Looking at Harlan

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Harlan Ellison is in his eighties now. When I first encountered him in the pages of Starlog in the seventies, he was “the angry young man” of science fiction. To begin with, he didn’t like being called a science fiction writer. Right away this was jolting to the kid version of me. What is this guy talking about, I wondered, why is that so important to him? Being categorized in a ‘gutter’ genre really got to Ellison. He wanted to be known as A Writer, not one of those sci-fi guys. Forty years later, he seems to have gotten his wish, in a way.

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For much of his career his work has been illustrated by his friends Diane and the late Leo Dillon. Their distinctive and striking work is perfect for Ellison’s work, a mix of the beautiful and the ugly, the human and the twisted. Few writers have found such perfect visual representation. The Dillons’ covers for Ellison separate his work from the Star Trek/Star Wars science fiction which has overtaken the field.

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Today Ellison is relatively quiet. He has had health issues, and a few years ago said he didn’t think he would last much longer. A biography was published to little fanfare. His most frequent publications now are not major events but boutique publications of his old stories.

I don’t follow Ellison closely. Months go by without word on what he’s up to.

It doesn’t matter. The damage has been done.

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Ellison was the writer who made me want to be a writer. He was a personality–a wiseass, a rebel, someone who went everywhere and knew everyone, who had legions of ex-girlfriends and shelves of awards. He pissed off all the right people. His politics were not those I’d been brought up to believe, but he was convincing in his championing of women’s rights and free speech. He was a one-man demolition team, assaulting the stodgy old ways, the dumb old ideas. He was a genuine feminist, demanding women be treated the same as men under the law. Ironically, he is now seen as some neanderthal for a sexist gag I won’t go into because the whole thing is so damned stupid in terms of the crime and the tidal wave of punishment to his reputation that has resulted.

I haven’t mentioned any of my favorite Ellison works. That’s for another essay.

Ellison’s work is superbly VISUAL, which is why it has inspired so much fine illustration. It’s a sad loss to the movies that his career as a screenwriter has been so disjointed. Imagine a world of Ellison original science fiction movies instead of another goddamned lifeless Star Trek sequel. James Cameron was famously “influenced” by Ellison’s Outer Limits scripts; too bad they couldn’t have gotten together professionally.

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I’m finding it’s impossible to write coherently about Ellison as a whole–there’s too much to talk about. There are many facets to his career, but his personality and the vivid style of his writing are, I think, two of the most important. In an age of visual SF flooding the mainstream, I wish more SF fans would turn to his harrowing, non-P.C. short stories. They aren’t comfortable–which is one reason they are not embraced as completely as they should be. An ultra-liberal, Ellison doesn’t just accept his beliefs, he challenges them, as well as the readers’, and that may be why his voice has grown faint in the field. SF fans preen that they are forward-looking and progressive, but they’ve become the complacent, stodgy folks who look down on the angry, the challenging, and the uncomfortable. Which makes Ellison just as dangerous as ever.

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