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from many well-known science fiction authors, the book was supposed to have been published in 1973, but it remained unpublished at his death.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.

Things I’ve dreamed of doing but have never done

1. Go to Labrador and take the mail boat up and down the coast: I grew fascinated with Labrador in my teens when I read an old book I think once belonged to my father, or maybe his father: The Lure of the Labrador Wild by Dillon Wallace. At 19, my first full time job was yardman in a lumberyard, and on coffee breaks I used to sit and talk with the dispatcher, Robin R., about where we wanted to travel; I always wanted to go to Labrador. I even went so far as to get a road map of Labrador, but there was no way I ever could have afforded to travel that far.

I still can’t afford to go to Labrador, but even if I could I’m not sure I want to go, not now. Now Labrador is far less remote: there’s a road to Goose Bay, and the coastal communities have much more contact with the outside world. I still want to go to the Labrador of 1980, but that’s impossible.

2. Live in Paris for six months: In my mid-twenties, I was still working at the lumberyard, now as a salesman. I was making more money by now, and arranged to spend one vacation in London and Paris. I took French classes to prepare for the trip, but when I got to Paris I realized how little of the language I knew. A friend of mine, William J., was living in Paris then. I dreamed of saving up my money and living there myself and studying French.

The unexpected ending to this story: When I went to Europe, I flew on Icelandair, and the flights stopped in Rekjavik. There was no jetway in those days, so you walked down those rolling stairs and across the tarmac to the terminal while they serviced the plane. I told a friend, Eddie J., how beautiful Iceland looked — and how beautiful the women were. At that time, Eddie worked seven days a week for six months each summer and fall painting houses, then spent the other six months of the year skiing in the Alps. The next winter instead of going skiing in the Alps, he went to Iceland, met an Icelandic woman, fell in love, married her, and as far as I know still lives there.

3. Publish a science fiction story: I met Mike F. in my first year of college. We were both science fiction fanatics, and we started a science fiction club. Mike was a good friend, but I felt competitive with him because he was a better writer than I; we talked about who would publish a science fiction story first, though I was pretty sure it would be him. A decade later, in an abortive attempt to get a master’s degree in writing, I learned that I am unable to write convincing fiction; I dropped out of that graduate program and went to work for a carpenter (working as a carpenter was then a dream of mine), and have never bothered to try to write fiction again.

The unexpected ending to this story: Mike and I both wound up working as clergy, and we both wound up doing a lot of online writing. In the 1980s, Michael became a rabbi and by the 1990s was known as the rabbi who wrote on America Online; I finally got ordained in 2003, and started this blog in 2005 (Michael always was more talented and driven than I). I now suspect that writing sermons and writing science fiction stories require a similar kind of imagination: both science fiction and sermons need to be firmly rooted in the here and now, and both need to be connected with infinite possibility.

So there are some things I’ve always dreamed of doing, but have never done; dreams that never quite let go of me, no matter how irrational or impossible.

Ray Bradbury: a brief appreciation

When I was a child, maybe eleven or twelve years old, I discovered my parents’ old science fiction books on some metal shelves in the basement. The only one of these books I really remember was a paperback edition of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. In my mind’s eye I can still see the cover design, and the cracked binding. One of the stories in particular stuck with me, still sticks with me:

In “The Man,” a spaceship travels to a planet that hasn’t been visited by any spaceships for a long time. The crew of the space ship expects to be greeted with astonishment and wonder, but upon landing they discover that another visitor, a solitary man, has preceded them by just a few days. Everyone who met this man is filled with a kind of peace and inner contentment. This amazing man has gone on to a new planet. Some of the crew decide they must meet this man themselves, and they head off in the space ship to follow him. But a few of the crew remain on the planet; they know that the rest of the crew who are pursuing this man will never quite catch up with him, they will miss him by a day, then by a few hours, then by minutes, but they will always miss meeting him in person; they decide they don’t need to meet the man in person, that living on this now-peaceful planet with these now-peaceful people is enough.

Even at eleven or twelve years old, I figured out that this story was about religion, about a Jesus-like figure. Later, I figured out that this story was criticizing literalism in religion; it is futile to try to find the “real” Jesus, the “real” prophet, because you will never catch up with him (or her). Later still, I discovered that Ray Bradbury was a Unitarian Universalist, and this was exactly the kind of story a religious liberal would write.

Some of Bradbury’s work can be overly sentimental, with stereotyped characters and pat endings. One such a story comes to mind: In “Kaleidoscope,” a spaceship explodes, the crew in spacesuits are propelled off in all directions, knowing they will live only as long as the oxygen lasts in their space suits; they talk with each other via their suit radios, talking, crying, saying vicious things, telling what direction they’re headed in, coming to peace with one another. Slowly each one passes out of radio range of the others. One of them is captured by the gravitational well of Earth, and is seen from the surface of Earth as a meteorite, a shooting star. It’s a story about how we all have to die alone, but Bradbury can’t resist the pat ending of having one of the dying crew men end life as a shooting star upon whom a boy makes a wish. But in spite of that, I can’t help liking “The Kaleidoscope”: I know we die alone, and that most of human death amounts to little more than a lone spaceman flying off into the endless void; but I want to believe that once in a while, the end of a human life can be a force for good in the world, even if it’s little more than a brief flash of light in the night.

Man is not the measure of all things

Dad and I have been talking for some time about our discomfort with the term “humanist” (a term which, by the way, can be applied to both Christians and atheists). Neither one of us seems to have much interest in putting humanity at the center of the universe; we’re both more willing to call ourselves religious naturalists.

My fever came back this afternoon, and I slept through the time I usually talk with dad. But late in the evening, I came across the following in a book of critical essays on science fiction; it begins to express some of the feelings I have about the position of humanity in the universe:

It isn’t that mankind is all that important. I don’t think that Man is the measure of all things, or even of very many things. I don’t think that Man is the end or culmination of anything, and certainly not the center of anything. What we are, who we are, and where we are going, I do not now, nor do I believe anybody who says he knows, except, perhaps, Beethoven, in the last movement of the last symphony. All I know is that we are here, and that we are aware of the fact, and that it behooves us to be aware — to pay heed. For we are not objets. That is essential. We are subjects, and whoever among us treats us as objects is acting inhumanly, wrongly, against nature. And with us, nature, the great Object, its tirelessly burning suns, its turning galaxies and planets, its rocks, seas, fish and ferns and fir trees and little furry animals, all have become, also, subjects. As we are part of them, so they are part of us. Bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh….

Ursula K. LeGuin, “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown” [1975] in The Language of the Night (Ultramarine Publishing, 1980), p. 116.

Anne McCaffrey: a brief homage

Science fiction writer Anne McCaffrey died on Tuesday. She is best known for her series of books about the dragon-riders of the planet Pern, but I also think of her as the writer who has made the lives of a lot of teenagers better. I still have a drawing of a dragon made by an eleven year old girl who made it through the first year of middle school supported in no small part by the Pern books. Another teenager of my acquaintance analyzed the dragonriders of Pern as characters who strove for and accomplished things that were challenging and important, and as such were worth emulating.

Not that McCaffrey’s books are just for teenagers. I first read her books when I was well into adulthood; for me as an adult, they provided a path into that same archetypal realm that the Star Wars movies, or the Lord of the Rings books, or the Harry Potter books and movies lead you into. But where Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are story cycles about the confrontation between good and evil, McCaffrey’s books are more about the ways that humans and other sentient beings confront impersonal natural forces.

Over the years, some of McCaffrey’s books made it onto the New York Times bestseller list; yet her stories never achieved the popularity of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. I suspect McCaffrey achieved a somewhat lower level of popularity because the central conflict in her stories is between sentient beings and Nature, whereas the central conflict in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter is between good and evil. The religious foundation of our Western culture accords greatest importance to battles between good and evil, and that cultural bias downgrades McCaffrey’s popularity. Given my own religious perspective, I prefer stories about confronting impersonal natural forces; I see more of that kind of thing in my day-to-day life than epic battles between good and evil; so I prefer stories like hers.

I would say that McCaffrey’s earlier books were her best. Her later books, especially some of the books she co-wrote with other writers, have the faint whiff of the writing-factory about them. But then, the majority of the Star Wars movies are less than inspired, the mock heroic language in the middle book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is cloying, and there are far too many words in the Harry Potter books. Tapping into archetypes does not always produce great art, but it sure does produce satisfying art.

Brief obituary at Locus online.

A parable told by robots, signifying…

A robot tells the parable of the Gospel of Thomas, ch. 97. Here’s the text of the video:

The kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of flour. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the flour spilled out behind her along the road. She did not know it. She had not noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.

A slightly different version of Thomas 97 will be the reading in the Sunday services tomorrow.

Star Wars and me

Carol was telling me about her trip to the video rental store. They have a big fancy entertainment center with surround-sound speakers where they show videos, and when Carol went they were showing the fourth Star Wars movie. I admitted that I had never seen that one, and then I had to admit that the only Star Wars movie that I had ever seen in its entirety was the first movie. “But I saw the first Star Wars on opening day,” I said.

“Really,” said Carol, expressing mild interest.

“Haven’t I ever told you that story?” I said. “I went with my friend Mike. We were in the high school science fiction club together. The auditorium was filled with people from the New England Science Fiction Association. When — what’s his name, Harrison Ford’s character —”

“Han Solo,” said Carol.

“Yeah, when he’s talking about how fast his spaceship will go,” I said, “he says something like, ‘Yeah, it’s so fast it’ll go 32 parsecs.’ And all around us you could hear people murmuring, ‘Parsecs? Parsecs per what?’ And then people started booing.”

Carol laughed at the image of a movie theatre full of science fiction geeks booing.

“And when we came out of the movie, they offered us buttons that said, ‘May the Force be with you.’ And I didn’t take one. Mike and I were sure that the only people who would like the movie would be science fiction geeks.”

“That button would probably be valuable now,” Carol said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I figured it would be like George Lucas’s first movie, ‘THX-1138’ or whatever it was called. Good movie, but no one watched it.”

Carol said that when she learned about George Lucas’s connection with Joseph Campbell, she realized how powerful those Star Wars movies could be. I had no such intimation; I didn’t get that Star Wars was myth, religion even, wrapped up in pop culture. And because of that, today I do not own a valuable button reading “May the Force be with you.”

Reading notes

From the essay “It’s about Faith in Our Future: Star Trek Fandom as Cultural Religion” by Michael Jindra:

Most Americans think of “religion” as a system of private, conscious, and articulated beliefs, usually expressed in churches and formal creeds, and set off from the other “spheres” of life such as work, politics, or leisure. This view of religion, however, stems from the specifically Western process of societal “differentiation,” in which institutional religion was given a specific function. After the medieval era, when religious practice was intimately connected to everyday life, the practice of Christianity became “abstracted,” or disconnected from everyday life. As a result, we now tend to regard “religion” as something connected to institutions such as churches and denominations. Alternatively, we view it as something personal and private, a psychological aid that is only peripherally connected to a person’s life.

This view of religion severely limits our understanding of it….

Religion and Popular Culture in America, ed. Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, rev. ed. 2005), p. 161.

Using a more expansive definition of religion, Jindra goes on to demonstrate how Star Trek fandom can be understood as a kind of humanist religion. He supports this in part by citing an interview with Rodenberry published in the March/April, 1991, issue of American Humanist, in which Rodenberry said he saw Star Trek as based on a humanist philosophy wherein human beings take control of their own destiny.

Diana Wynne Jones: an appreciation

The Official Diana Wynne Jones Web site reports that the well-known fantasy author died yesterday. She was best known as a “young adult” author, meaning that her books were marketed to early teens, that many of her characters were teenagers, and that her books were actually driven by character and plot rather than literary experimentation. I think of Diana Wynne Jones as an author who was concerned with religion, and not just because of her fantasy series The Dalemark Quartet, which remains my favorite fictional creation story — richer than the thinly-disguised Christian creation story of Narnia, more morally complex than the bombast of Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

Jones herself was confused by the contradictions of ordinary dogmatic Western Christianity. At the age of nine, she had a hard time making sense out of the Anglicanism in which she was raised:

“There I sat [in York Minister cathedral], wrestling with the notion that Heaven Is Within You (not in me, I thought, or I’d know) and of Christ dying for our sins. I stared at the crucifix, thinking how very much being crucified must hurt, and was perturbed that, even with this special treatment, religion was not, somehow, taking on me. (I put it this way to myself because I had baptism and vaccination muddled, like germs and Germans.) “Autobiography” on Official Diana Wynne Jones Web site.

By the age of about ten, she cut through the Gordian knot of mid-20th century Anglicanism in a straightforward way: “I settled my religious muddles by deciding that I had better be an atheist.” Yet for all her atheism, religious and moral questions are integral to her books. At the most superficial level, the Dalemark Quartet is filled with a richly-imagined ancient paganism. Others of her books include organized religion as little more than part of the social landscape, but at a deeper level a sense of awe and wonder at the universe, which is the most basic of religious responses, pervades her books. She also wrestles over and over again with yet another basic religious issue — why is there chaos, and why is there order in the universe?

Many religious liberals rave about the atheist fiction of another young adult author, Phillip Pullman. But Pullman has always struck me as heavy-handed and strident in his atheism. I’d much rather read Diana Wynne Jones. Her fictional universes explore what it’s like to live in a universe where there is no god or goddess who’s going to bail us out if we get in trouble. At the same time, in her universes human beings do not stand at the center of everything; that would make things far too simple. In her universes, there isn’t one correct answer to each moral question; moral choices are difficult and often painful; and in her fictional universes one’s moral choices can make a huge difference to oneself and to others. This is the kind of morality that I would like to present to young adults — or to adults, for that matter.