A young rube is conned into enlisting, then sent to fight in a war against enemies who are considerably less of a threat than the government propaganda makes them out to be.
So it's in space, and the enemy is a race of lizards who turn out to be 7 inches tall instead of 7 feet. Author Harry Harrison says he still hears from grateful Iraq and Vietnam vets about "Bill the Galactic Hero," the science-fiction military satire he published 40 years ago — almost single-handedly introducing (laugh-out-loud) humor to the genre.
Harrison is the Special Guest of Honor at Cascadia Con, a whopping five-day sci-fi bash held today through Monday. It's a rare occasion — the first time since 1961 that Cascadia will take place in Seattle. The event is held in the United States in the infrequent years when the huge Worldcon goes overseas. It's also a rare chance to meet Harrison, a New Yorker who's lived at foreign locales for decades and currently resides in Brighton, England. Adept at both the lighter stuff and "hard" science fiction, he's written 45 novels, a half-dozen short-story collections and edited 50 anthologies. "I just turned 80 a month ago, so I'm slowing down a little now, if you don't mind," he said by phone from London.
Among Harrison's best-known works are "Make Room! Make Room!" about dire overpopulation, which became the 1973 "Soylent Green" movie; the "Stainless Steel Rat" series, about con man and crook "Slippery Jim" diGriz who's conscripted into the "Special Corps" as an agent; and the "Deathworld" series, about a psychic gambler who visits a planet where every living organism is lethal. A common theme of Harrison's: hatred of authority — particularly in the military.
"I just loathe the idea of the military," said the former Army Air Corps sergeant, whose four years in uniform ended in 1946. "Having done my time there and having seen them in all their horrible glory, I feel that I can write about it."
Hence, "Bill the Galactic Hero," initially rejected because of its humor, but now translated into 33 different languages and once again relevant.
"Even more so," Harrison said. "The military is always out to get you. And they're very cruel and heartless — with good reason, too. They want to break you down in basic training. They want you to die in combat. For a civilian, it's a heartless regime. From the military point of view, it's a wonderful way to get guys out there and kill people."
What about killing people to make food? Harrison said he didn't write the famous movie line, "Soylent Green is people!"
"No, I never had cannibalism. I wouldn't have that kind of thing. It's an awful way of having protein! In the book, they have Soylent burgers — they're vegetarian, made from soybeans and lentils. The moron scriptwriters ... " Harrison fulminates. "What the hell? It worked as a film. It's still quite popular."
The "Stainless Steel Rat" action series remains one of the science-fiction titles most conspicuously absent from film. But Harrison said it's been optioned for the past 22 years straight — most recently with "Speed" director Jan de Bont attached to direct.
"They've been through three scripts, 14 rewrites. They can't get it right," Harrison said. "But every year they renew the options for it." Meanwhile, he said the series is done for good after 10 books. "I can't go on. I'll be talking about the Stainless Steel Old Age Pensioner, you know?"
Likewise, both Disney and Mel Gibson have previously owned the rights to his 1967 "The Technicolor Time Machine." And about 1959's "Deathworld," which has been optioned a dozen times, Harrison explained that the characters are "causing their own death. They're hating so much that the planet hates them back. I'm very anti-war, as you know."
Remaining nonchalantly hopeful about seeing more of his work on-screen, Harrison said, "So maybe lightning will strike before lightning strikes me."
As for his prolific career on the page: "I raised a family, I bought a couple of cars, I paid my drink habit, and my kids are grown now," he said. "So I have no complaints. Through science fiction I earned a — well, I wouldn't call it the world's greatest living, but I earned a living."
Note: At press time, ill health had made Harrison's appearance uncertain at Cascadia Con. In any case, three panels at the convention will focus on him: one on "The Works of Harry Harrison," another on satire, and a third on science fiction as social commentary.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Science-fiction convention today through Monday at the Seattle Airport Hilton and Conference Center and the Airport Radisson Hotel. Rates are $30-$45 per day. See www.cascadiacon.org for details.
Other attractions at Cascadia Con will include:
• A Friday-night costume ball (Gothic and fetish attire encouraged).
• "Spawns of Insomnia," a fund-raiser for the Friends of the Seattle Public Library: Cartoonists will produce a comic-book page per hour in 24-hour marathons throughout the weekend.
• A science-fiction and fantasy-film festival dedicated to new talent.
• Four rooms of gaming.