Science fiction legend Harlan Ellison ends his short time on Earth

Angry, irascible, but oh so talented New Wave author

ellison
Credit: Copy of the author's book

Obit Harlan Ellison, the legendary science fiction author who kickstarted the 1970s "New Wave" of science fiction has died in his sleep at the age of 84 at his home in Los Angeles.

Ellison was one of the giants of the genre, the winner of eight Hugo awards (including an unbeaten record of three short story prizes), four Nebula awards, five Bram Stoker awards for his horror writing and numerous other honours. He wrote what is widely considered to be the best episode of the original Star Trek, The City on the Edge of Forever, was a consultant on Babylon 5 and was credited for James Cameron’s The Terminator - albeit after a lawsuit.

Born in 1934 in Cleveland, Ohio, Ellison was an early starter, selling his first story at the age of 15. He never stopped writing, producing over 1,700 stories, film and TV scripts. His early writing career coincided with the heyday of pulp science fiction magazines. Those mags paid as little as a penny word so he couldn’t initially afford to write full time.

This led to a very broad résumé . He worked as a cab driver, tuna fisherman, crop harvester and - briefly - as an armed bodyguard for a paranoid friend. He also had a two-year spell in the US army.

Napoleon complex or short arsehole?

His early writing was somewhat formulaic but he evolved to break from established norms. He was also literally a pugnacious character, getting expelled from Ohio State university in 1953 for punching out a professor who questioned his writing ability and doing the same to author Charles Platt at the Nebula Awards banquet in 1985.

Some attributed this to a Napoleon complex, given he stood five foot two in his socks. But the fact of the matter was that he was fearless in righting perceived wrongs, unwilling to back down on his principles, and willing to sue at the drop of a hat if he felt his work was being stolen or his talents abused. His rant on the evil of asking writers to work for exposure is well worth watching.

After moving to New York in the 1950s to concentrate of writing, he later moved to Los Angeles in 1962 to write for Hollywood for the simple reason that script writing paid a lot better than the pulps. However, in Hollywood writers' status is low and his attitude caused some problems.

In one anecdote Ellison was one of the writers called in to pitch ideas for a Star Trek movie. Idea after idea was shot down by the film exec as not “thinking big enough.” Finally Ellison suggested the Enterprise would warp out to the edge of the universe only to find a solid wall. After rerouting all power to the weapons system the spaceship would blast though the wall and gaze at the face of God. When the exec told him he still wasn’t thinking big enough Ellison gave him the finger and walked out.

But he was, to be honest, a bit of a git at times. Isaac Asimov recounted that when he first met Ellison at a convention in the early 1960s Ellison approached him, seemingly in awe, and asked if he really was the Isaac Asimov. When he affirmed it Ellison spat out “Well I think you’re a nothing!” The two later reconciled and became good friends.

This worked for publishers too, in unpleasant ways. After feeling he had been stiffed by a publisher he mailed the object of his ire a dead gopher - fourth class delivery in the height of summer. The results were unpleasant but settled the dispute.

While some in Hollywood hated Ellison they couldn’t ignore his talent. Writing under the pseudonym Cordwainer Bird, a tribute to the superb science fiction author Paul Linebarger who wrote under the name Cordwainer Smith to avoid hurting his diplomatic career. His work on Star Trek was superb and he contributed to The Outer Limits, The Man from U.N.C.L.E and many more.

His politics also didn’t endear him to some, but he didn’t care. Ellison marched with Dr King to Selma during the civil rights protests and was active in the anti-Vietnam war campaign, a position that saw him lose work from some studios.

Beyond Hollywood

But despite the easy money in Hollywood Ellison never gave up on writing science fiction stories and won his first Hugo award in 1966 for the short story "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman", a dark tale of a dystopian future in which being late for work would get you killed and one man’s rebellion against the system.

Two years later he won his second Hugo for what is possibly his best known story, “I have no mouth but I must scream”. In that horrific tale he gave us a computer designed to optimise warfare that achieved singularity, wiped out all but five humans, and then amused itself by making them immortal and torturing them in cruel and unusual ways.

Also notable was Ellison’s 1969 novella A Boy and his Dog, about a mind-reading hound and his human buddy in an post-apocalyptic cannibal future after World War 4. In 1975 it was made into a film with Don Johnson playing the lead role - worth watching if you’re entertained watching an actor trying to emote.

Science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s was largely optimistic, rigorously scientifically accurate, avoided sexual themes and tended toward happy endings. Ellison was one of the first authors to take the genre into darker places and to explore the dark underbelly of society.

In 1967 Ellison convince backers to fund an anthology of new and dangerous writers in what became called the New Wave of science fiction. This resulted in the 33-story anthology “Dangerous Visions,” which rocked the SF community to its core with superbly written stories in the new, darker tone.

The anthology was an instant hit and sold by the bundle. A 1972 follow-up collection, Again, Dangerous Visions proved equally popular and brought a new crop of talent to the genre. Ellison always promised a third volume, The Last Dangerous Visions, but never delivered and it’s considered one of the great lost works of science fiction.

This shift was reflected in Ellison’s own writing. In 1975 he published Deathbird Stories, which he warned readers in the introduction not to try and consume in one sitting for the sake of their mental health. In this hack’s experience it’s a book you will never forget, and my copy is now looking increasingly tattered from rereading.

His 1978 short story collection Strange Wine was cited by Stephen King as the most important work of horror fiction written in the latter half of the 20th century. The stories Croatoan and Hitler Painted Roses can be read, but never forgotten.

In 1980 he published Shatterday, a similarly dark anthology that included the award-winning story Jeffty Is Five about a boy who can’t grow up, as well as the superb writing in The Man Who Was Heavily Into Revenge and All the Birds Come Home to Roost.

The Terminator saga

In 1984 James Cameron released The Terminator, featuring future California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The time travelling cyborg story has become a cult classic, but Ellison felt it copied on idea he’d published in 1957 called Soldier from Tomorrow. In the story a specially trained soldier from the future named Qarlo is accidentally transported into current day America. He then finds a role talking about a life of constant warfare to try and make humanity change its ways.

Ellison adapted this into a 1964 Outer Limits TV show where the soldier was simply adopted by an American family but had an evil twin who had also been transported back to the past. Qarlo kills the enemy, at the cost of his own life, to save his American family.

Cameron and Ellison reached a reputed five-figure private settlement over the matter and saw Harlan’s name added to later releases of the films. Cameron has reportedly said that he was pressured into the deal as a then-struggling director.

When the internet came onto the scene Ellison was originally not a fan, protesting vociferously when the text of some of his stories was posted on Usenet groups. But eventually he came around to the idea, although continued to defend what he saw as his intellectual property.

The dangers of dead trees

He was a great believer in paper, maintaining a massive library at his LA home. In 1994 the Northridge earthquake left him pinned under books, his wife injured, and massive damage to their home.

A quadruple bypass two years later slowed him down for a bit, but not too much. He continued to write film, TV and fiction, but also became a campaigner against censorship. In 1990 he was awarded the Silver Pen for Journalism by the international writers' union.

But his behaviour became increasingly erratic. In 2006, while receiving an another Hugo award he groped fellow legend Connie Willis (who has 11 Hugos and seven Nebulas to her name) on stage.

Ellison came back with a vengeance after in the first decade of the 21st century, writing strong stories that again captured imaginations. Former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America John Scalzi recounts that when the author found he had been nominated for another Hugo he wept with relief that his work still mattered to people.

He suffered a stroke in 2014 which didn't help matters but continued to be a contentious figure in the science fiction community. I’ve met many people out here who have had an experience with Ellison and plenty of their stories are hilarious, some rather disturbing. But the world is poorer for his passing.

Ellison himself said that we spend such a short time on Earth and must make every moment matter. He didn't always achieve that, but who does? ®




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