comments? I sometimes want to add formatting (italicization most often, sometimes making a word in bold), but can’t really see a way to do that, and I do not want to spam comments with ugly formatting commands.

  13. Mayhem says:

    Harry Harrison was one of my favourite authors growing up – the irreverent nature of the Stainless Steel Rat and poor old continuously ‘improved’ Bill really struck a chord.

    I also really liked The Turing Option with Marvin Minsky.

    He will be sadly missed in my household – he struck me as one of the greats at writing short page-turning fun in SF – most people these days go for dark and gritty and page counts have steadily crept up.

  14. Bain says:

    I work part-time at a one dollar bookstore and I was able to find all of Harry Harrison books. Some were paperback and hardcover. Brillant writer and I am sadden by his passing.

  15. Brian says:

    “The Stainless Steel Rat” appeared in my mailbox on Friday (the 24th of August). I read it over the weekend. Very enjoyable. A big thumbs up. A good story line with some irreverent humour and an interesting plot twist given the era in which the book was originally published (1961). I have to admit I did anticipate the twist, but that by no means spoiled the story. I predict that some more of Harrison’s books will be appearing on my shelves in the future.

    One other interesting point which I need to mention (and it won’t spoil the plot for those yet to read it): the propulsion system for the spaceships employed was mentioned but not explained (and that lack of detailed explanation did not bother me in the least). “Acting on my orders the ship dropped out of WARPDRIVE….” (pg. 56–my emphasis)

    I have the Ace 1986 edition. If the term was in the original 1961 Walker edition, then Harrison’s usage predates by at least three years the original pilot of Star Trek, “The Cage”, (copyright 1964), in which the propulsion system was referred to as a “hyperdrive”/”time warp” drive combination. Eventually it became simply ‘warp drive’ and is used in everyday speech by Star Trek fans and non-fans alike.

    Does anyone have his original 1961 Walker edition and can check? The Wikipedia article about ‘Warp drive’ gives him no mention and would need to be edited to give him his due for introducing the term at least. I know Wikipedia has its faults, but since the article is there, Harrison should receive his due if the term is in the original edition.

  16. Susan says:

    Earlier this year I re-read The Stainless Steel Rat and also noted that the term warpdrive was used. My book is the orginal 1961 edition. I also was looking to see if he had been given credit for it (and found this page). Just now learned of his passing.

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