[Oct. 23, 1961] Making Progress (Harry Harrison’s Sense of Obligation)

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!

15 thoughts on “[Oct. 23, 1961] Making Progress (Harry Harrison’s Sense of Obligation)”

  1. You went and said almost everything I was planning to say about this one. Not quite Deathworld, but good. Of course, you went and said a lot more, but that’s why your name is up there on the newsletter’s masthead.

    I enjoy Harrison a lot when he’s being funny (the Stainless Steel Rat is a hoot), but he’s best when he’s walking a fine line between sardonic and serious. He’s mostly serious here, but he gets in some nice satiric jabs at modern society, too.

    He started out as an illustrator. He did pencils for EC Comics with Wally Wood doing the inks. It’s not all that common for someone to be good at both visual and verbal communication, but he’s managed it pretty well.

  2. I enjoyed it.  I liked Deathworld better, but a few people I’ve pointed that way were put off by it.  This one is just as good and not quite as intense; it might gain a wider readership than Deathworld.

      1. One thought it was “too violent.”  The other’s objection was something about ecology that I couldn’t make sense of.  I think both of them had made up their mind beforehand, though.

  3. That was an intelligent, fast-moving adventure story.  I read straight through in a few hours.  I could quibble that the author cheated a bit with the cliffhanger between parts two and three, but otherwise it was a logical plot with plenty of action.

  4. Good lord, that cover! Where’s the rest of her body? His right arm can’t be supporting it, because of how he’s posed. If that pinkish blob below his jacket is supposed to be her skirt, then (1) her legs have been chopped off and (2) no human body flexes into that position without the spine being broken.

  5. Oh, the heavy irony of the title! This would be just another of Harrison’s fascist fantasies, except for the nature of the threatened world. Even allowing that the government would consider it moral to turn over their people to murder and slavery (but why?), the protagonist would despise that admiral as he deserved.

    I know you’re going to say this from a New Zealander, but the Moriori ended up as slaves or soup; a warning for anyone.

      1. Harrison’s protagonists always treat ordinary people as sheep. In this particular story they seem to deserve it, standing around bleating and waiting for someone to haul them out of the snowdrift.

          1. I always thought of the belief the mass of humans was undermenschen to be controlled by an elite as the essence of fascism. Whether the elite is chosen by race or (self proclaimed) ability being secondary.

            It’s a common theme in sf, of course. (In Asimov’s Foundation series, the foundation is originally an organisation to preserve knowledge and shorten what is going to be a Dark Age. But then the Foundation turns into engineers…) But I can’t think of anyone who takes contempt of ordinary people’s ability and autonomy as far as Harrison does.

  6. That’s pretty much “government” all the way back through history, including the vaunted Athenian “democracy,” which was more of an oligarchy that voted.

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