The Stainless Steel Rat Turns Fifty: A Review of Harry Harrison's 50 In 50
Reviewed by John Teehan
17 February 2003
I always was, still am, enthusiastic about science fiction. It is a limitless field of endeavor which writers can explore, go wherever their imaginations lead them. If I am depressed about the present state of the art it is because the present crop of writers seem to have small imaginations, easy goals, tiny ambitions. The dwarves have replaced the giants. Or am I just being grumpy? --Harry Harrison, www.harryharrison.com
Fifty stories is a lot of fiction to pack between two covers. In 50 In 50, Harry Harrison has collected together some of his best short stories in fifty years of writing. From his first professionally sold story, "Rock Diver" (Worlds Beyond #3, February 1951) to "The Road To the Year 3000" (New Scientist, 16th December 1999) we get a remarkable variety of work spreading over five decades. The collection begins with ten pages of autobiographical introduction detailing Harrison's career as an artist, writer, and editor, along with some interesting anecdotes. At first glance, one might assume that the collection will feature one story from each year of Harrison's career. Not so. As prolific as he is, there were a few years here and there that saw no new short stories in publication and many years in which there were several. Harrison has also written such classic science fiction novels as The Stainless Steel Rat, To The Stars, West of Eden, and forty others. Having written fifty short stories on top of all that is an impressive accomplishment.
Rather than presenting the stories in chronological order, they're presented in thematic groups such as Alien Shores, Miraculous Inventions, Other Worlds, and Square Pegs in Round Holes -- each section having a brief introduction by Harrison. You can read the collection two ways. One way would be to simply sit down and read each story as it stands. Read them in order, jump around a bit, read them by theme, or by whatever title strikes your fancy. Or you could take a survey approach and examine the development of Harry Harrison, the writer, through fifty years and the development of science fiction as a field itself. In order to read it this second way, you may want to get a hold of Harry Harrison: An Annotated Bibliography, or, at the very least, refer often to the very-comprehensive www.harryharrison.com website.
"The Streets of Ashkelon" provides an excellent example of the first section, Alien Shores, and is easily one of the best stories ever written addressing the loss of innocence. On a planet populated by a species with no sense of religion, spirituality, guilt, or shame, a human missionary lands to convert the locals despite the vociferous objections of a human trader who has lived among the natives for several years. This results in a tableau that is both thoughtful and chilling.
The section, Make Room! Make Room! covers the theme of overpopulation and reflects the Zero Population Growth movement. Included in this section is the story "Roommates" which became the novel Make Room! Make Room! which, in a turnabout fashion, became the movie Soylent Green. Especially entertaining is "A Criminal Act" in which people who have unlicensed children lose the benefit of protection of law and become government-sanctioned murder victims unless they manage to defeat an attack -- thus bringing the population back to the status quo.
Miraculous Inventions presents stories in which ingenuity is the hero. Included in this section is the infamous "Rock Diver" story, Harrison's first professional sale in 1951 to Worlds Beyond #3 (of which he did some illustrations). "Rock Diver," originally entitled "I Walk Through Rock" is about miners, claim-jumping, and a most unusual method for digging through rock. The rest of section is filled with great invention stories such as "The Greatest Car in the World" and the cleverly written "Toy Shop."
Like to laugh? You will enjoy the section entitled Laugh -- I Thought I Would Cry. Unsurprisingly, Harrison's skill as a humor writer shine through. Mind you, the humor is more satirical in nature than it is slapstick. "The Man From P.I.G." features an unusual sort of galactic troubleshooter and his porcine sidekicks. "Space Rats of the CCC" takes every bad cliche from the very worst of the old SF pulps and turns them on their head in this scathingly funny lampoon. "Captain Honario Harpplayer, R.N." sends-up the C.S. Forester Horatio Hornblower novels and mixes in an unexpected First Contact element. In the Introduction to 50 In 50, Harrison states:
I sent a copy of "Captain Honario Harpplayer, R.N." to C.S. Forester since it was both a parody and a tribute to his wonderful fictions. No answer. I later discovered that the great man was quite recently dead. Did I kill him? Did he read my story and die of apoplexy?
In Other Worlds, Harrison takes us on a trip to imaginary planets and imaginary futures. "Simulated Trainer" takes a stab at a (hopefully) unexplored option in training for manned missions to Mars. "Survival Planet" examines what happens to a society in which all strangers are enemies and survival means everything. "How the Old World Died" discusses the effects of overmechanization; and in the final story, "The K-Factor," specially trained operators play chess with the destiny and death of society.
R.U.R. devotes itself to stories of robots and their makers. "Arm of the Law" introduces the first robot policeman on Mars -- a paragon of law and order. One can find out what happens to robots who fall in love in "The Robot Who Wanted To Know" or get a glimpse of a robot's programming imperative in "I Have My Vigil." The longest story in the section, "The Velvet Glove" explores issues of the rights of sentient robots in a society strongly biased against mechanical men.
One For The Shrinks covers stories that give glimpses to the inner man more than the outward trappings of early SF. It focuses on the "softer" sciences which appeared more often in fifties science fiction. From the somewhat chilling attitudes on being elderly in "Not Me, Not Amos Cabot!" to the nature of human-animal aggression in "You Men of Violence," Harrison examines the human spirit with insight and skill.
Harrison has included his only two fantasy short stories in this collection. Unlike epic or heroic fantasy, Harrison's tales skirted the genre, appearing in earlier magazines such as Fantasy Fiction and Unknown. Closer to horror than contemporary fantasy, this is evident in Harrison's "At Last, the True Story of Frankenstein," a reinterpretation of a classic, and "Incident in the IND," a revealing look at what really inhabits the subways at night.
Finally there are the eleven stories that comprise the closing section, Square Pegs in Round Holes. As one would imagine, these are the stories that defy easy categorization. "Mute Milton" is a story inspired by Harrison's anger; in particular, anger over racist comments following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s reception in Norway. As he says, "To express that anger in intelligent form I conceived and wrote this story in a white heat, at one sitting." It's a powerful, sad story about wasted genius and humanity that provokes the same sort of anger in the reader that moved the author in its writing. "The Ever-Branching Tree" tells the story of a most unusual sort of field trip back in time. Similarly, "If" is a unique time-travel story written originally for If in 1969 (titled then as "Praiseworthy Saur".) The glorious words of the past come back to haunt in "American Dead." No matter how hard you try, no utopia is ever perfect, as is shown in "Brave Newer World." Finally there is the fiftieth story, "The Road To the Year 3000" which is written from the perspective of one looking back on history from a thousand years from now.
Harrison excels in asking the favorite science fiction question, "What if. . .?" After fifty years, it's still a good question to ask. Science fiction can be seen sometimes as not so much prophetic as cautionary. What will happen if the Earth's population grows too large to handle? What would happen if robots took over all menial jobs? What if you went back in time and stepped on a prehistoric worm? How would the world be different? While Harrison's science is generally weak (despite the early influences of John W. Campbell), he succeeds in the arena of "social science fiction" by asking good questions, making reasonable postulations, and coming to interesting conclusions.
Unfortunately, not every story is going to impress the contemporary reader. This is not due to any lack of quality regarding the stories themselves, so much as the changes in the field and the science fiction audience of today. Many stories have gimmick endings -- reminiscent of the old Twilight Zone series. This was fine fifty, forty, even thirty year ago, but one can't help but wonder how successful these stories would be if submitted, brand new, to audiences today. Still, even with gimmick endings, the stories still hold quite a lot of charm and enjoyment. That the stories are presented in a non-chronological order makes it difficult to follow the development of his writing as the field developed, but 50 In 50 still provides a serviceable cross-section of fifty years of science fiction.
After fifty years of writing, Harry Harrison is far from concluding his writing career. There are still too many questions to ask, and too many worlds to explore.
Copyright © 2003 John Teehan
John Teehan lives and writes in Providence, Rhode Island. He has recently sold stories which will appear in Men Writing SF as Women (Daw, 2003) and Low Port (Meisha Merlin, 2003). "The Literary Roots of Fantasy" appears in The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy (Twilight Times, 2002) and he has sold poetry to Star*Line and Strange Horizons. John publishes the fanzine Sleight of Hand and is the current Art Director/Production Manager for the SFWA Bulletin. For more about him, visit his website.