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.

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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.