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Harlan Ellison®, For the Greater Good
by Carol Cooper
Blend the socio-economic concerns of Dickens, the grim speculations of Poe and the ironic racial perspective of Nella Larsen and you might come close to the creative sensibility of Harlan Ellison®. But he has always done things no other writers do. The way Ellison uses volcanic emotion to enhance plot is his own invention, and as such is perhaps the best reason for his fiction to be added to our mainstream literary canon. The only real obstacle to such “canonization” appears to be the lingering perception of Ellison as a niche author, whose most popular works fall into categories variously tagged science fiction or fantasy. And yet it would be as unfair to judge Ellison’s talent only by his science fiction as it would be judge Shakespeare’s only by his comedies. And if Shakespeare’s substantial creative interest in supernatural and mythic themes were used to marginalize his writing as often as Ellison is marginalized for similar interests, Shakespeare’s existing body of work may never have been preserved to the present day.
I was only nine or 10 when I read my first Harlan Ellison® short story. I remember sitting in the sunny reading room of the Newark public library while tears streamed down my face at the deceptively simple request Ellison’s protagonist makes at the end of “Blind Lightning”: “Show me a star…”
This was back in the mid-1960s, long before huge omnibus collections of Ellisonia like 2001’s Essential Ellison existed, and before Susan Ellison strategically trademarked her husband’s name to facilitate profitable re-issues of out of print classics. But from that time to this the emotional insight so crucial to Ellison’s fiction and teleplays has moved me to tears more often than I’d like to admit.
He can do it with a single impossibly elegant sentence:
Her eyes were a shade of grey between onyx and miscalculation.
— From “On the Downhill Side”
It might have been simpler, had he been a good man.
— From “Daniel White for the Greater Good”
Three of us had vomited, turning away from one another in a reflex as ancient as the nausea that had produced it.
— From “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream”
Twenty-three, and determined as hell never to abide in that vale of poverty her mother had called purgatory her entire life; snuffed out in a grease fire in the last trailer, somewhere in Arizona, thank God no more pleas for a little money from babygirl Maggie hustling drinks in a Los Angeles topless joint.
— From “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”
A Harlan Ellison® story never promises you an easy read, only a brutally honest one. This gift for pushing people’s emotional buttons is Harlan’s signature trait in life as well as on the printed page. His memories of being a bullied kid, then a frequent teen runaway from Painesville, Ohio are always close to the surface of Harlan’s tales of revenge and hard knocks. The hardscrabble ambition of Ellison’s younger self is part of what drives the aspiring rockabilly star in Ellison’s neo-realist novel Spider’s Kiss (1961) and similarly motivates the homicidal sentient computer AM in “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”(1967). These tales are convincing in part because Ellison knows as much about what it takes to be a villain as about what it takes to be a hero, and can be equally unsentimental about either role. Experiential knowledge of human nature can make one cynical and Ellison is nothing if not an astute student of human nature. Critics would be right to notice that many of his protagonists are deeply flawed and unlikable people. But the point Ellison is making is that even the biggest fuckups can sometimes find the inner strength to make an ethical choice.
And insofar as his nonfiction, whether he’s talking about marching with Dr. King in Alabama, time spent infiltrating street gangs, or his personal brand of atheism or feminism while working the college lecture circuit, Harlan never wants to inspire indifference or neutrality. As author, mentor, and cultural gadfly, Harlan forces you to love or hate him. This is a mixed blessing for his career legacy, for although his refusal to be less polarizing wins him awards and defenders, it also attracts a steady stream of criticism, lawsuits and enemies.
I, however, aim to take a more positive look at Harlan’s reputation as editor and wordsmith; simply boiled down to his lifelong support of emerging talent, and his own proven ability to describe the darker aspects of our modern world with economy of structure and unanticipated beauty. I first met Harlan Ellison when he taught 27 of us aspiring writers during our third week at a Clarion Writer’s Workshop hosted by Michigan State University in 1974. As his colleague Samuel R. Delany likes to say, it is hard for anyone who was not a part of Science Fiction fandom in the 1970s—as a creator or a consumer—to understand the amount of genre leadership and influence Ellison had accrued by that time.
His 1967 invitation-only anthology Dangerous Visions, successfully changed the hitherto accepted thematic and stylistic limitations of science fiction and fantasy. It won every sort of award, and thereby made its diverse contributors members of a de facto literary vanguard. By the time Again, Dangerous Visions appeared in 1972, it was clear that Ellison wasn’t only crusading for fresher subject matter for SF, he was also seeking fresher, younger more, culturally diverse authors. Some stories he bought for A,DV were first time sales and launched careers.
Himself rooted in the collegial environment of 30s pulp and comicbook fandom, he started teaching amateur writers in formal workshops or convention feedback sessions, helping the best of them get published. Octavia Butler and Bruce Sterling are only two of the most influential iconoclasts he mentored.
As I remember from Clarion, Ellison’s teaching style was intense, highly anecdotal, comprehensive, and constructive…athough getting past harsh roundtable critiques to the constructive part could be tough! Yet many professional writers emerged from those sessions. Often Ellison would teach by example, writing or rewriting his own new story during the workshop and offering it to the roundtable process. My year at Clarion he wrote the oddly compassionate pro-vasectomy story “Croatoan.”
That Harlan was willing to play nursemaid to raw wannabes while still writing his own fiction, making endless public appearances, engaging in political activism, editing the five-novel Harlan Ellison Discovery Series, and writing teleplays, series pilots, obits, introductions, journalistic essays and magazine criticism, is a tribute to his unwavering dedication to creative excellence. Consultant stints on a revived Twilight Zone and the series Babylon 5 took him through the early 90’s, but a 1994 earthquake and heart surgery in 1996 served to slow Ellison’s world-famous roll a little bit. High-profile activities plus the provocative nature of his professional persona saw him fighting—and winning—court battles large and small, always to protect a creator’s ownership and autonomy over his own work. First AOL then Gary Groth (of Fantagraphics and the Comics Journal) succumbed to Ellison’s relentless legal pursuit. But nowadays, most readers would rather Ellison redirect energy spent on big corporate battles, WGA picket lines, and playing whack-a-mole with websites that pirate his work towards new editing, writing or teaching projects.
Having won a Nebula Award for his 2010 short story “How Interesting: A Tiny Man,” and amazed (as he recently told WBAI-FM interviewer Jim Freud) by favourable new reviews for his fifty year-old Sex Gang excerpts, Ellison, now 78, is at an interesting crossroads. A penchant for combining social realism with myth and fantasy was always the hallmark of Ellisonian style whether deployed in an Outer Limits episode like “Demon with a Glass Hand” (a foundational text for James Cameron’s Terminator franchise), or in short fiction like 1987’s “Soft Monkey, a tale of crime and homelessness in 1980s New York.
“City on the Edge of Forever,” an episode Ellison wrote for the original Star Trek series, took viewers back to depression-era America then broke our hearts with its simultaneous contemplation of a thwarted romance and a thwarted alternate history in which World War II might have been averted. If mainstream entertainment is finally ready to appreciate a more sophisticated brand of emotion-driven hyperreality, Ellison may find himself sitting on a gold mine of important source material.
Carol Cooper is a freelance culture critic at the Village Voice. She is the author of Pop Culture Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race. She lives in New York City.