RIP Harlan Ellison

I’m sad. I’ve been a fan of this guy for pretty much all my life - didn’t get into his books until I got into college, but he did a lot of TV work too, wrote the Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever” and the Outer Limits episode “Demon with a Glass Hand.” He was a well-known crank, but he had a heart, as you could tell by digging through his non-fiction work as well. He was a legend of science fiction.

A lot of people didn’t like him but something about his energy and intelligence always impressed me.

For a while his channel on YouTube was getting periodic updates but it dropped off a lot in the last couple years. Condolences to his family.

RIP

Damn. Harlan Ellison. Huge personality with mega-talented writing.

One of my favorite examples of his cranky old man interview style was a 2013 talk with Nightdive Studios. It’s peak Ellison.

Holy bleeding fuck. My first wife and Harlan were friends. I hung out with him at a few conventions. He was cool as all get out. I thought he would live forever.

This hurts. Rest in Peace, man. You will be missed.

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Man, was a fan of his work. RIP sir.

!!!

So falls a giant.

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I have hardly read anything he wrote, except for an angry essay about how Roddenberry fucked him on ‘City on the Edge of Forever.’ Of his filmed work I have seen, there is the aforementioned City, and also the Outer Limits episode ‘Soldier’ which I believe he claimed was an inspiration for The Terminator.

I did attend a WGA screening of a documentary about him and was there for the subsequent Q&A (the one where he kissed Drew McWeeny). He was spiky, petulant, and very funny.

What an interview - I have to copy this quote from Ellison talking about making the computer game version of “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”:

ELLISON: When I wrote the game, I told them, right from the get-go, I’m going to create a game you cannot win. They said, “Oh, how can you do that? That’s not fair!” Fair to who? I don’t give a shit about the people who buy it and play it. They have nothing better to do with their time? They should be out on the hillside planting trees, serving the commonweal! Instead, they’re sitting at home jerking their thumbs.

RIP, never really cared for his writing but I thought his work as a critic and SF gadfly was important.

Goodbye, Harlan. There won’t be another like you for a long time. :(

And on a purely selfish note: I’m getting tired of my heroes all dying

I was going to post the “little fuck” joke I’ve heard apocryphally attributed to Ellison over the years, but Snopes tells me it ain’t so:

An immense talent and, as he would be first to admit, at times an immense asshole.

RIP. I won’t wish him to rest in peace, though. He’s probably prefer to rest provocatively.

“Like a wind crying endlessly through the universe, Time carries away the names and the deeds of conquerors and commoners alike. And all that we were, all that remains, is in the memories of those who cared we came this way for a brief moment.”
― Harlan Ellison

I remember when his anthology “Dangerous Visions” came out and was hugely controversial. I was too young to understand what the fuss was about, and many of the stories in it perplexed me, but I kept reading, sensing about all of it was very cool and I wanted more.

RIP.

Aww, fuck.

Somehow I’ve had a feeling he wouldn’t be around much longer, and I’ve been binging on his Youtube clips for the last couple of weeks.

What’s worse than no more Ellison is the prospect of no more Ellison stories. RIP.

Let’s use this thread to post our favorite Ellison rants moments.

That’s so beautiful. I’d seen that years ago but forgotten about it.

I love this.

I never saw that. It’s great.

“They arrested Harlan Ellison!”
“Good!”

The first time I’d ever heard of Harlan, he was a punchline on a Joel episode of MST3K. Gradually I learned more about him, started tracking down what he’d written, and usually liked them. I was really into the show Babylon 5 back when I was a teenager, and Harlan had some kind of sinecure there. He’d come up with ideas for them once in a while and lent a bit of his SF credentials to a show that certainly wasn’t coasting on a fat budget.

I wrote this letter to a friend about a dozen years ago after seeing Harlan give a lecture. There’s plenty of documentary evidence about Harlan being a jerk, but I didn’t see him that way. Maybe I caught him in a sweet spot where he was softened by age and success. Minor edits to remove identifying identification, etc. TL; DR: what a fascinating guy.

Okay, I’d better write this down before I totally forget… A few weeks ago I glance through the paper copy of the Onion we now have in the Twin Cities and I see an advertisement for “An Evening With Harlan Ellison.” It’s loosely affiliated with a big SF convention I have now real interest in attending, but I really wanted to see Harlan live before, well, he’s an old guy now, so before he’s no longer live. I buy tickets from this nifty bookstore/comic book shop a few blocks from my house. (Neil Gaiman’s mentioned it on his blog a couple of times; it’s called Dreamhaven and it’s where I buy all the graphic novels I can’t get at Barnes and Noble. While there I noticed that he’s also doing a signing at Dreamhaven that (Easter) Sunday. So the option is there to double my Harlan exposure.

Let me strongly encourage you, if you get a chance to attend a similar evening/stand-up/lecture presentation with Harlan, do so! He tells these incredible stories and anecdotes that split on tangents and recombine in loops. It was a lot like Henry Fucking Rollins and his spoken-word tours, except from about one and a half generations previous and with a little less rock and roll. They are hilarious and filthy, self-deprecating and everyone-else-deprecating.

He asked if anyone had old business to take care of. Old business! Like he was conducting a meeting based on Robert’s Rules of Order! I raised my hand and asked him about Joe Straczynski and movie theaters. “Oh,” said Harlan. “What my young friend is referring to…” (He meant ME! His young friend!) Anyway, remember how I used to read JMS’ Usenet posts all the damn time? […] In the last few months, someone asked Joe about a story regarding him and Harlan in a movie theater–Harlan had mentioned on HIS website that something had happened, refused to say what that thing was, then cattily suggested that any interested parties should ask Joe for details. Joe declined to answer, which lead me to think that this story would be embarrassing, interesting, or both.

So Harlan goes on with the story. Harlan, his wife Susan (a really nice woman: Harlan’s fifth wife and repository of useful knowledge and trivia. Every time Harlan had a brain fart, he’d cry “Susan!” for her to fill the missing bit of knowledge), Joe, and Joe’s wife went to the movie theater to see Schindler’s List. So this would be, wow, about thirteen years ago, in Los Angeles. The theater is pretty empty, except for some punks a few rows ahead. There’s three of them, two guys and a girl. And they are laughing. The way Harlan said this, it was strongly implied that they were laughing at the Jews getting sent to the gas chambers.

So from the back of the theater comes: “SHUT THE FUCK UP OR I WILL COME DOWN THERE AND KILL YOU.” It was Harlan. JMS is a really tall guy, maybe 6’4 or 6’5, but he’s shy…which means (to Harlan’s amusement) he felt that he’d be even more likely to be perceived as the guy who yelled at them. Joe and the wives are sinking into their seats.

The boys look back at them, but the theater is so dark they can’t tell who said that. One of them looks at the other, stands up and walks out of the theater. Then the other one stands up and leaves. Harlan knew where this was going (at least, that’s what he told us at the lecture. I had no idea what he meant that he knew where it was going, but it didn’t sound good. He perceived a threat, that’s what he was telling us.). He tells Joe to stay put, he’ll take care of it. He closely follows the second kid out in the hallway. Once there, Harlan says, “LAPD! Get up against the wall and put your hands behind your head!”

He pats the kid down, and finds, no shit, a long, skinny knife. Joe comes out of the theater as the first kid comes back from the bathroom.

Harlan tells the first punk to assume the position and finds a second knife on him. The kids are starting to look scared, as Harlan can project a menacing air. Harlan may have sprinkled some other fictitious details about how he and Joe were off-duty cops.

Harlan looks at Joe. “Should we take them down to the station house?”

Without missing a beat, Joe says, “No, let’s mess them up right here.”

Harlan lets the kids sweat for a second, then tells them to go back in that theater and really pay attention to the movie because blah blah blah the Holocaust was bad. So they all go back into the theater and finish watching Schindler’s List.

Good story, huh? Impersonating a police officer can have a happy ending! Harlan also read two stories he was in the process of working on. They were both great, but qualified as Massive Cock Teases. I hope he finds endings to those stories, or else they’re just a lot of rising action trailing off to a sudden swelling of disappointment.

After his three-hour-plus lecture, he signed books. This took a while, as he got to chatting and spinning more stories with people in the line. I had him sign my copy of Dangerous Visions. He had mentioned his gimmick of writing a short story in a bookstore’s front window, where it’s just him and a typewriter where everyone can see him, something he’s done a few times, to the guy ahead of me. I asked him when he started doing that.

“A more interesting question than WHEN,” says he, “is WHY.” And he launches into another multi-tiered and -faceted story about him and Georges Simenon that must have gone on for ten minutes. It was great.

Over the next few days, an idea festered inside of me. Neil Gaiman, on his blog, mentioned that some of the people in line for his signings give him gifts and such. I always thought that was kind of pathetic, but on the other hand… that would depend on the gift, right? What if it was something really cool, to kind of pay the man who’d enriched my life in so many ways back? (Here I’m referring to Harlan, not Neil.) So at my store I bought another giant Ellison omnibus I’d had my eye on anyway, and the new paperback edition of that Strange Angel book I’ve told you about a few times. You know the one: biography of the rocket scientist who helped found JPL, but also loved the early pulp sci-fi and was in a black magic sex cult. I thought Harlan had probably already read it, or wouldn’t want to cart it back to California, but maybe, just maybe, he hadn’t read it and would enjoy it. After all, Ellison was buddies with some of the same people mentioned in the book, like L. Ron Hubbard.

Easter Sunday rolled around, I saw my grandparents, spotted some cute fox cubs in their back yard, and headed to Dreamhaven. There’s another slow-moving line there, but it’s wrapped around the sales floor in a way that everyone can listen to Harlan’s small talk.

One woman in the line used to be a New Orleans stripper twenty-some years ago, and Harlan exclaimed, “Holy shit! I used to watch you dance!”

Finally it was my turn. I handed the two books over to him and started explaining the situation. (He hadn’t heard of the book.) He leafed through it as far as the photo inserts, then interrupted me. He was, at least, clearly touched. “Stop. Did you buy this book here?” I shook my head no. He may have made some gracious remarks about how he appreciated the thought…BUT. “At home in my bedroom I have a stack of books this high–” He holds his hand about table level. “–and four deep. I will never get through them all.” For an instant I imagine Harlan’s impending mortality. “So what good would it do to introduce more wood pulp into my bedroom?” I smiled and said I thought he might say something like that. He signed my/his other book (“To Joel! Harlan Ellison”) and I left with both books and a modicum of grace and dignity. Did you notice he signed my name with an exclamation point?

A few years later, of course, Harlan had to fuck up a lot of my goodwill towards him by publicly groping Connie Willis at a Worldcon. Who does that? It’s like George H.W. Bush with his stupid too-elderly-for-consequences “Cop-a-feel” line. Then later he said The Groping was a joke between him and Connie, and later after that he said that, flatly, it never happened. What the hell. This may have been years before #MeToo but was long long after human decency was a thing.

This is a guy that marched with the Freedom Riders and marched for the Equal Rights Amendment. He wrote stories full of fury and empathy. Sometimes he was a little shit. I’m still glad I met him, I’m still glad I read him.

Awesome post. Thanks for sharing.

Thanks, Tyler.

John Scalzi wrote a really nice remembrance at the LA Times.