Harlan Ellison: A Memorial

Harlan Ellison died in his sleep. Not a bad way to shuffle off this mortal coil as these things go but I am reasonably confident that he would have preferred some form of corporeal immortality to what dreams may come. I never got to meet the man but he wrote with his heart on his sleeve so I feel like I know him and that, I think, was responsible for most of his appeal. Neil Gaiman once wrote that “writers are liars” but Harlan Ellison was the exception that proves the rule: he was, in his art at least, completely and brutally honest.

I think that maybe this is one reason that he took such umbrage at being identified as a “science-fiction writer”. There’s a certain sense that science-fiction (and fantasy, horror, and comics for that matter) don’t mean anything because they aren’t about real things. This is true to a certain extent. Most of what passes for popular fiction in both its prose and graphic form is hollow, a bronze titan with feet of clay ready to collapse under the weight of its own conceits. Ellison’s fiction, both fantastic and otherwise, was as solid as Mount Everest and (hopefully) just as enduring.

Ellison’s work is special because he combined several traits that are rarely found in a single individual. The first of these is a childlike lust for life that became truly poignant when combined with an adult’s sense that mortality is essentially unfair.  Read a story like “Jefty Is Five” or “Grail” and you’ll see what I mean. 

Ellison was also full of rage, not merely angry but burning with a pure, righteous fury at humanity’s cowardice, cruelty and stupidity. There are some who would characterize him as a misanthrope but I’ve always thought that Ellison was a true humanist who was constantly frustrated by the fact that far too many people are content to waste their small span of years as bigots, dupes and trolls. Some would argue that he hated the internet but I think that he was just annoyed that a small fraction of humanity took the greatest invention for human mass communication since the printing press and turned it into a cesspool where monsters bred unchallenged behind their pseudonyms and avatars. This is the Ellison you’ll see in “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (my personal favorite), and “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.”

Of course none of that would matter without a fine eye for details and character. Ellison’s people seem to be shards of himself, refracted onto paper through his typewriter in black, white, and a thousand shades of gray in between. And funny too. Only Twain was funnier when Ellison was trying. Read “Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish” and “Paladin of the Lost Hour” and you’ll see what I mean.

Ellison was prolific as few writers of his quality are. Among modern writers only Stephen King can compete with Harlan Ellison in term of both the quantity and quality of words produced and even he falls far short on both counts. Ellison wrote almost everything, in almost every genre, and almost every media. The stories I’ve mentioned above barely scratch the surface of Ellison’s genius. All are collected in Harlan 101: Encountering Ellison along with many other classics and this is just the surface of an ice burg big enough to drown a dozen Titanics. 

Harlan Ellison died in his sleep but read and share his work and it will live on so long as humanity dares to dream.

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