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Harlan Ellison’s complicated legacy

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THE seminal Harlan Ellison interview (for this writer, at least).

In memoriam—Harlan Ellison 1934-2018

Yesterday, I learned of the death of Harlan Ellison. Ellison, who was born in 1934 in Cleveland, Ohio, was 84.

I have a complicated relationship with Ellison. A lengthy interview he gave to The Comics Journal, published in 1980 was, for a good chunk of adolescence, my Bible. That interview, where Ellison took on, well, just about everyone, influenced me in ways both good and bad that I still recognize today, 38 years later.

In his lifetime, Ellison wrote numerous short stories and won several each of all the most prestigious science-fiction writing awards. He was also a TV scripter (he wrote one of the most famous episodes, “City on the Edge of Forever”, of the original Star Trek series), screenwriter (the 1966 turkey The Oscar), and anthologist (most notably two collections of what were then regarded as cutting-edge sci-fi, Dangerous Visions in 1967 and Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972.*).

Captain James Tiberius Kirk (William Shatner) can’t help but fall in love with Joan Collins’ soup-kitchen angel in Ellison’s teleplay City On the Edge of Forever.

Harlan Ellison—a brief history

He was also self-mythologizing and famously cantankerous*. For examples of the latter, see his collections of TV columns (The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat), introductions to his own and other peoples’ work, and in interviews. (I still recall, in that Comics Journal interview, the invective he poured forth on Barbra Streisand, who apparently upstaged him at one time or didn’t pay him or both.)

In print he was cantankerous; in real-life he was maybe a little more. He sued (both successfully and un-) various producers etcetera whom he accused of plagiarising his work and ideas. To hear him tell it, he threw punches at more than one TV and movie executive. A bit player in Gay Talese’s famous New Journalism piece “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” he can even be found standing up to Sinatra, as big (and powerful) an SOB as anyone you’d care to meet, according to most accounts.

Last night, a few hours after learning of his death (from my cousin; we both invoke Ellison’s name on occasion, as an example of a pop culture character who came to believe his own hype), I looked up some old interviews with the writer on YouTube. Apparently a follower of the dictum (attributed to Gore Vidal) “Never turn down a chance to have sex or be on TV,” he was a frequent guest on talk shows in the 70s and 80s, at least. (Possibly the 90s; I didn’t look that far, for reasons that will become apparent.)

I’m not sure what I was looking for, but I think I wanted to find an Ellison that was witty and acerbic and astute. And the Ellison in the three interviews I watched certainly thinks he is those things.

Ellison: ‘Don’t call me a sci-fi writer, dammit!’

But that doesn’t mean he is. In one 1978  interview, from Canadian TV newsmagazine 90 Minutes Live with CBC host Peter Gzowski as well as original SNL cast member Laraine Newman (!), he is reductive and dismissive (needlessly, it seems to me) regarding Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Trigger warning, Jedi fans—he also disses Star Wars in passing). In a 1980 segment with an unnamed American daytime TV host, he doth protest too much about being labeled a “science fiction writer.” In all three interviews, he comes across as defensive to the point of meanness—to Newman, to his interviewer after a 2013 screening of a documentary about his life and work (Dreams With Sharp Teeth), to his fans. These interviews are painful to watch.

It’s true that Ellison wrote some influential short stories (“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktock Man, from 1965, is one of his best-known), came up with many great titles (this at least is indisputable), and stood up for writers’ rights in a way that hasn’t been seen since. But I’m not sure if his stories actually stand up. Recent attempts to read them have left me cold. At one time, the anger and fire in his work spoke to the adolescent in me; today, I see mostly strained prose and bludgeoning messages. But still, some great titles.

Perhaps Ellison’s legacy will be that of a two-fisted soldier-scribe in the culture wars. Ellison came of age at a time when science fiction and fantasy were dirty words. Today, of course—well I don’t even need to finish that sentence except to say Game of Thrones Star Wars Star Trek Infinity Wars yada yada yada.

He had a hand in winning that war; I hope he found some peace in that. I doubt it, though. He probably would not want to be credited for anything that popular.

Read this great piece on Ellison by Jason Sheehan of NPR.

* He wore the label like a badge of honour; he called a 2016 collection Can and Can’tankerous.

** There was to be a third volume, the un-genesis of which is hilariously chronicled in a comic-book-sized publication by Christopher Priest called The Book On the Edge of Forever.

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