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Might someone take up Harry Warner's torch?

April 07, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Last Sunday Arnold Platou told the fascinating story of Harry Warner Jr., a Herald-Mail employer for 40 years until his retirement in 1983. Not only was he a well-known local columnist, but unknown to most newspaper employees, he was also a world-renowned authority on science fiction.

He was a fan's fan, apparently, and so beloved that some fans of the genre journeyed to Hagerstown for the Orphan's Court hearing held to determine who would be the executor of his estate.

To say I knew Harry Warner would be an exaggeration. In the 10 years during which we were both employees of this newspaper, he only spoke to me once, when a call for me was mistakenly directed to his phone.

Otherwise, he did not say anything, at least to more than a few people. I had never even heard his voice until I went to a County Commissioners' meeting and one of the elected officials asked him how the pot pie was at the nearby Court Waffle Shop. Good, he said, and smiled, the only time I ever saw him do that, until we found a picture of him dating from 1962.

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When the chatter in the small newsroom reached the noise level of a bowling alley, Warner would grimace, then quickly put on his coat and hat and stomp out the door.

He wanted to be left alone, and by and large, we did so, although one of the older editors once spread the story that Warner was writing science fiction under the pen name Warner Oland, who older readers may remember as the star of the Charlie Chan movies in the 1930s.

That may sound cruel, but 30 years ago the newsroom was a rough and ready place, where some editors thought nothing about coming down the aisle waving a long sheet of your copy and asking, at top volume, "What the hell is this?"

Editors and reporters, and sometimes reporters and reporters, went nose to nose, in much the same way that former Baltimore Orioles' manager Earl Weaver used to argue with umpires.

Then, like a summer thunderstorm, the ill feelings blew away, the dispute dried up and work resumed, at least until the next blow-up. I recall it fondly now, but the noise and confusion we accepted as part of doing business probably grated on someone like Harry, who'd been doing it for 30 years before I arrived.

I look back now and imagine him as impatient rather than angry, eager to finish the columns he wrote to earn a living so that he could return to his real passion, writing about science fiction in his own fan magazine.

I read a fair amount of science fiction myself, in part because the owner of a boardinghouse where I lived during my college years had lined his hallways with bookcases full of the stuff.

Much of what I read from the 1930s featured interesting speculations on how science would affect the future, but was short on character development, with wisecracking dialogue that seemed drawn from the movies of that day.

More recent authors have done better with character, though if there are science fiction writers who create memorable people like Saul Bellow's Augie March, I haven't read them, though Ursula K. LeGuin made a valiant effort in "The Left Hand of Darkness," a story about a diplomat trying to promote peace on an alien planet.

Since then others have used science fiction to address current social issues. In Frederick Pohl's "Homegoing," an alien race proposes to trade its superior technology for the continent of Africa, rendered nearly empty by the industrialized nations' inattention to the AIDS epidemic.

In Robert Silverberg's "Dying Inside," a man with the ability to read minds finds out things he'd rather not know about his own family, leaving us to ponder the question: Is better to know everything, or are we better off being ignorant of some things?

In "Ender's Game," Orson Scott Card looks at prejudice in a variety of forms, including a future society's enmity against those who persist in practicing their religious faith - and having more than two children. This book also explores the fear and helplessness a sane child feels when dealing with a pathological sibling who enjoys torturing small animals to death.

This last one touched me because as someone who's helped raise money for the prevention of child abuse, I've found that the topic makes even those who are inclined to be sympathetic uncomfortable. A work of fiction that encourages us to look at that issue or other issues is valuable indeed.

What is the proper response to the AIDS epidemic? At a time when technology is making it possible to find out just about anything about anyone, are we harming ourselves by continually looking through the keyhole, so to speak? Science fiction encourages the belief that there are solutions to these and the other great questions of the day, if only we work hard enough to find them.

Did Harry Warner have any such thoughts? Impossible to say, at least until his collection is donated to some institution that would make it available for inspection and research.

In the meantime, it would be nice if those who valued his contributions could honor him by making him the subject of a work of science fiction. I imagine it would begin late at night, with him working on his fan magazine. Then he hears a knock and ...

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