The intense sci-fi writer’s legacy includes some of the century’s most powerful short stories.
By: Nick Mamatas
6 months ago
When I heard from a friend and fellow fan that writer Harlan Ellison (May 27, 1934 – June 28, 2018) died at home Thursday at the age of 84, the first thing I did was ignore my friend for a moment and contact my editor. “Ellison died,” I wrote. “Want something from me?” This is the influence Ellison had on multiple generations of writers. Words first.
Ellison was not a household name, but among a certain set of readers, television and film viewers, and comic book fans, he was inescapable.
If you’ve watched Captain Kirk wince as he stopped Doctor McCoy from saving the life of peace activist Edith Keeler in “The City on the Edge of Forever,” the best episode of Star Trek, you’ve felt Ellison’s pathos. If you recall Danny Kaye, hanging on to a few minutes of life in the otherwise forgettable 1980s version of The Twilight Zone, that too was Ellison, adapting his short story “Paladin of the Lost Hour.” Indeed, if you’ve ever read short fiction in the science fiction or crime genres, you know Ellison. The anarchic, comical “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” is one of the most famous short stories of the twentieth century. Ellison would often claim it was in the top ten most reprinted. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is the thematic opposite — bleak and unrelenting — but is nearly as famous, and was immortalized via inclusion in the Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales. It also won both the Hugo and the Nebula award, as Ellison predicted it would while presenting it to the Milford Writing Workshop. He rejected the feedback from his colleagues, saying "I'm not changing a word, and it's gonna win a Hugo and a Nebula!"
Ellison also wrote essays and reportage, film scripts, rants, and introductions. His work has won eight Hugo awards and four Nebula awards for science fiction and fantasy, five Bram Stoker awards for horror, and two Edgar awards for mystery/crime. Ellison edited the seminal “new wave” science fiction anthology Dangerous Visions, its sequel Again, Dangerous Visions, and taunted the world for decades with rumors of the imminent release of The Last Dangerous Visions. His journalism won the Silver Pen for Journalism given by International PEN, and he was even nominated for a Grammy award in 2009 for his reading of an audiobook version of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America named him a Grandmaster, the World Fantasy Association granted him a Lifetime Achievement Award, and he won endless other accolades.
If this were all Ellison accomplished, he would have been just another writer who was successful and then largely forgotten as the genres in which he worked moved on. But Ellison was great — not in the sense that he was a wonderful person, but in the sense that Alexander or Peter were great. Ellison could not be denied. List the clichés: “He was a force of nature.” “Were Harlan Ellison did not exist, we would have to invent him.” “We’ll not see his like again.” All true. And like Alexander or Peter the Great, Ellison was not necessarily “good.” Indeed, often he was not good at all.
The great theme of Ellison’s work is the outsider against authority. Sometimes the outsider confronts authority, sometimes he soothes the powerless victimized by authority, and sometimes the outsider is consumed by his own rages. This was true of Ellison’s life as well as his work. He helped launch the career of feminist novelist Octavia Butler, claimed to have marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, and crusaded for the Equal Rights Amendment to the point of attending a science convention, at which he was a guest of honor, in a self-contained RV outside the hotel, in order to boycott the state of Arizona. On the other hand, later in life he publicly fondled the breast of writer Connie Willis on stage at the Hugo Awards ceremony—many noted a subtext of Willis having broken Ellison’s record for the most Hugo wins. He also snorted to his online fanbase about “Women of Cuhluh” in a rant wherein he referred to young black writer Tempest K. Bradford as “an NWA.”
If Ellison always cast himself as the outsider despite his fame and success, the “authority” was too often anyone who disagreed with or criticized him. The outsider bragged about mailing a publisher a dead muskrat via book rate mail during a publishing dispute, and tying a naked woman to furniture and leaving her alone, naked, in her mother’s home in the putatively comical essay “The Three Most Important Things in Life.” “All I could think of,” he wrote, “was when her mother got home that night, found her baby girl staked out like a gazelle at the waterhole, take one look at this monstrous scene and start screaming, ‘My caaaarpet . . .!’” It hardly matters if Ellison’s stories about himself are self-mythologizing tall tales—he wanted to be seen as someone who would always attack when provoked, regardless of the provocation, or even if there was a provocation.
Ellison was famously generous to friends and even strangers. He quietly gave large sums to authors whose health and careers went south, and mentored dozens of writers, keeping in touch with them and lauding their publications for years after. His famous essay, “Xenogensis,” is a defense of many of his fellow writers who had been abused financially, physically, and even sexually by their so-called fans, and in these days of toxic geek culture, his words seem like a warning we all should have heeded. When Jason Ridler (the friend and fellow writer who told me Ellison had died) reviewed two volumes of Ellison’s early stories for my online crime magazine The Big Click, Ellison sent us an email: “It was a chilly, absolutely accurate, but hardhearted review. Couldn't have done better myself." Ridler has kept those lines close to his heart ever since. Ellison had that effect on people. Some of them, anyway.
Ellison was also famously litigious. He sued AOL over his work being pirated online, and sued the makers of The Terminator for appropriating elements of his Outer Limits teleplays “Demon with a Glass Hand” and “The Soldier.” The latter suit was settled by the studio for, as Ellison told me during an angry phone call, “four hundred forty-three thousand dollars!” — a number putatively not for the public to know. More readily checkable, the sentence “Acknowledgment to the works of Harlan Ellison” was added to the film and appears before the credits.
Almost everyone in the science fiction/fantasy field has a story about an angry Ellison phone call, or ferocious fax, or waspish letter (most not including a dead animal). A middling review I gave the hagiographic documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth got Ellison and a coterie of fans on his website’s message board all hotted up. Ellison railed against me, writing, in part, “Goodbye Bradbury. Goodbye Lieber. Goodbye Aeschylus. Goodbye Pliny the Elder. Goodbye Donald Westlake. Goodbye Faulkner and Harvey Swados and William March and Leigh Brackett. Goodbye Owen Wister. Goodbye Shirley Jackson. Goodbye all and every... for the sin of not being recognized by a jealous semiliterate jackalpak of craven wannabes do-nothings and toadstool-licking fanboys who have pudding for memory, dust for generosity, rust for respect.” My wife, who read Ellison’s complaint over my shoulder but who had never seen anything else by him, remarked, “Wow, he is a really good writer. No wonder you’re such a fan.” It’s even more impressive given the fact that Ellison probably wasn’t actually online; it was said he would type his notes on a typewriter and have them transcribed onto the Internet.
My Ellison phone call came some years later, after I wrote a review-essay about his later work for The Smart Set. He bragged about his ability to get my phone number, snarled semi-comically, was jovial at point, but also ranted and raved, complaining about virtually every sentence of the piece, the headline, and the use of the “wrong” art to illustrate the review, which I as the writer had nothing to do with. Finally, he told me “I don’t want to get angry. I shouldn’t get angry anymore. I’m still a daily writer.” That’s what he wanted to me to know — though the last decade saw mostly reprints of his early and mostly unremarkable crime fiction, plus a few minor stories and various introductions and brief pieces — he was still a daily writer.
This is what makes Harlan Ellison important. More than anyone else in the later half of the twentieth century, he made writing short subjects, whether fiction or non-fiction, seem like the most important thing someone could do with their lives. Ellison was an indifferent novelist, and he had the experience most screenwriters have — the final movie or TV show ends up radically different than the script. But for between 1000 and 20,000 words of prose, Ellison was among the best writers in the English language. He knew it too.
Ellison made a practice of writing stories while seated in bookstore window displays, because writing was a way of being out in the world and having an impact on it. His 1980s-era column for the LA Weekly, which he agreed to only if the paper ran whatever he chose to write that week, is required reading for anyone interested in the genre of political journalism, the personal essay, or even “hot takes.” (This appreciation is being published under a similar editorial guideline.) Ellison’s video rant — “Pay the Writer!” is a perennial favorite of aspirants and professionals who are still getting the few pennies a word for their stuff that Ellison did sixty years ago.
And now we need two more pennies for the closed eyes of Harlan Ellison. Goodbye Bradbury. Goodbye Lieber. Goodbye Aeschylus. Goodbye Pliny the Elder. Goodbye Harlan Ellison. Words first.
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Nick Mamatas is the author of The People’s Republic of Everything, Mixed Up: Cocktail Recipes (And Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader), and seven and a half novels. He last wrote for Legacy about the life of insult comedian Don Rickles.