R.I.P. Harry Harrison, creator of the Stainless Steel Rat, Soylent Green

posted 2012-08-15 13:57:23 by grendel

If Harry Harrison had only created "Slippery" Jim DiGriz, the roguish hero of the Stainless Steel Rat books, he would deserve a high place in science fiction history. But he also wrote dozens of other novels, including the hilarious Bill the Galactic Hero saga, the proto-Steampunk classic A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, and the novel that became the movie Soylent Green, Make Room! Make Room!.

Amazingly, Harrison kept writing great novels, with the last Stainless Steel Rat book coming out just two years ago. He died today, aged 87, according to his official website. No details are yet known.

There are few really great comic space opera novels, aside from Douglas Adams. And Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat books qualify — Jim DiGriz is a really inspired creation, a rogue smuggler created years before Han Solo existed. Even as "Slippery" Jim sort of goes straight in the later books, he never stops being a source of ridiculous fun, and his romance with the equally criminal and devious Angelina is a really sweet, heartfelt relationship. I read the Stainless Steel Rat books at a very impressionable age, and a lot of clever bits stick in my mind — like the bit where "Slippery" Jim explains that intergalactic empires are impossible due to the problems with travel at relativistic speeds. This series was always smarter than a lot of other space operas, even alongside its gratifying levels of silliness.

He achieves a very different sort of humor, parodying bad science fiction, in the Bill the Galactic Hero books.

And meanwhile, Harrison also wrote one of the most influential future dystopias, a book about an overcrowded starving future facing huge environmental disasters. The movie version focused heavily on the eponymous "soylent green" storyline, but the actual novel Make Room! Make Room! is much more concerned with portraying the full horror of an overgrown future "megalopolis" of New York, crammed with 35 million people living in intense heat and drinking dirty brown water. Reading Harrison's decidedly unfunny prose in Make Room, you can feel the heat of the city streets and the grime under your fingernails. Everybody who's writing or reading future dystopias today owes a huge debt to Harrison for proving just how grim and visceral a future nightmare could be.

And long before steampunk was considered a whole book genre, Harrison was writing Victorian alternate history with fantastical technologies in Transatlantic Tunnel, a book that's just starting to be rediscovered thanks to a nifty new edition.

Harrison was also a prolific artist, who worked in comics as an artist and writer in the 1940s, working with such greats as Wally Wood and Jules Feiffer. He helped to pioneer the science fiction anthology comic, with a title called Weird Science.

Harrison told Locus his books often have a pacifistic theme, in part thanks to his own experiences in the military:

Over time the [Stainless Steel] Rat grew up, and got very pacifistic. In the first book he killed one person, but no one else dies in the whole damn series. It was the anti-Jerry Pournelle and Jim Baen kind of story, where it's 'Kill! Kill! Kill!' Bill, the Galactic Hero was my first book of that sort. I'd been in the army and hated it. Though almost all my books are anti-military, anti-war (the Deathworld series very much so), I try not to repeat myself.

After the Stainless Steel Rat book that was published in 2010, Harrison was working on another new book, which he described as "a big secret." But we're not sure whether he finished it or not. In any case, he left behind an amazing body of work, and he was still creating right up until the end, which is in itself a fantastic achievement.