Dipping my toes in

Two Tales and Eight Tomorrows
by Harry Harrison

Having noticed that my last two book club reads were a tad heavy on the religion front, Tim recommended that I read the Harry Harrison short story “The streets of Ashkelon” and dug it out for me. It happened to be the first story in this collection and I enjoyed it so much I carried on reading the rest of the book.

This was my first experience of Harry Harrison (I think) and I was impressed. Each story has a unique, often complex sci-fi setting but the tales told are very human, accessible and warm. The details of space transport or alien beings are given but not lingered over, except where they are a plot point.

I liked every story but I can see why the blurb on the back cover picks out two in particular. “The streets of Ashkelon” looks at a peaceful, literal-minded alien race who have no concept of gods or religion, until man intervenes. It is an awful and thought-provoking parable. “I always do what teddy says” is just as chilling as that title suggests. Every child has a teddy bear that is programmed by the government to teach children everything from manners to morals. Which is clever but terrifying and, of course, though the idea behind it is to create a better world, there is the potential for a frightening level of manipulation.

My other favourites were “Captain Bedlam” – in which the precise details of space travel are kept a closely guarded secret from the public and space pilot Captain Jonathon Bork feels a complete fraud but can never tell anyone why – and “Rescue operation”, in which an alien falls into the ocean near the coast of a very rural Yugoslav village and visiting astrophysicist Dr Kukovic must cope with narrow-minded fear and lack of provisions in his attempt to keep the alien alive.

There was a certain tendency toward military characters, but that is really my only qualm about these stories and I look forward to reading more from Tim’s vast Harry Harrison collection.

This anthology first published 1965 by Victor Gollancz.
A publication history of each story can be found on Harrison’s website.

6 thoughts on “Dipping my toes in

  1. talkie_tim August 5, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    “Tendency towards military characters” I had a little think about your observation.
    This particular collection was published in 1965, and Harrison’s writing career in SF started in 1958, inspired by his pulp readings before the Second World War. I think your observation of there being many military characters and themes would hold true for most successful SF of this period, and being no fool, Harrison was smart enough to follow themes to sell stories. I think it might just be what popular writing was about just after the war.

    In contrast to the often military themes, you may also have noticed the inherent morality that he gives most of his protagonists. They kill only ever in defence of their own lives, and only ever as a very last resort. Most of the time they show their deep regret shortly after. You might suggest this as a counterpoint to right-wingers who claim morality as the preserve of the religious, as Harrison is a strictly atheist man.

    Also interesting: Harrison had a great deal of trouble trying to sell ‘On The Streets Of Ashkelon’ with its basically atheist theme. No American editors thought it prudent to publish, and it was first seen in print in the UK.

  2. Nose in a book August 5, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    tim Oh, I’m sure the military thing was of its time and that Harrison handled it better than most. Interesting points about morality and atheism, thank you. Which Harrison book are you lining up for me next?

  3. gusset August 8, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    The military observation does apply to a lot of sci-fi of the era (Clark, Asimov etc.) As they were writing during the space race it’s hardly surprising that these people would be considered to be the most likely to be in these scenarios.

    Two notable exceptions that come to mind are John Wyndham, often criticized for his cosy middle class characters (usually journalists*) this did at least provide characters it was easier to identify with, and Philip K. Dick, who generally focused on loser characters.

    * Did H.G. Wells inspire this? When writing in the first person it’s a handy device for putting someone with good writing skills and a tendency to record what is happening into a situation.

  4. Nose in a book August 8, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    gusset Interesting. Dick obviously stands out but I hadn’t thought about Wyndham bucking the trend.

  5. Dru August 17, 2011 at 6:22 am

    The first Harry Harrison I read was Bill The Galactic Hero, which was great fun and also seemed to manage to spoof all sorts of classic sci-fi stories, including Starship Troopers and Asimov’s Foundation stories, and probably a whole bunch more (I was never very widely-read in the genre). He does celebrate the individual over the rather stupid and pointless militarism he depicts, doesn’t he? -it’s been a while since I read him. Mmust have another look…

  6. Nose in a book August 17, 2011 at 7:26 am

    Dru I understand Tim’s saving up Bill the Galactic Hero for me. Guess he wants me to understand the genre better first.

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