Harlan Ellison - A Voice from the Edge Gone Silent

Harlan Ellison died yesterday, peacefully, in his sleep, at the age of 84 - one of the few things he's done peacefully in his 70+ years of working, writing, and living. Harlan was one of the great men of our time, often characterized as "the dark prince of American letters" and "the most contentious man in America". He was no stranger to controversy - often inviting it in like a family welcomes its cousins in at Thanksgiving, only more frequently - and was as well-known for his excellent short stories as he was for his explosive temper. Harlan was one of my idols, right up there with Frank Zappa, Bruce Lee, my father, etc. I'm going to tell you as much about him as I can until grief stays my hand.

If you're looking for an unabridged biography on Harlan, you had better keep looking. He lived one of those special lives, the kind of life every man and woman ought to strive for - the kind of life you can't capture in a cinematic biopic. It was chaotic, it was ever changing, and there were far too many significant moments and wild stories to include in two hours. What's the best story, when he got in a public argument with Frank Sinatra? When he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery? When he sued ABC and Paramount Pictures for plagiarism - and won? When he mailed a dead gopher to the comptroller of a publishing company? When he ran away from home and drove a dynamite truck in North Carolina at the age of 13? When he ran with a kid gang on the deadly streets of New York and acted as war counselor for them? When he walked away from a $4,000-a-week job writing stories for television?

No, there's really no feasible way for me to collect everything the man did, although I'm sure I'll pepper some of the stories in here haphazardly. Instead, I'll start off with a story related above, wherein Harlan was giving a college lecture and happened to mention Dachau. After he was finished, a young woman raised her hand and said she was unfamiliar with Dachau. She asked "who was Dachau?" In a room of approximately 200 people, about half of them had never heard of Dachau. 

Take a moment's pause here, and ask yourself: are you familiar with Dachau? What about Bergin Belsen? How about Buchenwald? Nothing yet? Have you heard of Treblinka?

Have you heard of Auschwitz?

Nearly every time I recount this story to someone, I have to get all the way down to Auschwitz before someone realizes that I'm talking about some of the most notorious Nazi death camps. I know, I know, many of you are thinking "come on, how could someone not know Dachau?" But some of you are sheepishly closing the opened Google tab where you've searched for the meaning of those words, those words you and everyone in the world ought to know by now. I'm disappointed; Harlan was appalled. It's cultural illiteracy, and it's affecting more than just the field of science fiction. It's about all of us, the collective dumbing-down of society.

Episodes like this serve to illustrate, about as well as anything else, why Harlan was so mad all the time. Stories about him assailing idiotic fans, menacing television producers, and haranguing politicians abound. About ten percent of the tweets about him on the day he died were about how he pissed someone off, and good riddance to him, and so on and so forth. Harlan went to bed angry every night, and woke up angrier every day. You could sit him down for an interview, mention how he'd written more than 70 books and 1,700 short stories and essays, and he'd verbally castigate you for having the unmitigated audacity to call him "prolific". Harlan wrote what is universally considered the single best Star Trek episode, and almost didn't put his name on it because he hated what Gene Roddenberry did to his award-winning script. Heaven forbid you called him a science fiction writer. He hated Star Wars and Christmas.

I know that anger.

Harlan went out the same day five people at a newspaper were gunned down by a madman, while the networks immediately looked for a political figure to blame. We live in a world where the boiling saucepan of divisiveness is threatening to bubble over into chaotic violence. Studies have shown that people are far more likely to read the headline of an internet news article and take it as gospel than to even bother clicking and reading the entire piece. Other studies have shown that the percentage of American adults who read literature has fallen to at least a three-decade low. Higher education has, paradoxically, become so critical for employment that it has practically devalued the college degree, while also becoming more and more expensive. Healthcare costs have skyrocketed while the price of a 70-inch plasma flat screen television has become affordable enough that now everyone - yes, even you, you with your wallet open, your jaw slack, and your mind shut! - can tune into Dr. Oz and The Orville. The level of arrogant stupidity, hypocrisy, and mendacity in today's society is, at times, both mortifying and humiliating. I can safely say there is an edge in my voice.

Despite that fury, I'm an optimist. No, seriously. Scout's honor. Cross my heart 'n hope to die after 80-odd years of happy, healthy, productive living. As cynical as I may seem at times, I really trust people implicitly, and it hasn't burned me very often. Believe it or not, those who really knew Harlan well would admit that even if he was a troublemaker and a pain-in-the-ass sometimes, he was one of the warmest, most generous, most loving people they knew. He helped hide war protesters in a secret room under his house, he saved The Turtles from getting arrested, he refused to visit states that wouldn't ratify the ERA, he freely loaned large sums of money to aspiring writers, and he stood staunchly against racism and sexism. As often as the human race let Harlan down, as convinced as he was that we were approaching oblivion, he believed in people. He wouldn't write if he didn't believe in people; all of his stories were, at heart, about men and women. He wasn't writing for gerbils, for crying out loud. Like E.M. Forster famously said: "only connect." Every story he wrote was intended to convey some sort of message, to teach some sort of lesson, in the hopes that we might be able to learn and grow and better ourselves in some capacity.

I think that's one of the reasons I like everything he wrote. For all the hopeless despair present in stories like "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," there are moments of tender vulnerability in "Susan", optimism for the outcast in "Deeper Than Darkness," mortal gravity in "Paladin of the Lost Hour," and wistful nostalgia in "Jeffty Is Five," my personal favorite short story ever written. By and large, however, there are not many feelgood stories in Harlan's bibliography. He was a man who collected all the sounds of fear, the ache of loneliness, the pain of ostracization, the futility of bigotry, and - more than anything else - the spirit of wonder, and put them all on foolscap for us to gobble up like Baby Bear's porridge. By holding up a mirror to society and turning it slightly askew for the sake of imaginative fiction, he was able to strike at the heart of his day's problems while also stimulating the creative parts of the brain. Harlan's stories came from the land of fear and shocked us into taking a good, hard look at ourselves. He encouraged us to drink strange wine, run for the stars, and stand alone against tomorrow as the dangerous visions that he and his partners in wonder concocted sent us over the edge.

The worst among us are those who get sad when a celebrity dies because it means they've stopped producing art. Even though Harlan was releasing work right up to his death, a lot of comic books (which he felt were "in many ways, America's literature") and unproduced screenplays (Hollywood, get your rear in gear and do something worthwhile for a change), that's not why I'm sad that he's gone. In a way, I'm not even sure whether I *am* sad that he's gone. He was quite old, he'd heard the sound of a scythe since the early nineties, and he'd even been grappling with chronic fatigue syndrome as well as depression. It's a little bittersweet that he's gone, like angry candy; and yet, I'm troubled. He wanted to be remembered, and while his work will never have the reach that Stephen King's has, I'm more than a bit bothered that his messages seem to have fallen by the wayside. Where has our respect for writers gone? Why can't we seem to stop killing one another? What of our need to be challenged by art?

People ask me why Harlan is my favorite author, and not Hemingway, or Twain, or Vonnegut. There are more than a few reasons. Harlan Ellison wrote the first short story I ever gave a damn about, "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," an allegory of cyberhell that took my imagination captive for months. Years passed, I went to college, worked, traveled overseas, started writing, and then I bought his book of film criticism, which I've reviewed here. Up until that point I had not particularly enjoyed or even respected most of the film criticism I'd come across, but Harlan Ellison's Watching was the one that really woke me up and made me realize I had to up my game - and write even more. His use of language, the way his passages seemed to sing, and his longstanding integrity and consistency was what hooked me. I particularly loved his introductions to his short stories, where he threw back the curtain and happily showed the man in the control booth who made Oz spoke. That was the thing about Harlan; he was sure to let you know exactly what he believed and where he stood when he was telling a story, something I wish more writers would do. That's partially the reason that I think I tend to enjoy his non-fiction commentary and criticism more than his (still top-notch) speculative fiction. This was a man worthy of all honors. He won them all too, more Hugos and Nebulas and other writing awards than any other living fantasist, but I'll leave that to all the other internet obituaries. If you want to measure a man by his trophies, be my guest. I prefer something less corporeal, if you don't mind.

To that end, I will confess that his personality was quite charming, if you can believe that. Sure he made his enemies - more than you or I will ever have, likely - but he stood by what he believed in, and his elitism was borne of an innately pure optimism in the sense that we'd conquer our demons. One of my favorite quotes from Harlan - one I still use today - goes a little something like this: "You are not entitled to your opinion, pinhead. You are entitled to your informed opinion. Without facts, data, expertise, or some sort of qualified knowledge, an opinion means nothing. It's a fart in a wind tunnel. No one is entitled to be ignorant." Harlan was exactly right. So too was he when he declined to write a positive review for a buddy's substandard book; he couldn't bring himself to write a dishonest word. 

As my optimism goes, I've got a tremendous amount of faith in this website's readers. I hope you go out there, reading his work, stalking the nightmare, challenging yourselves. His one life, furnished in early poverty, molded by the people he observed and his dreams with sharp teeth, should stand as a testament to the absolute greatness that it is possible for man to aspire to. It was a life as delicate and as vicious as a spider's kiss. In summation of his life, in The Essential Ellison, he wrote only this: "For a short time I was here, and for a short time I mattered." Not bad, Harlan, not bad. And not wrong. However, there's an even more concise and more widely-applicable message he once delivered, right around the time he and 33 other soothsayers forever ushered in a new era of science fiction and fantasy, unfettered by societal inhibitions and previous editorial limitations, unafraid of night and the enemy, eager and willing to challenge their new audience: "You must never be afraid to go there." We would do well to heed those words.

We, the prisoners of gravity.


  1. Harlan was one of my idols, right up there with Frank Zappa, Bruce Lee, my father, etc. I'm going to tell you as much about him as I can until grief stays my hand. HP2-H91 dumps