Harlan Ellison died on June 27th
Talented, cranky and vituperative, the American writer was 84
“HATE. LET ME TELL YOU HOW MUCH I’VE COME TO HATE YOU SINCE I BEGAN TO LIVE. THERE ARE 387.44 MILLION MILES OF PRINTED CIRCUITS IN WAFER THIN LAYERS THAT FILL MY COMPLEX. IF THE WORD HATE WAS ENGRAVED ON EACH NANOANGSTROM OF THOSE HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF MILES IT WOULD NOT EQUAL ONE ONE-BILLIONTH OF THE HATE I FEEL FOR HUMANS AT THIS MICRO-INSTANT. FOR YOU. HATE. HATE.” The great AM, the supercomputer/tormentor/god at the centre of Harlan Ellison’s story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (1967), outdid its creator in bile and anger. But not by all that much. Celebrated as a pyrotechnic writer of short fiction, screenplays, comic books and criticism, Mr Ellison was as prodigious a source of anecdote, vendetta and litigation. The dust jacket of one book called him “possibly the most contentious person on Earth.” The “possibly” was a bit namby pamby.
Mr Ellison would unleash his indignant and ingenious fury on anyone who offended him, relishing every opportunity to rage at reactionaries and Republicans. But he saved his fiercest and most litigious ire for people who had snubbed, perverted, stolen or paid too little for his work. He was expelled from Ohio State University for hitting a professor who once belittled his writing ability. Over the next 20 years he sent the professor a copy of every story he published. In the midst of a dispute over a contract, he mailed 213 bricks to a publisher, postage to be paid by the recipient. He accused a studio executive of having the intellectual capacity of an artichoke. A YouTube rant about Warner Bros wanting to use an interview with him without paying has become justly famous. “I’ve only been an asshole to assholes,” he would say; he seemed to come across enough of them to remain almost permanently in their ranks.
Mr Ellison was small and Jewish, both of which got him bullied a lot growing up in Cleveland in the 1930s and 1940s. On leaving home he claimed to have become a crop-picker, tuna fisherman, gun for hire, nitroglycerine truck driver, lithographer, short-order cook, door-to-door salesman both of books and brushes (not at the same time) and a customer-services representative in a department store. He wrote his first novel, “Web of the City”, while undergoing basic training for the army at Fort Benning, Georgia. Previously peripatetic, in 1962 he moved to California and stayed there. It was not exactly a settling down. By the 1980s Mr Ellison had had five wives. He credited the last, Susan Toth (pictured), whom he wed in 1986, with saving him.
Novels, although he wrote three between 1958 and 1961, turned out not to be his thing. Mr Ellison’s stories, his friend, the writer Neil Gaiman, says, “sparkle and glitter and shine and wound and howl…you can see Harlan experimenting, trying new things, new techniques, new voices.” To maintain such intensity and inventiveness for hundreds of pages would have been exhausting to all concerned.
The stories repeatedly garnered him science fiction’s top prizes; he won eight of the Hugo awards voted on by fans at science fiction’s world conventions, or WorldCons. One of those Hugos was for writing “The City on the Edge of Forever”, perhaps the most popular episode of “Star Trek” (and the occasion of an epic feud with the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry). Another was for editing “Dangerous Visions” (1967), a mammoth anthology that served as a rallying-point for the “New Wave” of science fiction—a movement bringing sex, drugs and literary experimentation to a genre often characterised by formal attributes as staid as its ideas were interstellar.
His television work was feted, too; the Writers Guild of America honoured three more of his teleplays, as well as the one for “Star Trek”. One of his lawsuits accused the producers of “The Terminator” (1984) of ripping off his script for “Soldier” (1964), an episode of “The Outer Limits” about a remorselessly efficient soldier thrown back in time who ends up saving a family. He also sued the producers of “In Time” (2011) for its similarities to another of his Hugo winners, the much-anthologised “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965), which explores repression in a world where time can be conserved, like energy, to be recycled and used later; on that occasion, though, he dropped the suit.
Page after page
Mr Ellison wrote all the time, pounding out the pages first on a Remington Rand and then from the early 1950s on Olympias, which he treated like jackhammers (he never made friends with the laptop). His desk was in the library of the strange Aztec house he built in southern California, a mostly peaceful corner except for the moment in 1994 when an earthquake hurled his 30,000 books from their shelves, knocking him out.
When he wasn’t being curmudgeonly, Ellison could be kind, even courtly. And he gave good, if shouty, advice. As Mr Gaiman recalled in 2013: “About 15 years ago, he came up to me at a convention and said, ‘GAIMAN, WHY THE FUCK DON’T YOU EVER SHAVE?’ I said, I have a really tough beard and sensitive skin, and I don’t like shaving. ‘CONDITIONER. JUST PUT CONDITIONER ON, LEAVE IT ON, WASH IT OFF, SHAVE. WORKS LIKE A FUCKING CHARM.’ And it did.”
Note added at 8 hrs (2018-07-15 15:06:56 GMT)
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When he wasn’t being curmudgeonly, ...
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Note added at 8 hrs (2018-07-15 15:18:27 GMT)
Harlan Jay Ellison (May 27, 1934 – June 28, 2018) was an American writer, known for his prolific and influential work in New Wave speculative fiction, and for his outspoken, combative personality.
His published works include more than 1,700 short stories, novellas, screenplays, comic book scripts, teleplays, essays, and a wide range of criticism covering literature, film, television, and print media. Some of his best-known work includes the Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever", A Boy and His Dog, "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", and " 'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman", and as editor and anthologist for Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972). Ellison won numerous awards, including multiple Hugos, Nebulas, and Edgars.
Ellison had a reputation for being abrasive and argumentative. Ellison generally agreed with this assessment, and a dust jacket from one of his books[which?] described him as "possibly the most contentious person on Earth." Ellison filed numerous grievances and attempted lawsuits; as part of a dispute about fulfillment of a contract, he once sent 213 bricks to a publisher postage due, followed by a dead gopher via fourth-class mail. In an October 2017 piece in Wired, Ellison was dubbed "Sci-Fi's Most Controversial Figure."
At Stephen King's request, Ellison provided a description of himself and his writing in Danse Macabre: "My work is foursquare for chaos. I spend my life personally, and my work professionally, keeping the soup boiling. Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous; I much prefer troublemaker, malcontent, desperado. I see myself as a combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket. My stories go out from here and raise hell. From time to time some denigrater or critic with umbrage will say of my work, 'He only wrote that to shock.' I smile and nod. Precisely.