Most of the early obits about award-winning writer, teacher, activist, and legendary cultural gadfly Harlan Ellison center on a long biographical checklist. His beloved father died when he was young; he was bullied daily at grammar school in Painesville, Ohio; he became a serial adolescent runaway; he took on diverse working-class jobs to survive; he served two unhappy years in the Army, then was expelled from Ohio State University for insubordination; was fired from Disney on his first day there as a writer after making playfully profane jokes about the animated characters trademarked by the Mouse House. None of these details speak to what Harlan would have called “the work”; and I would say, as Ellison sometimes did, only his work matters.
Of course, for Ellison the work was conceptualized as more than the millions of words he put on the printed page; more than expanding the style and relevance of genre literature by unleashing close to 2,000 essays, short stories, teleplays, op-eds, novellas, and nonfiction pieces on the world. In addition to becoming the de facto leader of the American wing of the (predominantly British) new wave science-fiction movement after editing two groundbreaking Dangerous Visions anthologies, Ellison also felt a calling — an ancillary vocation — to follow his moral compass into volatile struggles for social justice. Ellison marched with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.; he protested to support ratification of the ERA; and he went public about getting a vasectomy in the 1970s to take more personal responsibility for the privilege of sexual freedom. Yes, he could be combative and litigious, but he was also charitable and astonishingly generous with his time and resources, especially to young writers he believed had talent. Frequently invited to lecture at colleges and appear as a controversial pundit on late-night talk shows during the Reagan presidency, Ellison considered himself a champion of the underdog. Yet he had little patience for underdogs too afraid to fight back. Ellison could be loudly critical of those who remained silently complicit in their own oppression.
Last Wednesday, Ellison — who had been recovering from a stroke over the past two years — died quietly at home in Los Angeles at the age of 84. The man had a larger-than-life reputation for being “cantankerous,” an accusation he proudly appended to the title of one of his last story collections. It is tempting to dwell on what Harlan Ellison did when not behind his typewriter, because his famously volatile personality is the stuff of cocktail party gossip and bohemian legend. But for colorful anecdotes you can search out several biographies, or Ellison’s own editorial commentaries and journalistic essays. For this eulogy, however, I would prefer to concentrate on what was most admirable about the man’s fiction.
Ellison, like many modern fantasists, chafed at artificial qualitative distinctions still made between so-called literary fiction and fantastic fiction. Homer and Shakespeare wrote about witches, magic, and monsters without the academy dismissing their works as “light entertainment.” (Was Kafka a fantasy writer because he wrote a classic about a man who literally turns into a cockroach?) Given the immensity of his output, no one is trying to say that everything Ellison ever wrote was a work of genius. Even the most gifted wordsmith can generate uneven product, and practices constantly to perfect his craft. That said, the consistency with which Ellison wrote smart, complex stories in his own unique voice stands out as proof that he belongs in the mainstream literary canon as much as Poe, Camus, Baldwin, or Austen.
Most of the hundreds of stories Harlan Ellison gave us over the years revolved around the many ways in which people could help or hurt one another. Accordingly, he was responsible for one of the first short stories that ever made me cry. I remember being ten and hunched over a paperback containing “Blind Lightning” (1966) in the children’s room of a small public library when tears began pouring down my face as the alien protagonist repeats the phrase: “Show me a star.” This simple request — the inspired parting gift of a dying Terran astronaut — would transform the alien’s life from one of fear and darkness to one of unprecedented opportunity. This motif of compassion emerging in the face of fear, struggle, or loss would be a recurring theme in Ellison’s fiction, and the one that probably resonates most with his readers.
In “On the Downhill Side” (1972), Ellison again uses compassion to drive a plot. Essentially a ghost story set in the steamy, picturesque French Quarter of New Orleans, “Downhill Side” is a parable about an overly romantic man wooing a woman too withdrawn and afraid to love. Trapped in a purgatorial afterlife, these two crippled souls must join forces to become psychologically whole before they can seek human rebirth. Every descriptive element in this story is unusually lovely. Ellison describes the color of the female ghost’s eyes as “a shade of grey between onyx and miscalculation.” He telegraphs the basic innocence of these disembodied characters by saying: “I knew she was a virgin because she was able to ruffle the silken mane of my unicorn.” Closely observed minor details make Ellison stories more intimate, so he name-checks both the world-famous Café du Monde and the aspirational lace curtains prized by Louisiana’s Irish immigrants. This is Ellison at his elegiac best, giving fragile emotions like pleasure, hope, and regret a local habitation and a name.
And yet the highest-profile Ellison stories, like “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” (1973) and “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967), examine tougher, more heartbreaking choices than the options explored in “Blind Lightning” or “On the Downhill Side.” Ellison (who survived his time as an adolescent runaway only to infiltrate a 1950s street gang to write an exposé on teen violence) had personally seen and experienced enough brutality to bring terrifying verisimilitude to published work that slants more toward the categories of horror fiction and murder mysteries. The explicit tortures devised for the last living members of the human race by the sentient computer in “I Have No Mouth” will make readers queasy but also reveal a reader to him or herself. When Ellison explains why the supercomputer hates mankind, and why it destroyed all but a captive remnant of humanity via nuclear armageddon, he portrays the relationship between the computer and its human victims in a new light. Human nature, not the artificial intelligence humans built, is still the real problem. As we are told in Sartre’s No Exit, humans habitually choose to torture one another. Petty rivalries and cruelties don’t disappear when people face larger existential threats; instead these personality flaws simply become more subtle, more diabolical. The difficult choice offered in “I Have No Mouth” is to rebel against the hardwired egoism and selfishness of human nature, even when there is nothing to gain but the salvation of people other than yourself.
Many Ellison stories forcibly immerse us in the results of selfish decisions because he wants us to contemplate how and why people make the choices they make. (His investigative nonfiction and his early rock ’n’ roll novel Spider Kiss (1961) were equally insightful, and well worth revisiting.) Caring too much, feeling too deeply, giving the impression that he walks through life as if he were one huge exposed nerve — these are the most identifiable characteristics of Ellison’s writing. Ellison wants readers to feel what he feels, and this motivation has resulted in some of the most memorable (if harrowing) fables crafted by any writer in any genre.
If you need an example of just how Ellison transposed similar themes into disparate literary contexts, just juxtapose his famous Star Trek teleplay “The City on the Edge of Forever” against his obscure civil rights–era parable “Daniel White for the Greater Good” (1961). In the former, Ellison creates a time-travel episode in which permitting the death of a woman who is universally loved and admired will keep the Nazis from winning World War II. In the latter, Ellison takes us to a small Southern town where black civil rights leaders have to decide if they are justified in not turning over an unrepentant serial rapist and murderer to a white lynch mob, when protecting a single black criminal from racist vigilantism might destroy their ability to protect the rest of the local black community. In both narratives, the choices offered to protagonists speak less to the idea of personal heroism, and more to the philosophical debates about complicit behavior and moral relativism crucial to political decisions made now in the Trump era. The key question is always: What exactly is being sacrificed?
Earlier this year I spoke briefly to Ellison and his wife by phone. He had been cordial and funny as we caught each other up on recent events. We first became friends in 1974, when he was one of my instructors at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and he was kind enough to let me know several times over the years that he was proud of how I turned out. So I was dismayed, but not surprised, to hear news of the inevitable. Harlan inspired me to be brave because he himself was fearless. He taught me the only thing worse than coming face-to-face with evil was failing to confront and defy evil. Future generations can judge the man for themselves as the internet is full of Harlan Ellison performance art, from vintage interview clips to the celebrated “Pay the Writer” rant excerpted from 2008’s biographical film Dreams With Sharp Teeth.
But all we really need to know about Harlan is in the following quote he gave Writer’s Digest in 2004:
“People do things out of fear; you know what I mean: [that] they’ll lose their jobs, their rep will be ruined, no one will love them, their family won’t be able to eat, blah blah blah.… I’ve never had those paralyzing fears. I’ve been on my own since I was a kid, on the road at age thirteen, and I bypassed all the early middle-class crap that programs us to be shivering, rationalizing chickenhearts.… You can’t allow yourself to be frightened; not if you want the writing to have heat and reason and passion.”