Socrates was condemned for “corrupting youth,” when in fact, he simply chided them to think and question things.
Harlan Ellison was one of our "corrupters" when we were growing up in the ’60s and ‘70s. He was constantly urging us to think and question and argue, and he did not hold back at doing it himself.
He captivated us by the energy and persuasiveness of his passion for justice and reason and decency. It showed up in his stories, in his teleplays, in his essays and in his performances (all his talks on camera or on stage were performances of a sort).
I started reading Ellison in 1966. I found a copy of Paingod and other delusions. I read in that book "'Repent Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman,” “Bright Eyes,” “The Discarded,” and “Deeper than the Darkness.” I was hooked. I also started reading these strange introductions that he tucked away in his books, introductions where he addressed the reader directly and communicated his ideas and world-view to us more directly than is usually considered appropriate for a writer of fiction.
Over the next few years, I read I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, and Partners in Wonder, and it definitely changed my ideas of what an sf story could do. I had read Asimov and Clarke when I was younger, and they wrote good stories, very literate, and the ideas were practically the heroes. Ellison did not have a lot of heroes, but he had real people who had to make real choices. Fiction started to seem more interesting to me, and something that was more than a simple diversion at times.
In the ’70s I was in university, but when I got the chance, I read the new books that came out: Approaching Oblivion, Deathbird Stories, and Strange Wine. It is hard to quantify how absorbing and powerful I found the stories in these books. I was starting to feel that Ellison was a master, not just a good sf writer. Yes, some of the stories were remarkably uneven; sometimes he went for the cheap and superficial laugh rather than go deeper; but when he struck gold, as he always did in some of the stories, he was truly remarkable.
In the ‘80s, I was working, but I took the time to buy and read Shatterday and Angry Candy. I felt this was his high water mark. Some of the stories in those two books are among his very best, and among the best in sf.
He started having health issues in the ‘90s, and the fiction slowed down. We got Mind Fields and Slippage, both very fine work, but the 2 books he published in the ’80s are so superlative, it’s no dishonor if I say I think these books were not as stunning and powerful.
Ellison as a Science Fiction Writer
Ellison wrote some good stories that made use of the tropes of science fiction, and he sometimes handled it well. “Virgil Oddum at the East Pole,” “Run for the Stars,” “Life Hutch,” and “Deeper than the Darkness,” the teleplays “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand” probably qualify, as does “A Boy and His Dog,” which is fairly clearly an “after the catastrophe” sf story.
Some of his fiction is cast in the form of dystopian vision encased in the trappings of sf, but it doesn’t seem all that science-fictional. The Ticktockman is more a parable than a speculative fiction extrapolation. You might say the same of “Silent in Gehenna.”
A lot of his best fiction functions as literary surrealism (e.g., “At the Mouse Circus” and “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” and “Alive and Well and on a Friendless Voyage”) or Magic Realism — “Jeffty is Five,” “On the Downhill Side,” “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” and “The Function of Dream Sleep” may fit in here.
He also wrote occasional slick mainstream stories, and even wrote a few suspense and detective stories in his career.
I do not think his science fiction represents his best work, although I certainly like the stories I just mentioned. He was a very distinguished writer of short fiction. Some of it contains elements of fantasy. Sometimes the fantasy is rationalized in somewhat scientific terms. Leave it at that.
A few months ago, an article appeared in The New Republic on Ellison. At one point the writer asserted that Ellison was a writer whose works were outgrown by their readers. I think this is a dubious point which strikes me more as editorializing than fact. If he had actually analyzed some of Ellison’s most-admired stories and attempted to do a serious critique to prove his point, I would regard it more seriously. As it is, it just seemed more as if the writer had a soapbox and decided to throw in a few attacks while he had that soapbox.
Anent Ellison’s bad behavior over the years, I think that should be kept separate from a discussion of his work. Yes, he had feet of clay. Yes, he not only had an absence of tact, but he was impulsive and had a Lenny Bruce-like sense of humour where he seemed to get a charge out of successfully shocking his audience. This has nothing to do with his literary achievement.
I do not know how to characterize Ellison’s literary stature. It is impossible to judge at this stage because his work is still too recent, too close to the memory of the man himself. When he was on, he could definitely write. The long-term value of what he wrote is the issue, and the jury will be out for a while. When an sf writer dies, his career tends to flatline, but there is another sort of fate for interesting-but-minor sf writers, where they just seem to disappear except for collectors and people consumed with nostalgia. And there are writers whose work just won’t go away, until finally their reputation grows again to the point where they cannot be dismissed.
Ultimately, whatever interest and immortality a writer has consists in the work that continues to be read.
If Ellison’s work survives, then we will be left with historical and biographical anecdotes about Ellison that will amuse or offend or exasperate the curious. But his biography will only have real resonance for the people who knew him.
There are many writers who were strange or bad people, or who committed gaffes or got caught in not-very-flattering incidents. I could name several: Dostoyevsky comes immediately to mind, and in truth, Hemingway and Tolstoy and Poe were no exemplars either. But a writer’s work is more important than any cult of personality.
So Time will tell.
I thought the New Republic article was regrettable. It did not read like the work of someone who knew and understood Ellison’s work very well. It read more like a hit-job.
Ellison made a huge impact in sf. He had an enormous effect on the way many of us saw the world and understood it. We did not always agree with him. We sometimes thought he had gone off the deep end here, or behaved badly there; but that does not matter. “Corrupters of youth” are often not without defects. Even when we knew he was wrong and had those internal arguments with his books at 2 am, we knew we had been in a fight.
I met him a few times over the years, the first time back in the '70s, the last time in the early '90s. I did not really know him, but I liked him. I liked his work more. I miss him a lot.
A Personal List of Ellison’s stories:
“Deeper than the Darkness”
“Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”
‘“Repent Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman’
“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”
“Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”
“A Boy and His Dog”
“At the Mouse Circus”
“One Life Furnished in Early Poverty”
“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”
“On the Downhill Side”
“The Diagnosis of Dr. D’arqueAngel”
“Jeffty is Five”
"Alive and Well on a Friendless Voyage"
"All the Birds Come Home to Roost"
“Paladin of the Lost Hour”
“The Function of Dream Sleep”“Mefisto in Onyx”
M-A Berthier is the author of Some Rumor of Strange Adventures. It is a challenging novel, remarkably intense, and replete with literary allusions, curious hearsay, and obstreperous satire. Please click HERE to learn more.