2006: Lee Harding

A. Bertram Chandler Award 2006 presented to Lee Harding

Text by Bruce Gillespie, with substantial contributions from Dick Jenssen, Race Mathews and John Bangsund, and information from The MUP Encyclopedia of Australia Science Fiction & Fantasy (Paul Collins) and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Peter Nicholls and John Clute).

The life and career of Lee Harding can be summed up in one word: enthusiasm.

In 1952, when Lee Harding was fifteen, he was a founder member of the Melbourne Science Fiction Club. He told Dick Jenssen, another founder member of the Club: ‘We must put out a fanzine.’ Race Mathews was also a founder member of the Club. As he puts it: ‘What resulted after lengthy gestation was not one fanzine but five, titled respectively Perhaps, Bacchanalia, Etherline, Question Mark and Antipodes.’ Dick Jenssen continues: ‘Leo [as he was then] not only provided the push, but he did most of the work. He wrote letters, contacted people, suggested story ideas and cover illustrations, solved layout problems, told Mervyn when to turn the duplicator handle, and in short was the driving force (spiritual) behind Perhaps.’

Eleven years later, John Bangsund met Lee for the first time. He writes: ‘At a party in 1963 I met Lee Harding, a writer of science fiction. I was 24. My life was about to change in a way I could never have imagined. “You go through Bayswater and head for The Basin,” Lee said when I accepted his invitation to dinner, “you’ll come to a service station on your right, then our place is the third house along. You can’t see it from the road.” [Carla was Lee’s first wife.] Lee and Carla’s place was full of books and music, and I felt at home the moment I arrived. And we had so much to talk about! Lee was very tactful about science fiction, barely mentioning it. Knowing my background as a theological student, before I left Lee gave me a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” and invited me to comment some time on the theology in it. The hell with theology! I was suddenly and most unexpectedly hooked on science fiction. Lee introduced me to the best and most interesting writers, and I couldn’t get enough of them.’

Four years later, Bruce Gillespie enjoyed a similar experience of meeting Lee Harding for the first time. He met Lee during the weekend in late 1967 when he met the rest of the Australian Science Fiction Review group in Ferntree Gully. Lee overwhelmed Bruce with his enthusiasm for science fiction, music, general literature and Hollywood musical films. Before that weekend, Bruce knew little about Brian Aldiss, Gustav Mahler, or Singing in the Rain. After that weekend, he was determined to find out much more about them all, write science fiction, and start a fanzine.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

Dick Jenssen writes: ‘Lee (née Leo) Harding began reading science fiction at about the age of ten, and five years later was a fervent and addicted fan of the genre and had been in touch with Sydney fan Graham Stone. Stone gave him Race Mathews’ name and address. Race was then forming the nucleus of what would become the Melbourne Science Fiction Group, and invited Lee to visit him at home and shortly thereafter to the first meeting of fans there. This was somewhat fortunate, for at the time Lee was, to quote Race, ‘an aspiring professional photographer’, and consequently provided history with what must surely be the only visual documentation of the nascent SF group — a portrait of most of the founding members of what would become the Melbourne Science Fiction Club. In this photograph are: Race, Bertram Chandler, Bob McCubbin, Merv Binns and Dick Jenssen. Unfortunately, since Lee was behind the camera, he does not appear in this significant document.’

Like many of the overseas writers of the time, Lee saw fanzine writing as a stepping stone to learning the skills of professional fiction writing. During the years when he was getting married, having children and earning a living as a professional photographer, he was writing SF stories and submitting them overseas. There was no markets in Australia. In 1961, E. J. (Ted) Carnell, the all-important British editor, published Lee’s first story, ‘Displaced Person’, in Science Fantasy. Twenty years later, this would become the basis of Lee’s most successful novel. Lee placed a wide range of stories with Carnell’s magazines New Worlds, Science Fantasy and Science Fiction Adventures during the early 1960s. As with several other Australian writers, he found he could sell nothing to Michael Moorcock, who took over as editor of the British magazines in 1964 and began the New Wave. It seems odd that Moorcock did not recognise that major influences on Lee’s writing included J. G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss, major contributors to the New Wave.

In 1966, at the first Australian science fiction convention held in eight years, John Baxter pointed at John Bangsund and suggested he begin a high-quality fanzine about science fiction. The result was Australian SF Review, the best magazine about science fiction ever published in Australia. John’s two partners were Lee Harding and John Foyster. Thanks to the enthusiasm and writing skills of the three of them, ASFR not only became world famous, but led directly to the renaissance of Australian fan writing, professional SF writing, and convention organising. Lee began writing long entertaining articles and insightful reviews for ASFR. During the late sixties Lee was Australia’s best SF reviewer other than George Turner and John Foyster, but unfortunately he stopped reviewing after 1969, when ASFR, First Series, ceased publication.

The termination of ASFR coincides with the beginning of Lee’s second fruitful period of science fiction writing. In 1969, Ron Graham, a Sydney businessman, set up the first glossy Australian professional SF magazine, Vision of Tomorrow. Unfortunately, he decided to print it in Britain, with a British co-editor, although half the contents were to be written by Australians. On this promise of continual work, Lee left his job as a photographer and begin writing full time. He sold several of his best stories, including ‘Dancing Gerontius’ and ‘The Custodian’, to Vision of Tomorrow, before it folded after only ten issues.

At the same time, Lee began selling his first short stories to the American magazines. ‘Spaceman’ appeared in If magazine in 1970. It was followed by further sales to the Galaxy group of magazines, and quite a few foreign translations of these and earlier stories.

Lee found an unexpected entree into publishing novels when he met Jim Ellis, of Cassell Australia, one of the great Melbourne enterprising publishers of the mid 1970s. Ellis needed fiction for the young adult market, a field that was just becoming important. Lee adapted his short story ‘Fallen Spaceman’ for Cassell Australia. The novel version was also sold to Harper & Row in New York. Lee’s first full-length adult novel, A World of Shadows, appeared from Robert Hale in London in 1973. Lee published a long series of books for young adults during the 1970s, as well as the adult novel The Weeping Sky for Cassell in 1977.

During the 1970s, Lee took part in every aspect of science fiction activity in Australia. For several years he was a valued bookseller at Merv Binns’ Space Age Books. In 1973, he became the first Australian to conduct a Clarion-type SF writers’ workshop. Held as part of the Melbourne Easter convention, Lee’s workshop was only one day long, but it pointed the way to the more famous writers’; workshops of 1975, 1977 and 1979. Throughout the early 1970s, he worked tirelessly in the effort to gain the right to hold Australia’s first world convention in Melbourne in 1975. He wrote and narrated the soundtrack for the Aussiefan film, produced Australia’s first fan opera (Joe Phaust) in 1973, maintained a wide range of contacts with overseas writers, and chaired many of the panels at Aussiecon I.

Lee’s involvement in Aussiecon led indirectly to his next career move. He edited The Altered I, the book that told the story of the Ursula Le Guin writers’ workshop held a week before Aussiecon. The anthology included documentary material about methods of conducting future workshops, plus a selection from the best stories written at the workshop. Simultaneously he became involved with Wren Publishing, a shortlived attempt to publish hardback science fiction in Australia. For Wren, he edited Beyond Tomorrow, an ambitious anthology of stories written by overseas authors combined with new stories by Australian writers.

This led to Lee editing the even more ambitious Rooms of Paradise, which he prepared for Hyland House in Melbourne. Rooms of Paradise, which featured George Turner’s first piece of short fiction, also appeared in an American edition. Hyland House was a small publisher set up by Anne Godden and Al Knight, who Lee had met before they left Nelson Australia. Anne and Al were determined to promote Australian writers in general, and Australian SF in particular. They established the Alan Marshall Award manuscript award for narrative fiction. Lee Harding won the award in 1978 with his new novel, Displaced Person. In turn, Anne and Al published the novel in 1981, and it won the Australian Children’s Book Council Award in 1980.

Much could be said about the unity of Lee Harding’s themes in his fiction, but we don’t have time here. Enough to say Lee’s first short story matured in his mind for nearly twenty years before it became a powerful fable about a teenager who finds that the rest of the world cannot see him. Many of Lee’s stories and novels concern loner characters under attack from hostile environments. In The Weeping Sky, several characters survive although a sea from another dimension is flooding into their own world. The Weeping Sky, Displaced Person, and Waiting for the End of the World (1983), Lee’s second novel for Hyland House, are his three most subtle and interesting expressions of his major themes.

Lee’s disappearance from the Australian science fiction scene for fifteen years is a mystery that no doubt he will explain one day. He published nothing between Waiting for the End of the World in 1983 and Heartsease in 1997. This emotionally powerful realistic novel for young adults about a family splitting up seems to have been ignored by many of Lee’s admirers because it had no SF or fantasy element. We all hope that Heartsease signals the beginning of a new chapter in Lee Harding’s career.

Of all the people who have featured in the Australian science fiction scene since World War II, Lee Harding has had the most diverse and interesting career. Although he has never earned a great income from science fiction, he has done much to contribute to the vigorous field that is today’s Australian SF scene. The Australian Science Fiction Foundation awards Lee Harding the A. Bertram Chandler Award in gratitude for his life’s work.

29 March 2006