I generally don't drink during my shift. In fact, I haven't had a taste of anything alcoholic for several days, but earlier today when I heard Harlan Ellison died I left the house to pick up a couple bottles of San Miguel in honor of the passing of one of Science Fiction's, and humanity's, greats. Harlan Ellison was not just a great writer, he was, himself, a character, as brash as he was innovative, as groundbreaking as he was infuriating.
Like myself, Ellison viewed Sci-Fi and genre work and comic books to be (at their best) as legitimate an art form as any other. My first introduction to Harlan Ellison was in the anthology Dangerous Visions where he introduced me to Philip K. Dick in the form of the psychedelic mind-bender of a short story, Faith Of Our Fathers.
In Harlan Ellison, we lost not only a great storyteller but a fiery prophet of doom with a razor wit, the classic, wizened curmudgeon hacking up years of tobacco smoke and phlegm as he laughs at his own dark jokes. In addition to short stories and novels, he wrote for Outer Limits, Star Trek, and other programs. He was also acknowledged (grudgingly and eventually) in The Terminator and the character Agent Ellison in the Sarah Connor Chronicles is likely an homage, but that story comes later…
The Verge had this to say: "Ellison’s personality and actions complicate and diminish the groundbreaking work that he’s best known for. He leaves behind a complicated legacy, one in which he left behind a body of outstanding fiction, but which is tarnished by his attitudes and actions."
I have this to say about that. What The Verge calls complicated is complexity, and complexity is human and far from being tarnished by his humanity, it's what makes him a human. Sure he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and advocated for Cesar Chavez, but they can't forgive him for railing against political correctness and a culture of banality and idiocy on the rise.
There's no reason really to mourn Ellison's passing on his behalf. On multiple occasions, while bemoaning the continuing decline evident in civilization he half-jokingly offered that he was glad he was so old. Presumably (or rather obviously) because he wouldn't be stuck for the next act of the downward spiral.
"The more I see of the human race, the more I want to turn it over to the cockroaches," Ellison once said in an interview. In that same interview he explained how in a group of 50 people, 30 will instantly assume he's the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. A marauder and pillager he was not, but the word "asshole" might be fairly apt. He was not just any asshole, though, he was an asshole with purpose.
Part of his purpose, it seems, was being combative. He wasn't a jerk out of spite, he was a professional jerk whose job it was at times to share the kind of hard truths most everybody knows but most nobody wants to admit aloud or even silently to themselves.
<b>"Being blunt, people don't like that. You tell people the truth they really don't want to hear it."</b>
In his rant against political correctness from the 90's he rails against a "steadily more illiterate audience" who were being shaped and led by "this thing called political correctness." There was no room for PC in Ellison's work as he was a fantasist working in speculative fiction, tales of the future. Science Fiction, he claimed, was "the only 100% hopeful fiction" because "inherent in the form there will be a tomorrow."
Exercising artistic freedom in the age of PC was "troublesome" as you were "not allowed to insult anyone […] everyone has to be terrific." The promulgators and enforcers of PC were full of opinions that often came in the form of angry letters.
"Mind you, we are not entitled to our opinions, we are entitled to our informed opinions"
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I was reintroduced to Ellison a few years ago when the pro-Walt Disney propaganda flick Mr. Banks came out. I remembered marveling at the wall behind Mr. Ellison as he, justifiably, spewed vitriol on the legacy of Walt Disney.
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<b>What's the secret? "Schenectady."</b>
Ellison wasn’t just a storyteller, he was storied. He was there at the Hydra Club the night that Lester DelRey responded to L. Ron Hubbard’s complaint that “you can never get rich at a penny per word.”
“So Lester says, 'start a religion,'" Harlan shared with Robin Williams.
Hubbard asked what kind of religion and reportedly writers present mentioned Reich's orgone box, engrams. The seed of Dianetics had been planted. Or there was the publisher who welched on payment and in return, Ellison mailed hundreds of bricks to him as revenge (Harlan was openly keen on revenge). Or the time he was fired by Roy Disney (yes, of the Disney company) when he was overheard joking about wanting to make a porno featuring Disney characters.
"I'm a cross between Jiminy Cricket and Zorro" and "I have punched out producers who wanted to change my work" are two quotes from the above that really exemplify Ellison. By the way, he wasn't joking, he literally did get physically violent with folks on occasion especially Hollywood types when they screwed with his work. This is a man who throttled and waylaid producers and executives. He sued (and won) to get his name in the Terminator credits. A genuine badass has left this world.
<b>"Television keeps people bland."</b>
On a Tom Snyder appearance, in which he let loose with what he really thought about some executives at NBC and ABC he admitted had "a very low bullshit threshold."
Television, in his opinion, was overloaded at the time with BS (and keep in mind this was even in a time when intellectuals and authors were given airtime). There was plenty of room and a time and place for the everyday swill but some space ought to be set aside for programs which "uplift and enrich." The same old, same old dreck was in his unapologetic opinion, "loathsome and detestable in the extreme, they make me want to puke."
<b>"I only care about the integrity of [my] writing."</b>
Principled and fiery as well as unflinching, Ellison also admitted being demanded to do gender flips in his stories. If the story works as a woman, Harlan said he would be fine, but if it didn't make logical sense to him, didn't fit his story he wouldn't have been happy switching a male character to female or vice versa.
It's little things like this that Verge hemmed and hawed around mentioning, but this isn't The Verge, this is The Goldwater and this in memoriam is offered in the Roman style: "warts and all."
Another bit of a carbuncle worth mentioning as the wake is underway would be the infamous 2006 Hugo Award ceremony "groping." Connie Willis was the guest of honor at the Hugo Awards, one of the most prestigious awards offered a Sci-Fi writer. Harlan comes out on the stage and Connie asks Harlan, "Are you going to be good?"
"No," he answers. Harlan swallows the microphone and Connie laughs. "Let me put this another way, are you going to be good?" She leans down to speak into the microphone and makes a face. Harlan dries the dribble off of the mic with his shirt. All the while, his arm around Mrs. Willis' shoulder. At some point, those with keener eyes say he groped her breast before giving his speech. I didn't take the time to slow it down, but I also didn't see it. I am certainly not denying it, however, just admitting it was out of my line of sight or too swift for me to notice.
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This has become part of the "legend of the misogynist." What those who cry misogyny don't mention is how Dangerous Visions was one of the first anthologies to feature female science fiction writers writing under their own names (rather than male-sounding pseudonyms). They also don't mention how he mentored Octavia Butler who, despite his "legendary" misogyny, seems to speak highly of him despite admitting some of his best advice was the same kind of harsh and simple adages he offered his male mentees: "Don't be boring, this is crap." He was egalitarian in the sense that he was an equal opportunity offender and would offend given the opportunity.
A blogger who claimed to have "an inside line" on the situation wrote that Willis was mortified and that her laughing it off was all for show. If so, then certainly it was uncalled for, out of line and no amount of female mentorships or anthologies makes right such a thing. Ellison called Connie to apologize and publicly apologized online, but the blogger in question argues the apology was demeaned when he signed off referring to his behavior as “puckish.” For certain, Ellison was a dying (perhaps extinct or close to it) breed. As Harlan himself said, even if meant as a joke, this was crossing the line and there’s no call for it and no excuse for it.
<b>"I suppose I would like to be remembered as a guy who was fair and took no crap." </b>
Speaking of Sci-Fi, maybe the world will even be better when we live in the kind of dystopia described by Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or even a perfectly safe, wholly gray world as presented in Lois Lowry’s children’s classic The Giver. I don’t know, but I honestly hope not.