Book Review: Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison!

{This book was gratefully accepted for the low close-out price of writing an honest review of it. Which follows.}

Why did I want to read and review this book?

It seemed like a good idea at the time. . .

And on to the explanation. . .

Harry Harrison might be well-known in science-fiction circles, but in general is an unsung hero of literature. Perhaps it’s his wicked sense of humor and startling imagination that led him to not be taken as seriously, but he was certainly deserving of much more praise than he ever received.

And now, to round out his career of more than half a century–he passed away in 2012–here’s his posthumous autobiography, written in the same style as some of his bigger hits like The Stainless Steel Rat, that is with plenty of self-deprecating humor with underlying social commentary; there are as many small humorous toss-off moments here as in any of his fiction.

As one would expect from an autobio, it’s told chronologically, with a little bit on his growing up; we find that it was most likely his grandmother who bequeathed him his wicked sense of humor, while at the same time being the kid in history class who “humiliated the young teacher by correcting her.”

From there it’s on to the military at the tail end of WW2. He writes about his induction, and it’s basically exactly as he wrote it in Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted, although it’s missing the part about his first sexual experience being with 17 other boys and giant rubber bands. The most memorable scene, both here and in the fiction, is when the elevator doors open on the wrong floor to let the female typists get a good gander at all the naked recruits. . .

But basically he spent the war years waiting to be sent to other places while refining the fine art of goldbricking, “now referred to as fucking off. That is, avoiding work and not getting caught doing it.” Or not doing it, I guess. As one might expect he spent all his free time in the library, until being shipped off to Mississippi in July before air conditioners were invented. There’s stories about the GI Cooking School, what happens when you tell your commanding officer what do to himself, and even what to do on a pass into town.

Next comes his time as an artist in Noo Yawk, doing just about anything for money, including drawings of big-boobed babes being eaten by monsters, as well as a fascinating and of course hilarious story about a photo shoot with a dumb model and a lion.

“Someone once bemoaned the end of the pulp magazines, because with their demise there was no place left to be bad in.”

Obviously he didn’t expect the internet. . .

Next comes the biggest segment of his life, living in many places around the world with his wife and eventually two children while writing anything he could be paid to write {except porn, apparently; he namechecks some famous writers who did}. Though I did meet him once, I never got to meet his wife, and I wish I had, for reasons like these: To this end she prepared one of our staple–and most filling–meals: hot dogs stuffed with cheese and wrapped with bacon. A single one of these cholesterol nightmares was a meal; two stretched the stomach’s capacity. I think Jim ate 12 before raising the white flag.

To my disbelief, something I certainly would have wanted to talk to him about, he lived in Cuautla; I knew he’d lived in Mexico, but I had no idea it would be in the same tiny town I spent 3 months in during college at an archaeological field school. There’s a hilarious description of a house with a combination garage/living room, as well as instructions on how to keep meat from spoiling. He even meets a popular local actor who insists on posing for the mural he’s drawing.

From there the family moved to the famous island of Capri, in the Bay of Naples; he even namechecks The Story of San Michele, which makes me glad we had that much in common. Another example of his wit: “During the winter months in the south of Italy you put on a lot of clothes and looked forward to spring.” And of course with cold comes heaters; to think a faulty piece of machinery almost ended such a magnificent literary career before it really started. And having blonde kids sure opened a lot of doors in child-mad blonde-mad Italy.

He makes an interesting comment about how he was only the second full-time science fiction writer (the first being Heinlein); every other one was either an editor, taught school, worked some other job. . . or lived off his wife. Makes me wonder whom that jab was meant for. So many little moments, like the way the ski instructor picked up the little kids, are more than just funny; often they’re adorable, but they always catch you by surprise because it’s the last thing you’d expect, like a humorous Twilight Zone-ending twist. There’s even a story about how his plot for Plague From Space was stolen by some hack to make The Andromeda Strain; he passed on suing, but surely wished his book had been made into that movie. As if to prove how human he really is, he mentions that his first meeting with Arthur C. Clarke, whom he greatly admired, was a disappointment because Clarke didn’t drink alcohol.

I did meet his son, though I find it hard to reconcile that man with the adorable little kid in the book. And his daughter was even more adorable: there’s a cute story about her mimicking an ambulance as she’s taken to a man pretending to be sick; a prescription of candy is given and all is okay. Back in the US the same little girl got into trouble with her new classmates for speaking with an British accent. . .

He wrote an article about Ireland and Anne McCaffrey moves there on the basis of it; now that’s influence. Not only that, both Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams stated that they were inspired by him. Fine advice for all writers: “I’ve learned one thing writing humor: don’t cut it–if you laughed in the first place, leave it in.”

There’s a bit on how MGM shafted him out his rights for Soylent Green, literally fucked him over with dirty tricks, leading him to sigh, “They say the first fifty years are the hardest.”

“I insert here a small word of advice to those who are thinking of undertaking a transcontinental drive: Don’t.”

He can be a kid himself, like the time he bought the famous horseshit cigarettes in Tijuana. “Real horseshit no donkey shit; delightful.” Even better, he sent some to his friends in Oxford without telling them what they’re about. He can also make the mundane hilarious, like when he’s living in San Diego, in a place where cars drove too fast and deposited their hubcaps in the front yard, “much to the delight of the children, who amassed a fine collection over time.”

Even better is his meeting with Gene Roddenberry. . .

And Heinlein: I did quietly ask if he’d read Bill, The Galactic Hero. He said, “No, I never read other authors’ novels.” But after that he never talked to me again, so maybe someone read it to him.

Best quote

Science fiction is not about rocket ships and robots and aliens–they may be present, but they are not essential. Science fiction is an attitude toward change, and explores the impact of change upon people.

For those who have read The Technicolor Time Machine, there’s a note about all the little details he made up for the time machine, only to get so bored of it himself he merely inserted the line, “You’re too stupid to understand.” He also explains how he came up with the plot for Stars and Stripes Forever, which sent me on one of my patented research crawls. Even better, he pontificates, “I like writing the ‘big idea’ alternate history because it allows you to exercise your imagination, and it is hard to do, which means lazy writers don’t do it, so there’s less competition.”

Quintessential Harrison:

Kingsley Amis told him over drinks that the aforementioned Rat was the first picaresque science fiction novel, to which Harry nodded sagely and said “Perhaps, perhaps. . .”

And then I rushed home to see what “picaresque” meant.

So yeah, that was a lot, but when I finished all the notes I’d intended to write about this, it came out to about a dozen pages, so there, you got the pruned version.

I imagine someone who’s never read Harry Harrison would find this tome as informative and funny. As a huge fan of his–probably my second-favorite author of all time, in all genres–this told me so much about the man and the writer that I was frankly left in awe.     6/5

{BTW: He says “It seemed like a good idea at the time” a LOT!}

;o)

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