A Collection of Short Stories
One For Each of Fifty Years
Tor, 2001, 623pp, $29.95 ISBN 0-312-87789-7
Strange for a man who started out by making his living as a commercial artist, that he could create so many other worlds so fully. Or perhaps I underestimate the mental capital carried by a draughtsman after the Second World War.
However, readers have also noticed that Harrison is not his own best friend. "Parodies of parodies" is how much of his work has been described, with the implication that something has been lost in each level of reproduction. The later Stainless Steel Rat novels bear that out.
Harrison, though, did not publish his first novel DEATHWORLD until 1960 - he published his first short story "Rock Diver" in 1951. Now he has collected fifty of his short stories, grouping them by theme, in this big volume. There are stories on overpopulation (his "Roommates" (1965) is often confused with J G Ballard's earlier "Billennium" (1961)), robots, space adventure - nine sections in all, and some of them well-known from their anthology appearances. However, this collating of themes means that "Rock Diver" does not appear until page 200, so it is impossible to identify the sequence in which Harrison wrote, especially as there are neither an acknowledgements page nor a bibliography.
Harrison carries morality from story to story - "The Streets of Ashkelon" (1962) in which an evangelist's visit to a new world ends in a re-creation of the Crucifixion is one of his best known. It ends with a belief that in a world in which only right is done, the transmission of the knowledge of wrong is itself evil, an intense metaphysical point. However, in "Mute Milton" (annoyingly I cannot date this), another well-known story, two Negroes talk at a bus station in the Deep South, one revealing that he has invented wireless transmission of energy just before he is stupidly killed by a red-neck cop, and the moral of that story can read as no more than a utilitarian one - racism does not make business sense to inventors.
Harrison actually closes with a story he contributed to NATURE in 1999. Perhaps more fitting, though, would have been "Portrait of the Artist", about the replacement of a commercial artist drawing comics by a robot, because that ends with a terrible and dark piece of irony. It would have summed up so much of Harrison's work.
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