A Tribute to Harry Harrison

Guy Lancaster

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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.”

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