A Review of Harlan Ellison's Greatest Hits


Harlan Ellison was not a science fiction writer.

Alright, so he wrote a lot of science fiction, but he also wrote a lot of fantasy, horror, thriller, comedy, and even more non-fiction. He was adamant about this point: he was a writer, full stop. He didn't just write short stories, either; he also wrote comic books, novels, novellas, film scripts, television scripts, introductions, eulogies, newspaper articles, a video game, and even more. Harlan Ellison's Greatest Hits is a book that faces a difficult task: summarizing a man who was remarkably difficult to classify effectively.

Like a greatest hits compilation CD of a progressive rock band from the 1970s, you're never going to get the full picture of the artist here. Instead, you just have to do the best you can: that means putting out the best material the artist has. Even this, however, is a tough assignment with someone like Ellison: he won more awards for his work than any other fantasist, living or dead. Given the difficulty of the assignment, J. Michael Straczynski is to be congratulated for the superlative job he did editing such an excellent collection.

It hardly feels necessary to write this review in the first place; I feel like this is just something where I could post a picture of it on social media and tell people to buy it. The book does an excellent job selling itself just with the testimonials on the back cover, inside flaps, and first three pages (to say nothing of the award-winning stories). The preface by Straczynski and the foreword by Neil Gaiman are particularly touching because they both knew Ellison personally. That's one of the things that's always struck me about Ellison's obituaries for other writers: he spends more time talking about the person and his friendship than the work. The work, after all, should speak for itself.

That's why I'm not going to go into too much detail describing the stories that are collected here. If you're familiar with them, you don't need me to remind you what happens. If you're unfamiliar with them, it's more fun to be surprised and let the story take you on a journey. What I will say about the stories here is I love the choices for what was included. You have the three most important ones, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Tick-Tock Man," "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," and "Jeffty Is Five," (my personal favorite short story by any writer), but you've also got classics like "Paladin of the Lost Hour," (I can't emphasize enough how much I love that one) and "All the Lies That Are My Life". I've been clear in previous pieces that Harlan Ellison is and always has been my favorite writer, and that's why a collection like this makes me so happy: it's long overdue. For the longest time the only compilations you get could get of his work were Alone Against Tomorrow (only covers his work up to the mid-70s, meaning it doesn't have "Jeffty Is Five"), The Essential Ellison (prohibitively expensive and so large it's practically cumbersome to read), Troublemakers (doesn't have "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," among others), or The Top of the Volcano (prohibitively expensive). You should buy this and read it.

Greatest Hits doesn't get a recommendation from me just for how good the stories are. It's also essential to understanding Harlan Ellison the man. He believed in certain things: standing up for what you believe in, doing the right thing even when (especially when) it's difficult or harmful to you, and treating your fellow man with dignity and kindness. The inclusion of "Shatterday" brought a smile to my face; it's one of his rare stories that has a happy ending. Although most of his stories have fairly tragic or horrific endings, he looked upon science fiction as the only truly optimistic genre. It says: "there will be a tomorrow." We may all be living like maggots, but there'll be a tomorrow. And as long we're there, we have a fighting chance.

No collection is perfect, of course. I could do without the introduction by Cassandra Khaw. The handwritten notes included as part of the Barnes & Noble exclusive edition are not particularly illuminating. Most glaring of all is the omission of "A Boy and His Dog," the inspiration for countless post-apocalyptic desert narratives. I know it's a bit long—novella length—but it was nominated for a Hugo and won a Nebula. Sadly, this story is becoming a bit hard to find; you'll have to shell out the big bucks for The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World and/or The Essential Ellison if you want to read it.

There are plenty of good places to introduce yourself to Ellison's work, but this one is almost certainly the best. It's important to remember that that's what his Greatest Hits is: a gateway drug, rather than the end-all be-all, final word on the man. If you like this—and I think you will, whoever you are—I'd highly recommend Harlan Ellison's Watching, Gentleman Junkie & Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation, Spider Kiss, Dangerous Visions, "The City on the Edge of Forever," the story about how he got involved with with The Starlost and how it all went horribly wrong, and this story about the time he mailed a dead gopher to the comptroller of a publishing company. Then, at long last, you can prepare yourself for The Last Dangerous Visions. I think you'll agree with Booklist: "One thing's for sure: the man can write."

Harlan Ellison's Greatest Hits was released in March of 2024, edited by J. Michael Straczynski, foreword by Neil Gaiman, introduction by Cassandra Khaw for some reason, supplementary photos by Mark Denis Shepard and "Rowdy" Roddy McDowall. Available now at Barnes & Noble and other bookstores. Just go to the new releases section or maybe the science fiction section if you're in one of those brick-and-mortars, and if it's not there go up to a store employee and say "Hey," then ask them about it. If they don't have it, say "Thanks anyway," and go somewhere else. Alternatively, use the internet. The price varies but it's around like $20 or something, give or take. You can also check your local library, they got free books. Just make sure to give it back or else they'll get mad at you.


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