This brief autobiography was written for the book Hell's Cartographers: Some Personal Histories of Science Fiction Writers, edited by Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison, and published in 1975. Although 25 years have passed since this piece was completed, it does still provide a valuable personal account of the author's life and career.
Also included in this site is a short piece from the same book which describes Harry Harrison's working practices in 1974: How I Work.
What I find interesting, something I had never considered before I began to write this particular piece of prose, is that for many years I never had any sort of strong drive to become a writer. As a child I never had much of a strong drive to 'become' any particular sort of adult, which gave me many moments of depression and guilt. My interests were many and I began far more projects than I ever completed. At some time during high school I seem to have reached the decision that my fate was in the arts, but whether in writing or painting I could not be sure. I remember a period of mental coin-flipping where art won and I slanted my plans in that direction. Not that plans could be slanted very much, other than choosing which service to enter. Mine was the draftee generation; halfway through high school when the war began - with war not college waiting upon graduation.
The war did many good things for me, though I certainly did not appreciate them at the time. First, and most important, it kicked into existence a strong sense of survival that has been of great service since. It also terminated my childhood, a fact that I was certainly not grateful for at the time since growing up can be a painful process. I also learned to drink and curse, the universal coin of military life, but, more important, I was robbed of three years of my life without satisfactory return. At least I believed so for a long time, which is the same thing, and this gave me that singular capacity for solitary work, the drive to get it done, without which the freelance cannot succeed. That I am a writer now I can blame almost completely on science fiction.
I was a single child, always solitary and bookish, reading constantly from some tender age. Loneliness is a word that has deepfelt meaning to me. Until the age of twelve I did not have a single friend among my classmates, nor did I belong to any gang or pack. Totally without companions I was absorbed in reading. Through the telescope of time I cannot quite make out if bookishness prevented personal relationships, or if rejection by my peer group drove me to books. I do know that I cannot remember a time when I could not read. The Queens Borough Public Library was quite a long walk from one of the apartments where we lived (these were depression days and we moved very often, dodging creditors and greedy landlords) so, in order not to waste valuable reading time, I cultivated the ability to walk and read at the same time, glancing up only when I came to a curb. But these library books, ten or twenty a week, were there to back up the gaps in my reading time when I could not read the pulps. While I would root through the shelves in the library with catholic taste, both fiction and non-fiction, my taste in the pulps was very exacting. No straight detective fiction, no westerns (and certainly no love-westerns, that awful mismatch that was poor Eisenhower's favourite reading) and no general fiction pulps. War, air war, railroad and science fiction, with science fiction heading the list as best of all. And of course the hero-centred pulps, but only when the hero was of a science fictional nature. Doc Savage, Operator 5, The Spider; wonderful stuff. And science fiction, always science fiction. As my tastes and enthusiasms changed and modified during the years sf was the single thing I was true to. John Buchan had a very long run for his money, while the works of C. S. Forester are the only ones to match the sf interest for longevity. Through everything the single unchanging pivot of my life was always science fiction. This is obvious only by hindsight; at the time I had other things to think about.
Coming out of the army was a traumatic experience and years passed before I could understand why. It seems very obvious now. I was a sergeant, I had been a gunnery instructor, a truck driver, an armourer, a power-operated turret and computing gunsight specialist, a prison guard with a loaded repeating shotgun to guard my charges when we went out in the garbage trucks, and a number of other interesting things. 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.
Some months passed, lubricated alcoholically by what we called the 52-20 Club. Among the benefits received by those who survived the war was a mini-pension of $20 a week for 52 weeks while the veteran theoretically sought employment. Employment was easy to dodge and the twenty bucks was enough for beer money. Days passed easily. But in a few months the fall term was due to begin and I resolved to end the lotus eating and go to college. Despite the feeling of anger that the girls and draft dodgers I had graduated high school with would be getting their degrees soon after I entered. (The term 'draft dodger' is used here in the military sense, not the civilian one. We members of the civilian army looked with envy and applause upon anyone smart enough or sick enough to miss the draft. When on furlough we helped friends still undrafted to avoid the fate we suffered. We jeered openly at anyone sucker enough to volunteer. It might have been different in the navy or the marines - but let us not forget they were drafting marines too in those days.)
Fate, and an overburdened educational system, saw to it that I enrolled at Hunter College which, up until this point, had been for girls only. In the mythology of New York City the Hunter girls had always been known for (a) their brains and (b) their ugliness. For once rumour proved to be fact. It was a sort of horrifying and warped mirror image of the army where everyone had been male and stupid. I did not finish out the term.
Hunter did one good thing for me, for it was there I met John Blomshield. I was in John's watercolour class and he spotted some infinitesimal drop of talent in my work. When I left Hunter I continued as a private pupil of his. I must say either too much or too little about this admirable man so, sadly, it will have to be too little. He was a master painter, a mannerist five centuries late for his school, an incomparable draftsman, a great portraitist, a professional artist and a civilized man of the world. The first one I had ever met. He had studied in Paris after the First World War and knew all of the people who to me were just names on canvases or book spines. He was a man of culture and gave me a glimpse of a world I had never known. The results of this exposure were not immediate - but the seed was planted. I continued to study with him privately, went to a number of art schools, and within the year I was a hardworking comic book hack who still spent three afternoons a week drawing the antique at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Within a few years I became a practising and moderately successful commercial artist, eventually to have a studio of my own with three other artists who depended upon me to draw in the accounts. Illustrations, lettering, book jackets, anything, but mostly those hack comic books. This sort of operation was called a 'factory' for obvious reasons. I draw the curtain gratefully over those years. I know that all those hours at the drawing board have helped my visual sense in my writing; I just wish there had not been so many of them. In the end I had stopped most of the drawing and began packaging comics instead. For a fee I would assemble a complete comic book ready for the engraver. The fee was so small I had to write most of the book myself, and even ink some of the stories. Which was fine since, I was building a new career. When the comic business folded I used my editorial experience to move into editing pulps, which were gasping their last at the time. Then into writing. And it was the science fiction that got me into writing as I have said before.
I had been an sf reader since the age of seven, an active fan since thirteen when I wrote my first letter to an sf magazine, and an enthusiast all of the time. We were now into the fifties, that false spring of science fiction success. New magazines were being started every day and New York was the centre of the science fiction world. Everyone was there. If they didn't live there then by God they came through town to see the editors. There was an organization called the Hydra Club, which was the focal point of professional sf activity, and I had the pleasure of being a member - eventually even attaining the heights of the presidency. (Before being hurled down and out of the club completely in a power struggle. Many pros were ex-fans and fannish ways die hard.) I was Harry the artist because I did sf book jackets and magazine illustrations. But at heart I was Harry the fan and wallowing in a fannish dream of glory. Just look at who was there.
Many of the meetings took place in Fletcher Pratt's apartment a wonderful great place on 58th Street. He was collaborating with L. Sprague de Camp at the time. Fletcher was chess champion of the club until Fred Brown took the crown away from him. I drew a game with Fred once; he always beat me after that. It was at Fletcher's place that we all met Olaf Stapledon when he came to the city. Fred Pohl was one of the pillars of the club, as was Judy Merril. So Cyril Kornbluth came too. The list of the others reads like a history of modem science fiction. Damon Knight, Frank Belknap Long, Lester del Rey, Phil (William Tenn) Klass, H. Beam Piper, Richard Wilson, Isaac Asimov, Sam Merwin, Bruce Elliot, Jerry Bixby, Doc Lowndes, Groff Conklin, Ted Sturgeon, George O. Smith, Hans Santesson, Willy Ley, Katherine McLean, Danny Keyes. Editors too, Marty Greenberg and Dave Kyle who founded Gnome Press, Larry Shaw, Horace Cold, Sam Merwin; Tony Boucher would stop by when in town. I'm sure I have forgotten some here, I apologize in advance, but what an overabundance of riches!
While science fiction was having a fine time and going along at a great clip my personal world was getting a bit unstable. An unfortunate first marriage was breaking up and the comic book business was going on the rocks, I lost fifty pounds during a massive throat infection and Damon Knight was editing Worlds Beyond. Yes, they all do fit together. I was doing illustrations for Damon's magazine, some of the best I have ever done because Damon worked me very hard, and I would have illustrated almost all of the third issue if I hadn't been laid low by the infection. I was too sick to draw, but was able to write since a trembling finger on the typewriter key does not show.
Until this time I had done some comic script writing, some fillers for those same magazines, and a page or two of experimental work. I almost had to, being surrounded by writers and hearing writing talk so much. But my interest was still with the graphic arts. Bedridden, I wrote a story, and when I eventually staggered out I went to see Damon to pick up my assignments and to ask him what I should do with the story. He read it, quickly as I remember, and said that he would give me a hundred dollars for it. I was getting fifteen bucks a shot for the illos (or was it five?) so the price was certainly right. My story appeared in issue three of Damon's magazine, instead of the missing illos, and as soon as it was published the magazine promptly folded. At this time Fred Pohl had his own literary agency and he took me on as a client and my next sale was to him. He anthologized the story I had sold Damon. This sort of success was not repeated for a long time.
This first story had a terrible title ('I Walk Through Rocks', which Damon promptly changed to 'Rock Diver', a distinct improvement) but was well slanted commercially. I was a commercial artist, wasn't I? If I was going to write, I was going to write in the same way. I used a tried and true sf device, the matter penetrator, and expanded upon its possible uses. I borrowed a classic western plot, the claim jumpers, as a vehicle. I had many years to go before I attempted to practise the art of writing in addition to the craft.
Not that I intend to knock the craft. John Blomshield, always said that painters should be like masons; learn to lay bricks before you build a house. I believe the same is true of writing. Since all my drawings were done on assignments by editors, ('Harrison, I want a three by four of an eight tentacled monster squashing a girl with big tits in a transparent space suit, line and none of your zip-a-tones or damn Benday, twelve bucks by tomorrow afternoon,') I went to editors to find out what kind of writing they wanted. What they wanted I wrote.
And more. I don't regret a one of them. I learned to write clearly, I learned to communicate with the reader, I learned to write to deadline, I learned a lot of things. And I stopped writing this sort of repetitive, unrewarding hack just as soon as I could.
Because I really wanted to write fiction, and particularly science fiction. I could not write it in New York because I did not have the sitting and thinking time, nor the correct atmosphere, nor the money to afford the sitting and thinking. I needed out. I also had the wife, Joan, who made everything possible, and a newborn son. She will read these words first, as she first reads everything I write. The baby, Todd, is now in college and the movie projectionist in the local fleapit and he will read them next. Moira, a very grown up fifteen, will read them about the same time. All of their lives and all of my work was made possible by fleeing New York.
Bruce Elliott, who had written commissioned stories for me when he was down and I was editing, was at this time managing editor of Pic and Picture Week and other dime pocket magazines, and said sure when I went to him for a job. I had my choice of art director or copy editor. I took the art job since I could do it in my sleep, and often did, and I wanted to save my writing energies for articles in the evenings. I worked until I had saved a bit of money, then I quit and we went to Mexico.
In those days everyone came to New York and no one left it, so everyone said I was psycho. Joan was about the only exception - and she was the only one who would suffer if I were cracked. Todd just smiled; a very happy baby. We sold our air conditioner (a New Yorker's most prized possession) and everything else we could not take with us, loaded up our Ford Anglia with cot and mattress and bags and left. We never came back. After a year in Mexico we moved to England, then to Italy. We returned for a few months to stay in Long Beach, New York, when Moira was born (I have very little good to say about the doctors in the Naples area), but left as soon as we could for Denmark. The children grew up there, a country made for children, then after a year in England we came to California where this is being written. If things go as planned we will be living in England again by the time you read this. Charles Monteith, who is, I am happy to say, my friend and editor as well as Brian's, once told me 'Harry, you are the most peripatetic fellow I know'. Perhaps he was right.
And what has this got to do with science fiction? Everything. With a few exceptions everything I wrote after going to Mexico was science fiction. Everything I sold was science fiction and every penny I earned was from science fiction. This has both a good and bad side. Good; I could write the thing I enjoyed most. Bad; until I learned my art I was a commercial writer and wrote with my market in mind at all times. This is a fine way to begin but no way to end. I wrote and sold the same novel four times before I had the nerve, pushed on reluctantly by Joan's encouragement, to write a book just for myself. But this was to come much later. At the time I was the most unliterary of writers, which also has both a good and bad side to it. The good is that I had no pretensions of art, no unattainable goals, no ambitions to make any kind of particular mark in writing. I was literarily very naive; in 1950 I took A Passage to India out of the library by mistake, thinking by a quick glimpse at the spine that it was by C. S. Forester. This 'mistake' was more than compensated for by the pleasure of discovering Forster's novel for myself; I still reread it at least once a year. My background of literary appreciation was only that of New York City elementary and high school, a singularly weak reed in the thirties and early forties. For me reading has always been primarily a pleasure, the reading of good fiction the greatest pleasure of all.
The bad side of this coin is that thinking myself an unliterary person I took a very long time to write anything other than beginning, middle, end, action-moved, plot-supported, sexless, hardcore science fiction. But agonizing decisions about my work were still years in the future. I had yet to write my first novel. In fact I did not really think of it as a novel but rather a serial for Astounding, the most important magazine in the history of science fiction.
Cuautla is a market town one hundred kilometres south of Mexico City. In 1956 there were no American tourists there and only a handful of gringo residents. Our furnished house was rented for thirty dollars a month, the full time maid was just five dollars for the same month, with food and drink in the equivalent price range. Despite this the money finally vanished and for a moment there we thought that everyone in New York had been right. Patience, worrying, writing and tequila at 75¢ a litre bridged this period and some money began to come in. Soon there was enough so that I could consider writing on speculation, that is doing fiction in the hopes it would eventually sell, rather than hacking out confessions and men's adventures to order. A few years earlier I had practised writing narrative hooks, just the hooks without stories to follow. (This is a pulp writer's term - which may very well have its roots in Grub Street - for the copy on the first page of manuscripts. Something lively, fascinating or intriguing must be on this half a page to 'hook' the editor, and eventually the reader, into turning to the second page of manuscript.) I had written one that intrigued me so much that I had to write the story to find out what the hook meant. This hook forms the first four paragraphs of The Stainless Steel Rat, originally written as a novelette, later expanded into a novel that was eventually to have two sequels. From small acorns...
So I wrote the story and mailed it off to John Campbell who bought it for Astounding. Emboldened by this sale, while eating regularly with a little money in the bank, I outlined an idea for a novel and sent it to John. His response was warm and immediate and generous, the response he gave to all writers. He liked the idea and suggested ways of developing it that I had not considered. Buoyed up by his enthusiasm I began writing Deathworld.
My ambition might be said to have outrun my talent because I wanted to do more than simply sell a story for money. I felt that there was too much empty writing in Astounding, stories that just talked and described and never moved on any level. I wanted to bring the 'action' back into science fiction. (How times change. Today there is far too much pulp action and I lean in the opposite direction.) But I didn't want forced action, so I needed a plot where the movement was an integral part. I started the book slowly. I worked on it during the year we lived in Mexico, continued it in England and Italy, then brought it back to the United States. Still unfinished. Completely unsure of myself I sent John 30,000 words, about half the final length, and he responded with a deep editorial grumble that he thought he was reading the entire thing and locked forward to finishing it. I finished it. At that time I did not know John's habit of not writing acceptance notes since my previous sale to him had been done through an agent. (A terrible agent, given the bounce when we returned from Italy.) Off the book went to him and some days passed and a thin envelope arrived in the mail. There was no letter in it. Just a cheque for $2,100.
This was a very clear message. I could write and sell short stories and now I had sold the serialized version of my novel to the best paying and most prestigious magazine in the field. One half of the money would be a bit of financial security, the other half was spent on one way tickets for us all to Denmark.
Written so long after the fact all of this seems to have a sort of destiny to it, as though there were no other course, that this was the wisest possible decision, that money flowed in steadily to support my advancing career. Nothing could be further from the truth, everything happened by happenstance. We settled in Cuautla, Mexico because that is the town where the paved road ends. We went to England because a fan flight had been organized for the first world sf convention outside of North America. We went to Bromley because we met an English fan at the convention who lived there. We stayed there some months because money ran out and we couldn't pay our bill to leave the loathsome residential hotel where we were staying. With the bill paid we moved to a Pakistani rooming house in London because we had met Pakistani friends of Hans Santesson's. It was a very cold winter and when an old friend wrote us he would be going to Italy it did not take much more temptation to join Gary. (This was Gary Davis, World Citizen Number One.) I wrote a last true confession story to buy our way out of England and we went to join him on Capri, the island made famous by the song - which was about all we knew about it - where he had friends. It was some time before Gary showed up, followed closely by the police since he had entered the country illegally and without a passport. But we were well settled in by that time and could only wish him luck when he was arrested and sent off to the concentration camp at Frascati. But Gary had been staying in France with Dan Barry, another American expatriate, who came to join us in Capri a few months later. Dan is the well known artist who had just started doing the comic strip Flash Cordon for King Features. He needed a writer and since there were very few ex-comic artist American science fiction script writers living in Europe I got the job. Then we went back to the United States to find a decent doctor and to bounce my agent, next to Denmark, because we had a friend there named Preben Zahle whom we had met in Mexico when I heard him trying to explain his automobile problems in French to a mechanic and I aided him with some translation. Preben was a very fine painter who also acted as consulting art director on Tidens Kvinder, the leading Danish woman's magazine. Through his good offices I wrote some travel articles for the magazine and even collaborated with Joan on an article about travelling with children. About which we had amassed a good bit of empirical information. We had planned only to visit Denmark, but we liked it so much we stayed six years.
There is no way that this series of events could have been predicted. Certainly most things were not planned in advance. I have always felt that they just happened and, after happening, became part of the record. But perhaps there is more to the sequence than the blind workings of chance. When Brian read the first draft of this memoir he questioned my attitude. He felt that there was more than a touch of destiny in this. He has caused me to pause and think a bit.
I think he is right - if he will agree that we hold destiny in our hands and work to shape it. There are more ways not to become a freelance, self-employed, author than there are ways to attain this goal. The writers who do get through the obstacle course must climb over and under some strange things and put up with a good deal of assorted miseries along the way. If they are blocked they find a new path through the maze. The path can he very long and very difficult and the reading public should be aware that when they read about authors, as they are reading about them in this volume, they are reading about the victors. Among the fallen are writers with just as much talent - occasionally more - who are victims of what Cyril Connolly called 'the enemies of promise'. The best way to irritate a freelance is to tell him how lucky he is to be able to lead the kind of life he does.
In this series, meeting Dan Barry was, in a way, the most fortunate event, because writing the daily and Sunday Flash Gordon scripts gave me a solid bit of income that almost covered basic living expenses. Up until this point we had been broke too often; my camera and Joan's gold bracelet made many trips into and out of hock shops. (I learned early never to hock something at anything like its true value, not that uncle will allow this to happen in any case. The camera was worth $150 so I would hock it for $I5. This made it worth getting out of pawn. To be held in reserve not only for taking the occasional picture but for another rainy day of hocking.) It is hard to write when hungry, cold and broke. Even harder to write when (as happened in Italy) the only money to hand was 100 lire (7 pence) which made the decision difficult whether to buy one more air mail stamp with it to write once more to the moron agent (the one I later dumped) for some money, or to buy milk for the baby with it.
Salvation came from two directions. Joan got credit from the local grocer for food and Hans Santesson sent some money in advance against a story yet to be written. A friend in need, he bought a number of robot stories from me for Fantastic Universe which he edited. A good number of them were written after receipt of the money. They were later gathered into a collection titled War With the Robots which was published in America, England, Germany, Italy and Spain.
Too much boom and bust is hard on the writer, not to mention, his wife and children. For ten years I wrote the scripts for Flash until I was so choked up with loathing for comics I could not type a word more. This is my hangup and not the fault of either Dan or Flash. They underwrote the slow years of getting established, until I could actually live on the income from my books and stories.
I was writing more, becoming more critical at the same time, more aware of what I was doing, aware that I was working to a pulp formula in my novels but too fearful to change a winning technique. Deathworld has pulp motion and plot because that was all I knew. The Stainless Steel Rat was clobbered together from two Astounding novelettes and seemed a good idea at the time to make money. Sense of Obligation, my next ASF serial, was a slightly disguised Deathworld. The next was The Ethical Engineer which appeared in paperback as Deathworld 2 - which is certainly clear enough description. The serials were popular with ASF readers who always voted me a bonus, and the same for my short stories as well. The fans liked them too: Deathworld lost out to a Heinlein novel for a Hugo. Bantam was selling an awful lot of copies of the paperback versions. The world was quite happy with my work; I wasn't. It was a strange time to get a critical conscience. I wanted to write better and I wanted to use different material.
Salvation came through the good offices of Joseph Heller and Brian Aldiss. I read Catch-22 which crystallized my thinking, and had met Brian a few years earlier. In addition to his friendship, which I value above all others, I appreciate his literary and critical skills. Brian is a prose stylist, one of the best writing in the English language and certainly the best in science fiction. As different as we are as writers and in background we are in agreement on so many other things that friendship and collaboration come naturally. (It was after reading his sf literary criticism that I realized I wanted to read more like it. From this came the idea for SF Horizons, the first critical sf magazine, which we published and edited.) We met often, at conventions and even stranger places, and we talked a good deal - oh yes how we talked and still do!
It was a little late, but my literary education had begun. Proximity to England helped because there is not as much snobbism there about sf being some kind of inferior form of fiction. For the first time in my life I met writers and critics who were not sf writers - yet who respected the sf field of literary endeavour. Brian himself, of course, was for endless years a full time literary editor who would later publish best-selling mainstream novels. Kingsley Amis, whose critical look at sf gets more than a nod in the title of this book, Bruce Montgomery, Robert Conquest and Geoff Doherty are the names that spring instantly to mind. If they were going to respect sf as part of literature I would have to look at it that way myself.
Heller and Voltaire demonstrated to me that some things are so awful that they can only be approached through the medium of humour. I had already written at least one humorous short story that was well received and anthologized, 'Captain Honario Harpplayer, RN', and I felt I could do more. All of my experimentation so far had been in the short story, since the time investment there is obviously much less than the novel. This was both good and bad because the 'experimental' did not do very well, not in these dark days of the early sixties. The quotes are around experimental there because my stories were nothing of the kind. They just fell outside the classic pulp taboos that still dominated the field.
The story of one of them 'The Streets of Ashkelon', is typical. I wrote this for a Judy Merril anthology of 'dangerous' ideas that was never published due to the publisher going broke. The story came back and went out, and returned rather quickly from all the American markets. It was too hot to handle since it had an atheist in it. This is the truth. Even my good friend, Ted Carnell, would not take it for the more liberal British New Worlds. I asked Brian if he had any idea what could be done with it. He had some critical remarks about the priest's characterization, which I agreed with, but said as well that he would like to use it in an anthology he was doing for Penguin. (And I must add that Carnell, once he knew the story would be anthologized, felt it would be all right to use in his magazine. This might indicate that his spine needed stiffening, but if so it indicates as well that the American editors had no spines at all.) The story has a happy ending in that it was eventually anthologized three times in the United States and translated into Swedish, Italian, Russian, Hungarian - and twice into French.
It was this sort of experience that made me hesitant to put the time into an entire novel that might not sell. At that period a novel a year was the most I could do and the thought of losing a year's book income was not to be considered. Until then all of my novels had been serialized in ASF, bringing in nearly three thousand dollars with the bonus, and the novel I had in mind was certainly not for Campbell.
Eventually the artist triumphed over the businessman, ears became numb to the sound of hungry children crying in the background, and I contacted Damon Knight. Damon was acting as an sf literary scout for Berkley Books and I was sure he would be simpatico to my needs. I sent him the first (and only) chapter I had written of an experimental novel titled If You Can Read This You Are Too Damn Close. With it were some one page character sketches and a few words about the kind of novel I wanted to attempt. Damon liked it and went to bat for me and extracted a $1,500 advance from Berkley. Taking a deep breath I climbed to my office in the attic, looked out across the frozen Øresund to the snowy shore of Sweden, and began writing Bill, the Galactic Hero.
It was a shaking experience. I was doing less than half my normal wordage every day 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. Joan was a pillar of strength at this period, reading the copy and laughing out loud and saying it was great and get on with the job and stop muttering to yourself. I got on with it, finished it, had it typed and mailed off to Damon.
Who rejected it saying what I had here was an adventure story loused up with bad jokes. Take the jokes out and it would be OK.
Although everything eventually ended happily this was one of life's low moments. Tom Dardis, the editor-in-chief at Berkley, seemed to like the book, but he did not want to go over the head of his paid adviser. It was Tim Seldes, the Doubleday sf editor, who broke the ice. He greatly enjoyed the book and said he would buy it for that firm. Cheered on by this assurance Berkley agreed to publish it as well. In England, Hilary Rubinstein was then editor for Gollancz and he read, enjoyed and bought it as well. (Thus beginning a long and enduring relationship for he is now a literary agent, the best in Britain, and mine of course.) Fred Pohl bought the serial rights for Galaxy and Mike Moorcock did the same in Britain for New Worlds, then in the first flower of its new personality after Mike had replaced Carnell as editor.
Here was a message of some kind. SF was growing and contained within its once pulp boundaries new and different markets. Bill was positively not an ASF serial and had not even been submitted there. (In later years I discovered that my judgment had been correct in this at least. One day John Campbell asked me why I had written this book. I said I would tell him if he told me why he had asked. His answer was that he had seen my name on the paperback and bought it - as if he did not have enough sf to read! - and had hated it. I made some sort of waffling answer and worked hard to change the subject.) I felt that there must be a bigger market out there than I had imagined and perhaps I could now write for myself and please readers at the same time. This was a momentous discovery and marked a new period in my writing. Not that I didn't do the familiar to stay alive. Deathworld 3 and a number of Stainless Steel Rat books were still in the future, but I found I could experiment with new ideas and forms and still hope to sell them as well. This has a happy ending in that I now usually write only the kind of novels I want to write and enjoy good serial and book sales.
There was no sudden change in my life. The work crawled out and the checks crept in. I was still earning about as much as a non-union elevator operator in New York. Except I was not living in New York. At that time the dollar went much further in Europe than it does now. We lived well and enjoyed life. Each winter we would go skiing in Norway, every summer camping across the continent to Italy. We could only do this because, just ten years ago, the prices were unbelievable by present inflated standards. Norway? One person, round trip by overnight ferry with sleeping cabin from Copenhagen to Oslo, then train to the ski resort plus seven days room and full board there cost £20 for an adult. Half price for children. Camping for the four of us, in our rebuilt VW bus, formerly a Copenhagen taxi, averaged £5 a day. Including all gas, camping fees, booze, film, food - with dinner in a restaurant every night for four. Life was as pleasant as it ever can be, considering the number of dark things that are sweeping down the river towards us at all times, and I had a major book I wanted to do.
I had been working on it for some time, a total of five years of preparation in fact, just digging out the material to make an intelligent estimate of what life would be like in the year 2000 AD. At this time there were no popular nonfiction books on the dangers of overpopulation, overconsumption, pollution and allied problems. But there was a great deal of talk and speculation in the scientific journals that interested me greatly. Overpopulation had been a recurrent theme in sf for years, but the overpopulated future had always been the far future and was about as relevant to life today as E.E. Smith's Lensman.
My basic idea was a simple one: set a novel in the year 2000 just a few decades away, when the reader, and certainly the reader's children, would be around to see what the world would be like. But in setting a novel so close in time I had to extrapolate every detail of our lives and see that I got it as right as possible. I also wanted to write a more realistic novel than I had ever attempted before. I went to the specialists, the demographers and the petrologists and agronomists, and read a great number of very thick books. It took a great deal of time to write the novel, which was the longest I had ever done, since, in addition to getting my facts right, I had to write the realistic story of life in that world. I smile as I remember that I wanted, to rush the book into print before the growing interest in these problems faded. As it was, Make Room! Make Room! came out too early and vanished with a dull whiffling sound. But, it was the only novel on these topics and when the world at large became aware of these problems it was bought for movie adaptation and turned into the film Soylent Green - which, at times, bears a slight resemblance to the book.
If you want a neat commentary on, contemporary values consider this; I discovered that MGM had been looking at this book for five years as a possible film. But they did not think the theme of overpopulation was an important enough one to shoot. However, when a cannibalism twist was added to the script they saw real possibilities and went ahead with contracts.
All of this was still in the future. What was coming next was a physical change in my life which, for better or worse, would affect my work. We left Denmark - for a number of reasons. We were tired of renting and wanted to buy - but could not in Denmark. Nor were we sure we wanted a permanent home there. There were more things like this; the children spoke more Danish than English, I had trouble talking English myself at times, a problem for a writer, there were family crises in the States. No one thing, but they all added up to a move. We weren't quite ready for the States yet and considered buying a house in England. We went there and rented for a year, but it came to nothing. It was a rather stern furnished house in a grimly middle class neighbourhood. This did not bother us, but horrified many English writer friends who had spent their life substances fleeing such a deadend place. But I shall always be fond of Banstead Road South in Sutton, Surrey. The year was fun and I wrote The Technicolor Time Machine in the dining room which I took over for a study.
We have a Greek friend who owns some ships and he gave us a most reasonable passage on one of his vessels. We brought the decaying VW bus along as deck cargo, or ballast, since we had been offered only $100 as a trade-in on a new car. After a stop in New York we left, pursued by a blizzard, and crossed the continent looking for a warm spot to settle. (Reverse gear fell out of the bus which was fine since we planned only a one-way trip.) California seemed the best bet, for climate and work, and we reached San Diego in a rainstorm. Next day the sun shone and we came down a hill in the boondocks near the Mexican border and saw the house for us. We bought it a few weeks later.
This memoir is being written in that same house, a number of books, stories and seven years later. But the house is on the market and within a few months we hope to be out and moved back to England. Though this piece is about writing, and the writing of science fiction at that, I feel that some explanation of a move of this sort is needed. It is not a simple thing because too many factors are involved. Part of it, surely, is dissatisfaction with life in a country that could commit the crimes of Vietnam and not be ashamed. Or living under a government headed by the man whom Harry Truman called 'a shifty-eyed goddamn liar', a man who appears to have done his best to destroy the democratic form of government. I will try not to complain and say not why I am leaving, but what I am going to. No paradise! I doubt if you will find a single Briton who claims that. It is a country we know well and respect, where life has a different pace that helps both my work and my existence, where there are many friends, where there is a fullness of things to do and see and enjoy and an entire continent of more of the same just a few miles away. A writer lives by ingesting from life and from books. I can read the same books anywhere. But when I walk out of my front door into the arid sidewalkless streets of Southern California - or into the streets of Oxford or London, I am entering totally different worlds. Nor is the choice mine alone. Joan and the children are eager for the move.
I have never had great expectations for my work so I can truthfully say I am pleased with it and the way it is going. I keep saying that I don't enjoy editing, but I must or I would not still be doing it. Happily I do a lot of it with Brian, such as the annual best sf series, The Astounding-Analog Reader and others. But writing is where the real action is and I know I have good books lurking in my future. (I can't see the form or idea for any of them now, which is perhaps another reason I am going to England.) I have learned to write and am still learning to write all of the time. My books have been well received and translated into a number of languages - eighteen at the last count - and I sell more and more of them every year. I have learned that when I put time, effort and love into a book or a story the final product is worth the effort. I hope to have more of all of these elements in England, but you will have to judge the resulting work on its own merits, I know where I have been, I know where I am, I know where I am going. I could not always say this; that I can now is a victory of sorts.
© Harry Harrison, 1975