Friday, June 29, 2018

The Late Great Harlan Ellison

There was no doubt that Harlan Ellison was one of the most controversial writers of our time. He was cantankerous and had a temper. By his own admission he could be contentious. He once allegedly sent a dead gopher to a publisher. When he was writing for the TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, he assaulted an ABC executive in Irwin Allen's office. At the same time, however, he could be generous and he was often supportive of new talent. He both discovered and mentored science fiction writer Octavia Butler, among others. He was also incredibly talented. He wrote some of the most influential short stories in the history of speculative fiction, and would be a lasting influence on several writers. Harlan Ellison died yesterday at the age of 84.

Harlan Ellison was born on May 27 1934 in Cleveland, Ohio. He grew up mostly in nearby Painesville, Ohio. He was bullied as a child, mostly due to the fact that he was Jewish. His experiences as a child would fuel his anger for the rest of his life. After his father died the family moved to Cleveland. He was one of the founders of the Cleveland Science Fiction Club, and frequently went to the movies. Mr. Ellison attended Ohio State University for two years. He left after he punched a professor who told him that he had no writing talent.

In 1949 Harlan Ellison published two stories in the Cleveland News. He contributed a story to EC Comics' Weird Science-Fantasy no. 24 (June 1954). In the mid Fifties Harlan Ellison started being published in various science fiction magazines such as Amazing Stories, Galaxy, Fantastic Science Fiction, and yet others. He served in the United States Army from 1957 to 1959.

Arguably, Harlan Ellison hit his stride as a short story writer in the mid-Sixties, with such stories as "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman", "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", "The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World", and "A Boy and His Dog". He would later write such notable short stories as "The Deathbird", "Shatterday", "Strange Wine", "Jeffty Is Five", "Grail", "and "Paladin of the Lost Hour". Mr. Ellison was very prolific, and a full list of his short stories would occupy the better part of a blog post.

Although best known as a short story writer, Harlan Ellison did write novels as well. His first novel, Rumble (later published as Web of the City), was published in 1958. It would be followed by Rockabilly (1961, later published as Spider Kiss). He also published novellas, the most notable being the aforementioned "A Boy and His Dog", as well as "Doomsman", "Run for the Stars", and others.

Harlan Ellison also worked extensively in television. His first script was for the syndicated series Ripcord. He wrote several episodes of Burke's Law, as well as two episodes of The Outer Limits ("Soldier" and "Demon with a Glass Hand") and two episodes of The Man From U.N.C.LE.. In the Sixties he wrote individual episodes of the shows Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Star Trek, Cimarron Strip, and The Flying Nun. In the Seventies he created the Canadian TV series The Starlost. Harlan Ellison became disenchanted with the project and left it before the first episode ever aired. He had The Starlost credited to his pseudonym Cordwainer Bird, which he used when he felt his creative contributions had been compromised. In the Seventies he also wrote episodes The Young Lawyers and Ghost Story. In the Eighties he wrote episodes of The Twilight Zone. In the Nineties he wrote episodes of the animated series The Silver Surfer as well as the science fiction show Babylon 5. He also served as a story editor on the Seventies series The Sixth Sense, a creative consultant on the Eighties revival of The Twilight Zone, and a conceptual consultant on Babylon 5.

Mr. Ellison was one of the writers on the screenplay of the movie The Oscar (1966). His novella "A Boy and His Dog" provided the basis for the 1975 cult film of the same name.

Harlan Ellison was also known for the many essays he wrote. For many years he wrote a regular weekly column on television for The Los Angeles Free Press, which would later be collected into the anthologies The Glass Teat: Essays of Opinion on Television and The Other Glass Teat. His 1989 anthology Harlan Ellison's Watching was a collection of film reviews and essays he had written for such diverse publications as The Los Angeles Free Press, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Starlog. Over the years Mr. Ellison's essays ranged in topics from science fiction to the human condition.

Aside from contributing work to EC Comics. Harlan Ellison also made extensive contributions to other comic book publishers. Over the years he contributed to such diverse titles as DC Comics' Detective Comics, Batman: Gotham Knights Marvel Comics' The Avengers and Daredevil, Milestone Comics' Hardware, and Warren Publications' Creepy.

In addition to being a prolific writer, Harlan Ellison was also a champion for writers' rights. He was well known for his litigiousness. In the Seventies ABC and Paramount expressed interest in Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova's short story "Brillo", about a robotic police officer. The two writers turned ABC and Paramount's offer down when executives requested that they change the setting to present day Los Angeles and make the robot human looking (in the story the character did not look human). Messrs. Ellison and Bova turned them down. ABC and Paramount then proceeded with the short lived series Future Cop, centred on a human-looking robotic cop set in present day Los Angeles. The two writers then sued ABC and Paramount for plagiarism. Ultimately the lawsuit was settled out of court, with Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova being awarded $182,500 in compensatory damages and $154,500 in punitive damages.

Harlan Ellison would later allege that James Cameron's movie The Terminator (1984) drew upon his Outer Limits episode "Soldier" (not "Demon with a Glass Hand" as commonly believed). Ultimately the film's production company and distribution company settled out of court with Mr. Ellison for an undisclosed amount and a credit on the film acknowledging Harlan Ellison. He was later known for suing individuals who posted his work online without his permission.

Not only did Harlan Ellison often speak out on writers' rights, but he was also very supportive of new writers. As mentioned earlier, he discovered Octavia Butler. Many regarded him as a mentor, including Dean Wesley Smith and Bruce Sterling.

Harlan Ellison was also politically active. He took part in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He also wrote several essays on politics over the years.

Harlan Ellison's behaviour wasn't always socially acceptable, and he may be the only writer to have a group founded for those who have been "named as enemies" by Harlan Ellison--Enemies of Ellison. It would seem at times Mr. Ellison lacked tact. That having been said, he was an incredibly talented writer. My all time favourite speculative fiction short story remains to this day "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman". Although the finished episode was actually the result of rewrites by Gene Roddenberry. Mr. Ellison also wrote one of my favourite Star Trek episodes of all time, "City on the Edge of Forever". What I loved about Mr. Ellison's work was not simply that it was often starkly original, but, unlike earlier writers of speculative fiction, they often reflected his social concerns and were always character driven. And while Harlan Ellison was best known for his fiction, he was an incredible essayist. For any television historian out there, his collections The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat are must reads.

What is more, for all that there are many who disliked Harlan Ellison, he was notable for his being supportive and loyal to his friends. The past day I have spent reading tributes to Harlan Ellison from his various friends, from Leonard Maltin to J. Michael Straczynski, and many of them speak of how Mr. Ellison could be kind. Leonard Maltin told how, after he had eye surgery, Mr. Ellison insisted that he visit him and read for him. J. Michael Straczynski told how Harlan Ellison stopped to comfort a homeless woman and even gave her money, even though she did not ask for any. What is more, I know a few people who have met Harlan Ellison at various conventions and book signings over the years, and none of them have a bad thing to say about him. All of them have spoken of how gracious and generous he was towards them.

Harlan Ellison could certainly be combative and he was often tactless, but he was also one of the most talented writers of the 20th Century. In the end he was a complex individual who fought for the rights of writers and was supportive of young writers.

1 comment:

Dennis Bedard said...

Thanks for a very interesting insight into an iconoclastic writer. Gotta love him punching a professor!