What’s an Ellison? – A glimpse into the legend that is Harlan Ellison®

Gautham Shenoy May 26, 2018

Ask me, ‘Of all the science fiction writers still alive, if you were to choose just one person to spend a day with, who would that be?’ my answer is ready – Harlan Ellison. Here’s why.

A young Harlan Ellison during the time when he would write stories sitting in bookstores windows.

Harlan Ellison has a reputation as a raconteur. And I would let the (mostly) one-sided conversation take its own course, with him doing all the talking, about all the things I will be hoping he speaks about. Because I would be with the man who straddled many an era, one who grew up in the pulpy ‘golden age of science fiction’ and who contributed to defining the new wave of science fiction in the decades to come – not least with the greatest of all SF anthologies till date – and who’s steered the genre in many new directions with some of the most influential stories of all time across mediums in a career spanning over 60 years, including what is arguably the best Star Trek episode ever.

Harlan Ellison (smoking a pipe), with Arthur C. Clarke (left), Evelyn Gold, and the author of Psycho, Robert Bloch (right)

Harlan Ellison’s weapon of choice is the short story (though he’s written a handful of novels too). And he’s written almost 1,800 of them. I would confess to him my regret at not having read all of them, but the pleasure I got reading all the ones I have, which are must-reads for anyone who enjoys a well-written, thought-provoking read, especially SF fans. Like ‘I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream’, ‘Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman’, ‘The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World’, ‘The Deathbird’, ‘Jeffty is Five’, ‘The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World’, ‘Shatterday’, ‘The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore’ just to name a very few. I’d listen to him talk about his story, ‘Soldier From Tomorrow’, and his legal win over James Cameron because the story bore enough similarities with The Terminator for him to get his due, including his name in the credits.

Begin here: Some Harlan Ellison books to begin with.

I would love to listen to Harlan Ellison talk about his trysts with television and Hollywood, of which there are many. He was the creative consultant for Babylon 5, wrote scripts for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as also The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. But his finest turn for television is the greatest episode of Star Trek, The City on the Edge of Forever that sees Kirk and Spock time-travel to Depression-era New York to stop Dr McCoy from altering the timeline and helping the Nazis win World War II. Close behind is the story he wrote for the series Outer Limits, called ‘Demon With a Glass Hand’, about an amnesiac chased by aliens from the future who are after his hand (which just happens to be a sentient computer). And of course the 1975 cult classic, A Boy and His Dog, a poignantly depressing (depressingly poignant?) tale of a boy and his telepathic dog in a post-apocalyptic world.

Left: Harlan Ellison with Leonard Nimoy & William Shatner (with the photograph bearing their autographs). Right: Harlan with fellow SF writers, Norman Spinrad (left) and Robert Sheckley (right).

Any conversation with Harlan Ellison would be incomplete without talking about THE anthology – which would change peoples’ perception of science fiction of all the things it’s possible of – 1967’s Dangerous Visions for which he was the editor. Unlike many others, this wasn’t an anthology of previously published stories, but a collection of some of the most provocative stories written specifically for this anthology. Dangerous Visions was to the New Wave of science fiction what Bruce Sterling’s Mirrorshades anthology is to cyberpunk, and then some. As an editor, Ellison gave complete freedom to the writers in terms of subject, with no taboos. From Roger Zelazny, J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and Philip K. Dick to Philip José Farmer,  Fredrick Pohl, Fritz Leiber, Samuel R. Delaney and Norman Spinrad, Dangerous Visions featured 33 stories by the most imaginative writers of that time and has since become a timeless classic. This was followed by an even larger anthology in 1972 called ‘Again, Dangerous Visions’, again for which Harlan Ellison was the editor and which included original stories by Kurt Vonnegut, Joanna Russ, Gene Wolfe, a poem by Ray Bradbury, and most famously ‘The Word for World is Forest’ by Ursula K. Le Guin. If Harlan Ellison and I were to be talking to about these, I’d surely bring up the third book in this series, the mythical and legendary – but as yet unpublished anthology – The Last Dangerous Visions which was supposed to have been published in 1973 with the number of stories to be featured reported to be above a hundred(!), many of the authors of which have since passed away. It remains an anthology that Harlan Ellison has not yet given up on it is said. But I would be careful about bringing this topic up because it’s a subject that Harlan Ellison is prickly about.

Three must-read anthologies for every reader: Dangerous Visions, Again, Dangerous Visions, and Partners in Wonder, which features stories written by Harlan Ellison in collaboration with other great SF writers.

Speaking of prickly, Harlan Ellison is. A person like myself would have to tread a tad carefully around him for he does not suffer fools lightly (he once famously said, ‘The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity’). Known for holding his ground, speaking his mind, protective of his work & ideas because of which he is quick to sue (ask James Cameron), even trademarking his name, and speaking up for what he believes in without mincing any words has earned Harlan a reputation for being the most contentious man on the planet and the sobriquet of ‘science fiction’s most controversial figure’. Which would make a conversation with him that much more interesting.

What’s an Ellison?: Cartoon by Phil Foglio that accompanied an article by sci-fi writer David Gerrold in which Gerrold attempted to explain the widely divergent views people held about Harlan Ellison.

For he would then – hopefully – speak about the time he sent a copy of every single story he published, over the course of 20 years, to a creative writing professor who’d told him he’d wouldn’t amount to much because he didn’t have talent. About the time he went nose-to-nose with Frank Sinatra at a bar because Sinatra objected to the way Harlan was dressed and Harlan wouldn’t back down because he dressed to suit himself, not Sinatra or anyone else. About the time he got fired from Disney on the first day at work because the chairman overheard Harlan talking about making an animated porn movie starring Disney characters. About the time he sent a dead gopher in a mail to a publisher, purposely to arrive over a long weekend so the gopher would decompose some more in their office, Harlan’s way of getting back to them over a pay dispute. Controversial and cantankerous, abrasive and argumentative, these are words you’d hear said about Harlan Ellison, a man with his fair share of detractors – to put it mildly – so much so that Neil Gaiman once wished him happy birthday adding (tongue firmly in cheek surely), ‘It’s a miracle you’ve reached 82 without being assassinated’. All agree that Harlan Ellison’s heart is in the right place, and his genius never in doubt. An advocate of artist rights, and equality – he’s even marched with Martin Luther King in the famous Historic 1965 civil rights march – and ever supportive of young writers Harlan Ellison is known to be fiercely loyal and a great friend to have.

Harlan Ellison circa the mid-2000s.

And it is also because of this larger-than-life figure and the colourful personality he is, that Harlan Ellison is my first choice to spend a day with if given a chance. To sit back and listen, and appreciate the kaleidoscope that is Harlan Ellison. As Neil Gaiman notes in the 2008 documentary about Ellison, Dreams with Sharp Teeth, “I think all of Harlan’s work is actually a giant piece of performance art, called…Harlan Ellison.” And what better way to appreciate the art than a day with the artist himself?
With that it’s time to conclude this edition of New Worlds Weekly, but not before wishing Harlan Ellison a very happy birthday!

And Harlan Ellison, if you’re reading this, here’s a wish from us: ‘Live Long and Prosper!’


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