Harlan Ellison died this week and it’s a drag. Harlan Ellison was a mad genius. We hear the word “Genius” thrown around a lot when great artists and entertainers die but I want to emphasize the “mad” part for Ellison. Harlan Ellison was one of the most gifted speculative fiction writers of the 20th century. He was also batshit insane. This was a guy who mailed bricks and dead gophers to editors that pissed him off. A guy who belittled fans that asked him dumb questions and a guy who would sue at the drop of a hat.
Famous suits from Ellison included accusations of plagiarism against the films Future Cop, In Time, and most famously The Terminator for being a ripoff of two Outer Limits episodes written by Ellison. The last of which did result in Ellison receiving a credit for Terminator. I never thought the film was all that similar to those episodes, neither did James Cameron, but Ellison got his way. Also, we got this sort of funny clip from The Simpsons.
Ellison also hated being labeled “Sci-fi” to the point where he would leave interviews if he was referred to as a Sci-fi author. He called Star Wars adolescent nonsense, Close Encounters obscurantist drivel and Star Trek a show that could “turn your brain into a puree of bat guano”. This despite Ellison writing the most critically revered episode of the original series “City on the Edge of Forever” though he disowned the episode over deviations from his original script.
All of this anger and pettiness and yet Ellison is my favorite short story author second only to Stephen King. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” about an evil supercomputer who tortures the only five humans left in existence is the most disturbing story I have ever read. “ ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”—written in six hours during a writer’s workshop—is another chilling classic about a future where time is strictly regulated and dire consequences come from breaking the routine. “Jeffty is Five”, about a boy who never grows older than five, reads like the best Twilight Zone episode that never was, and my favorite Ellison story, “The Discarded” is an unforgettable story about people who are banished from Earth and forced to live on a spaceship after a global disease leave them horribly deformed.
This is a small sampling size, but those four stories alone would be enough to cement Ellison as one of the greats. His work was just as thought-provoking as anything by Asimov or Heinlein, but there was a viciousness and edge to Ellison’s work. I think it helped that he was younger than most of his contemporaries and more influenced by the counterculture of the ‘60s. He was like the angry young man of science fiction…. Excuse me “speculative fiction”.
Ellison never found as much success outside of the short story format. In an almost sixty-year career, he only wrote about nine novels. Even his best novella “A Boy and His Dog” is only 60 pages long, but Ellison thrived in the short form. He could build endlessly detailed worlds thriving with social commentary and his trademark cynicism in little more than five pages.
Though there aren’t any significant mainstream adaptations of his work (A Boy and His Do, maybe), Ellison reached a lot of people. Some of Ellison’s biggest fans and close friends included people like; Neil Gaiman, Richard Dreyfuss, Patton Oswalt and Robin Williams. He was like the Velvet Underground of fiction writers in that his work influenced more than it sold.
Even with those sharp teeth, a lot of people loved Ellison as a person and a creative force. With news of his passing hopefully more, young readers will delve into his work. I know it’s influenced me quite a bit.
On a lighter note, we’ll never have to worry about any bullshit cash grab, posthumous publications as Harlan made a point to his wife to destroy all of his notes and unfinished work after his death to avoid “literary grave robbers”. There’s that trademark cynicism and wit again. Time to go read my copy of Alone Against Tomorrow.