“Only other writers can feel the impulse that beats in his work as strongly as it beats in themselves. Good writers love him and what he did; mediocre writers envy and marvel and even hate him a little because he heard the music denied them; bad writers are simply overwhelmed and are left desolate at the realization that, like Salieri,they can never be Mozart.” – Harlan Ellison describing Charles Beaumont, in his introduction to The Howling Man.
If you look around the internet you will find hundreds of stories about Harlan Ellison and scores of memorials and tributes. With his writing, he earned them all. Even those unfamiliar with his name are familiar with some of his work. Star Trek aficionados rank The City on the Edge of Forever among the best episodes of the original series. The Terminator was reportedly inspired by a pair of Ellison’s stories, Soldier and Demon With a Glass Hand (although that remains denied by Cameron, when a lawsuit was threatened and studio executives were provided with Ellison’s evidence, the movie credits were edited to include Ellison). People who watched the second, 1980s incarnation of Twilight Zone saw many episodes based on his short fiction, which were purchased at discount rates because he was the story editor for the show.) Babylon 5 fans had him to thank for being the story consultant who helped arrange the plot constructions. Don Johnson fans have watched A Boy and His Dog. Kids were introduced to him as a punchline on Freakazoid.
So, he had some fame. And he had stories. I could easily fill a week of Night Owls with Harlan Ellison stories, and if anyone ever really annoys me, I might.
First and foremost, if you’re unfamiliar with his work you should correct that. If you like your stories bleak, I suggest “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”. Historically oriented? “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”. Uplifting? “Paladin of the Last Hour”. Subtly disturbing? “Jeffty Is Five”. If you’re just looking for standard college lit material? “”Repent, Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman”.
They’re all short stories. He rarely wrote novels, abandoning the form after getting ripped off on novel rights during the late 1960s. They’re easy to read, and they’re available.
Now, to my points. I’ve got two takes on Ellison’s death that are unique. One involves personal anecdotes. The other is sociopolitical.
When Ellison died last week, his name was the third most trending thing on Twitter at one point, after the concurrent newspaper shootings. When I looked around the cable news sites, however, only Fox was taking note of his death. There’s a bitter irony to that, and I’ll get to that after the stories.
My first encounter with him was in 2000, at Aggiecon in Texas. He had a reputation… loud, bitter, angry, opinionated, brilliant and aggressive. The stories abounded… I wasn’t kidding about the Night Owl. And the man I met was anything but the reputation. When I first saw him, he had come to do a signing and was looking around because they hadn’t provided a chair for his table. His wife (the fifth and final, who was with him from 1986 on) was prepping the pills he needed following a severe heart attack. I stepped out of line and got him a chair. He thanked me profusely. Later, when I heard someone asking about his anger, he explained that he wasn’t going to put on a show for anyone anymore, he wasn’t going to dance like a monkey and risk killing himself just to maintain a reputation. He was still opinionated, but he argued his points calmly and rationally.
A second encounter was years later, at the World Horror Convention in Manhattan, 2005. He was back to being belligerent and demanding. I stood nearby as he vented for five minutes to a convention organizer, then interrupted as he turned to leave. “Mr. Ellison?” I asked. He stared at me – not a glare, but without warmth. “What do you want?” he asked. I told him that I had a message from Bob Sheckley, and that brought him up short. Sheckley, an immensely talented but comparatively forgotten writer, was a friend of Harlan’s. I told him that Bob had asked for him to call, and that it’d have to be in the next week because Sheckley was taking a trip overseas. I asked if he had the number and he barked at me, “Of course I have his number! He’s one of my oldest friends!” His anger seemed mostly directed at himself, though; probably because an unfamiliar face had to relay a request for a phone call. I’ve since hoped Ellison made that call promptly, because Sheckley died during that overseas trip.
A third time was at Worldcon in Los Angeles in 2006. Ellison was emcee for the Hugo awards, and he grabbed Connie Willis’ breast. He did so as part of a comedy routine, and Willis responded both before and afterward as if she were expecting it… a couple of old friends goofing around. All hell broke loose, figuratively. Ellison was tarred as a misogynist and virtual rapist, and after initially refusing to say anything negative about it Willis, weeks later, agreed that it was inappropriate. It destroyed an old friendship and shifted Ellison immediately from the dominant name in science fiction to an outcast.
The outrage was arranged by a consortium of new authors who wanted the spotlight. Their gambit was successful, and they’ve gone on to attack the reputations of most other iconic sf writers. Destroying the reputations of better writers is easier than improving one’s own storytelling. And, to cycle back toward the beginning of this piece, that’s plausibly why he was conspicuously ignored by CNN and MSNBC despite having more writing awards – not sf awards, but writing awards, period – than any other living writer.
There’s the sociopolitical aspect. Ellison was never a fan of Republicans; he thought they were out of touch with the modern era in the 1960s, and then, when Spiro T. Agnew arranged an attack on his newest book with the aid of Evangelical churches, he merely distrusted and despised every prominent member of the party. During the 1970s, he refused to attend conventions in states that had not passed the Equal Rights Amendment. But he was also an old white man, and his success was viewed as holding back the young bucks. He had to go; so his reputation was trashed and his stories quickly found their way off of reading lists in colleges and high schools throughout the country.
So, those are my two takes on his life. Now here’s another one.
Ellison raged against ignorance and dishonesty. He had his blind spots, but he would not abide liars, the vain, the vapid or those who refused to inform themselves. He would have likely cut off his own ear before voting for a Republican… but he was on record, many times, as denouncing Democrats too. He fought not just for himself but for others, infuriated by the poverty that struck artists whose work would be used to make studio executives wealthy. He could be cruel, but he was reflexively a good man.
Ellison’s work was brilliant. The quote I used to open the piece? That soundly describes Harlan as well as Beaumont. His stories encouraged people to think. “People don’t have to give up on their principles” was a recurring theme in his stories and his life, and he was inspirational because of it.
I was fortunate enough to meet him a few times. He thanked me, he yelled at me, he spontaneously quizzed me about the period of a geosynchronous satellite. He never asked that I call him Harlan, so I won’t.
Thank you, Mister Ellison. I’ll miss you very much. Goodbye.