Sunday, August 16, 2015

Classic SF Mysteries: Harry Harrison's 1971 introduction to Thomas Disch's One Hundred and Two H-Bombs

In his intro to the 1971 Berkley edition (S2044) of Thomas Disch's collection One Hundred and Two H-Bombs, Harry Harrison makes a number of provocative claims.  For one thing he says that the New Wave writers "brought a breath of fresh air into the dusty SF establishment at that time [the early 1960s] that still has the fossil saurians shivering."  Who are these dusty dinosaurs? Arthur C. Clarke?  Robert Heinlein?  Poul Anderson?  Isaac Asimov?  I wish Harrison would name names instead of just making these vague allegations.  I suppose Harrison had his career to worry about, but now I am going to be wondering who exactly Harrison is contemptuously condemning here in the same way I am still wondering who Jack Vance denounced to that New York Times reporter and who Harlan Ellison was sneering at in the intro to The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World.

In praising Disch and the New Wave writers Harrison also asserts that they enjoy writing, that readers can sense the pleasure experienced by New Wave writers as they compose their work.  This sounds like boilerplate ad copy that the reader is free to accept or reject as he sees fit, but Harrison goes a step further, claiming that lots of SF stories are hack work produced by people who don't even like what they are doing:
There is also more than a touch of authorial pleasure in their [the New Wave writers'] writing, an ingredient that is missing from all too much of science fiction.  If a writer is not writing for his own pleasure or interest the fact is immediately obvious to all except the most cynical of editors and dimmest of readers.  The vacant interstellar spaces of SF contain far too much of this; less than an atom of interest per cubic meter.    
Who is Harrison talking about here?  What SF writers (and he seems to think there are many of them) were active in the '60s and early '70s who could be credibly accused of not enjoying their work?  Is Harrison talking about big name writers whose politics he didn't like, like (I'm guessing) Heinlein, Anderson, and E. E. Smith, who glorified businesspeople and fighting men?  Or prolific writers of straightforward adventure stories like Edmond Hamilton, E. C. Tubb, Ken Bulmer and Lin Carter?  I've read all those writers, and even when I didn't like something they did, I felt they were doing it with enthusiasm.  (Maybe I am one of the "dimmest of readers.")  If Harrison is talking about minor figures, people almost forgotten today, like John Glasby and Lionel Fanthorpe, then I think he may have been overstating his case.

Readers are invited to nominate candidates for Harrison's rogues gallery of dusty dinosaurs and uninterested hacks in the comments, based on knowledge of Harrison's other criticism or pure conjecture, in the comments.


  1. An individual Harrison might be thinking of is Robert Silverberg. He’d produced stories by the reliable ream for about a decade and then drifted away from sf for a couple of years in the mid-60s. He returned circa 1967 and started writing more personally-invested stories and novels. The difference between the two periods was obvious to everyone.

    Or else Harrison might be thinking of Analog magazine. Analog and New Worlds/Dangerous Visons/Orbit are completely antipodal ideologically and artistically, with the two tribes regularly badmouthing each other. But irrespective of that, for most of the previous decade Analog and John W. Campbell had a terrible reputation with writers. Rather than writing what they wanted, if writers were prepared to rework Campbell’s hobbyhorses and prejudices they were fairly secure to sell uninspired material to his market. Writers complained about the foibles of other magazines and sf editors, but Campbell gets slated for encouraging hack practices by a terrific number of people.

    - matthew davis

    1. These are good theories! (I'm wishing I had thought of them myself! What you say coincides with things I have read by and about Silverberg and Campbell, but somehow those two didn't come to mind when I was considering this Harrison piece.)

      Thanks for the very insightful comment!