The deaths of elder science fiction statesmen and -women usually leave me cold because in the long run it’s what everyone does. In the case of Harry Harrison I felt I should make an exception. I spent a long time pondering why I felt this way, and came to the conclusion it was because Harrison had written novels and stories that I could read and enjoy at every level of my life – child, teen and adult.
Spaceship Medic was probably my introduction to hard sf: fiction that plays strictly by the rules of what we know about Newtonian/Einsteinian physics. The spaceship Johannes Kepler is hit and damaged by a meteorite and through a strictly logical series of events the ship’s doctor ends up as the captain, having to cope with a damaged ship and a mystery illness and mutiny and … and so on. I read this book when I was, what, 10? 11? Harrison was able to explain simple real-world problems like inertia, radiation shielding through water, and disease vectors while at the same time keeping the story utterly gripping for a kid. Part of the joy was watching our hero encounter a new problem every few pages, each described with impeccable accuracy and conciseness, and each to be solved in a way you never saw coming but which made perfect sense. I recall he eventually works out what caused the mystery illness sweeping the ship by mapping the cabins of the infected and the cabins that the meteorite passed through. John Snow could not have done it better.
From there I graduated to The Men from P.I.G. and R.O.B.O.T., which told me that as well as being a great story teller Harrison also had a wicked sense of humour. Then a few years later 2000 A.D. ran a Stainless Steel Rat comic strip, which led me to seek out the books as a teen and introduced me to the concept of an anti-hero. The Rat series lagged a little after a while, and Slippery Jim’s strawman evangelical atheism gets boring; but then, Harrison also wrote “The Streets of Ashkelon” which show that he could do atheism – or at least, non-religioisty – most convincingly. No Christian will ever have to question or justify their faith after Slippery Jim DiGriz banging on at them about it, but after reading “Ashkelon”, you will at least go “hmm”.
And on top of that he could write polemics like Make Room! Make Room!, or just adventures like Rebel in Time, which bring home their message without preaching, by dropping their identifiable characters into new situations and making the reader experience them vicariously. Looking back, I came to realise that this was a common thing in much of his writing – he communicated his values, and they were good values, through his characters without the authorial voice intruding. It’s a neat trick.
It was always the middle-level Harrison that I enjoyed the most, where the fun and silliness met an engaging and worthwhile plot. The Stainless Steel Rat; Deathworld; The Technicolor Time Machine; the under-rated A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (which features Brian Aldiss as Dean of St Pauls or some equivalent office). A role model for authors if ever there was one.