HARLAN ELLISON (1934-2018)

Oh, I so don’t want to write this post.

Though I can’t actually claim to count Harlan Ellison among my many friends in the genre publishing universe, I will unashamedly claim him as my unofficial mentor, my primary inspiration, and will always hold dear the couple times I talked with him, in which he was funny, smart, and—both times—yelled at me at least a little. He corrected my English once (I said “like” when he wanted me to say “as if”) and he would occasionally spell things out for me, lacking confidence that I knew words like cess.

But more on those conversations in a bit.

As a young science fiction fan—this would be in the mid- to late-1970s—there was this list of authors that everybody read, everyone assumed you’d also read, and who were already considered the grand masters of the genre, even while many of them were not just still alive but still writing, and in some cases prolifically. This was the upper strata populated by names like Asimov and Clarke, who stood on the shoulders of giants like Wells and Verne.

But at the same time there was a sense of a new generation out there—authors who were moving the science fiction genre forward not in steps but in bigger, more transgressive leaps. While authors like Isaac Asimov were adding larger doses of science to the post-pulp, post-space opera landscape, authors like Ray Bradbury were blurring the lines between genres and freely comingling science fiction, fantasy, and horror with a higher literary calling. It was right about here in my life that I started in on a big Ray Bradbury phase—no regrets there, of course.

But even beyond Bradbury were these other guys (and, alas, they were mostly guys back then) who I kept hearing about through the strange pre-internet fan grapevine: J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick… and most of all, Harlan Ellison. There was a buzz about him, not always positive, but he seemed to be the author that the really smartest, coolest SF fans—the people really, deeply “in the know” were reading.

I remember that somehow vaguely scaring me. I was actually afraid to read anything by him. Was this some lingering sense that I was too young? That he was writing something for “adults”?

But then I got my hands on a book called Masterpieces of Science Fiction, a big, over-sized illustrated collection of short stories that drew me in with the art—and stories by authors I already knew and loved, including Ray Bradbury. And there was a story by that weird guy I kept hearing about: Harlan Ellison.

I know that the collection included Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” and I remember loving it. I have no memory of the other stories or the other authors. Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” seems to have wiped all the rest of them out.

I always wanted to be a writer—as long as I can remember. At least as long as I could actually, y’know… write. And at some point I became aware of books and stories as things that people called “writers” or “authors” actually created—made up themselves out of their own imaginations. That sounded like a fun way to spend the rest of my life: playing make believe and sharing it. Once I learned from my parents that I was going to be too tall to be an astronaut, writer was the only other profession for me.

But the experience of reading “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” not only cemented writer as the thing I was going to do for the rest of my life, but took me from the idea of telling fun space adventure stories (which we all know, I still love) to really, actually, wanting to do that.

I wanted to write that story.

And by that story I don’t mean stories about computers torturing people. I mean stories that take an innocent young reader and smash his fucking brains out.

I know exactly where I was when I read that story—laying on my back on my bed. I remember not being able to breathe right for the next half hour or so after it was over. I remember re-reading the ending—over and over again. I remember the gut shot it delivered and the mix of terror and joy that left me, literally, quivering.

It set me out, too, reading Harlan Ellison.

Lots of Harlan Ellison.

All the Harlan Ellison I could find.

I basically never re-read books, and only very rarely re-read short stories. I’ve read and re-read some of Harlan Ellison’s short stories over and over again.

So then, let’s fast forward a few decades and now I’m working as an editor for Wizards of the Coast and we’re coming up on the thirtieth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons and planning what we called “the coffee table book” to mark the occasion. My boss, Peter Archer, wanted to add the voices of celebrity gamers and authors who might have been influenced by D&D and somehow Harlan Ellison’s name got on that list. he knew I was a rabid Harlan Ellison fan so he tapped me to interview Harlan Ellison for the book.

By now, those of you who have a copy of Thirty Years of Adventure know that Harlan Ellison is nowhere to be found in its pages.

I talked to him for close to two hours and mostly what he did was rail against the very concept of role-playing games, which he saw as intruding on the sanctity of storytelling as a personal, singular act. As much as I disagreed, I loved every minute of it. The best I could get out of him in terms of an endorsement was, “I don’t know, as far as I’m concerned, people are free to go to hell through whatever door they choose.”

We paid him for that interview. He took the money, told the truth as he saw it, and we couldn’t use a word of it.

That might be all you need to know about Harlan Ellison as a person. He expected to be paid for his time and efforts, he didn’t sign on to bullshit, and he wasn’t about to change his mind because you wanted him to, asked him to, or even paid him to.

The second time I talked to him, a few years later, was when I wrote him a letter I had to send via snail me (no email for him—that’s real) asking for his permission to use his snarky answer to “Where do you get your ideas” in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. He agreed then gave me, word for word, the text you can find on the legal page of that book. Then we chatted a little and I know he probably would have yelled at me for sitting there grinning like an idiot.

But how could I not smile, even as he threatened to sue me if I didn’t get that legal line exactly right. I was talking to the author that reached through the pages of a book and transformed me from pre-Harlan Ellison Phil to post-Harlan Ellison Phil.

I think he did that for (or one might say “to”) a lot of people.

He once wrote: “For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered.”

Harlan Ellison’s stories will be here for a very, very long time, and Harlan Ellison will keep on mattering for a very, very long time, too.


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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7 Responses to HARLAN ELLISON (1934-2018)

  1. keithakenny says:

    He was indeed an inspiration for me as well.

  2. Amanda Niehaus-Hard says:

    Beautiful post. He was a great inspiration for me and gave me advice when I most needed it. The story which made me a lifelong fan was “Jefty is Five.” I suspect he will continue to matter for a very, very long time.

  3. jakeescholl says:

    I have yet to read Harlan’s books, but I really enjoy the Star Trek episodes he wrote. He will never be forgotten.

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