Harlan Ellison, dangerous visionary

harlan-ellison-site.pngHarlanEllison.com


Harlan Ellison, Provocative Sci-Fi Writer, Dies at 84 - Variety
Harlan Ellison Dead: Legendary Sci-Fi Writer was 84 - Deadline
Harlan Ellison, Famously Difficult Sci-Fi Pioneer, Dies At 84 - Publishers Weekly
Harlan Ellison, Sci-Fi Author, Has Died - Fortune
'Star Trek' Scriptwriter Harlan Ellison, Master Of Sci-Fi Dies At 84 - USA Today

Author Harlan Ellison will be remembered primarily for two things: his award-winning and incredibly prolific science-fiction and fantasy output, and his utterly impossible personality. "Provocative," "difficult," "controversial" are the obituarians' dainty euphemisms for a writer who always seemed to be perpetually dyspeptic and eternally angry at everybody and everything. Studio executives, story editors, directors, clueless journalists, juvenile fans -- no one was spared his wrath, certainly not his first four wives.

Even the Chairman of the Board once got the Ellison treatment. As famously recounted by Gay Talese in a 1966 Esquire cover story, Frank Sinatra Has A Cold, Sinatra was feeling under the weather and gloomily hanging out in the private room of a Beverly Hills bar, when he spotted a group of young California hipsters. And "one of the coolest," Talese wrote, "seemed to be a little guy, very quick of movement, who had a sharp profile, pale blue eyes, blondish hair, and squared eyeglasses." By then, the thirty-something Harlan Ellison already had a decade's worth of novels, short stories, teleplays, and a fresh screenplay under his belt.

But Sinatra had decided he didn't like the new Game Warden boots Ellison was wearing, and after a bit of taunting across the room, strolled over to Ellison to convey his feelings directly. At 5'8" Sinatra wasn't exactly a towering figure, but he loomed over the 5'2" Ellison. The room fell silent. "Look, is there any reason why you're talking to me?" Ellison said. "I don't like the way you're dressed," Sinatra replied. "Hate to shake you up," Ellison said, "but I dress to suit myself."

Lucky for Ol' Blue Eyes, Ellison and his friends left before any punches were thrown. Others weren't always so lucky.

As great and celebrated as his science-fiction stories were -- a special Harlan Ellison issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for July 1977 included a 10-page checklist, in tiny print, of hundreds of Ellison's published works, much of it in the genre -- I always particularly admired his film and TV criticism, and his often politically charged essays for the old Los Angeles Free Press underground newspaper, where his Glass Teat column often slammed both the inside studio skulduggery and the shoddy artistic output of the TV industry for which he occasionally wrote. Two of his "Outer Limits" episodes include story elements that 20 years later found their way into James Cameron's "Terminator," netting Ellison a monetary settlement and screen credit; even in its bowdlerized form, his Star Trek script The City On the Edge of Forever is widely considered a classic and one of the best episodes of the series.

Ellison was much, much more than a genre writer, but despite all his efforts, repeatedly found himself pigeonholed in that slot. When Ellison debuted his film and TV criticism feature series on the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) in the early '90s, he introduced himself in the first episode by declaring, "I'm a writer. Call me a science fiction writer," he continued, "and I'll come to your house and I'll nail your pet's head to a coffee table. I'll hit you so hard your ancestors will die. I'll hit you so hard your grandmother will bleed. I'm a writer. There's no adjective in front of it. I'm just a writer." So what was the headline for Syfy's obit? "Harlan Ellison, visionary sci-fi author, dies at 84," and the lede, "Sci-fi pioneer Harlan Ellison has passed away."

I only had one close encounter with Ellison myself, but it was memorably painful. In May 1988, Robert Heinlein -- an author who to my knowledge never renounced his stature as a pioneering science-fiction writer -- passed away, and I wanted to write an editorial tribute that went beyond cribbing from the AP wire and other news articles. I called Forrest Ackerman, magazine publisher, literary agent and internationally renowned horror and science fiction aficionado, for some personal reminiscences. Ackerman suggested I call Ellison, whose home number had always been publicly listed. Although they were generations apart, their work had appeared together in various anthologies like "The Mirror of Infinity" (1970), so I decided to give it a shot.

I got Ellison's assistant on the line, and she put me through to Harlan. He was affable and friendly, and ready to talk. He noted that his and the conservative Heinlein's politics were quite different, but that when he had once found himself seated next to Heinlein on a cross-country flight, Heinlein had been both friendly and generous with his advice and praise for the younger writer. "For a long time, he was the Lighthouse of Alexandria to a lot of us," Ellison told me.

A lovely quote, I thought. Perfect. Because I knew that he was famously sensitive about being called a "sci-fi writer," I made a point to simply call him "writer Harlan Ellison." So I was not prepared the next morning when a colleague took a strange phone call: "There's a guy on the line who says his name is Harlan Ellison and he's screaming at me," she said. "He's demanding to talk to the writer who wrote the Robert Heinlein piece." I picked up the phone. "Harlan, it's Joel," I said. "You had a problem with the editorial?" A screaming torrent of obscenities followed and I could hardly get a word in. "You goddamn motherfucker!" he yelled. "Everybody knows I won't stand for being called a 'sci-fi writer,' and that's exactly what you wrote. I will never talk to the fucking Herald-Examiner about anything ever again!" Slam!

Shaken, I looked in the paper, and sure enough, the quote was attributed to "sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison." I confronted the editor and said, "What did you do?! You added 'sci-fi" to his description! He hates that! He just cut my head off. Why did you do that?" Uncomprehending, the editor looked at me blankly. "Nobody knows who he is otherwise."

Forty years ago, Ellison contributed an introduction for "Angels of Darkness," a limited-edition anthology by the great mystery and suspense author Cornell Woolrich. "I am paying homage," he wrote, "to a pale old man I met once, who wrote stories for magazines that now turn to dust when you touch their dried-leaf pages." Now it is Harlan's turn. In Jewish tradition, it's customary for us to honor those who have passed by pitching in three spadefuls of earth at the gravesite or, later, symbolically assisting in the burial by placing a small pebble on the headstone. So Harlan, please consider this my little pebble, a humble apology and respectful tribute to one of the most original, fearless, and uncompromising writers of our era.


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