A week ago today, Harlan Ellison passed away at the age of 84. The author had suffered a stroke and a heart attack in recent years, so this wasn’t completely unexpected news, but it was indeed a shock to hear that the great writer was gone.
I have mixed feelings about this.
On the one hand, Ellison was one of the greatest writers of his time. Amid the churning seas of science fiction in the 1950s, Ellison stood as not just one of the true visionaries, but he also imbued his fiction with a philosophical and literary bent that stood well apart of the pulpy action stories being published at the time. His style grew and evolved throughout the ’60s, and ’70s, helping to form the blossoming “New Wave” of science fiction with a slew of excellent stories: “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World,” “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes,” “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” and about a thousand other stories with similarly outlandish titles. To say nothing of more mild-titled stories like “Jefty is Five, “A Boy and His Dog,” “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin,” or his editorial work on Dangerous Visions, or the TV episodes he wrote for Star Trek (“City on the Edge of Forever”) or The Outer Limits. Even into the ’80s and ’90s, Ellison was writing short stories that would impact the genre and contributing to Babylon 5.
On the other hand, we have the Legend That Is Harlan Ellison®: the man who made his name a registered trademark; who mailed four pallets of bricks to a publisher, postage due, followed by a dead groundhog sent fourth-class mail; who sued James Cameron over The Terminator having similarities to two of his Outer Limits screenplays. Ellison could be called “cantankerous” at best, and at worst, he’d be called something unfit for print. The man loved being a ribald rebel, and at least one volume’s dustjacket proclaimed him “possibly the most contentious person on Earth.” Ellison had little patience and did not suffer fools lightly, and his sharp-wit and vicious tongue would lash vengeance upon any who opposed (or annoyed) him, often landing him in hot water. He had a high opinion of himself, a short fuse, and raging ego; those elements lead to various confrontations chronicled first in the pages of fanzines, then on blogs and livejournals in our brave new internet age.
That, then, is Harlan Ellison, equally loved and loathed: a mix of great literary SF writer, the genre’s cantankerous weird uncle, a real-life Puck, and an internet troll (pre-internet). This is, after all, a man who went undercover in a Brooklyn street gang to write some of his first stories, crime fiction like these two books or this Hard Case Crime volume. Ellison was a ’60s radical who called Texas A&M graduates “America’s next generation of Nazis;” he marched on Selma and helped launch the career of Octavia Butler… and would use those as his first defense whenever he was criticized by women of color or when he used racially insensitive language. Ellison reminds me a lot of the beat writers, not just because he was a talented writer but because he was also a kind of chauvinist dinosaur. Ellison was the ultimate irreverent gonzo writer, a man who refused to conform to anyone else’s norms and gave less than zero fucks about it.
If you scrape away the self-aggrandizement, indulgent prefaces, and art-for-art’s-sake pretension, the best parts of Deathbird Stories and Ellison Wonderland are just masterful. The Essential Ellison or Top of the Volcano are hefty volumes of short fiction, both chock full of greatness. Harlan Ellison was a great writer. He was also a wild, angry, litigious, curmudgeonly prick. Luckily it’s not a requirement to enjoy an author’s personality as much as their writing, and while Ellison may have alienated some readers I’d still highly recommend many of his stories.
A few links to remember Harlan Ellison:
- The time that Charles Platt covered a libel case against Ellison based on comments he made in the Comics Journal
- The time Ellison physically assaulted Charles Platt at a convention for unrelated offenses
- The time he got into a scrap with the folks from Penny Arcade over and around the word “Foolscap”
- The time he was fired from Disney on his first day, after joking about using their animated characters to make pornography
- The time he bought stories from over 150 writers for The Last Dangerous Visions and then proceeded to sit on them for over forty years without publishing them
- The time he groped Connie Willis at the 2006 Hugos
- The time he called K. Tempest Bradford an “NWA” and wanted to “bitch-slap” her, from him misunderstanding something posted on her blog
- The time he invaded Rachel Manija Brown’s personal space, too
- The time he raged at Warner Brothers because they wanted to include a short interview on a Babylon 5 DVD without paying him
- Harlan Ellison Dies at 84; Prolific, Irascible (Science) Fiction Writer
- John Scalzi on the famously curmudgeonly and irascible Harlan Ellison