Mar 8 2011 12:15pm

In Praise of a Cocksure Writer: Why Harlan Ellison (Still) Matters

Harlan EllisonOver in the world of English rock n’ roll, Liam Gallagher, one-half of the brotherly duo that once comprised the band Oasis, has released a new album under a new band name; Beady Eye. Not surprisingly, this band sounds almost exactly like Oasis, minus some of the catchier lyrics that once (depending on who you ask) made Oasis great. But no matter what, these guys will always been know for their really big songs. And despite not being fans, nearly everyone I know can sing the words to “Wonderwall,” “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” and “Champagne Supernova.” This is true power.

I am an unabashed Oasis fan, and even am enjoying the new Liam/Beady Eye album. But the thing about those old songs is that they always remind me of one of my favorite writers. And that writer is Harlan Ellison. And just like a cocksure Britpop band that released songs everyone now knows, Ellison will always matter.

Harlan EllisonIf Ellison were one of the Gallagher boys from Oasis, he’d definitely not be Liam, but rather the older, better spoken, (yet pithy) Noel Gallagher. After all, Noel was the primary songwriter and the true genius of the group. But unlike both Gallagher brothers, Harlan Ellison’s ability to put out quality work doesn’t seem to have wavered that much. I’m talking about his recent Nebula nomination for the story “How Interesting: A Tiny Man.”

The story, while incredibly brief, is all anyone could want from magical realism-style literary fiction. It is simple in its premise, the execution is flawless, and it contains a certain amount style that pervades the prose in a way that makes you feel like writing stories must be the easiest thing in the world. The premise of the story is this: the main character creates a tiny man in a laboratory. This initially doesn’t stir up too much trouble, at worst there’s a little scientific curoristy. However, as the story progresses, things get out of hand and suddenly both the creator and the tiny man find themselves persecuted from all sides and at a terrible crossroads.

I can’t stress enough how deceptively simple this story is. Instead of the paragraph above, I could have probably just described its premise by repeating the title “How Interesting: A Tiny Man.” That’s how good Ellison is. The title sums up everything you need to know about the story and as such acts as a synecdoche for the story.

This is just like his uber-classics “Repent Harlequin!”, Said the TickTockMan, and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. These are Ellison’s big ones, his “Wonderwall” and “Champagne Supernova.” I’m not saying “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” is as good or as huge as the stories I just mentioned, but ultimately it doesn’t matter because it’s got his style running through the whole thing. Something Ellison does well that few writers can achieve is a solid mix of tone. Many of his stories like “Djinn, No Chaser” start with an almost comedic tone that gives way to out and out horror. Others, like “Mephisto in Onyx” seem to be a conventional thriller, but then contain elements of a love story, and eventually, a huge epic good versus evil battle.

“How Interesting: A Tiny Man” blends tone in a different way. There’s a strange quietness to the story that initially gives the reader the impression they are dealing with some kind of Geppetto-like narrator; a person who has created something they are unsure of and perhaps frightened of, too. And while this narrator doesn’t seem to change, the world in which he and the Tiny Man inhabit grows so dark and frighteningly recognizable. There’s something very matter of fact about the way Ellison describes the plot, and yet simultaneously haunting, like what you’re reading is a fable or parable.

I first read this story in fall of 2009 while standing up in the Union Square Barnes & Noble with the issue of Realms of Fantasy pressed against my nose. “Come over here!” I said my friend, while I motioned wildly with my hand, “Harlan Ellison has a new story out!” My friend briskly walked over and she too put her nose in the issue and we read the story together there, side by side.

Then I promptly bought the issue and proceeded to go on a kick of rereading all my favorite Harlan Ellison stories. It wasn’t that I’d forgotten how much I liked “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” or “Deeper than Darkness,” it was that it was so good to be reading them again. Like Noel Gallagher says on the song “Hello.” It’s good to be back.

Here’s hoping Harlan gives us several more like these.

Ryan Britt’s writing has appeared here, in Clarkesworld Magazine, Nerve.com, and elsewhere. He met Harlan Ellison once years ago and hopes to again soon. He also saw Oasis live at Madison Square Garden just months before they split up for real.

Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
Thanks for the link--I just read it and you are quite right. "How Interesting: A Tiny Man" has the classic Ellison voice and flow to it.
Matthew B
2. MatthewB
"How Interesting: A Tiny Man" -- Based on the title, i'm guessing it's deeply autobiographical. At any rate, surely it can't be as good as his work on Star Wars. http://www.penny-arcade.com/2005/9/26/

Kidding, but if there's anyone in sff that needs to have the piss taken out of them at regular intervals, it's Ellison. He's got talent, for sure, but also ego and bluster in even greater abundance.
Fake Name
3. ThePendragon
Never read anything of his, but one thing I can say is, he is the worst Audiobook narrator in the history of the universe. He nearly ruined A Wizard of Earthsea for me. He needs to stop.
Greg McE
4. Greg McE
"Manifesto in Onyx"

You'll probably want to update this at some point; the title's actually "Mephisto in Onyx." (oops!)
Ryan Britt
5. ryancbritt
Greg- good catch. "Spell check" sometimes ruins our lives sometimes. I'm sure Harlan would agree.
Tudza White
6. tudzax1
The Pendragon, I agree with you on the Earthsea reading, Ellison absolutely sucks in that one. He has done lots of other reads that I really liked though. He reads his own stuff well. He did part of The Birthday of the World that was good.

I think he just needs to be matched to the correct material.
Irene Gallo
8. Irene
I’ve said this around here before but, what the hell.....
Harlan Ellison was my gateway drug, for sure. I had a two quarters and a bicycle that could take me to the Novel Exchange, a used bookstore in Port Jeff, Long Island. I bought a copy of I Have No Mouth based on the title alone. Two decades later I was the art director at Tor books. I have something to thank Ellison for.
Fake Name
9. ThePendragon

Well, I just realized he was in Ender in Exile, I think he's been Peter in all the books actually, and I just never noticed. He's actually fine there, since he doesn't do that crazy talking faster and faster bearthing loudly thing he does. He did that in 20,000 leagues as well, and it annoyed me there too.
Robert Morales
10. RobertMorales

Harlan just called me. He's famously incapable of logging on to sites like this one - long story - but he wanted me to post his thanks for your "gracious remarks." Not surprisingly, he's not familiar with Oasis, though.
Ryan Britt
11. ryancbritt
Thanks for you help on both fronts. I couldn’t be happier. Let me know where I should mail a copy of the album "What's the Story? (Morning Glory)" I have it on vinyl.
Greg McE
12. N. Mamatas
My first Ellisons also came from Port Jefferson, though Good Times Bookstore, not Novel Exchange.
Greg McE
13. TCWriter
Ellison served as a wakeup call for a teenager who'd been marinating in a pool of Clarke, Heinlein, etc.

Ellison's egotistical transgressions aside, his "Pay the Damned Writer" video is a powerful reminder to so many of today's "professional content generators" that nobody else is working for free, so why, exactly are writers expected to?
Greg McE
14. Allan Maurer
Harlan's audio readings of his own work are masterful. Despite all his bluster, he has created a body of work that transcends genre and is likely to be read long after we're all long gone.
Greg McE
15. Mark Atwood
I have not been a Harlan fan. His work never moved me, nor gave me any sort of sensawunda. His celebrated script for an episode of Star Trek was a piece of crap that was hateful of the themes and characters of the series. And I had this opinion of the man *before* I joined a very large club: people who have been yelled at and threatened with violence from him.

It turns out that he despises things like having someone take notes as he pontificates, or having someone fact check his stories, (which flies in the face of the only wise thing I consider him to have said: "You do not have the right to an opinion. You have the right to an INFORMED opinion".)

He hates computers, laptops, smartphones, the internet, email, and wikipedia.

He is a SF writer who hates the future his past grew into, hates the technology that makes the people of generations after his different from him, and hates the idea of anyone speaking other than him.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
16. tnh
Mark Atwood! Long time no. Thanks for summing up the standard cliches about Harlan: he disagrees with disagreement, sometimes colorfully; he's got a short fuse; he's still using that old manual typewriter; he's dubious about the internet; and he thinks the future could have turned out better than it did.

Two points. First, none of that is news. Second, it does nothing to explain why people have been talking about his writing, pretty much continuously, since he first got published.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
17. tnh
Mrburack @2, you may take it as a rule of thumb that people who think Harlan needs to have the piss taken out of him on general principles will not succeed in doing so. It's possible to carry your point in an argument with him about specific issues; but if you just think he needs to be taken down a peg or two, best quit before you start.
Steven Halter
18. stevenhalter
I thought the end of the story was nicely done--pick your own, either worked well.
I thought this was an interesting twist as opposed to "Jefty is Five". The end of Jefty seems ambiguous to a lot of people although in Shatterday, Harlan says that it is very clear.

As an aside and for a bit of balance, Harlan was the guest of honor at Minicon 41 in 2006. In all of the activities I saw him at, he was always polite, witty and respectful.
Greg McE
20. Karl Krogmann
Harlan matters. Harlan has always mattered.


Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment