by Gideon Marcus
Author Harry Harrison has been around for a long time, starting his science fiction writing career at the beginning of the last decade (1951). Yet, it was not until this decade that I (and probably many others) discovered him. He came into my view with the stellar Deathworld, a novel that was a strong contender for last year’s Hugo. Then I found his popular Stainless Steel Rat stories, which were recently anthologized. The fellow is definitely making a name for himself.
Harrison actually occupies a liberal spot in generally conservative Analog magazine’s stable of authors. While Harry tends to stick with typical Analog tropes (psionics, humano-centric stories, interstellar hijinx), there are themes in his work which are quite progressive – even subversive, at least for the medium in which they appear.
For instance, there is a strong pro-ecological message in Deathworld. I also detect threads of pacifism in Harrison’s works, not to mention rather unorthodox portrayal of women and sexual mores. Harry isn’t Ted Sturgeon or anything, but he is definitely an outlier for Analog, and refreshing for the genre as a whole.
Harrison’s latest novel, Sense of Obligation (serialized over the last three issues of Analog) continues all of the trends described above. On the surface, it has a plot that’s not unusual: Brion Brandd is the most recent winner of “The Twenties,” a combined Olympics-type event held on the inhospitable planet, Anvhar. The residents of this difficult world already have to be tougher than the average Terran; Brion is the toughest of them. He is recruited by a former Twenties winner to join the interstellar secret service.
His first mission is to help stop the destruction of planet Dis by it’s neighbor Nyjord. It turns out that the Disans, a xenophobic branch of humanity, have assembled an arsenal of bombs and plan to attack its technologically superior neighbor. The Nyjordians are a normally peaceful people, but they can see no way to combat the implacable Disans other than to utterly wipe them out from orbit. Brion, and his partner, brilliant Terran xenobiologist LeaMorees, have but a few days before the Nyjordian ultimatum expires, and destruction ensues.
Sense is a solid read, though it is not the classic that Deathworld was. Call it three stars. But what I really appreciated was that, once again, Harrison has given us a female character who is not only interesting and talented, but also has romantic agency. As with the superhumanly strong Meta, from Deathworld, Lea makes the first move with the book’s protagonist. Moreover, the Anvharrian take on romance is contrasted favorably with the one that prevails on Earth. Terran males relentlessly pursue their women, who must frequently employ the “spike heel” defense – sound familiar? On Anvhar, men are respectful and respond only once a woman has expressed interest. Platonic friendship between members of opposite sexes is valuable in and of itself, and if the female partner desires something further, she is in the driver’s seat. It’s different, and I dig it.
This portrayal of alternate societies is surprisingly rare in science fiction, particularly in Analog. The focus is usually on futuristic technologies. Harrison’s willingness to incorporate both sociological and technological speculation in his works makes him part of science fiction’s vanguard, broadening the scope of our genre for the better. It’s what makes his name a pleasant addition to any magazine’s table of contents. May he continue to be a luminary throughout the ’60s… and beyond!