Harlan Ellison

It’s hard to believe that Harlan Ellison is dead.

If you know anything about science fiction, you know that Harlan Ellison was brilliant. At his best, he was a superb writer; not a writer in the genteel mode of The New Yorker, but a writer of smart, fast-paced pop culture genre fiction with strong plots and strong characters. His 1965 story “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” sticks in my memory: the Harlequin, a rebel against a society which enforces strict conformism, is finally brought under control by the uber-enforcer called the Ticktockman; yet at the end of the story, it appears that the Ticktockman may have been nudged into small acts of non-conformism through his interaction with the Harlequin.

In addition to writing science fiction stories, Ellison worked in Hollywood, writing for Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and many other TV shows. He was also, by all accounts, a difficult individual. Take, for example, the best-known manifestation of his difficult character: an anthology he edited called The Last Dangerous Visions. He bought stories from many well-known science fiction authors, the book was supposed to have been published in 1973, but it remained unpublished at his death. This was not merely an extreme case of work avoidance: he retained all rights to all the stories he had received, refused to let anyone else publish the stories, and aggressively pursued legal action when he thought someone he trespassed on his rights as editor.

Yet in spite of his character flaws (and who am I to point out character flaws? heaven knows we all have character flaws), he inspired devotion in many people. In his autobiography I Asimov, Isaac Asimov called him “warm and loving.” According to Asimov, Ellison had a “miserable youth”: “Being always small and being always enormously intelligent, he found that he could easily flay the dimwits by whom he was surrounded. But he could only do so in words, and the dimwits could use their fists…. This embittered him and did not teach him to keep his mouth shut….” Will Shetterly, another science fiction writer, notes some of the things that Ellison did not keep his mouth shut about: Ellison participated in the civil rights march in Selma; he also went to great lengths to show his support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Ellison was a kind of living version of his character, the Harlequin: completely unwilling, maybe even unable to conform to societal norms. But unlike the Harlequin, Ellison never gave in, he was never brought under the control of the Ticktockman.

Brief obituary at Locus; full obit in their August issue.
A 1954 description of Ellison as a science fiction fan.

2 thoughts on “Harlan Ellison”

  1. You got me curious about the status of Last Dangerous Visions. It has its own Wikipedia page, which says, “Thirty-two stories purchased for Last Dangerous Visions were eventually published elsewhere.” It’ll be interesting to see what appears now that Harlan’s gone.

  2. I missed the fact that 32 of the stories had been published; I just went and read the Wikipedia article. Fascinating. It certainly will be interesting to see what else appears.

    And the more I think about it, the more sympathetic I am with Ellison’s inability to get the anthology out. He took a lot of heat in the sf/f world, but I have several such incomplete projects (2 of which are book-length projects). I’m looking at a stack of these projects here on my desk, which I’ve been working on for between 4 and 14 years each, most of which are SO close to being done, but none of which I can ever quite seem to complete. Two key differences, however: my projects are all my own work, so no one else is affected; and I’ve told no one about my projects (well, one person knew about the 14 year project, but he’s probably forgotten by now) — whereas everyone knew about Last Dangerous Visions.

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