Friday, March 25, 2016

FFB: HARRY HARRISON! HARRY HARRISON!: A MEMOIR by Harry Harrison (Tor 2014); DAVID G. HARTWELL: IN MEMORIAM edited by Kevin J. Maroney, Kris Dikeman and Avram Grumer (NY Review of Science Fiction/ICFA 2016)

The image is of a small stainless-steel rat, a
reference to HH's most sustained fictional series
character, and his unflattering nickname...
I've mentioned Harry Harrison's memoir here some weeks back, in the course of describing his brief editorial career at the Ultimate Publishing Co., when he edited Fantastic Stories and Amazing Science Fiction Stories in 1967-68; its perhaps too adorable title is a harkening to one of the most famous novels in Harrison's career, Make Room! Make Room!, adapted poorly for film as Soylent Green. Reading it through, one is struck by how obviously it was a first draft, as it is presented here...passages are redundant or unclear, and a large part of the book, not quite the latter half, is devoted to essay drafts that Harrison had intended to more seamlessly blend into the narrative of the book, devoted to his relation with John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor essentially the most important to Harrison emotionally and, for some of his early fiction-writing career, financially (even if Damon Knight and Hans Stefan Santesson were also to play major roles for Harrison similarly), and to the circumstances around some of HH's most important books. I was also impressed by how little of the main narrative of the book is about writing or his writing process, or even his
Harrison's third novel, and first crime-
fiction (and ghosted) book.
interaction with fellow writers, editors and fans in the science fiction and related communities, even though they are touched on as events warrant, as opposed to the adventures Harrison, his wife Joan and their children (eventually) have in living abroad and coming back to the States, as well as the formative experiences of Harrison's childhood and mostly unpleasant experiences as a draftee into the World War II US Army (Harrison doesn't let us forget how much he hated his military experience and the military mindset, among other sorts of officiousness). It's definitely memoir rather than autobiography, as certain matters are elided altogether (Harrison's first wife, Evelyn, is not mentioned anywhere in the text), and others are dealt with only as much as necessary (such as Harrison's career as a comics artist and writer, and eventually packager for some of the lower-rent comics publishers of the early 1950s). We do learn a fair amount about how the Harrison family was able to make do, sometimes comfortably and sometimes less so, as voluntary expatriates in the 1950s in Mexico, Italy, Denmark and the UK, and about Harrison's partnership with Brian Aldiss in a number of projects (including the anthology Hell's Cartographers, which includes a shorter but more polished memoir by Harrison, among five other autobiographical essays by sf writers including Aldiss's).  His passions, not least his love and admiration for his second and lifelong wife, are marked, as are such enthusiasms as for Esperanto and how they might help from time to time. The similarities to such other late memoirs by Harrison's colleagues as I. Asimov and the also to-have-been-rewritten entries in Frederik Pohl's The Way the Future Blogs (named in its turn for Pohl's much earlier memoir) are there, though Harrison maintains in this book a lot of the circumspection that one finds in Pohl's The Way the Future Was and to some extent in Asimov's earlier two-volume autobiography; Pohl in his blogging and Asimov particularly in his third autobiography, written as he was going into his final months, were often more plainspoken. This was clearly not quite the book Harrison hoped to publish, but it remains valuable and engaging.

David G. Hartwell was the editor for this and other Harrison books at Tor, among the many editorial posts and valuable work Hartwell had contributed over his half-century in and around the fantastic-fiction field (as noted previously on this blog, among his projects had been The Little Magazine, a notable journal for poetry particularly and not at all restricted to the fantasticated). Hartwell fell while carrying bookshelves on a stairwell, and never regained consciousness, earlier this year, and the suddenness of his death was not a little of what one feels in the remembrances in this special issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction, made available, at least temporarily, for download without charge; NYRSF is one of the literary children of Hartwell's, which he co-founded, and -edited for almost three decades. While he wasn't the only progenitor of the more literate work published in the fields over that time, he might've been the most consistently on-hand, and his interests ranged from keeping oral traditions alive on through to keeping an editorial hand in with all the media through which fiction is offered, not least being one of the editors of the short-fiction forum It is through one of the remembrances here, for example, that one might learn why Harry Harrison doesn't mention his first wife Evelyn at all in his book; their brief marriage was marked by her acting out sexually in ways that were rather extreme even for the rather bed-hopping community that the sf community could be in the early 1950s.  What the various and impressive set of celebrants in the special issue do get across more importantly is the depth of the loss, personally and professionally and in terms of scholarship, the death of Hartwell creates in the field. This will probably not be the final form of this memorial, but it's an excellent start for the kind of task no one looks forward to taking on, except for the opportunity to say what should be said.

For more of what should be said about today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.


TracyK said...

I haven't read any Harry Harrison but my son is working to push me in that direction.

George said...

I've been a fan of Harry Harrison since the Sixties. I have the memoir but haven't read it yet.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

My brother loved all the STAINLESS STEEL RAT books and I remember liking MAKE ROOM a lot as a teen - I actually liked the movie too and still think the Edward G Robinson part of it, the closest to the book in some regards, still stands up. Was Harrison not able to properly complete his memoirs?

Todd Mason said...

Tracy--you aren't being steered wrong...Harrison at his best is very funny (and at his lwss-humorous adventure work such as DEATHWORLD, still utterly engaging), though the humor is a bit lighter in the STAINLESS STEEL RAT stories, a bit more gallows in the likes of MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! and somewhere in the middle in BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO. Be sure to take a look at 50 IN 50), as well, a retrospective of his short fiction.

George--I think you'll enjoy it, and you'll see how it wasn't the book Harrison wanted it to be. Hence the relative lack of support this not so much Forgotten as Never Seen book from only two years ago has enjoyed.

Sergio--The Robinson stuff was certainly closer to the spirit of the novel, but the Heston stuff was just kinda sad. Harrison just didn't have time, given his final illness, to do the book they way he wanted, and that shows in the ways I've mentioned above, in the review and in this comment...

Thanks, folks.