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Harry Harrison, Gentleman Atheist, RIP

65,000 words. This is still hard. But I am damned well going to make it work.

One reason I will make it work is a man who left this world today for other worlds, not that he was any stranger to other worlds. Harry Harrison is one of those guys who isn’t appreciated as much as he deserves, for reasons that escape me. Most people know of him for Slippery Jim Di Griz and little else. We forget that his story Make Room! Make Room! inspired Soylent Green. Almost nobody knows that he wrote the Flash Gordon newspaper comic strip in the 50s and 60s. (I didn’t know it until I read his obituary.) And I’m amazed that more people haven’t read what I consider just about his best work, The Daleth Effect. And what I do consider his best work may not be everybody’s choice, but too bad: The Technicolor Time Machine beats all.

When I was fresh out of the Clarion SF workshop in 1973, I cleaned up a Clarion story of mine and sent it to him. He bought it for $195, and when it appeared in his anthology Nova 4 the next year, I was (finally!) a published SF writer.

The story was “Our Lady of the Endless Sky,” now in my collection Cold Hands and Other Stories. It’s about a slightly clueless Roman Catholic priest who manages to be sent as the Catholic chaplain to a church constructed on the Moon. When an industrial accident destroys one of the lunar base’s hydroponic gardens, a new garden is built under the transparent dome of the church. Father Bernberger is heartbroken. He’s lost his church…or has he?

It was a decent story for something written by a 21-year-old kid who was “young for his age.” But far more remarkable than that was the fact that Harry Harrison bought it at all. You see, Harry was an atheist, and said so as often as it took for people to get the message. So why would he buy a story about religion?

The one time I met him, at the SFWA reception at one of the late 70s Worldcons, I thanked him for buying the story, and asked him exactly that. (All the SMOFs had told me about him being hostile to religion.) He laughed and said, “It wasn’t about religion. It was about a man who had faith.”

He told me to keep writing. I did.

Now, I’ve taken a lot of kidding and scolding and eye-rolling down the years for being such a naif as to go to church every Sunday and even (egad) pray. I’ve seen a lot of desperately mean-spirited condemnation not only of religious nutters (as though there have never been atheist nutters) but also of the quietly religious people who tend the sick and feed the poor without making any attempt to convert them, nor saying anything more about it.

None of that from Harry Harrison, at least not that I’ve ever seen. He was a gentleman atheist who gave me a push by publishing my story about a church and a priest, even though it went against the grain of his personal philosophy. He shook my hand and told me to keep going. He wrote good, engaging yarns that made me gasp and made me laugh, yarns that I freely admit to imitating. He is one reason (though not the sole reason) that I will not condemn atheism as my species of Catholicism is sometimes condemned.

Godspeed, good friend, however you may understand the wish.


  1. Damn, and I mean that as liberally as I can. He was probably the first to teach me that there was a low-brow, just plain fun side to SciFi. I just counted, sitting here – there are 13 of his books directly above this monitor; Stainless Steel Rats and Galactic Heros, and I enjoyed every one of them many times. I still quote some of the Jim DiGriz lines. Didn’t know much about him; I’m glad to hear he was as decent a guy as you would have guessed from his stories.

    I was in a re-reading mood – now I know what I’m going to read tonight! He’ll be missed.

  2. Gary Mugford says:

    While I cling to the agnostic side of the atheist group, I’ve always appreciated people of faith who allow for people not sharing their faith. In a kind of reverse-Harry Harrison situation, my best pal in high school was the son of the head of a major religious denomination in Canada. The Texas-born reverand was just about the most low-keyed fire-and-brimstone preacher I’d ever seen in action. The Good Reverand made one and one only pitch to have me join the flock. I declined. Respectfully. And that was that. No subtle jibes. No restrictions in his son hanging around with a non-believer (I was PROBABLY a good influence on his somewhat wild child, although I took him down the path of playing cards, Bridge specifically, where we were one of the top junior pairs in the country). As long as *I* was respectful of his faith, he was respectful of my choice. Religiousosity like that would make the world a whole lot better place. The fact that the Good Reverand’s approach to spirituality is/was a minority view is why so many in the world have a negative view of religion.

    And yes, I loved Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat (Just gave a bunch of the audio versions to my CURRENT best pal for his birthday). And don’t forget Deathworld. Good reading for those that haven’t tasted the best of Harrison.

  3. I definitely loved Harry’s pros in my golden age of reading SF. Guess I’m on a journey of nostalgia today. This blog just crossed my path via Carl & Jerry stories on the Copperwood web site.

    Maybe I’ll revisit some of his work. RIP Mr. Harrison.

    1. Well, Slippery Jim gets most of the press, but I would add two of his lesser-known works: The Technicolor Time Machine and The Daleth Effect.

      And while I have you, I should mention that in retirement I’ve begun writing SF again, in what some have dismissively called “the old school.” Ideas, action, decisive characters, more action, and more ideas. Harry was one of the people I was imitating when I first started tinkering with SF almost fifty years ago. Harry, and Keith Laumer, and Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, Larry Niven, and all those guys. Now, finally, I have the time to write it. See:

      Thanks for stopping by!

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