I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Steven M Norris, Blockbuster History in the New Russia. It deals with something I didn’t even know existed: the apparent plethora of very big-budget, visual-effects-heavy, action films which began when Putin took over from Yeltsin. Apparently the Yeltsin years were marked not only by economic collapse and the shelling of the Russian parliament, but by a depressing national cinema featuring drug addicts, petty crooks, and prostitutes: the kind of film that Liverpool filmmakers were expected to turn out during that grim decade. Since the turn of the century, the Russian oligarchs have been putting serious money into patriotic blockbusters of which, mysteriously, we in the West hear nothing at all.
Harry Harrison was well aware of this. By the late 1990s Harry had become the most popular science fiction writer in Russia. The Russians – not distinguishing between the H and the G – apparently call him Garry Garrison. Why were his books so big there? I suspect because, in addition to being wildly adventurous and often very funny, they were invariably anti-authoritarian and anti-war. Unlike the British and the Americans, the Russians apparently learned a lesson from the Second World War (25 million dead?), and so were in less of a hurry to jump-start the apocalypse.
Harry sold the Deathworld rights to one of Gazprom’s media offshoots, and I tried to help connect the Russian moguls with an American director: Norris points out that the new generation of Russian blockbuster directors comes from commercials and MTV, just as they do in the West, and clearly the Gazinvest guys were interested in a heavier hitter. I was pretty sure that we could get them a meeting with just about any working American director: even Spielberg wouldn’t turn down millions and millions of free dollars, while the blacklisted Coppola might have jumped at it. My efforts were to no avail. Turned out the Russians wanted one American director, and one only: George Lucas.
Harry and I marvelled at the ironic joke as it unfurled. Of all the directors in the world, the Russians had picked the one they couldn’t have: the only one who really, seriously, didn’t need Gazprom’s money. We tried to explain that Lucas was rich beyond anyone’s dreams thanks to his toy franchise (this was before he sold the farm to Disney), that he hadn’t made a good film since American Grafitti, and that he didn’t live in Los Angeles. It made no difference. I visualised the Gazprom execs, in their black suits and ties, sitting in the Presidential Suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, with champagne and similar accoutrements, waiting for George to come knocking…
This did not occur. But Harry was sanguine, amused by just about everything. And in a way this total misunderstanding tells us a lot about Americans and Russians, and how they always fail to understand what makes the other “tick”. The only time I ever saw Harry get annoyed was when, some weeks after the Gazprom fiasco, it was revealed that Julian Assange had borrowed his name to go internet dating, and some Australians made a play about Assange, and called it The Stainless Steel Rat. Of this, Harry did not approve.
As far as I know Gazinvest never exercised their option on Deathworld. A smaller Russian company did option West of Eden, Harry’s first novel about an Earth on which dinosaurs never became extinct. I don’t know what became of that: Harry told me he thought they were working on an animated version, and those things take time.
There is still time, O Gazprom guys, to participate in a Harrison science fiction feature. Kickstarter for Bill, The Galactic Hero goes live this Friday. I’ll keep y’all posted.