Harlan Ellison

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com

Geek obsession: Speculative-fiction author Harlan Ellison

Why it’s daunting: Well, he’s written a fair amount. In a writing career that’s spanned six decades and nearly every conceivable storytelling medium (he probably hasn’t written any light opera… yet), Ellison has produced an impressive body of work, including short fiction, novellas, novels, non-fiction books, screenplays, teleplays, essays, newspaper columns, and critical reviews. His writing has been collected in anthologies, comic books, art books, and more. He’s been an editor, critic, and cultural commentator, wrote the original script for arguably the greatest Star Trek episode ever made, and once lost a job with the Walt Disney corporation for loudly, publicly theorizing about a possible pornographic animated movie featuring Tinkerbell, Minnie Mouse, and a whole host of Disney’s best and brightest. He marched with Martin Luther King, squabbled with Frank Sinatra, and mailed bricks to a bastard. If Superman existed, there’s every reason to believe Ellison would’ve tugged on his cape at some point. He’s impossible to discuss without resorting to increasingly hyperbolic lists. As such, finding a good place to start in such a mass of maddening, mystifying menace can be a little unnerving. 

Ellison’s sincerity has always been one of his best qualities, both as a writer and as a public personality. It’s possible to question his judgment, his perspective, or his sanity, but never doubt that he believes every word he says. And yet there’s something so clearly constructed about his public persona that it can be overwhelming and frustrating, especially for someone who finds that persona initially off-putting. Ellison’s best stories and essays stand on their own, yet he’s constantly filling the edges around them with quotes, explanations, and self-justifications. At worst, it can be like having someone stand over your shoulder as you read, constantly poking you in the back and saying, “Clever, right? Right? Right?” Also, Ellison’s reputation as a never-back-down ass-kicker is sometimes exhausting. Pick the wrong starting point, and it’s possible to walk away mystified by the man’s place in the genre pantheon, convinced he’s just another self-congratulatory ass who occasionally manages a clever turn of phrase. That would be a shame. There are wonders aplenty to be found in Ellison’s back catalog. The following is by no means intended as a definitive study—simply a place to begin that should keep even the most skeptical from running for the exits. 

Possible gateway: “The Deathbird,” from Deathbird Stories: A Pantheon Of Modern Gods (1975)

Why: It’s possible to read Ellison’s writing and only ever see the fists, half-cocked, and the grin, all teeth. It sure as hell seems like that’s all he wants you to see. It’s also possible to be utterly charmed by this, as thousands of budding science fiction and fantasy fans no doubt have been. The comfort of a strong-willed personality who speaks with forceful good humor about the injustices of the world can’t really be understated, and in his non-fiction writing, Ellison does a great job of pulling up a chair and radiating personality for however many thousands of words it takes to get his message across. But for readers not in the mood for the hard sell, this isn’t always an effective approach. The world these days is full of loud people firm in their belief that loudness alone makes them worth listening to, and it would be all too easy to lump Ellison undeservedly into that group. Much of his newspaper work is immediate and context-dependent, responding to cultural events or personal slights that seem hilariously dated or irrelevant today. 

So it makes more sense to start with his fiction. Ellison is always at his most playful, inventive, and universal in his short stories. “The Deathbird” is the final story in one of his best anthologies, a collection of tales that focus on the idea of new gods being created in modern society. “The Deathbird” plays to Ellison’s strengths, following a man as he makes his way across a ravaged earth, guided by a creature who has been falsely portrayed by ancient texts as a monster put on the planet to tempt humans into sin. Short essays and asides are woven throughout the narrative, questioning our connection to God, our understanding of Genesis, what it means to be responsible for another life, and how sometimes letting go is the only choice that love allows. One section of the story is a version of a column Ellison wrote about the death of his dog, Ahbhu. It’s nearly impossible to read without crying. Giving much more away would mean ruining the handful of surprises “The Deathbird” contains, but suffice to say it’s a moving meditation on necessity and grief, and it mixes science-fiction mythology with identifiable human concerns. There isn’t a single false note in the piece.

Ellison would be the last person to ask anyone to defend his work or justify why he writes what he writes, but he has a lot of writing out there, and some of it is a bit much. It would be too easy to get distracted by all the bravado and chest-puffing and miss the fact that buried underneath it is a terribly smart, terribly passionate author who has spent a good portion of his career typing as fast as he can over the sounds of his own perpetually breaking heart. “The Deathbird” isn’t the funniest story he ever wrote, or the cleverest, but it is rich and beautiful, and it’s an important piece of evidence that yes, this is someone who believes all of this matters, and no, he isn’t kidding around.  

Next steps:  The rest of Deathbird is generally excellent. Stories like “Shattered Like A Glass Goblin” and “Pretty Maggie Money-Eyes” give a good sense of the kind of work Ellison built much of his career on: smart story hooks; flashy, witty writing; and absolutely phenomenal titles. (Seriously, in a genre and an era when ornate, catchy story titles seemed to fill the pages of every magazine on the newsstand, Ellison’s always stand out. In some cases, the title is actually more of a justification for the story’s existence than the story itself.) Nearly all Ellison’s story collections revolve around a main theme, and Deathbird makes the most of the principle, depicting a world where selfish, capricious new deities elbow aside the selfish, capricious deities of the past, fighting for space in a public consciousness defined by cowardice, greed, and fast cars. 

Just about any Ellison collection (Strange Wine, Angry Candy, Slippage, and so on) is worth a look, but for the neophyte eager and willing to embrace his studies, it’s hard to beat The Essential Ellison. This massive tome, first published in the late ’80s, is out of print now, which will make it more difficult to track down, but it’s more than worth the effort. It collects a thorough, expansive selection of his essays and fiction from various points in his career. Editor Terry Dowling (along with Richard Delap and Gil Lamont) groups pieces by the themes which have run through Ellison’s writing from the start, providing crucial context and a clear sense of Ellison’s entire oeuvre through only a fraction of his work. In Essential are other can’t-miss works like “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” which shows a possible endpoint for human/computer relations; “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said The Ticktockman,” a prankster’s assault on an Orwellian future; “A Boy And His Dog,” one of Ellison’s best-known novellas, about a young man and a dog paired up in an apocalyptic wasteland; and more. 

The book ends with “Driving In The Spikes,” which would actually serve equally well as a gateway to Ellison’s work, albeit for different reasons. First published in 1983, “Spikes” is an essay about how to take appropriate revenge upon enemies. Anyone looking for a better example of the public image of Harlan Ellison need look no further, as the essay is chockfull of his signature, won’t-back-down-no-matter-how-bad-it-gets outlook. Ellison details the manner in which he got what he wanted out of a publishing house that violated his contract by printing cigarette ads in paperbacks of his writing, and while it’s hard to argue that Ellison wasn’t justified in seeking redress, or that he failed to exhaust all avenues before proceeding, there’s something unnerving about it as well. Normal humans have to rest sometime; normal humans waver in the face of monolithic disdain. And while it would be swell to believe that Ellison puts up the good fight because he’s a hero and a friend to the little guy, the truth seems a lot more complicated. Where “The Deathbird” represents Ellison at his most sage and wise, “Driving In The Spikes” is the snot-nosed brat who keeps pulling the rug out from underneath all those noble intentions. The tension between these two personae is what drives Ellison’s work, and what makes him so frustrating and fascinating: a tough guy forever obsessed with maintaining his guard, even as he spends his life spilling his guts on the page, one word at a time.

Where not to start: To date, Ellison’s only official film screenwriting credit is on the 1966 bomb The Oscar. Two other writers worked on the script, and the movie, a rags-to-riches Hollywood story starring Stephen Boyd, Elke Sommer, and Milton Berle, is by all accounts terrible. The Oscar may be of interest to SCTV fans—the show parodied it as The Nobel—but as an introduction to Ellison’s work, it's pretty much the pits.

Filed Under: Books, Star Trek

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