Harry Harrison died on Wednesday, August 15, 2012. I saw that on my news feed and did a double-take. With his passing, science fiction has lost a great figure, but I have lost someone who was a subtle but direct influence on my own work.
“Best known for the film Soylent Green, Harry was also a SFWA Grand Master, a pioneer of genre, and a colorful personality. He will be greatly missed.”
I discovered science fiction in 1968 (via Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books. Long Live John Carter and the Incomparable Deja Thoris! And I don’t mean that goofy Taylor Kitsch movie, either). By 1970 I was plowing through a lot of Grand Masters (though I didn’t know it at the time), and among these was Harrison. I didn’t read a lot of his work, but I did get into the Stainless Steel Rat series, courtesy of the library, and Deathworld, courtesy of the Science Fiction Book Club.
Influencing a Young Mind
Looking back, I see that a few things in these works of his not only totally thrilled me at the time, but left a lasting impression on my writerly subconscious, becoming an influence so subtle I barely recognized it until just now as I read his obit and more about his various works.
The Stainless Steel Rat captivated me because of something I have an enduring love affair with: the “bad guy”. Or, the (wo)man who falls into the gray areas or outside the law, but nevertheless is an intriguing rogue. Clever, charismatic, capable in surprising ways: this was his anti-hero, “Slippery Jim” DiGriz.
The other thing that struck me was what I would today call “exceptional world building.” I don’t know how I’d assess his writing if read through my now-adult eyes, but what I read at 14, and what stuck with me in my memory, was the unusual work he did in Deathworld. That was not the name of the planet, of course (which was Pyrrus), but rather an apt descriptor of its impact on humans.
Harrison depicted a planet so burgeoning in fierce life, so extreme in nature, that to step outside the safe city boundaries was to court instant death. Everything on the planet was deadly, and humans were an especially tempting bit of mobile lunch. Then, of course, there was the impact this had on human society and culture, and political consequences that grew from that….all marvelous.
Turns out there was more to the attacks on humans than met the eye (for complete plot spoilers, see this synopsis). But what lingered with me through the years was the question of how people might survive in the face of an extraordinarily hostile environment, and what kind of a society might evolve in consequence of that. If I recall correctly (and I may very well not: I haven’t re-read Deathworld since I was 14), it seems to me Harrison’s people had to wear special suits to protect them from the harsh environment when they ventured outdoors.
From the Subconscious to the Book
Real or imagined, that factoid stuck with me (I find the notion of having to suit up to go outdoors, and risking your life every time you do so, to be perversely fascinating). These and other brainworms burrowed their way deep into my grey matter and took up residence there, germinating and spawning thinkishness and erupting 20-some years later into aspects of my first novel, Mainline.
Even before I wrote Mainline, there was my science fiction universe (the Sa’adani Empire), and there in a particular region of space the jungle planet Lyndir whirled through the void of space. The star it orbits is not so unusual, but the planet? This jungle world is packed with an overabundance of life. It is a world of extremes, the near-death of the first colonists. The outside environment is so harsh that (yes) you need a protective suit to spend any time in it. In fact, you need a special kind of suit that (my faulty memory insists) I’m pretty sure is a direct (but not consciously intentional) derivative of Harrison’s environmental suits.
On Lyndir they are called “coolsuits”, for they are exoskeletal, armor-plated and coursing with coolant to keep the encased human at a comfortable temp. Humans can live outdoors in less sophisticated protection (mere environmental suits akin to those of the Dune tradition), but for anyone venturing into the wilds, only the power-armor-like coolsuit provides sufficient protection against the extreme heat, sometimes corrosive atmosphere, and vicious plantlife.
Hm. Deathworld, anyone?
Now I blush to think that my Lyndir setting might bear such close resemblance to Harrison’s creation. To be quite honest, I now feel compelled to go back and re-read Deathworld, and see how much my 14-year-old mind retained or mutated or (gods forfend!) emulated wholesale from Harrison’s exemplar. Since reviewers of Mainline did not decry Lyndir as a derivative or imitative setting, I’m probably in the clear there. But thinking of coolsuits on Lyndir and the harsh setting of Harrison’s Pyrrus, one wonders….
At any rate, my point is that the man’s work clearly influenced my own, or at least the direction in which some of my world building ruminations went. Naturally, his story concept in the ever-so-famous movie Soylent Green (based on his novel Make Room! Make Room!) left a significant mark on my sf imagination. Character-wise there is a trail there, too. I love anti-heroes, and the borderlands of criminal activities, and those who poke the Establishment in the eye one clever way or another. Mainline is a good example of how all this has percolated to the surface of my own consciousness.
Reva, the assassin anti-heroine of Mainline, is much more fierce than Jim DiGriz, but she (and even more so, her smuggler friends) are cut from the same “semi-legal, living on charisma and cleverness” cloth. I guess it’s time to re-read Stainless Steel Rat books as well, and see what stuck in what manner in my hindbrain, now 40-some years removed from the original read.
I’m not too concerned if some elements of my stories bear some resemblance to another writer’s concepts. They say there are no new stories under the sun, and the time I have spent in conscious and intentional thought world-building and communing with characters far outweighs whatever remnants may burble to the surface from past (and mostly forgotten) reading. But to the extent that I recognize the resonance, and remain inspired by the same things that first drew my attention to Harry’s writings, I want to say:
Thank you, Harry Harrison, for opening my eyes to possibilities, and for helping to make me a better writer.
Harrison’s book Deathworld is available in full text at Project Gutenberg online. Who’da thunk?
1. Lyndir: This is also the setting of my forthcoming novel Splintegrate (working title).
2. To get a copy of Mainline, visit here.