Stainless Steel Harry

Harry Harrison, creator of those immortal SF characters Bill the Galactic Hero and the Stainless Steel Rat, died in August. Newspaper obituaries covered the merely routine facts: his background in comics, his notable steampunk novel A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! published 15 years before the word "steampunk" was coined, his overpopulation novel Make Room!, Make Room! (filmed almost unrecognizably as Soylent Green, his lifelong fondness for exclamation marks ...

Harry had been a larger-than-life presence on the SF convention scene since long before I discovered conventions. He and Brian Aldiss, a notorious double act, had a mysterious habit of hurling (literal) pork pies – one of the strange rites of past fandom.

Conversation with Harry was exhausting and racked you with involuntary spasms of laughter. He seemed to be in permanent fast-forward mode. Critic Peter Nicholls described the effect as "a series of animal imitations interspersed with your actual articulate words, cunningly strung together so as to tease you into thinking you're almost understanding him." Perhaps there was some Esperanto in there; Harry loved the artificial language and used it liberally in SF adventures like Deathworld II.

"Frenetic" was always a favourite word. "That book was so GODDAM frenetic!" he said to me about his raucous E.E. Smith parody Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers. Women got short shrift in the primitive SF series he was sending up, and his final chapter ("Victory Wrenched from the Salivating Jaws of Defeat!") saw two of the male leads locked in a passionate embrace. You couldn't get away with that in the austere 1950s regime at Astounding SF magazine, where Harry's interstellar con-man Slippery Jim DiGriz (alias the Stainless Steel Rat) made his debonair debut.

Editors were an [expletive deleted] or at least a trial. Once Harry had a tough hero call another character "so young that he still had the mark of the pot on his bottom." A prim American SF magazine changed this to "...still had milk around his mouth from the nursing bottle." In the UK reprint, perhaps subbed by Mary Whitehouse: "...still had his mouth puckered from his baby bottle." The austere US book version: "...still had diaper rash." It wasn't easy, in those days, to be a potty-mouthed SF author.

At one British convention of fond memory, several chatting SF writers realized with increasing alarm that none of them had read various major SF novels like Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land which they were expected (and indeed accustomed) to pontificate about. What about Dune? Harry, exuberantly: "I've never read that lousy thing either." After a few more embarrassing admissions he summed up: "Listen you sods, don't let the fans know! We're supposed to be experts!"

Once upon a time, Harry the practical joker caught me hopping. I was making my way to the first World Fantasy Convention held in London, and saw him waving frantically – even frenetically – from a bistro across the road. Having bought me a drink and squeezed me in at his crowded table, he gleefully introduced me to someone I'd never met but whose prose and vocabulary I'd criticized mercilessly. "I read your review of me," said an expressionless Stephen R. Donaldson. Everything went black and I don't remember any more. Thanks a bunch, Harry.

Now it's goodbye to one of the most energetic people in the SF community. (At the Eastercon where he was guest of honour, attendees were challenged to identify various "Secret Masters of Fandom": Harry was naturally the Secret Master of Dynamism.) Raise a glass of one of Slippery Jim's powerfully unhealthy tipples, such as Old Syrian Panther Sweat....

David Langford is shattered after several crowded days, from Harry's funeral and highly alcoholic wake to the Hugo Awards and a win for the Encyclopedia of SF (ed. Clute, Langford, Nicholls and Sleight).