Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Harry Harrison

People sometimes ask me about the kind of science fiction I read as a kid. Back in the day, there wasn't so much of it coming out that a fast reader couldn't keep up. Along with the ABCs and the H -- Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, and Heinlein, I read as much of the stuff as I could check out of the library or buy with my law-mowing money, usually from the rack down at the Rexall Drugstore. Bob Sheckley, Harlan Ellison, Phil Dick, Phil Farmer, Norman Spinrad, Fred Pohl, Poul Anderson ...

And Harry Harrison. Lord, Harry Harrison.

Nobody did action/adventure science fiction like Harry did. He wrote all kinds of stuff, including the Flash Gordon comic strip in the newspapers in the late 1950's. I came across him in the early sixties. SFWA has named him one of their Grandmasters, and he certainly deserves that award.

My Matadors had literary fathers and mothers who lived on the Planet of the Damned (available through Project Gutenberg) and who fought on Deathworld. Emile Khadaji's grandfathers were Jason dinAlt, a hotshot gambler, and Brion Brandd, winner of Olympic-style combat games called The Twenties.

Dirisha Zuri came from a long line of strong women including Meta Kerk. Spetsdöds are my answer to Harrison's forearm holsters worn by every Pyrran over the age of five ...

Later, Harrison wrote about Bill, the Galactic Hero, and the adventures of Slippery Jim diGriz, aka The Stainless Steel Rat, and, of course, there was that 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! which became the basis for a movie, whose punchline was: "Soylent Green is people!"

Here is a fight scene from Planet of the Damned, written almost fifty years ago.

Read it, and learn:

"Brion was diving even as the electrical discharges still crackled in the air. The boxes and packs dropped from him and he slammed against Lea, knocking her to the ground. He hoped she had the sense to stay there and be quiet. This was his only conscious thought, the rest was reflex. He was rolling over and over as fast as he could.

The spitting electrical flames flared again, playing over the bundles of luggage he had dropped. This time Brion was expecting it, pressed flat on the ground a short distance away. He was facing the darkness away from the sand car and saw the brief, blue glow of the ion-rifle discharge. His own gun was in his hand. When Ihjel had given him the missile weapon he had asked no questions, but had just strapped it on. There had been no thought that he would need it this quickly. Holding it firmly before him in both hands, he let his body aim at the spot where the glow had been. A whiplash of explosive slugs ripped the night air. They found their target and something thrashed voicelessly and died.

In the brief instant after he fired, a jarring weight landed on his back and a line of fire circled his throat. Normally he fought with a calm mind, with no thoughts other than of the contest. But Ihjel, a friend, a man of Anvhar, had died a few seconds before, and Brion found himself welcoming this physical violence and pain.

There are many foolish and dangerous things that can be done, such as smoking next to high-octane fuel and putting fingers into electrical sockets. Just as dangerous, and equally deadly, is physically attacking a Winner of the Twenties.

Two men hit Brion together, though this made very little difference. The first died suddenly as hands like steel claws found his neck and in a single spasmodic contraction did such damage to the large blood vessels there that they burst and tiny hemorrhages filled his brain. The second man had time for a single scream, though he died just as swiftly when those hands closed on his larynx."

Notice that second-to-last graph. In the middle of a to-the-death fight scene, Harrison stops the action and delivers an off-hand comment that is as wry as it could possibly be. At fourteen or fifteen, which is when I first read it, and before I knew I wanted to be a writer, I thought this was brilliant. It has stayed with me. It's a wonderful trick of pacing, a delay of gratification, like pausing before the last bite of a hot fudge sundae. Get the reader caught up in the action, and then make them wait just a little longer for the resolution ...

I have used the same device in my own work several times. It's a fun trick. In the middle of a shootout, I've stopped to describe the military spec gun lube in the pistol the bad girl is using. You can almost hear the reader jumping up and down and yelling, "Get on with it! Move it, move it!"

That's your job as a writer, to take the readers where you want them to go -- and to make them like it.

Harrison, an American ex-pat, is in his eighties now, dividing his time between London and Ireland, and if you want to see how somebody who can write it fast, furious, and funny does it, pick up some of his novels.

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