Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Thank You, Harry Harrison

Michael Salsbury
Pictured at the left is the late Harry Harrison, a science fiction writer whose books always entertained me.  His "Eden" series showed an alternate Earth in which the dinosaurs survived.  The Stainless Steel Rat was a tongue-in-cheek look at future crime and anti-heroes.  His novel Make Room! Make Room! became the basis for the science fiction movie Soylent Green (starring Charlton Heston).

I'm most fond of The Stainless Steel Rat series.  On one level, the books are tongue-in-cheek action romps through space.  On another, they satirize the military, bureaucracy, politicians, and even violence.  They're loaded with some very imaginative gadgets, criminal schemes, and parodies of consumer products.  I treasured Harrison's work because of its ability to help me escape from the day-to-day world into a kind of swashbuckling, spacefaring, joke-filled land.

I credit the Stainless Steel Rat books with very literally changing some of my perspectives on life, the world around me, and physical security.

When I read how Jim DiGriz joked that picking some locks was as easy as picking his teeth, I wondered if that could be true.  I bought a set of lock picks by mail order (this was long before the Internet was a thing), a book on the methods, and a few padlocks at a local department store.  To my amazement, the cheapest padlock opened in about fifteen seconds.  The most expensive opened in about twenty-five.  DiGriz was right.  Opening some locks was just about as easy as flossing a bit of steak from between your teeth.  This changed my view of physical security, especially security based on a keyed lock.  While there are some extremely hard to open locks out there, many can give way to an expert lock picker in seconds, and a decent amateur in a couple of minutes.

DiGriz, despite being a criminal, saw himself as providing a valuable service to the community.  He reasoned that in his highly regimented, carefully controlled, highly secure society that police led very boring lives.  He believed that his criminal activities gave them something more interesting to do than catching the occasional shoplifter, jaywalker, or burglar.  He claimed to only steal from those who could afford the loss, or had insurance to cover it.  Since he tended to spend the funds he acquired, he saw himself as boosting the local economy as well.  The idea, however misguided, was eye-opening to a younger me.  I realized that, as Obi Wan Kenobi once said in Star Wars, "you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view."  Here was a career criminal (DiGriz) who, from his viewpoint, was providing a valuable service to the world around him.  That made me realize from a relatively young age that different people can see things very differently, which is an insight that has been invaluable to me.

Another Jim DiGriz insight hit me many years later.  In the books, DiGriz often says that one reason he became a criminal was that he refused to accept the typical lifestyle. That is, most of us go to school when we're young to learn skills that will help us get a job.  Then, we get that job and spend the rest of our lives doing it.  While there's nothing at all wrong with that, some people (myself included) get tired of it.  If this happens early enough, you can begin looking for another job that interests you and leverages some of the same skills, and move to that.  If you stay in a field too long, though, you become something like the actor or actress who's been typecast in a particular role.  Changing your career trajectory becomes increasingly difficult.  DiGriz solved the problem by becoming a criminal, which allowed him to toy with banking, security systems, locks, electronics, and any number of other skills.  He was always learning and doing something new.  Although I've no desire to follow in his criminal footsteps, I would love to have that same flexibility.  I'm hoping that writing can offer it, if I become good enough.

So, Harry, if you're out there listening.... thank you!  Thank you for giving me many hours of escapist entertainment through your books, for giving me new perspectives on the world, and for giving me hope that there's a better way to live... and being an example of that better way.

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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