Years before Charlton Heston barreled across the screen bellowing “Soylent Green is people,” there was a quirky little book called “Make Room! Make Room!” that postulated a far-off future (the year 1999) so crowded, with 7 billion people, that society was crumbling.
“Make Room! Make Room!” was written by the seminal science fiction write Harry Harrison, who died Wednesday at the age of 87. It was a dark, almost fevered exploration of what would happen in a world overrun by people and starved of resources, but it didn’t actually include any cannibalism. That was introduced in the “Soylent Green” script to sensationalize the problem central to the story.
Most people who’ve encountered Harrison’s influence have done so unwittingly, via “Soylent Green.” But to sci-fi aficionados, Harrison was the real deal, and his “Stainless Steel Rat” and “Bill the Galactic Hero” series were tight, clever and furiously fast action takes on the future, and on the genre that works to imagine the future.
The Stainless Steel Rat was James Bolivar “Slippery Jim” DiGriz, a con man and master criminal trying to stay off the grid and out of society’s sight line and never quite succeeding. He had morals, of sorts, and sardonic humor to spare. In a series of 12 books Harrison wrote between 1961 and 2010, the Rat was co-opted by the Special Corps (a super-secret government agency composed of criminal masterminds), married, had kids, traveled through time, always triumphed, never despaired, and rarely lost hit wits or his wit.
In his “Bill the Galactic Hero” books, of which there are eight, Harrison (who actually only wrote the first two, farming out the rest, a move he later deeply regretted) skewers the whole intergalactic war and “God Love the Federation” mindset of so much science fiction. There are no smart leaders or good armies in these books, just madness and disorganization and dysfunction beyond reason.
As a result, the books are said to be particularly popular with veterans of actual wars, who say they read more like military diaries than satires.
Harrison was also well-known as an editor and general proponent of his genre, and, oddly enough, a proponent and fluent speaker of Esperanto, the language that many in the 1970s and 1980s hoped might someday become the worldwide language. He was, although not the most famous author in his genre, a very interesting, enjoyable, witty and creative one, and his pen will be widely missed.
It’s been a tough run for science fiction, with Ray Bradbury dying in June and British bestseller Terry Pratchett almost five years into a battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. The early giants of science fiction and fantasy are dying out ever faster, and Harrison’s death adds to the sad tally.