Friday, June 29, 2018

RIP Harlan Ellison

Another giant of the sf community has fallen: author Harlan Ellison has died at the age of 84.

My first exposure to Ellison's work was something that never failed to provoke a blast of venom from him in later years: the 1973 Canadian TV show The Starlost. The series was about a huge starship carrying the last survivors of Earth in a collection of domes, each habitat having devolved into dangerous societies of the past because the passengers have been adrift for so long that they've forgotten their origins. A trio of plucky young inhabitants (led by 2001's Kier Dullea) discovers the truth about their existence — and the fact that the ship is headed for destruction if they can't figure out how to change its course, and get all of the other passengers on-side. Adventure ensues. It was a complete and utter piece of crap. Even as a kid, I could see that, and even though it was re-run a couple of times over the years, I never watched more than a couple of episodes. Interviews in later years would send Ellison into a froth over his experiences with the studio and network, and his opinion of the Canadian TV industry in general. A bit harsh, considering his complaints about dealing with the American TV industry. In any case, it probably wasn't the best way to be introduced to the creative mind of Ellison, but I was a kid when I saw the reruns in the late 70s, and the only people associated with it that stuck out to me were Dullea and Walter Koenig (though looking at the cast credits on IMDB, I notice that John Colicos of the original Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Nerene Virgin of Today's Special both appeared in episodes) — I didn't know who Ellison was at that point.

Fast-forward to my teenage years, when I started encountering his stories in various anthologies, starting with "Soldier" in Asimov and Martin H Greenberg's Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories: 19 (1957). It wasn't a short story that particularly stood out for me, although, rereading it yesterday, I can see how I would have been struck by its unflinchingly brutal portrayal of war. Other stories would follow, and ones like "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" did tear their way into my memory and leave permanent scars. Round about that time, I was also watching reruns of The Outer Limits, and the new, mid-1980s version of The Twilight Zone that featured episodes he'd written, and they also left a better impression than The Starlost. There were also interview clips of him on Prisoners of Gravity. And, of course, there was the rerun of his brilliantly heart-wrenching Star Trek episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever" (which also ignited his anger, because of its rewrites). I can't say that all of this resulted in me becoming the biggest Ellison fan in history, but I did develop a taste for his writing and started keeping an eye out for it in the bookstore.

Where this really paid-off was in the mid-1990s when White Wolf Borealis released the Edgeworks series of books collecting decades worth of his stories, essays, newspaper columns, and other writings. This was a chance to dive deep into his writing, and going through that water column and down into that seabed, explore Ellison's mind — or, at least the portion of it or version of it that he wanted people to see. Some of the stories were amazing, others were entirely forgettable. But even in the mediocre tales, there was always the chance to see how well Ellison could craft his imagery. How could you possibly forget his comparison of a musician's playing and stage presence to a spider's kiss? But as important as the fiction was the avalanche of essays, columns and reminiscences. This was no-holds-barred, pry-open-your-ears-and-jam-his-opinions-in-them-until-your-head-explodes social commentary and literary and film/TV criticism. I didn't necessarily agree with all of his opinions, or with the way he dealt with people when his ire was (all too frequently) raised, but, damn, it made for absorbing and entertaining reading.

The 90s was also the age of Babylon 5, which listed Ellison as a creative consultant. I don't know to what degree he influenced the series' mastermind and chief writer J Michael Straczynski as the show unfolded, but he deserves thanks for whatever part he played. That show made television, and science fiction as a whole, better.

Getting back to Ellison as a person though... I never had a chance to meet with him. The closest I came was at the Vancouver debut of the documentary about him, Dreams with Sharp Teeth, in 2008 when he phoned between screenings and took questions from the audience. The audience end of the conversation was dominated by old guys from the local sf community, but that was okay; I was content to just sit back and listen, and Ellison was pleasant enough and recounted some interesting stories. Since the announcement of his death, the online sf community has had a lot to say about what he was like. Some remember him as a friend, supporter of other creators, and a staunch defender of writers' rights. I've always loved his impassioned speech in the afore-mentioned Dreams with Sharp Teeth about the despicable behaviour of companies that try to take advantage of writers. While Ellison was specifically talking about how studios try to screw fiction/screen writers, the sentiment applies to how other organizations prey upon non-fiction writers who create communications and marketing materials, especially freelance writers. Working in this field myself, I can't tell you how often I've encountered managers and others in various big orgs that undervalue writers (misguidedly believing "hey, anybody can write, so writers don't deserve much compensation or respect"), and try to pay next to nothing for our efforts. Ellison's charge that these managers would never accept low wages for themselves, and therefore should not expect writers to accept this kind of shafting, and, more importantly, that writers should not allow themselves to be treated this way, has been my mantra for years. And yet, there are also many who highlight his faults, including his ego, temper, treatment of those he decided to look down upon (and here, recalling Ellison's own accounts of dealing with fans sometimes, it's always seemed to me that despite is avowed hatred of bullies, he was something of one himself), and his groping of Connie Willis at the 2006 Hugos. These are serious problems, and anyone who admires his work has to sit back and consider their implications for one's overall opinion of Ellison. Not having known him personally, never having experienced either his friendship and support or his disdain and abuse, and his self-perceived intentions behind them, I don't know how much weight to give either side. Ultimately, as Cory Doctorow points out so eloquently in his obituary for Ellison on Boing Boing, this makes the old curmudgeon human: "... two things can be true: that someone did something bad, and that someone did something good." And so, for those of us who didn't know Harlan Ellison, it's important that we remember both: the good stories and the cautionary tale of bad behaviour.

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