Always uncompromising and often fiercely confrontational as he slaughtered numerous cultural sacred cows in both his life and his work, Harlan Ellison was part of a vanguard of bold writers — including Philip José Farmer, Ursula K. Le Guin and Philip K. Dick — who took science fiction in the 1960s from its pulpy roots and vaulted it into a rarefied, more ambitiously literary stratosphere that encompassed counterculture philosophies, unfettered sexuality, left-wing politics, rock & roll subversion and artistic experimentation.
Ellison, who died Wednesday, June 27, at the age of 84 in Los Angeles, also demolished the stereotype of the science-fiction author as a meek, socially inept and ineffectual nerd. How many other writers of his era were hip enough to tour with The Rolling Stones before they were famous or were conscientious enough to take part in Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama?
In his younger days, the handsome and swaggering Ellison’s larger-than-life persona and mercilessly lacerating wit and outspokenness sometimes overshadowed his extensive and prolific output as a writer of fiction, screenplays, essays and, eventually, graphic novels. He was a tenacious defender of the primacy of a writer’s original vision, and he was unafraid of using the legal system — and even his fists — to protect his work and reputation. He successfully won a 1980 lawsuit against ABC and Paramount Pictures after he alleged that the television series Future Cop was inspired by “Brillo,” a short story Ellison wrote with Ben Bova. Years later, he reached a settlement with the producers and distributor of director James Cameron’s The Terminator after Ellison pointed out the similarities between the popular 1984 film and old scripts he wrote for The Outer Limits.
A chance encounter with Frank Sinatra at a Beverly Hills pool room, in which the diminutive Ellison bravely stood up to the boorish lounge singer’s bodyguards, was documented by Gay Talese in a 1966 article for Esquire that’s now regarded as a classic early example of the New Journalism style. A decade earlier, Ellison was kicked out of Ohio State University after he reportedly punched a teacher who’d insulted his writing. Ellison, who studied martial arts with Bruce Lee, also assaulted the publisher of one of his books in the 1960s and allegedly attacked writer Charles Platt in 1985 at the Nebula Awards.
Ultimately, though, Ellison was better known for his writing, which garnered numerous Nebula, Hugo, Audie, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, Silver Pen and Writers Guild of America awards. He was born on May 27, 1934, in Cleveland, and raised there and Painesville, Ohio. After running away from home, he worked briefly as a teenager as a nitroglycerine truck driver in North Carolina, a farm worker near New Orleans and a deep-sea fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico before he moved to New York City and then Los Angeles to find opportunities as a writer. He eventually settled in his longtime home in Sherman Oaks, which he dubbed Ellison Wonderland (which was also the name of his 1962 book of short stories).
In the 1960s, Ellison wrote screenplays (The Oscar) and teleplays for such television series as Star Trek, The Outer Limits, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Route 66, Burke’s Law, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Flying Nun. After seeing his work frequently truncated or altered by inferior script doctors and heavy-handed producers, Ellison used a series of sarcastic pseudonyms — Cordwainer Bird, Lee Archer, Paul Merchant, Derry Tiger and Ellis Hart, among others — as a form of protest. He was the original screenwriter of the 1967 melodrama Valley of the Dolls, but Ellison removed his name from the credits after the producers changed the ending of his story.
His 1967 script “The City on the Edge of Forever” is often recognized as the best and most emotionally compelling episode of the original Star Trek series, even though Ellison often complained that producer Gene Roddenberry and other writers severely watered down his story. Nonetheless, the doctored version of the script won a 1968 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, while Ellison’s original draft was simultaneously recognized the same year by the Writers Guild of America as the best episodic television drama. Ellison eventually returned to writing for science-fiction TV series in the 1980s and 1990s as a creative consultant for Babylon 5 and a revived version of The Twilight Zone.
Although Ellison wrote several novellas — such as A Boy and His Dog, a post-apocalyptic tale of cannibalism and extreme canine loyalty that was adapted into a 1975 film with actor Don Johnson — the writer’s usual métier was short-form works. He used to disavow the violent and overtly smutty early short stories he wrote for pulp magazines and men’s publications in the late 1950s, but in 2013 Ellison finally acknowledged his mercenary early efforts when such lurid tales as Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind were released by Norton Records’ print imprint, Kicks Books.
In the mid-1950s, Ellison went undercover in Brooklyn to join a violent teenage gang — a full decade before Hunter S. Thompson did much the same thing with Hell’s Angels — an experience that inspired his first novel, Web of the City, and a subsequent 1961 nonfiction account, Memos From Purgatory. Although Ellison’s early work was praised by such icons as Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates, it often was overlooked by the mainstream literary establishment because he was considered a science-fiction writer, and the genre was widely dismissed as lowbrow until the 1970s. Ellison often disparaged the term science fiction — he called himself a fantasist instead — and many of his classic stories are futuristic parables that decry the horrors of encroaching technology.
But settings were almost irrelevant in Ellison’s stories. Whether marooned on a distant moon in another galaxy or stuck restlessly in a big-city flophouse, his characters often shared an acutely aching, universally recognizable loneliness that transcended time and space. Unlike his mentor and friend Ray Bradbury, Ellison rarely had an optimistic view of science and the future. In such classic auguries as “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” and “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” humans end up serving technology instead of the other way around.
Ellison always recognized that humans were frail, selfish and fucked up, and their often-desperate behavior — as well as their eternal longing and searches for redemption and love — would never change, no matter how many robots and computers might appear one day to clean things up. Many of his stories barely have science-fiction elements at all; instead, what lingers in the memory is Ellison’s punchy, often profane prose and thoroughly unsentimental worldview mixed with dashes of bracingly rude humor and unexpected glimpses of soulful commiseration.
Such stark and moody stories as “In Lonely Lands” and “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans” are more poignant than prophetic. Ellison goes back in time but still can’t comfort and rescue the child he once was in “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty,” whereas the real-life murder of Kitty Genovese amplifies the alienation of an entire society in “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs.” Most of these stories were gathered in the massive 2001 compilation The Essential Ellison. The writer’s other crucial short-fiction collections include Deathbird Stories (1975), Strange Wine (1978), Angry Candy (1988) and Slippage (1997).
He was also the editor of Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), two epochal compilations that documented the New Wave of edgier, more experimental speculative-fiction writers. For many years, Ellison insisted that he would release the final and largest volume in the trilogy, The Last Dangerous Visions, but the book has yet to be published. The title Dangerous Visions also inspired the name of a popular and now-closed bookstore in Sherman Oaks.
Some of Ellison’s best writing appears in the essay collections The Glass Teat (1970) and The Other Glass Teat (1975), a series of columns he wrote for the Los Angeles Free Press that were intended as sardonic television reviews but often branched out into much wilder and free-roaming digressions about Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, the Smothers Brothers, the quaintly anti-feminist sitcoms of the era, and the time he was kicked off the air as an unrepentantly flippant contestant on The Dating Game.
His mordant sarcasm and irreverent, proto–punk rock approach to cultural criticism was a major influence on the early L.A. Weekly columnists and numerous other alt-weekly writers. Ellison wrote his own column in the ’80s for the Weekly, “An Edge in My Voice” (later collected in a book of the same title), a series of conversational pieces in which he decried the Reagan era while championing gun control, free speech and equal rights for women, alongside unrelated glimpses of his behind-the-scenes struggles in Hollywood as well as rhapsodic elegies to such classic film directors as George Pal.
You can see Ellison’s influence, directly and indirectly, in unexpected places in popular culture, beyond the various movies that have lifted his ideas. His grandiose, slyly maudlin and often lengthy short-story titles — such as “The Man Who Was Heavily Into Revenge,” “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” and “Objects of Desire in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear” — anticipate the wordy self-consciousness of Morrissey. The title “Lie Dream of a Casino Soul,” by The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, sounds like quintessential Harlan Ellison.
He was one of the first science-fiction writers to really understand rock & roll, and there is a rhythmic drive to stories like “Shatterday” and “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes.” He was enlisted to write a never-completed film for The Rolling Stones, accompanying the then largely unknown British group on their first tour of North America in June 1964. One of Ellison’s lesser early works includes the 1961 novel Spider Kiss, about the rise of an Elvis-like rockabilly singer.
In another contrast to the geeky image of other science-fiction writers, the younger Ellison not only wrote for Playboy but was also a playboy who bragged about his numerous encounters with women before he became more enlightened in his later years. He had four short marriages before he was married in 1986 to Susan Toth, who stayed with him until the end. But Ellison’s literary output fell off in recent years after he had a heart attack in 1994 and a stroke in 2014.
Given Ellison’s notorious and admitted reputation as a curmudgeon, I was literally shaking as a 14-year-old fan when I approached the writer for an interview in early 1976 at A Change of Hobbit bookstore in Westwood. Ellison was perched in the shop’s small window display as part of a weeklong promotion in which he wrote a new story each day, a gimmick that he would reprise at other bookstores over the years, including Dangerous Visions.
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With a pot of coffee bubbling behind him in the narrow nook, Ellison was hammering away at an old typewriter, already up to page 17, as I quietly spied on him and tried to gather the nerve to talk to him. To my considerable relief, he took pity on me and turned out to be unfailingly sweet as he patiently and thoughtfully answered my questions for the science-fiction fanzine Young Blood. What surprises me now is how so many of the things he talked about that afternoon continue to resonate more than 40 years later.
Discussing the concept of God, Ellison said, “In my stories, God’s kind of a handy catchword. What it really means is the universe. And the universe is neither benevolent nor malevolent. It just doesn’t care. … God is a mythical totem that people have invented so that they have something that they think is greater than themselves. It gives them something to hang onto in the face of the enormity of the universe, I suppose. …The more civilized we become, the less need we have of gods, the more we trust in ourselves.”
Expanding on the Genovese murder and societal breakdowns that inspired “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” he said, “What I suspect will happen is that we’ll continue going on this way, escalating and escalating until it all falls apart. Which is what it’s doing now. It is falling apart in bits and pieces, and it will accelerate falling apart; it will accelerate until our level of urbanization and our level of culture will have to be reduced. Not civilization but the overloading of it, if you will.
“We’re a peculiar species, homo sapiens,” Ellison continued. “The lowest form of life, paramecium, once burned will never go near heat again. … But we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. And we just cannot learn from our mistakes. And we keep getting deeper and deeper into the pit we’re digging for ourselves.”