Charles L. Harness

Unorthodox science-fiction writer

There are reasons for Charles L. Harness's lack of wide acclaim as a writer of science fiction for over 60 years in America. His personal modesty and decent reticence were evident from the very beginning, as he made clear in a late novel, Cybele, With Bluebonnets (2002), a fantasy which (almost secretly) also serves as a shadow autobiography of his early years. Science fiction itself was a byline; he worked full-time as a lawyer from 1947 until 1981.

There were other reasons for his obscurity, despite a cadre of devoted readers, who lauded him for decades. Most of his early advocates were British rather than American, which did not help. Each of his 14 books differed significantly from its siblings, and some of them were very challenging, all of which led to a disjointed career; over the course of that career, Harness required 10 separate publishers to get those 14 titles into the world.

But fame was clearly not important. The pages of Cybele reveal an open-hearted, quiet, loving young man who did not want to become conspicuous; and his later years progressed in line with his ambitions. He worked for the American government for a decade before joining American Cyanamid in 1947 as a patent attorney; from 1953 until he retired at 65, he worked in the same capacity for W.R. Grace in Maryland, where he lived until three months before his death, when a severe stroke caused him to return to his family in Kansas. He did not attend science-fiction conventions; he did not mix, except by post.

It is in his writing alone that we detect the complex mind of an author whose influences extended from A.E. Van Vogt to Jean Cocteau. Beginning with "Time Trap" for Astounding Science Fiction in 1948 (he placed another 18 stories with Astounding over a 52-year span), he published a wide range of tales whose sexual awareness and conceptual rigours made him deeply influential upon a number of his fellow writers, like Alfred Bester or Dan Simmons.

He was a master of what Brian W. Aldiss, introducing his work, dubbed the "Widescreen Baroque", the kind of tale which transforms traditional space opera into an arena where a vast array of characters can act their hearts out, where anything can be said with a wink or dead seriously, and any kind of story be told.

Harness's most famous single novel was his first, Flight into Yesterday (1953; later published as The Paradox Men). Here, what initially seems to be a tale dominated by space-opera extravagances, with time travel intersecting with superscience and confusing a cast of aspiring superheroes, gradually turns into a severely articulate narrative analysis of the implications of Arnold J. Toynbee's Study of History, and much else.

In 1953, Harness also published his most famous single story, "The Rose", which first appeared in the UK magazine Authentic, then as the lead novella in a UK mass-market paperback collection. This astonishing tale - which transfigures its source in Oscar Wilde's "The Nightingale and the Rose" into a transcendent paean to the victory of art over the coercions of science - did not appear in the United States until 1969.

This may not have been unexpected: its protagonist is a woman, who is fatally ill of a deforming disease, and who is a creative artist to book; and she wins. But it is clearly possible that the American science-fiction community's disdain for this hugely challenging tale discouraged Harness, who was fully involved in his career at this point, with two small children to raise. Certainly he stopped publishing for more than a decade.

Fortunately, however, he returned to active writing with clever, unorthodox novels like The Ring of Ritornel (1968), Wolfhead (1978) and The Venetian Court (1986). Late in his life, two large retrospective collections - An Ornament to His Profession (1998) and Rings (2000) - began to focus readers' attention on one of the secret masters of the genre. But he had always been there.

John Clute