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August 15th, 2012

Harry Harrison, Gentleman Atheist, RIP

65,000 words. This is still hard. But I am damned well going to make it work.

One reason I will make it work is a man who left this world today for other worlds, not that he was any stranger to other worlds. Harry Harrison is one of those guys who isn't appreciated as much as he deserves, for reasons that escape me. Most people know of him for Slippery Jim Di Griz and little else. We forget that his story Make Room! Make Room! inspired Soylent Green. Almost nobody knows that he wrote the Flash Gordon newspaper comic strip in the 50s and 60s. (I didn't know it until I read his obituary.) And I'm amazed that more people haven't read what I consider just about his best work, The Daleth Effect. And what I do consider his best work may not be everybody's choice, but too bad: The Technicolor Time Machine beats all.

When I was fresh out of the Clarion SF workshop in 1973, I cleaned up a Clarion story of mine and sent it to him. He bought it for $195, and when it appeared in his anthology Nova 4 the next year, I was (finally!) a published SF writer.

The story was "Our Lady of the Endless Sky," now in my collection Cold Hands and Other Stories. It's about a slightly clueless Roman Catholic priest who manages to be sent as the Catholic chaplain to a church constructed on the Moon. When an industrial accident destroys one of the lunar base's hydroponic gardens, a new garden is built under the transparent dome of the church. Father Bernberger is heartbroken. He's lost his church...or has he?

It was a decent story for something written by a 21-year-old kid who was "young for his age." But far more remarkable than that was the fact that Harry Harrison bought it at all. You see, Harry was an atheist, and said so as often as it took for people to get the message. So why would he buy a story about religion?

The one time I met him, at the SFWA reception at one of the late 70s Worldcons, I thanked him for buying the story, and asked him exactly that. (All the SMOFs had told me about him being hostile to religion.) He laughed and said, "It wasn't about religion. It was about a man who had faith."

He told me to keep writing. I did.

Now, I've taken a lot of kidding and scolding and eye-rolling down the years for being such a naif as to go to church every Sunday and even (egad) pray. I've seen a lot of desperately mean-spirited condemnation not only of religious nutters (as though there have never been atheist nutters) but also of the quietly religious people who tend the sick and feed the poor without making any attempt to convert them, nor saying anything more about it.

None of that from Harry Harrison, at least not that I've ever seen. He was a gentleman atheist who gave me a push by publishing my story about a church and a priest, even though it went against the grain of his personal philosophy. He shook my hand and told me to keep going. He wrote good, engaging yarns that made me gasp and made me laugh, yarns that I freely admit to imitating. He is one reason (though not the sole reason) that I will not condemn atheism as my species of Catholicism is sometimes condemned.

Godspeed, good friend, however you may understand the wish.