Harlan Ellison, Grand Master of Science Fiction & Fantasy, 1934-2018

“For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered.”

Harlan Ellison, author, screenwriter, and grand master of science fiction and fantasy, has passed on June 28th, 2018 at the age of 84. Via legal representative and photographer Christine Valada:

Whether he was shouting love at the heart of the world or screaming because he had no mouth, Harlan Ellison brought noise into not only the field of SFF, but the universe of storytelling itself. 

Part runaway, part punk, the education of Harlan Ellison didn’t necessarily predict greatness. He was a dockworker, a gang member, a circus hand, an expelled student, and member of the armed forces all before he was 25 years-old. Crisscrossing from his native Ohio, to New York City, Ellison eventually settled in Los Angeles, where he lived from 1962 until the present day. It was this proximity to Hollywood which involved Ellison in writing for the screen, leading to famous (and infamous) stories sold to the likes of  The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

None of these writing jobs happened without notable kerfuffle, and like a science fiction rock-star, Ellison’s dust-ups with the powers-that-be are almost as famous as his writing. Think the movie The Terminator bears some similarity to a few Harlan Ellison short stories? So did he, and successfully sued and settled with James Cameron over the issue. Historically, Ellison disparaged Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry for the way his famous “City On the Edge of Forever” Trek script had been rewritten without his permission. Though, in the last several years, Ellison seemed to ease-up on his vitriol toward Trekkies and gleefully participated in two different adaptations of the story, one as a new audio play for Skyboat Media, and another, new version of his first “City” script, beautifully illustrated by IDW comics.

If Ellison was outspoken about the treatment of his work, it was because he believed firmly that writing should be a job, and a respected one at that. In a memorable phone conversation between myself and the author, he mentioned that writing shouldn’t be looked upon as a “holy chore,” but rather as real work. If Ellison earned a reputation for defending the rights of writers, he did so because he believed firmly in the importance of keeping the business of writing an honest profession. Like laying brick, or working in a factory, Harlan Ellison believed writing too, was a simply a job, and one that has to be labored at seriously in order to be done well.

The fleetingness of brilliance, the hard-earned success of a writer in the face of repeated rejection, is summed up brilliantly in this Ellison quip: “The trick isn’t becoming a writer. The trick is staying a writer.” Ellison’s belief in hard work being key to overcoming all obstacles was at the core of everything he did. And the evidence is in his staggeringly prolific output. Despite authoring countless short story collections and novels, Ellison was also an outspoken columnist, a television consultant on Babylon 5, and a considerably famous editor of anthologies. In 1967, Ellison edited Dangerous Visions, a volume that pushed the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy writing, including stories from Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany and an introduction from none other than Isaac Asimov. Dangerous Visions was notable not just for the fiction, but also for the charming essays Ellison wrote introducing each story. He repeated this trick with the anthology’s sequel, Again, Dangerous Visions, which expanded to include stories from Ursula K. Le Guin, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others. In these books, sometimes Ellison’s elaborate and verbose introductory essays about each writer are more memorable than the short stories themselves.

What can be said of Harlan Ellison’s work itself though? What defines a Harlan Ellison story? Well, some are straightforward science fiction conceits which ask simply “what if?” (What if a man who starts fires with his mind were asked to destroy a star? In “Deeper than Darkness,” we’re faced with just that question.) But sometimes the stories are more slippery, harder to pinpoint, like “Mefisto in Onyx,” where a young telepath begins to confuse his identity with that of a serial murder. Indeed the famous “I Have No Mouth and Must Scream,” initially reads like a straight horror story—a computer is torturing people—but ends up as a stranger meditation on what pain is really all about, and how expression is the only outlet we truly have for it. What happens when that expression is taken away?

It would be a bizarre disservice to write an obituary for Harlan Ellison, and not mention his most famous story, “ ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” In this one, a future enslaved under strict schedules is invaded by a rogue figure intent on destroying the “system.” If Harlan Ellison was constantly presenting his middle finger to the establishment—whether that was science fiction, writing schools, Hollywood, or just an authority in general—then he is well represented by the trickster Harlequin, who flings jellybeans into the cogs of the Orwellian machines. Jellybeans!

We can only hope, when Ellison approaches the gates of the afterlife, that they know what they’re in for. After he basically wrestled the future to the ground, how could the afterlife possibly prepare for Harlan Ellison? And what will they do if he’s armed with a bag of jellybeans?

Photo: Harlan Ellison at the Harlan Ellison Roast. L.A. Press Club July 12, 1986. Los Angeles, California. Photo by Pip R. Lagenta used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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