Most obituaries written shortly after the August 15, 2012, death of best-selling science-fiction writer Harry Harrison remembered him as the author of Make Room! Make Room!, the novel upon which the Charlton Heston movie Soylent Green was loosely based. But Harrison’s significance to the genre of science fiction, and to secular humanism, transcends this distasteful connection to the man who incarnated Moses and the National Rifle Association, given that the overwhelming theme of Harrison’s work, which spanned more than five decades, has been the consistent elevation of reason above irrational belief, of universalism above ideologies that promote fear of one’s fellow human.
Harry Harrison was born Henry Maxwell Dempsey on March 12, 1925, in Stamford, Connecticut, the son of an Irish-American father and Russian-Jewish mother. He lived across the nation and the world during his life, later becoming an advocate of Esperanto as a universal language (it frequently appears as a universal tongue in his novels and short stories—only rubes on backwater planets don’t learn Esperanto). During World War II, he served in the United States Army Air Forces, and although he was not on the giving or receiving end of American bombs (as were Howard Zinn and Kurt Vonnegut, respectively), he nonetheless came away from his military service with a pronounced hatred of Army life, especially the dehumanizing effects of training and the contradictions inherent in the idea of democratic war-making—a theme that appears often in his works. As an officer in The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted tells his new “recruits” as he swears them into service: “This is a free country and you are all volunteers. You may take the oath. Or if you choose not to, which is your right, you may leave by the small door behind me which leads to the federal prison where you will begin your thirty-year sentence for neglect of democratic duties.” Reportedly, a Vietnam veteran came up to Harrison at a convention and said, regarding Bill the Galactic Hero, his over-the-top lampooning of Army life, “That’s the only book that’s true about the military.”
One of Harrison’s earliest novels, Deathworld, constitutes a thorough deconstruction of the military mind-set, though masquerading as a Starship Troopers clone until the last chapter. In the novel, professional swindler Jason dinAlt ends up on the planet Pyrrus, whose citizens are trained in the murderous arts from childhood on account of the animals and plants there evolving in such predatory ways that the people must invest in ever-more and greater weaponry just to survive. But what dinAlt discovers, after researching through what archives remain (arts and history are long dead on this planet, where all time is spent killing or learning how to kill), as well as communicating with a tribe living outside the main base, is that all native life on Pyrrus is psychic and has evolved in response to the fear and rage of the human settlers, whose willingness to kill thus produced enemies that seemed to justify that readiness. Deathworld remains probably the best literary treatment of blowback, a phenomenon with which we are all too familiar these days.
On par with Harrison’s antimilitarism is his consistent secular humanism, present from the earliest days of his writing career, during a period when even science fiction didn’t often broach such subjects. As he wrote later about his widely reprinted 1961 story, “The Streets of Ashkelon”: “I blush to admit, in these days of intergalactic cunnilingus and exobiological bestiality, that my only bit of taboo-breaking was making the protagonist an Atheist. Shocking! You might well laugh now, but this was serious stuff in those distant days….” In this story, human trader John Garth urges the newly arrived Christian priest, Father Mark, to abandon his mission to covert the indigenous sapient species of Wesker’s World. Garth told the missionary that the natives “have thunder, trees, and water without thunder-gods, tree sprites, or water nymphs. They have no ugly little gods, taboos, or spells to hag-ride and limit their lives. They are the only primitive people I have ever encountered that are completely free of superstition and appear to be much happier and sane because of it. I just want to keep them that way.”
(As Harrison once told a Brazilian journalist, “We atheists lead happy lives, never concerned with the-dying-and-burn forever-in-hell nonsense. We know better.”)
Of course, the priest cannot oblige, and in the end, the Weskers, knowledgeable about the scientific method, decide to prove the truth or falsehood of the priest’s faith by demanding a miracle—by crucifying the man who would save their souls to see if he rises on the third day. Like John Garth, master criminal and secret agent “Slippery Jim” diGriz, hero of the Stainless Steel Rat series, regularly links his atheism with his refusal to kill, saying that because we mortals have only one life, to rob someone of their only chance at living is inexcusable.
No brief tribute such as this can adequately encompass Harrison’s output, which included other noteworthy and best-selling series—To the Stars, Eden, Stars and Stripes, and The Hammer and the Cross—and dozens of stand-alone novels and short stories, as well as a number of anthology projects that he edited. All of his work is infused with a compassion for humankind—even in its folly—that is the hallmark of the best literature. Harrison will be missed, but he leaves behind him so many models for our own lives: heroes and heroines who know how to temper force with reason, worlds where the good life is the one people create themselves, and a sense of humor about the sometimes random operations of the universe. Thanks to him, uncountable Stainless Steel Rats have been born!