BILL IS DONE!

A week after the publication of Harry’s autobiography, BILL THE GALACTIC HERO – the feature film – is done. The main theme is by Iggy Pop, and Harry’s songs have been put to music by David Bashford. The world premiere is tonight, in Boulder, in the presence of Moira and Todd, his children, and four other members of the Harrison clan. Also attending are Kickstarter backers from as far away as Los Angeles, Portland, and Australia!

The film got some nice reviews in the local papers and will have more theatrical screenings and festival appearances in the new year. It’s an avowedly non-commercial feature (in the sense that I had to promise the CU administration that we wouldn’t attempt to make money off it) but, then, as far as independent films are concerned that’s usually the case.

The good news is that the film will be out there, and – once the Kickstarter downloads begin – widely available via the interwebs. I hope you enjoy it. I hope you’ll also enjoy Harry’s autobio – HARRY HARRISON! HARRY HARRISON! – published in hardcover by Tor. There is a wonderful scene in it where Harry, Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss are invited to judge the first science fiction festival in Trieste. The opening night film is Roger Corman’s MAN WITH X-RAY EYES starring Ray Milland. All three judges having been seriously wined and dined prior to the screening, they cannot resist making derisive comments about the movie as it screens. When the lights come up, presto! There, in the row in front of them, are Roger Corman and Ray Milland.

Personally I like MAN WITH X-RAY EYES and have a lot of time for Ray Milland, the actor, but what an embarrassing circumstance in any case. Twenty years later, when I first tried to raise money for BILL, Roger Corman was the only financier who was interested. Roger wanted to see a script, something which took us another three decades or so. Now script and film are finished, and I’ll send Roger a DVD as soon as they’re done. I wonder what he’ll make of it.

By the way, the film to which Harry, Brian and Kingers gave the prize was the marvelous ICARUS XB-1, the black-and-white Czech interstellar epic which was the visual inspiration for our production of BILL. Small universe, no?

To the Skies Avaunt!

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AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS AND THE VIETNAM WAR

galaxy_science_fiction_magazineAs a lad I read science fiction magazines: NEW WORLDS SF, plus imports of the American SF mags GALAXY and ANALOG. I vaguely remembered seeing a petition signed by numerous science fiction writers, back in the 1960s, either opposing or supporting the Viet Nam War. But truth to tell – though Bill, The Galactic Hero is infused with the outrage and the energy of those times – I had forgotten about the petition until I read this, in Isaac Asimov’s introduction to a Poul Anderson story in The Hugo Winners, Vol. 2.

“The Vietnam war has divided the microcosm of the science fiction writer as it has the United States as a whole. I, myself, for instance, am a liberal and, in connection with Vietnam, I am a dove. I always have been. Practically everyone thinks now [1971] that getting into an Asian land-war was a mistake, but I thought so even when we were in the process of getting into it, and said so loudly.

“Naturally, then, when a statement was handed around at a science fiction convention urging immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, I signed it at once. That statement with a number of names of science fiction personalities attached, was published in a science fiction magazine. But there are conservatives among us, too, and prominent on that list is Poul Anderson. When he heard of the dove statement, he prepared a hawk statement in which signers urged the government to remain in Vietnam until its aims were achieved. The competing statement was also published.

“Fears were expressed at the time that this would create storms and divisions among science fiction writers and would break up our camaraderie in a tempest of controversy. Well, if the statements have done so, I haven’t noticed it. Our mutual identification as fellow science fiction writers persists above and beyond lesser divisions.”

How nice for Asimov that he was able to remain collegial with fellow authors who supported the massacre of the Vietnamese peasantry and the environmental degradation of their country. I am less forgiving of fools who believe that war is a good thing, or that using violence solves problems. But like Asimov I jealously guard the distinction between “liberals” who initially supported massive war against Viet Nam / Serbia / Afghanistan / Iraq, and belatedly realised they were wrong, and those of us who oppose war on principle, whether the grounds are religious, intellectual, or environmental.

Feeling this way, I have come to the conclusion that those who advocate for wicked things are deficient in imagination. If you could conceive of what it feels like to be “carpet bombed”, or force-fed, or waterboarded, or to see your children and family members and the first responders who try to save them killed by drones, you might not be so keen to promote such things in the public sphere. Most would agree that Tony Blair is a money-hungry war criminal; yet he was given the finest education a young English person can receive, care of St. Johns College, Oxford, and his tutor tells me he received a decent degree. Since Blair cannot be considered stupid, and since greed alone surely cannot account for such monomaniacal wickedness, I can only assume he is a sociopath: entirely lacking in empathy for those who suffer from his follies, he is an individual without imagination.

Are not all science fiction writers imaginative souls – at least in theory? I sought out the statements about which Asimov wrote: the “petitions” I had seen. As you know, everything is on the internet. And there they were – courtesy of geophysician/composer/writer Nat Tilander. Tilander, who died recently, ran across the paid ad in Galaxy, June 1968, scanned it and posted it. His fascinating site is the only place I’ve found it.

72 science fiction writers wrote, “We the undersigned believe the United States must remain in Vietnam to fulfill its responsibilities to the people of that country.” Among those whose names I recognise are Anderson, Leigh Brackett, Fredric Brown, John W. Campbell, Hal Clement, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert A. Heinlein, Larry Niven, Jerry E. Pournelle, R.A. Lafferty, Fred Saberhagen, Jack Vance, and Jack Williamson.

On the anti-war side, 82 signers wrote, “We oppose the participation of the United States in the war in Vietnam.” Names I know are Forrest J. Ackerman, Asimov, James Blish, Ray Bradbury, Samuel R. Delaney, Lester del Rey, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, Daniel Keyes, Damon Knight, Ursula K. LeGuin, Fritz Leiber, Judith Merril, Gene Roddenberry, T.L. Sherred, Robert Silverberg, Kate Wilhelm, Donald A. Wollheim … and Harry Harrison.

It would be wrong, and pointless, to attempt some facile comparison of the two groups… So let’s do it!   Not all signers were contemporary science fiction authors: John W. Campbell and Donald A. Wollheim were editor/publishers; Gene Roddenberry was the creator of Star Trek; Forest J. Ackerman was the illustrious editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland. But they were all science fiction insiders – Campbell most of all. The distinction I would draw between the two groups is that while both contain very good storytellers, the focus of the “pro-war” group is technocratic. They wrote (not in every case, but often) about the tough mechanics of space exploration and colonization, and encounters with alien species tend to the apocalyptic. The “anti-war” group is – dare I say it – less technically-focused. Ray Bradbury’s and Philip K. Dick’s characters travel through space and time, but neither writer cares how the machinery works. They care what the result is.

The wording of the petitions tells us something about those who formulated them. The “anti-war” group has one message only: opposition to US participation in the war in Viet Nam. Its words are squiggly – as if the “war” could exist independently of the United States’ pursuit of it. But its meaning is clear. Whereas the “pro-war” group’s statement is simultaneously complex and incomplete. The authors believe “the United States” (presumably they mean the United States military) should remain in Viet Nam, with no specified time frame, in order to fulfill responsibilities (unspecified) to the (unspecified) people of that nation. Much is hinted at, but not addressed. It feels cobbled-together, as if “to defeat communism” has been papered over with a vaguer veneer of responsibilities, one day to be fulfilled.

Space exploration in science fiction is often treated like war. Men are loaded aboard giant spacecraft which blast with crushing G-forces through the atmosphere. There are casualties on takeoff and on landing; some of the ships don’t make it, breaking up in the thin atmosphere of Mars… A very good story in this vein is What’s It Like Out There? by Gordon R. Dickson, about a returning astronaut with PTS. (Dickson, a Canadian, didn’t sign either petition.) And a lot of science fiction stories of the Clement/Saberhagen school tend to dwell on the mechanics and technology which runs in the background of their stories. Campbell, the editor, encouraged this.  So it may be that the technocrat camp saw Viet Nam as McNamara did: a technocratic challenge, which could be mastered by logistics, money and technology, rather than a human one. Focused on fixes, they ignored the problem.

As far as talent goes… come on! Comparisons may be invidious, but the “anti-war” group is by far the better group of writers. Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, Judith Merril, Harlan Ellison, Harry Harrison! What unites them? They do not believe that technology will save us. And they believe that we are all human (or aliens or replicants), and that that counts.

This doesn’t mean that the humanists can be bested in the horrors-of-space-exploration stakes, either. In this area, Ray Bradbury’s Mars is Heaven! – written in 1948 – is not to be missed.

(Speaking of the horrors of space, Bill, The Galactic Hero the film proceeds apace. Its world premiere will be at the International Film Series in Boulder, Colorado, on December 12.)

THE PLAGUE FROM SPACE…

Within the same twelve month period (1965-66) Harry Harrison finished three science fiction novels. MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! was his serious take on overpopulation, the only one of his books (so far) to have been filmed. BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO was something he’d been working on for several years — probably since he read STARSHIP TROOPERS and was so pissed off by it. And there was a third book, too: a short novel called THE PLAGUE FROM SPACE. A few years after PLAGUE was published, Michael Crighton published his own novel about a plague from space, which got made into a tedious major motion picture. This annoyed Harry since he felt that Crighton borrowed much of his plot and all of his research (it’s one of his books, like WEST OF EDEN, which came from a process of research and collaboration with gen-u-ine scientists — the way science fiction used to be). So Harry re-worked the book and republished it as THE JUPITER PLAGUE.

Last week, the used bookstores of Oregon yielded up two of Harry’s works – another copy of BILL (can’t have too many of them!) and THE JUPITER PLAGUE, which I had never read before. I haven’t yet found a copy of THE PLAGUE FROM SPACE so can’t comment on how different the two books are. What impresses me is the sheer hard work of which H.H. was capable: three novels in a year, at least one of them a masterpiece.

Yet it’s a puzzling book, as well — hard to believe it’s from the pen of the man who wrote BILL, since it’s heroes are hard-charging medics and army generals (in other words, the people who cause all the problems and stupidity in Harry’s anti-war tract). Thinking about it, all three books — written the same year — seem to contradict each other: BILL is entirely cynical and shows no respect for any authority, of any kind; the hero of MAKE ROOM! is an honest, if ineffectual, police detective; the protagonists of PLAGUE are all authority figures: doctors, cops, the military. All are good, entertaining reads. PLAGUE is the weakest of the three, though it comes back to life splendidly in its final pages when the presence of an incomprehensible alien being aboard the plague ship, managing the viral attacks, is revealed.

But what did Harry think? Are MAKE ROOM! and PLAGUE just “work novels” while BILL reveals the author’s true feelings? Or were there no true feelings — just books? Like most of his contemporaries, Harry wrote fast, aiming for first publication in science fiction magazines, and wrote for a living: that was how he and the family survived. And the market in the mid-sixties was still for “hard”, science-based science fiction (the fashion for imps and elves and dragons and Star Trek/Wars which has devastated the modern medium had not yet occurred) so books like MAKE ROOM! and PLAGUE were more likely to find a publisher. Remember that BILL was rejected by Harry’s regular publisher and it was only the enthusiasm of his dear wife Joan, who found it hilarious, that kept him working on it.

BILL is also unusual in that there is no hard science in it. The Bloater Drive, the dehydrator ray, the robot humans with lizards instead of brains, all is entertaining and full of meaning, but not the kind of meaning a DUNE fan would understand. I love Harry’s writing, but feel that in some books – like the EDEN trilogy and PLAGUE – he was shackled by his science fiction writer’s respect for hard science. He was an intelligent man and he wanted the science to be right – but often that stuff just gets in the way of the story, slowing the narrative pace as the author gets into the nitty-gritty of viruses or reptilian warm-bloodedness. Whereas in BILL, his own experiences were the story. Despite the insanity of it all, nothing was made up or needed to be “researched”. Everything that happens in BILL had happened, one way or another, to Harry Harrison. Many of those things have happened to you and me, too. There is truth in BILL of a greater depth than mere scientific accuracy or historical veracity. Which is why it will endure, I think. (Better make a good film of it, then!)

Revisiting these sixties science fiction books has led me to compile a short list of science fiction stories which may encourage us as we begin work on the film. I really compiled it for my students, but I’ll share it here, and add to it as I remember the titles which are currently eluding me… In no particular order, if you’re interested in reading some outstanding “hard” science fiction, I recommend:

Who Can Replace a Man?, by Brian Aldiss

Lot, by Ward Moore

The Only Thing We Can Learn, by C.M. Kornbluth

The Tunnel Under The World, by Frederic Pohl

Children of the Night, also by Frederic Pohl

Hell is the Absence of God, by Ted Chaing

Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury

Poor Little Warrior, also by Brian Aldiss

(Oh, and here’s a plug for a written offering of my own. Please buy it at your local independent bookstore, or from the publishers!)

HARRY HARRISON AND THE RUSSIANS

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.

Joan, Harry, and the pup Vladimir

Joan, Harry, and the pup Vladimir

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.

HARRISON & HEINLEIN

What a surprise to read two biographies, one of Robert A. Heinlein, one of his arch-nemesis Harry Harrison, by the same author — Leon Stover, of the Illinois Institute of Tech. Both are very clear histories of their subject — though the one about Harry is also a history of science fiction itself, and not a bad one, in a short book. Stover writes that Harry was “only the second author after Robert Heinlein to make a full-time living through science fiction” in the 1960s and 1970s, and observes, on the basis of many conversations with the author, that there are no villains in Harry’s books. People, robots, animals and aliens therein act the way they do as a result of their circumstances.

Stover also points out that Harry responded to another of Heinlein’s books, Universe, as well as to Starship Troopers. In this case, per. Stover, it was an inspired development rather than a horrified retort: Captive Universe, another story of what I learn is an sf sub-genre, the “generation starship” story.

According to the author, while Bill was rejected by the editor who commissioned it, Harry’s book proved a favorite with publishers. Both Bill and Make Room! Make Room! were snapped up in Britain by Penguin, with splendid covers:

Make_Room!_Make_Room! Bill_Penguin   What a difference between the two designs, though! Make Room! Make Room! was designed by Alan Aldridge, a popular and highly original graphic designer of the sixties who had been hired to spice up Penguin’s sf output. This he did, apparently offending the publisher and certain authors in the process. I doubt that Harry was offended. By contrast, Franco Grignani’s cover for the Penguin edition of Bill pleases the eye but tells us nothing about the book. I bought just about all Penguin’s sf output in the 1960s and think it was much, much better
than the crude illustrative covers which followed in the 1970s and 80s. The Art of Penguin Science Fiction gives us the opportunity to compare how the company’s cover art evolved and to wonder why the later art is so darn bad by comparison:

Bill_1983   Make_Room_2009    These are the 1983 and 2009 Penguin editions, respectively. For those who puzzle over such things, the designation “4/6” on the Aldridge cover is the price, from the days before decimalization of the British pound. “Four shillings and sixpence” was six pennies shy of five shillings, i.e. a quarter of a pound. So in the mid-60s you could buy four sf books for less than a quid and have some money left for beer. (Actually 4/6 was pretty expensive for a paperback of that era — most paperbacks cost 3/6 and American imports 2/6 — i.e. eight American sf books with dyed-yellow page edges, for a pound.)

Harry told Leon Stover that “the highest input function of the brain is reading fiction.”

I think this is true, though listening to music and observing animals are close competitors.

HARRY HARRISON HISTORY

A visit to the Harry Harrison website reveals further information about Harry’s progress thru the second world war, and the making of BILL. Harry ended his military service in Panama City, Florida, riding shotgun on a garbage truck. Literally riding shotgun: he was a military cop, guarding black prisoners while they collected the trash. According to the author, Harry and his prisoners got along well, and drank together in the black servicemen’s bar after work. So — was Harry his own model for the character of Deathwish Drang?

“Coming out of the army was a traumatic experience and years passed before I could understand why. It seems very obvious now… Though I loathed the army I was completely adjusted to it. I could not return to the only role I knew in civilian life, that of being a child.”

Harry called writing BILL a “shaking experience … I was doing less than half my normal wordage everyday and greatly enjoying myself – at the time. Laughter all day at the typewriter – how I do enjoy my own jokes – instant depression when I came down for dinner. Upon rereading, the stuff seemed awful. Or awfully way out; there had never been anything like it in SF before. Then back the next day for some more chuckling and suffering.”

Harry was encouraged by his wife, Joan, who was “reading the copy and laughing out loud and saying it was great and get on with it and stop muttering to yourself. I got on with it, finished it, had it typed and mailed it off to Damon.”

Damon Knight was Harry’s publisher, who had advanced him $750 and was expecting an ‘experimental’ science fiction novel. Knight rejected the manuscript, commenting, “Take the jokes out and it would be okay.” (He owed the author another $750 upon delivery, but one doubts that this was paid.)  Fortunately, magazine serialization and publication followed, regardless.

Image      billtgh2

Meanwhile, the Wikipedia entry for another book of Harry’s, THE TECHNICOLOR TIME MACHINE, reveals that he was apt to include hidden jokes in Danish in his texts: and that “Storhestelortby” – home of one of the Troopers in BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO – means “City of Big Horse Shit”.

And, though it has nothing to do with Harry or BILL, I would like to shout out the name of Ted Chiang, just because he’s such a great contemporary science fiction writer. The author of a dozen shortish works, Chiang shows tremendous breadth of interest and originality. His alien encounter stories are suitably enigmatic and depressing. And his short tale, HELL IS THE ABSENCE OF GOD takes as its premise the idea that angels are real, observable, and highly deadly physical phenomena: it’s one of the best pieces of SF I’ve ever read.

BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO

So, in honour of my dear friend Harry Harrison I embark upon this new site, and a new project: the feature film version of BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO – Harry’s immortal science fiction novel, which I first optioned and tried to make into a film way back in 1983! This was right as I was finishing REPO MAN: I met Harry at his hotel in Hollywood – the one where everybody used to stay, with the famous diner attached, long bulldozed now – and he plied me with gin and limes, and I optioned the rights to the book for six months. My attempts to make BILL my second feature didn’t succeed: “Too expensive! Too anti-war!” So I ended up making a picture called SID & NANCY, instead.

But BILL, the great, transgressive riposte to STARSHIP TROOPERS, remained unmade. Heinlein’s right-wing tract got made into a picture, and many, many, many bad science fiction films were shot. Harry’s MAKE ROOM, MAKE ROOM! had been filmed back in the 70s, as SOYLENT GREEN. He was a popular writer in Russia, and over the years I helped him try to get DEATHWORLD made there, as a superproduction funded by Gazprom, and also WEST OF EDEN, his dinosaurian alternative history, as a cartoon film. Splendid projects which did not materialize.

And then, as luck would have it, I found myself teaching film and making movies at one of the world’s premier universities, and the thought occurred to me, now, at last, I can make BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO the way it should be made: not as a hundred million dollar studio picture, but as a hundred thousand dollar student picture, shot and acted by my esteemed students, working for free! I tried the idea out on Harry, who was all in favour. He persuaded his agent, Nat, to grant me an academic license to direct BILL … a non-exclusive license, so if you’re reading this, George Lucas, you can still direct your own hundred million dollar version, simultaneously.

Meanwhile, I embark on the thrilling prospect of a Kickstarter campaign… Image