Friday, November 18, 2005

Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison is one of the really big names in science fiction/fantasy, though I gather that the man himself prefers to speak of 'speculative fiction'. Here is a brief list, taken from a page on what claims to be his official web site, of the honours and awards that have come his way:
In a career spanning more than 40 years, he has won more awards for the 75 books he has written or edited, the more than 1700 stories, essays, articles, and newspaper columns, the two dozen teleplays and a dozen motion pictures he has created, than any other living fantasist. He has won the Hugo award 8½ times, the Nebula award three times, the Bram Stoker award, presented by the Horror Writers Association, six times (including The Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996), the Edgar Allan Poe award of the Mystery Writers of America twice, the Georges Méliès fantasy film award twice, two Audie Awards (for the best in audio recordings), and was awarded the Silver Pen for Journalism by P.E.N., the international writer’s union (this prestigious accolade was presented for his columns in the L.A. Weekly, titled “An Edge in My Voice,” in defense of the First Amendment).
All of that being the case, you may be wondering why you haven't heard of him. And I have no ready explanation for that, though there are a few hints in the wind. First, it is said that 90% of his stuff is out of print. And second, he has a reputation for being, shall we say, difficult. The man clearly believes in free speech (see reference to First Amendment, above) but he does not like having his stuff used without remuneration. He was involved, for instance, in a 1980 landmark lawsuit: he sued ABC-TV and Paramount Pictures for $337,000 when they plagiarized a television series that he had created. This was the famous (in some quarters) Brillo/Future Cop case. And more recently he has taken on AOL.

'What Ellison does best', says one web site, 'is irritate people.' Ellison is not a tall person, says the same source, 'but he is very self-possessed and confrontational... When he stood up to give a reading at a convention a voice drifted to his ears: "Isn't he short?" To which Mister Ellison's immediate reply is reputed to have been (through gritted teeth), "I may be short, but I'm very tall when I stand on my ego." The disembodied (and much chastened) voice did not reply.'

If you search for Ellison's works, you will find plenty listed, but they almost all come from American publishers. My local library has almost nothing of his. Hence it took me some time, poking around in dusty old bookshops, to find a collection of short stories first issued in the UK in 1973 and reprinted in 1981.

Titled All the Sounds of Fear, this collection includes some of Ellison's most famous stories, particularly I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, and 'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman. The latter I regard as one of the most brilliant titles that I have ever come across, though personally I would have omitted the inverted commas.

In a short introduction to All the Sounds of Fear, Ellison says that the theme of alienation dominates the collection. And he is right. But, he adds, the stories 'are by no means stories of hopelessness.' Well, I'm not so sure about that.

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, the first story, is a strong contender for the title of blackest, darkest, bleakest story that I have ever read, describing, as it does, a future in which computers have taken over the world and preserve just one human life solely in order to inflict pain and suffering upon him.

The Ticktockman story did not, for me, live up to its title. And the last one in the book, Bright Eyes, is yet another vision of an apocalyptic future in which all human life is extinguished.

In short, I suspect that Harlan Ellison is a writer for true connoisseurs, hard-core fans of the genre, rather than the general reader. However, if you're tempted, you might begin by trying The Essential Ellison: a 50 Year Retrospective. It runs to more than 1200 pages, according to, though thinks it only has 152. I think the former authority is more likely to be correct, particularly as it supplies far more information about the book.


Peter L. Winkler said...

Harlan Ellison is a writer who I became acquainted with in the early 70s thanks to a wonderful radio show devoted to science fiction that emanated from a radio station only a few miles from my home in Norrth Hollywood, California.

Ellison can be a very entertaining speaker. He's a genuine performer, and a lot of fun to see in person.
He's also an excellent critic. I highly recommend his collected film reviews, HARLAN ELLISON'S WATCHING and his collection of newspaper columns WITH AN EDGE IN MY VOICE.

I'm not surpised he's not better known abroad, as there are obvious practical limitations to being able to do the personal appearances and media interviews he's engaged in so prolifically here over the years.

Ellison has also been less productive in the last 20 or so years due to health problems: chronic fatigue syndrome and a heart bypass a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

I judge the IQ level of new acqaintances by whether or not they have heard of HE. I can report I have 1 friend with an IQ in the triple digits. This would not be demoralizing if I weren't 67 years old and a reader for 62 of those years.

Diane White

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