1. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Short Story Club (13): The Repairman by Harry Harrison

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by thirdwind, May 11, 2013.

    For this discussion we'll be reading "The Repairman" by Harry Harrison. The story can be found here.

    According to Wikipedia, Harry Harrison was "an American science fiction (SF) author, best known for his character the Stainless Steel Rat and for his novel Make Room! Make Room! (1966)." "The Repairman" was originally a part of the short story collection War with the Robots.
     
  2. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This story is pure science-fiction fun. It reads like Heinlein, but there's a large dose of Harrison's characteristic humor and whimsy in this. It's Heinlein-lite, I guess. It's typical of 1950s science fiction in that it presents a breezily positive view of the future, a future full of happy people gallivanting around the universe with no major problems weighing on anyone's mind. I grew up reading sci-fi like this, and I still enjoy it.

    I don't regard this story as a truly excellent example of science fiction because the MC doesn't really have any major problems to solve. He's just putting in a day at the office, so to speak. He's a repairman; he has something to repair; he knows how to do it and has all the tools and parts he needs. His only issue is a slightly delicate situation with the local population. Even that, though, isn't a problem - he makes a plan and carries it out without a hitch. In no way is the MC challenged in any major way in this story. There's nothing that changes him, nothing that opens his eyes (or closes them, for that matter). There's no trial by fire.

    One thing that disturbed me slightly about this piece was that Harrison treats the admittedly-primitive natives of the planet as nothing but minor inconveniences; they're almost brainless pushovers for the MC. There's a casual assumption, in this story, of human superiority over everything else in the universe. Of course, nobody in the 1950s noticed the implicit racism (speciesism?) of stories like this, but it's pretty clear today.

    There is one aspect of technique I'd like to get opinions on. There are several paragraphs in this story that are pure exposition, but some members of this forum would probably call them infodumps. Did any of the exposition bother any of you? I barely noticed it, and I certainly didn't think it slowed the story unacceptably. Science fiction must include exposition, because it always deals with material the readers cannot possibly have any experience with, so I think it's unreasonable to ask sci-fi writers to get rid of it entirely. I think Harrison handled it well in this story. What do you think?
     
  3. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    I never read anything from Harrisson, but he was an early pioneer. One could almost view him as an anti-Heinlein because he was lighthearted, humorous and anti-militant.

    I don't see Harrisson considering them at all. The contact between an advanced and a primitive species is a recurring theme in SF, for example Star Trek. Here the protagonist doesn't hesitate to interact and he doesn't consider the ethics questions.

    On the other hand he doesn't make any moral judgment either. One might say it implies human superiority, comparable to how natives in the new worlds weren't seen as fully human under the age of imperialism. On the other hand, unlike Heinlein in Starship Troopers, it may only mean that Harrisson himself didn't think much of that question. That the aliens are merely props in the story. After all the protagonist seems to focus on getting the job done and paw the way for future repairmen.

    I can't say it bothered me, but of course I enjoy Sci-Fi and it's also written fairly easy and inserted in just about the right places. He also uses familiar phrases lightly disguised. The meaning of this sentence is obvious even if you never heard of steel and vanadium before!

    “This is your contract,” he said. “It tells how and when you will work. A steel-and-vanadium-bound contract that you couldn’t crack with a molecular disruptor.”

    The story itself is fun to read. But as you say it lacks suspense and it's not a story you remember long after you read it.


    My question is if the story should be seen as anti-religious?
     
  4. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    This was a fun read. I've never read Harrison before, but I have heard his name from one of my friends who reads a lot of sci-fi. I can't say that I'm impressed by his writing, but I thought the way the story was written fit the lightheartedness of the piece.

    I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I didn't mind it because it was so short. All that description gives the reader a good idea of what a typical repairman has to put up with as part of the job. On the other hand, I don't think leaving that part out would have made much difference in how we read/interpret the story. We don't really need to understand the importance of beacons. All we know is that the MC isn't too happy about fixing them but ends up fixing one anyways. The info about hyperspace and all that could be seen an unnecessary material.

    It could be, though I think Harrison is taking a comical, rather than a critical, view of religion here. Some of the traditions of the lizards are quite baffling (for example, “Because the old priests did pry and peer, it was ruled henceforth that only the blind could enter the Holy of Holies.”). Also, the MC embraces the traditions of the lizards as part of the job. Given the technology he has, he could have easily fought his way through, repaired the beacon, and gotten out of there without having to fake burning his eyes or appearing as a spirit. So for me, there isn't much here that would suggest this story being an anti-religious piece.
     

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