By Jerry Chandler
That was a name you could say in many circles without having to add the last name, and no one wondered which Harlan you were talking about. If you brought up that name in literary circles, science fiction circles, or convention panels, almost everyone who had been around for longer than a cup of coffee knew you were talking about Harlan Ellison.
How do you describe someone like Harlan Ellison? I’ve already seen many attempting to do so by calling him one of the greatest science fiction writers of his time or simply the greatest science fiction writer of all time. But, honestly, that diminishes the man to a degree. Yes, he wrote some of the greatest and most well-known science fiction stories of a generation, but he was far more than just a science fiction writer. His work covered almost every genre and every medium of entertainment. Harlan Ellison, as he sometimes made very clear himself, was a writer- full stop.
However, even that doesn’t seem like it conveys enough to capture the essence of what we’ll remember the man for. For so very many out there, he was an icon, an inspiration, a mentor, and a seeming force of nature. He made a living and a name for himself behind a typewriter, but he didn’t live behind that typewriter. Harlan Ellison was a man who left his small hometown behind and rode the rails to see the country. He joined a circus for a short time. His travels saw him doing odds and end work that allowed him to see parts of this country many never see and mingle with people of all walks of life. He did a stint in the Army. He marched in Selma, Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King. And he did so much more.
It may be why Harlan could write so well of the human experience in so many variations and with so many shades and so much nuance. He had lived it both before and while his writing career was getting him noticed as one of the greatest living writers of his time.
However, what made him such an amazing writer was how he could express those experiences and the ideas he chose to explore those and more aspects of the human experience in both the written and spoken form. Harlan Ellison was a master at taking language and arranging it in such a manner as to extract the most powerful and potent usage of it when expressing ideas. His words could be cold, brutal, and like a punch to the gut when he wanted them to be, but they could also be almost like classical music to the ear when he needed them to be.
It was the words that were important.
He had a mastery of words that made his expression of the ideas and concepts he wanted to write about stand head and shoulders above the works of so many others. It may sound cliché, but it’s true. Harlan could write stories that you experienced rather than simply read. That was due to the power of his words and the skill in which he could wield them. It was the words he used and how he used them that took even the simplest and most mundane of the ideas he wanted to convey and made them seem extraordinary.
However, it wasn’t through his written words on the printed page that I first experienced Harlan Ellison. I, like so many others, first encountered his work without knowing who he was or what it was I was actually being exposed to. Harlan wrote for television during his career, and two of the shows he wrote for were The Outer Limits and Star Trek. While he may have disavowed the final product as being far less than what he had originally written it to be, he created the story that aired as City on the Edge of Forever; voted more than once as the best story ever aired of the Star Trek franchise.
Then there were his many appearances on television. He was a personality with a very camera friendly charisma about him, and that along with his sharp wit made him a perfect go to figure when the world of science fiction or writing was being discussed. Go to YouTube and search his name. You’ll get literally tens of thousands of hits. Many of them television and radio interviews that cross decades, with more than just a few from his many appearances on Tom Snyder’s shows.
But it wasn’t just his interviews that made him noticeable and made him stand out from the crowd. Harlan was something of the writer’s version of Evil Kenevil in that he did stunts and challenges. For quite some time, Harlan would take on writing challenges from interviewers and others where they would hand him a sealed envelope containing the first sentence of a story or a concept for a story. Harlan would then sit down with his typewriter in full view of passersby and create a short story or a novella in one go. Amazingly, and as a great testament to his skills as a writer, many of those stories made their way into collections of his work and have been cited as some of the best stories of their kind.
It was the stories that were important.
His stories had power. His stories had vision. His stories also resonated with the viewer and the reader on intimately human levels. Harlan Ellison could write stories set on the dusty plains of the American Old West or set on an alien world somewhere in the far-flung regions of space and anywhere or any-when in between and make them as accessible to the reader as a story set right outside their own front door.
His stories could do any number of things. They could thrill you, scare you, or make you laugh out loud. However, the one thing that his stories almost always did was challenge you. They made you think and reflect. Harlan Ellison wrote stories that were not of the disposable, bubblegum variety. He wrote the types of stories that rewarded the reader for putting as much effort and thought into reading them as he put into writing them.
It was the fact that Harlan Ellison was a writer- full stop – that was important.
He didn’t just make his name as a writer of fiction. Harlan Ellison wrote editorials, essays, reviews and critiques of film and television that have been collected in books of their own and cited not only as examples of how to do that, but described as must-read time capsules of what was going on in the world at the time and, in some cases, what was wrong with it.
His opinions were expressed in these essays and editorials in the most fierce, blunt, honest, brutal, and occasionally humorous ways. He called out what he saw as wrong with the Hollywood system, the publishing industry, the world around him, and even the people reading his works when he felt something wrong needed addressing and fixing. He promoted the things he loved and saw as overlooked or under promoted by the system and the powers that be. He used the reach his name gave him to help friends or causes dear to him.
It was his ability as an essayist combined with his ability to speak engagingly that made him the perfect person to have speak on genre, the craft of writing, the world of fandom, or whatever else needed to be addressed when someone wanted a name that would draw in eyes and ears and deliver what was promised on the marque. It’s what made him a perfect if unpredictable choice to be the video essayist when the Sci-Fi Channel first launched and still wanted to actually take the genre seriously.
It was the fire in his soul that was important.
Harlan Ellison’s opinions were something that made him famous, but not merely because of the opinions themselves. He was not shy about stating his opinions, and he did not sugarcoat his words or his approach when something annoyed or angered him. This made him somewhat legendary and more than a little infamous.
His ways of handling his frustrations could occasionally be… well… less than what Miss Manners would approve of. As has now been immortalized in the documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, he spent years sending a college professor who told him he’d never be a writer copies of almost every award he ever won, he mailed a dead gopher to a publisher, and he caused a television executive to break his hip. His handling of the people he had no use for due to their perceived idiocy or disingenuousness went beyond simply being dismissive and well into creating camps of people who banded together to express their hatred of him.
That’s not some bit of hyperbole or an exaggeration. In the early 1990s, a group formed- and not merely a group formed out of fandom but out of some professionals –that called themselves Enemies of Ellison and, while denying it was their purpose, set out to attack him. No, really. See HERE and HERE. It’s not everybody who can say they’ve had groups form using their name and with the express purpose of attacking them. You definitely have to live life a certain way and have the ability to rub people’s nerves as raw as possible to be able to say you’ve had that happen to you.
His lawsuits against AOL, James Cameron, and others become legendary. His fights for creators’ rights and for the rule of “Pay the Writer” sometimes looked more like full-scale wars when looking at them from the outside in and, very likely that way when looking from the inside out. It’s what he deemed necessary, but it’s something of a shame that these very noisy events overshadowed the things he did that were perhaps as significant in their own way. For as much as he was known for these fights, he was also known as well for championing, mentoring, and nurturing new talent that would go on to be great talent. But, alas, such things, a lifetime of such things, doesn’t make as much noise or garner the attention of some of his more infamous wars with the entertainment industry and media giants.
His encounters with societal idiocy- whether it was from the entertainment industry, politics, or social advocacy groups -would also occasionally seem to grow into small wars. His refusal to accept or allow stupidity or disingenuousness from those claiming to act in the common good made him a target of social crusaders on all sides of the political and social spectrum more than once. His distaste for social crusaders who would attack and defame those who fought the fights before them if they refused to go along with the new order’s social philosophies got him branded with the labels of things he had spent his life fighting against and even blacklisted in a few places. Certainly, his refusal to bow to the gods of political correctness made him an easy target for the dishonest. However, he would not back down from championing anything he stood for no matter what others thought of it or how they tried to cast or miscast him for doing so.
Harlan Ellison lived his life that way. He was sometimes (very often) uncompromising in his view of the world. He was legendary for having no tolerance for bullshit, and infamous for his handling of those who tried to dispense it to him. There are people who have dealt with him that would describe him as a monster. There are just as many- if not more –who would describe him as an amazing, caring human being and/or a dearest friend. For those of us who didn’t actually know him but followed his works, he was simply one of the greatest writers of his era and an opinionated force of nature who was always worth reading or listening to.
It was his life that was important.
Harlan Ellison did something that not many other people can say they’ve done. Harlan Ellison changed and transformed lives; even ones he never directly touched. His words had that much power. He sometimes made people think in ways that shook them from the stupor of their routine to see the world differently. He sometimes made people realize how much they didn’t know and needed to know about the world around them. He also made people realize how powerful the written word could really be and moved people to become writers or essayists themselves.
“He left behind a lot of stories. But it seems to me, from the number of people reaching out to me and explaining that he inspired them, that they became writers from reading him or from listening to him on the radio or from seeing him talk (sometimes it feels like 90% of the people who came to see Harlan and Peter David and me talk after 911 at MIT have gone on to become writers). He's left a legacy of writers and storytellers and people who were changed by his stories.”
~ Neil Gaiman
Harlan Ellison left behind a legacy with his words that few others will ever match. He left behind a legacy in the lives he positively touched and influenced that many of us could only hope to begin to come close to matching. He left behind a hole in the world with his passing that no one else has the ability to step up and even begin to fill.
The passage of time and age was doing little to diminish his fire, his fury, his wit, or his skills to observe the world around him and distil his observations about it all into concise, powerful, transformative observations. Unfortunately, his body was not as lucky as strokes had begun to take their toll on his physical form during his last years.
According to Susan, his wife of these last 32 years, Harlan died peacefully in his sleep in the early morning hours of June 28, 2018.
There’s something that almost seems wrong with that. One would have expected Harlan to have gone out with his teeth in Death’s throat, ripping the scythe from Death’s hands, and kneeing him (or her for the Gaiman fans out there) repeatedly in the groin. “Peacefully” just does not seem like the word that should end the life of such a man. However, it may well be the most deserved way for his life to have ended.
As I have said elsewhere in the last week…
Rest in peace somehow seems the wrong words for a man who lived his life as Harlan Ellison lived his. If there is an afterlife, it’s almost impossible to imagine Harlan sitting there peacefully in it and not poking anything and everything he comes across with the same type of stick he used in life. So, not being able to use those words, I say this as a fan instead.
Goodbye, Harlan, and thank you for everything you gave us.
“Like a wind crying endlessly through the universe, Time carries away the names and the deeds of conquerors and commoners alike. And all that we were, all that remains, is in the memories of those who cared we came this way for a brief moment.”
Jerry Chandler writes stuff and occasionally talks about stuff with nowhere near the skill or ability to communicate ideas that Harlan Ellison displayed on his worst day. He strongly suggests that if you don’t know Harlan’s works or words you correct that by looking HERE and HERE.