The writer Harlan Ellison died yesterday. He was a brilliant, irritating, iconoclastic, inflexible force of nature. I cannot imagine him being 84 years old, and death is exactly the sort of inconvenience he’d never put up with.
Harlan (everyone just called him “Harlan”) began his writing career by joining a street gang, undercover, and then writing about his harrowing experiences. His short stories were unlike anything that came before in the world of speculative fiction, vivid, pointed, profane, and drenched in emotion. “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” for example, is a dramatization of the New York street murder of Kitty Genovese, a murder that apparently happened while dozens of people watched from the windows of their apartments and did nothing — and in Harlan’s version, the city itself and its need for blood is a central character. There is no way for me to describe these stories to you, because they cross genres, break boundaries, and defy generalization. Go buy an Ellison story collection.
In college, in the seventies, my science-fiction awed friends and I passed these well-thumbed paperback collections around like backstage passes to our impending adulthood. We had grown up on Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein and their eager and fascinating glimpses of the future, but this, this was something very different. Asimov taught you things about the future. Harlan taught you things about the parts of your soul you didn’t like to think about.
A bunch of us took a road trip to a science fiction convention at West Virginia University (Moncon, for “middle of nowhere convention”) where Harlan was the Guest of Honor. We were in awe to meet the guy who’d written this stuff. A bunch of us started hanging around with him. He was highly amusing and witty, and very, very rude. He insisted on describing my girlfriend at the time as “bugfuck, absolutely bugfuck” because she was just not up to his standards of maturity and edgy thinking. He provoked anyone around him for any reason; there was no filter. Although he must have been about 43 years old at the time, he sure didn’t act like the adults we were used to.
I saw him stand at the podium in front of hundreds of fans, lights down low, and read his soon-to-be-published story “All the Birds Come Home To Roost,” about a man whose many past sexual relationships begin reappearing in his life, in reverse order. This was a horror story, and included a harrowing description of how one of those women had driven the protagonist raving mad, and how much he feared her return — a story that was clearly autobiographical and embarrassing, and yet here he was, in front of us, baring his story for the purpose of art, alone. The story made me rethink everything about my own relationships with women; I broke up with my girlfriend the next day, right there in West Virginia.
I saw him hurl invective at a young teen whose only offense was to offer a Star Trek photo-novel for Harlan to sign. Harlan had written a script for Star Trek called “City on the Edge of Forever” — perhaps you remember it, in which Kirk goes back in time, falls in love, and then Spock determines that to preserve the future of humanity, Kirk’s love must be killed. It’s a great story, but it’s not the story that Harlan originally wrote — Gene Roddenberry changed it, which is why Harlan and Roddenberry feuded from then on. And if you offered that book to Harlan to be signed, you were going to hear the cursing, regardless of how old you might be.
I also saw Harlan screen for the entire audience at the con a dystopian film based on a short story he wrote, “A Boy and His Dog.” It was terrifying, witty, and entertaining. We loved it. After the lights came up, Harlan berated the entire audience for our enjoyment a questionably sexist pun that ended the film.
This is a man who once sent a dead and rotting gopher to a publisher he was having a dispute with. He would not let anything go, and if you failed to live up to his impossible standards, he was vicious. He destroyed the writing ambitions of a friend of mine with “unthinking brutality” at a writer’s workshop — and that was no isolated incident.
You may be wondering why I am apparently savaging a man who has just died.
I’m not. Harlan was an irresistible force for honesty, truth, humanity, and above all, quality. If he were here to read this, he would neither deny nor defend what I have described, he would simply say, “This is me.” He did not back down because that was his nature. I admire that, and looking back on it, I can see it had a lot to do with how I became the man I am today
The id and the superego of my writing world
I have written about my admiration for Isaac Asimov, whose clear, logical, unornamented prose set the style for a lot of what I write now. Asimov was science fiction’s superego — in control, writing in a mature and sophisticated way. He was a scientist writing about science, fiction, history, and truth.
I must also now acknowledge Harlan Ellison, the id of science fiction in my formative years. He was unafraid to delve into the evil side of speculative fiction, willing to traffic in anger and hate and the unsavory elements of love (one of his story collections was called “Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled”). This was not a scientist, but an astute and gimlet-eyed observer of human behavior. But he also trafficked in truth. He would have liked the idea of a book called “Writing Without Bullshit,” but probably would have savaged the content as corporate pandering. I can hear him saying, “Forget it, asking people to tell the truth in corporations is pointless. Pointless!”
Amazingly, Harlan and Isaac Asimov were friends. I think Harlan respected the fundamental clarity and truth that Asimov stood for, and I know Asimov admired the talent that Harlan had. They had one other thing in common. They were both inveterate lovers of women. In characteristic fashion, Asimov behaved himself but wrote about lust — he wrote a spoof called The Sensuous Dirty Old Man — while Harlan acted on his desires and bragged about bedding thousands of women. Neither would survive in the age of #MeToo.
As Cory Doctorow eloquently wrote on the occasion of Harlan’s death, he makes you think very hard about whether you can admire the art despite the serious flaws of the artist.
I feel lucky that I got to meet both of them while they were alive. Both were friends and collaborators of Ben Bova, my ex-father-in-law who had been the editor of Analog Science Fiction, and who gave me a little deeper understanding of what it was like to work with artists like these.
When Asimov died in 1992, it was the first time someone important to me had died, and I didn’t know how to feel about it. Now that Harlan is gone, I still don’t know how to feel about it.
You shouldn’t treat people the way Harlan did. But you shouldn’t always be nice, either. This was a man who knew what he stood for, questioned assumptions, and had an absolute dedication to quality as he understood it, above all else. I can admire that, and I will think of it from time to time as I make decision about when, how, and if it’s necessary for me to compromise. There are things I won’t do, and things I will say, because there is a little Harlan inside me. And even though he has died, that will live on, in me and in the millions of other people who have been influenced by the heart in his writing and the spleen in his interactions with the fools that make up our world.