Tuesday, April 9, 2013

H is for Harlan

First name basis, definitely.  I've never met Harlan Ellison -- famed author of speculative fiction, Hollywood screenwriter, master of agit-prop for writer's rights, and all-around cultural gadfly -- but I have such an abiding love of his words (and an envy that I could live a life as energized as his) that I feel incredibly close to the dude.


They say that "A man with no enemies is a man with no character," and, boy, does that apply to Harlan.  The sheer hate that he's generated in (some) others could power a small city.  Maybe the raw, wild power of his creativity couldn't be confined only to the page, and had to blurst out into his interpersonal relationships.

Who knows... who cares.  It's his work I celebrate today.  I think he's the closest thing that we've got, as Americans, to someone like Jorge Luis Borges.  His approach to science fiction is at once super-intelligent (you'll never see him using tired tropes or talking down to readers) and uniquely phantasmagorical.  He may be famous for writing the episode of original Star Trek that tops most fans' list of favorite episodes, but his first draft (before others put their grubby hands on it) was even weirder and better.


Like Borges, Ellison found that the short story was the perfect length for his mind to work its wonder.  Sometimes an even shorter format worked best for him.  My all-time favorite piece of his is "Eidolons," from 1986's collection Angry Candy.  Eidolons is a collection of short, 1-2 paragraph prose poems, wrapped together by a mind-itching frame story.  The original bits were composed to be spoken out loud, and were presented, I think, when he was guest hosting a sci-fi radio show.  Here's an example of just one of them, which conveys the intimate connections that words can foster...
"This is an emergency bulletin. We've made a few necessary alterations in the status quo. For the next few weeks there will be no madness; no imbecile beliefs; no paralogical, prelogical or paleological thinking. No random cruelty. For the next few weeks all the impaired mentalities will be frozen in stasis. No attempts to get you to believe that vast and cool intelligences come from space regularly in circular vehicles. No runaway tales of yetis, sasquatches, hairy shamblers of a lost species. No warnings that the cards, the stones, the running water or the stars are against your best efforts. This is the time known in Indonesia as djam karet -- the hour that stretches. For the next few weeks you can breathe freely and operate off these words by one who learned too late, by one who has gone away, who was called Camus: 'It is not man who must be protected, but the possibilities within him.' You have a few weeks without hindrance. Move quickly."
I should be giving you another quote from some other work, some other decade, but I can't help it.  One more from Eidolons:
"You woke in the night, last night, and the fiery, bony hand was inscribing mystic passes in the darkness of your bedroom. It carved out words in the air, flaming words, messages that required answers. One picture is worth a thousand words, the hand wrote. ‘Not in this life,’ you said to the dark and the fire. ‘Give me one picture that shows how I felt when they gassed my dog. I'll take less than a thousand words and make you weep for the last Neanderthal crouched at the cliff's edge at the moment he realized his kind were gone . . . show me your one picture. Commend to me the one picture that captures what it was like for me in the moment she said it was all over between us. Not in this life, Bonehand.’ So here we are, once again in the dark, with nothing between us in this hour that stretches but the words. Sweet words and harsh words and words that tumble over themselves to get born. We leave the pictures for the canvas of your mind. Seems only fair."
I hope these snippets are enough to give you a flavor for his writing.  (And, by the way, those 1000 words about how he felt when they gassed his dog? He wrote them, a decade earlier, and they make me cry every time I read them.  Google "Ahbhu" if you dare.)

Yes, Ellison can inspire, but he's also darned funny!  Some of his short stories are nothing more than a long, slow-burn build-up to a punch line -- and more often than not, it's well worth the wait.  He also wrote hundreds of TV and movie reviews, and whether they were praises or takedowns (usually the latter), his passion and humor burned through the pages.

Harlan Ellison will turn 79 this year.  I hope he's with us for a long time to come.

13 comments:

  1. Cyg, if it's at all possible, these posts are getting better and better. I feel like they should be harnessed together into a book.

    Now, I am even more turned on to continuing the Star Trek journey if only to get to 'The City on the Edge of Forever.' (I like the way that came out.)

    Also,

    'but his first draft (before others put their grubby hands on it) was even weirder and better'

    yeah.

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    1. I enjoy page layout to the extent that I may create a little A-Z PDF booklet. The biggest problem is what to do with all the hyperlinks. Footnotes?

      By the way, Harlan went to Shatner to gin up support for his original draft script. He watched as Captain Kirk himself seemed to read it quite intently. But then he started flipping pages, back and forth, front to back, pausing every so often, running his fingers over some pages, and totally disregarding others.

      He was counting how many lines he had.

      Oh well, the original draft, along with the full story behind it (and the above anecdote), was eventually published. :-)

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    2. Being a Real Artist is a thankless grind. :)

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  2. Nice one! I will also keep an eye out for his Star Trek episode. I don't know the old ones as well as the TNG episodes.

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    1. I'll say one thing that could jog the memory about that episode: Guest starring Joan Collins!

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    2. I want a t-shirt that reads, 'Long Live Edith Keeler.'

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  3. Yeah, "City on the Edge of Forever" is legendary among Star Trek fans, and peculiar in that its original version is said to be even better. I've never read Ellison, but I figure I'll get around to it.

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    1. I wish I could point you to some online pieces to whet your appetite, but he's agressive about taking down pirated stuff. I wasn't kidding when I mentioned agit-prop for writer's rights :-)

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  4. My brother was always a big fan of his.

    Dropping by from A to Z. It's my first year participating.

    Brett Minor
    Transformed Nonconformist

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Brett. I'm enjoying your blog. Back in college, I hung out a lot with the international students for a year or so, and learned the value of good ESL teachers. Keep up the good work!

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  5. Came back here for inspiration, frankly. This is a bit of lightning bolt:

    Like Borges, Ellison found that the short story was the perfect length for his mind to work its wonder.

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    1. I usually love long, rambling novels, but I don't know if that would be a good combination with Harlan's intensity. Lightning bolts don't last long! :-)

      Next time you're in a bookstore with a copy of Angry Candy, do sit down and read "Eidolons." It talks to you, in real time.

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