Harlan is inescapable.
I spoke, by phone, with Harlan only once on a cold February night in 1995; but what I discovered while preparing for this panel is, for me, Harlan has always been present, sometimes where I never expected. It's a bit creepy. But it is also, in a strange (Strange Wine) sort of way, encouraging - even oddly comforting.
For all of his 5’2”, 5’4”, or (per his own claim) 5’5” of Napoleonic height, he has been a giant in “science fiction” (a term, we should note, he loathed while simultaneously recognizing his debt to the field and its fans) since his earliest days as a teenage convention fan until… well, even now, after his passing, as we gather together here at Arisia for this In Memoriam, and I suspect for decades perhaps centuries to come.
Ellison the man is as legendary as his creative works and both have been the subject of much acclaim and controversy and even, on occasion, condemnation.
In the revolutionary/evolutionary 1960’s, with award-winning stories like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, “’Repent Harlequin,’” Said the Ticktockman,” and A Boy and His Dog and with his seminal anthology Dangerous Visions, Harlan both led and shepherded the "New Wave" authors of science fiction - at least its sharper edge. His subject matter and skillful meticulous prose revealed the darker id-driven human underbelly of our times. He uncovered and shook in our faces the Jeffrey Dahmer corpse cutlets stocked within the freezer of Ozzie and Harriet.
For we who were initiated into science fiction by Golden Age authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Hal Clement and others who raised our eyes to the stars by the wonders and brighter future promised by science and technology, Harlan and his New Wave compatriots grabbed our chins and thrust our attention down into the gutter and drew our thoughts inward to issues of social consciousness, societal pretensions and injustices, and the gritty passions beneath our veneer of civility - both individually and as a species; “the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/that flesh is heir to” upon which the Bard long-ago lamented.
Harlan brought our attention to the unaddressed un-redressed rot in our society, our species, with a tap to the cheek - albeit one with brass knuckles. He skewered our innocence and our naiveté while simultaneously thrilling us with his schadenfreude “Angry Candy” (fyi, a title of one of his later story collections that he borrowed from the last line of e. e. cummings' poem the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls:
“… the/moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy.”
The New Wave authors like Harlan demonstrated the power present through the vehicle of science fiction to convey meaning, not only by what was said but how it was said - i.e. the choice of narrative style, voice, tone, sentence structure, even words. Value and merit in story-telling once thought to be only the purview of “literary” fiction was, is, present in these tales. By this art, “genre” fiction was elevated. These speculative tales could be emotionally devastating, forcing the reader to ponder real human conceits and concerns on subjects ranging from prejudice, social injustice, and morality - even loyalty and love as, I submit, anyone who has read Ellison’s short story of love after the nuclear apocalypse, A Boy and His Dog, knows.
Harlan was... complex: outspoken, articulate, and unpredictable. His personality was one of stark contrasts, per those who knew him best. He was a man of:
“…intense loyalties, volcanic outbursts … a life that from the outside at least often appeared to be lived id first. ... To say he was complicated is not to mitigate his failings or to minimize his successes. It’s more to say that he lived his life enormously, in all directions.” – John Scalzi, LA TIMES JUN 28, 2018 | 3:15 PM
If one ascribes to the validity of the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator personality assessment, Harlan may likely have been of the rare INTJ personality type. That is, Introversion, Intuition, Thinking, Judgment.
INTJ types tend to believe that with effort, intelligence and consideration, nothing is impossible, while at the same time they believe that people are too lazy, short-sighted or self-serving to actually achieve those fantastic results. Yet that cynical view of reality is unlikely to stop an interested INTJ from achieving a result they believe to be relevant.
Rules, limitations and traditions are anathema to the INTJ personality type – everything should be open to questioning and reevaluation, and if they see a way, INTJs will often act unilaterally to enact their technically superior, sometimes insensitive, and almost always unorthodox methods and ideas. – 16 Personalities.com
[Note: Harlan is actually quoted under the definition for the INTJ personality type at this website].
It has been proposed that the INTJ personality carries a risk for clinical depression. Regardless of one’s acceptance or skepticism of Myers-Brigg personality indicators, Harlan sadly did suffer from, and was clinically diagnosed with, clinical depression. I am not proposing this excuses his excesses, moments of insensitivity to others, or impulsive untoward behavior, but I do suggest it provides insight and a better objective understanding of the Harlan the man – and perhaps some of his stories; The Deathbird, for example. This 1974 Hugo winning novelette was written after the passing of his deeply beloved dog Abu - who was also Ellison’s inspiration for the telepathic canine Blood, in A Boy and His Dog and its pre/sequels.
Harlan’s been accused of being a womanizer and even a misogynist (e.g. for A Boy and His Dog), and yet Harlan wrote strong women characters such as Spike in Blood’s A Rover. Harlan protested for women’s rights and for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. He marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama. He also demanded that writers be paid and respected for their work.
He fought on behalf of all of us for recognition that writing is work – and that we, as writers, need acknowledge this as well. On the latter, as eulogized by Tor.com contributor Ryan Britt [Jun 28, 2018], Harlan was quite clear:
“…writing shouldn’t be looked upon as a ‘holy chore,’ but rather as real work… one that has to be labored at seriously in order to be done well.”
And much like a professional athlete,
"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.”
Apt words. Ones that I find myself contemplating quite often, presently. Well, perhaps “ruminating” would be the more appropriate gerund as I add my most recent rejection letter to the file I’ve accumulated this past year.
Is Harlan still relevant? I am of that “certain age " (i.e. a baby boomer). I suckled at The Glass Teat and have read SF and followed the SF community for over a half-century during which Harlan cast a tall shadow, one darker and deeper that those of the Golden Age greats who came before him. Per Darrell Schweitzer in a recent review of the Ellison biography A Lit Fuse:
“some booksellers have (said) that Ellison’s work is not ‘transgenerational’ and the kids today can’t make any sense of it” - The New York Review of Science Fiction – APR 2018
I am uncertain if this is true, but as I write and edit during this latter third of my life, for me Harlan is even more relevant. He shouts:
that good writing is work;
that as creative artists we have a responsibility to respect that our work has value and we should be paid for it;
that our work is ours. Changes to our work requires our consent;
that we have a responsibility not only to our craft but to our fellow on our little dustball, to awaken each other to injustices, to shake up society (and each other) where and whenever we need to be shaken;
to be wary of censorship;
to oppose ignorance and the false belief of entitlement:
"You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.'
In preparing for this Arisia 2019 convention panel In Memoriam: Harlan Ellison, Harlan surprised me yet again:
I discovered that he’d been present, even inescapable, during all my more than half-century exposure to SFF. He'd been with me from the start - unknowingly to me, insidiously.
The very first two SF books I read as a child were The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey and Revolt on Alpha C by Robert Silverberg. Harlan had roomed with Lester and his wife in New York when he was starting out as a writer, and he was tuckerized as “Harl Ellison” in what was Bob Silverberg's first published novel.
In addition, one of my own earliest fantasy discoveries and writing influences was the Weird Tales author and poet Clark Ashton Smith. CAS, "the Emperor of Dreams," was a lesser known contemporary of the more famous and infamous H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame); and yet here again Harlan, my personal “Kilroy,” was there first:
I have no hesitation in saying had it not been for Clark Ashton Smith and the wonders he revealed to me, at that precise moment of my youth in which I was most malleable, most desperate for direction, I might well have gone in any one of the thousand other directions taken by my contemporaries, and wound up infinitely poorer in spirit, intellect, prestige and satisfaction than I am today. As I owe a great debt to science fiction as a whole, to fandom as a particular, and to the other writers who encouraged me in my work ... I owe the greatest of debts to Clark Ashton Smith, for he truly opened up the universe for me.
– Letter on Clark Ashton Smith, by Harlan Ellison, from Emperor of Dreams: A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography, Donald Sidney-Fryer. Donald M. Grant, 1978.
As for that long ago winter night’s conversation between Harlan and me “when biting Boreas, fell and doure / Sharp shivers thro’ the leafless bow’r,” I’ve yet to share it with anyone outside the family. Therefore, for now, I will first reserve it for the attendees to our upcoming Arisia panel. I’ll say only that, at the time, when I was self-consumed with my medical career and family, I’d yet to learn the lessons Uncle Harlan had been expounding upon for decades that I briefly mention above. On that lonesome dark winter night when the Maine winds blew Arctic cold and whipped snow against the windowpanes, I experienced both extremes of his legendary personality.
And was made the better for it.
Harlan, not unexpectedly, wrote his own epitaph:
“For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered.” —Harlan Ellison, 1934-2018
I think he sells himself short.
[ I know. He’d likely verbally bludgeon, bruise, choke, and castrate me for the innocent use of that particular adjective. :D ]
SOME ELLISON VIDEO LINKS:
Film-related - On Himself:
Dreams With Sharp Teeth — an excerpt “Pay the Writer” is (paradoxically) free to view on You Tube, but I can hear Harlan screaming from beyond the grave, “pay to watch on Amazon Prime or buy the DVD, schmucks!”
Nightcap: Conversations on the Arts and Letters. Interview with Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, and Gene Wolfe on SF (1982).
Harlan Ellison's Watching — Episode about his friend Isaac Asimov one year after the Good Doctor's passing (1994). Note: All of Harlan Ellison’s Watching videos from the SYFY Channel are also present. “I’m a writer not a science fiction writer.”
Tomorrow Show with Tom Synder “Why Television is For Morons” — Harlan mentions his revenge upon a professor who told Harlan he couldn’t write. Also on Hollywood, Television executives; and his low-BS threshold.
Audio Interview: Harlan Talks About Writing Short Stories and Storytelling — Harlan on the audiobook production of his original teleplay for The City on the Edge of Forever. (2014) “I’m a show off…I grew up on radio… “
Audio: Harlan Ellison and Robin Williams — As one interviewer states, “Harlan Ellison, the only man in history to out-talk Robin Williams.”
Audio: Harlan Ellison Interview 1973 — Harlan speaks about his early life as an author in the last years of pulp magazine while living with Lester Del Rey.
Audio: The City of the Singing Flame by Clark Ashton Smith — read by Harlan Ellison.