Book Review: Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison! A Memoir by Harry Harrison

I picked this book up by chance at the library because Harry Harrison was a science fiction writer and I thought there might be some interesting stories within about the world of science fiction writers and fans.  A word about the title, in case you’re not familiar with Harry Harrison and his work.  He wrote the novel “Make Room! Make Room!” upon which the film “Soylent Green” with Charleton Heston and Edward G. Robinson is based, and I assume that the title of this memoir is a play on that title.

I have to admit Harrison almost lost me right there at the beginning, as the first chapter is a detailed look at the background of his ancestors, his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.  It went on a little too long, and I was tempted to put the book down.  That would have been a mistake.  After that first chapter the memoir takes off and never lets up.

The book mainly interests me on two levels.  One, as I already mentioned, is a glimpse into the world of a working writer in the science fiction and fantasy genre.  Harrison was an important presence in the field, especially as a writer for editor John W. Campbell in the heyday of Astounding Science Fiction.  He did not become involved in the new wave experimental writing of the sixties and seventies, which is where I came in, and as a result I have read little of his work, but the stories he tells of starting out as a comics artist, moving on to hack writing confessions and men’s adventures, and finally getting into more serious science fiction, and his encounters and friendships with many luminaries of the field, make for fascinating reading.

No less important, even more so, in fact, are the stories of Harrison’s travels with his family.  Early on he got frustrated and unfulfilled with U.S. culture, initially in New York where he was born and raised, and began a globetrotting odyssey with his wife and children that never ended.  They first moved to Mexico, then to England, to the isle of Capri in Italy, to Denmark, to Ireland.  They remained for years in these foreign lands as the kids picked up the local languages and went to the local schools and Harrison continued to churn out prose to pay the bills.  They had some exceedingly lean times with occasional windfalls.

I could relate to this because for most of my life and the life of my family when my children were young we experienced similar adventures.  My first two sons were born on the Indian Subcontinent, my third in Sicily, my fourth in Athens, Greece, and my fifth in Thessaloniki.  During our wanderings around the world we experienced much beauty and had many memorable experiences, but we also had our share of very, very lean times.  For some reason as I was reading this I recalled one very broke period in Greece when I couldn’t afford a pack of gum.  You see, I was teaching English in private schools at the time, but work was sporadic, and so income was uncertain.  I always wanted to make it as easy on my students as possible, so before I left for class I would shower, brush my teeth, and on the drive or bus ride to work I would chew some mint gum.  Not being able to afford the gum was discouraging.  But it didn’t last long.  Usually we ate well, and took full advantage of the environment in which we found ourselves – for example the unparalleled beauty of the Greek beaches in summer.

As a freelance writer struggling to pay bills and feed my family and at the same time with an unquenchable penchant for traveling, as I was reading this I empathized with Harry Harrison.  I have a lot in common with him, it turns out.  Every time he tried to settle in an American city, it wasn’t long before he’d get an itch to leave.  He felt more at home in Europe than in the United States.  He was more successful in his science fiction writing than I am so far, but I am hoping that will change, that I can eventually make more money off my fiction than I am now so I can toss the writing of the articles I presently churn out to pay the bills.

So once I slogged past the first chapter, this memoir turned out to be one of the most fun and relevant reading experiences I have had in some time.  Whether it would hit others the same way, I don’t know.  I realize that my family and Harry Harrison’s are anomalies in our globetrotting ways.  But really, you don’t have to live through experiences to vicariously enjoy the telling of them.  This memoir is a good read.  Skip the first chapter if you must, but read the rest.

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