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Harry Harrison and the 'soylent' future

August 18, 2012|By Nick Owchar
  • The space-age spoofs of author Harry Harrison, shown in 1984, delighted generations of science fiction fans.
The space-age spoofs of author Harry Harrison, shown in 1984, delighted… (Jerry Bauer )

So how many people knew, when they sat in the theater or in front of their television sets to watch Charlton Heston in 1973’s “Soylent Green,” that it was inspired by a novel by Harry Harrison?

Harrison, who died this week at the age of 87, was many things in his distinguishedsci-fi career – editor, illustrator, writer – and he was also a bit of the prophet because of his 1966 dystopian tale “Make Room! Make Room!”

For me, the vision he created in that book — and its celluloid offspring “Soylent Green” (though Harrison, notes one early report of his death, thought the film only occasionally "bore a faint resemblance to the book") — will surely be part of his lasting legacy.

He’d have hated to be called a prophet, though – it was just common sense, helped by some grim statistics, that compelled him to write his chilling “what if” story of America’s future long before Suzanne Collins ever imagined the "Hunger Games" world in which Katniss draws an arrow from her quiver (actually, she was just a toddler the year that "Make Room!" was published).

“By the end of the century,” he notes in a prologue to his novel, reissued by Orb Books in 2008, “should our population continue to increase at the same rate, this country will need more than 100 per cent of the planet's resources to maintain our current living standards. This is a mathematical impossibility -- aside from the fact that there will be about seven billion people on this earth at that time and -- perhaps -- they would like to have some of the raw materials too…”

Harrison depicts New York as a ruined, heavily overcrowded city in the waning days of 1999 – 2012 Mayan prophecy? Forget it! – and the rich live in guarded apartments while the rest are left to survive the best they can with shrinking food and water rations.

He was hardly the first to paint a portrait of the world’s future in brushstrokes of dark gray – but that doesn’t matter in the world of sci-fi  literature. Books like Harrison’s fit into a wonderful tradition, endlessly resonating and sharing themes with those that came before (like Orwell’s “1984” or Huxley’s “Brave New World”) and those yet to come (like Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” and “Oryx and Crake” or Collins' bestselling YA saga).

Harrison enjoyed many honors in his life, including being voted Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and having his work published in 25 languages. He was preceded into the great beyond by another great, Joe Kubert (creator of the comic "Sgt. Rock"), who also died this week.

For Tor Publisher and President Tom Doherty, Harrison was an advocate on behalf of science fiction transcending its category and speaking to universal issues.

“He believed science fiction was important, that it caused people to think about our world and what it could become,” Doherty said in a statement released by the publisher. “For over 40 years, he was my friend.”

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