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 areĀ 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!)

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