If you are an “angry young man” – of whatever gender – who cares about what’s happening in society, then you need to read Harlan Ellison.
It will have to be his older writings, because the multiple award-winning science fiction writer died in his sleep on June 27, at the age of 84. He leaves behind his fifth wife Susan, whom he married in 1986.
Throughout his very versatile and prolific career, he has written nearly 2,000 short stories, novellas and novels, comics, essays and screenplays.
You may not recognise the name, but his TV work includes some of the most iconic and memorable episodes in shows as diverse as Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, and even spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
He was also the editor of the seminal sci-fi anthologies Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972).
On being a writer, he once wrote, “It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of the rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerrilla warfare.” It was, however, his short stories that show him at his best and most profound – so deftly and painstakingly crafted, with every sentence in the right place and at the right length to deliver the maximum impact.
He was a “writers’ writer” too, not merely because his talent inspired others, but also because he nurtured others and shared profound musings on the job of being a writer.
“Writing is the hardest work in the world. I have been a bricklayer and a truck driver, and I tell you – as if you haven’t been told a million times already – that writing is harder. Lonelier. And nobler and more enriching.”
His stories almost always make you think, and they almost always make you feel. Not many writers can tug at the heartstrings while sparking reactions in the brain cells.
No story portrayed this dual effect better than the classic Star Trek episode “The City On The Edge Of Forever” which asked, “Do you allow an innocent to die for the greater good?” (A scene from the episode is pictured above showing Joan Collins as the doomed Edith Keeler and William Shatner as Captain Kirk. Photo: Screen capture)
It also showed his ability to pull in so many thematic elements into a coherent whole – romance, tragedy, some humour, and yes, Adolf Hitler.
Many people consider it the best ever Star Trek episode, the same way they consider “Demon With A Glass Hand” the best episode of The Outer Limits. Some of his Twilight Zone stories still resonate and chill, to this day.
Not everybody loved him. He was bellicose and belligerent, had no patience for fools and took great delight in taking them down a peg or two … or four or five.
“The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity,” he once said.
There are anecdotes aplenty about Ellison. He hated and loved with equal intensity.
For every writer who said Ellison was a great mentor, there are a dozen who said they were lacerated by his criticism.
There are many phases in his life when he was mired in litigation, accusing others of copyright infringement and plagiarism or being accused in turn of defamation.
Nothing better illustrates this than the anthology-that-never-was, The Last Dangerous Visions.
After the critical and commercial success of the first two Dangerous Visions collections, Ellison was commissioned to do a third. He asked writers for submissions. Many sent him their unpublished works, which never saw the light of day.
Every few years, Ellison would promise the third volume would be published soon. It never was. The not-publication became part of science fiction legend, and a punchline.
But while some may shake their heads at him, no writer can ever say they were not inspired.
“There was no one quite like him in American letters, and never will be. Angry, funny, eloquent, hugely talented. If there’s an afterlife, Harlan is already kicking ass and taking down names,” American writer Stephen King tweeted.
British writer Warren Ellis, author of the award-winning Vertigo comic Transmetropolitan, tweeted, “I once asked Harlan Ellison how many books and stories he hadn’t had time to write because he just had to f*** around and pick a giant fight over every little thing.
He said, ‘Sure, but you can’t let the bastards get away with it’.”
The award-winning science fiction writer John Scalzi, writing in The Los Angeles Times, said, “Harlan contained multitudes, in point of fact, some of those multitudes sublime, and some of them rather the opposite.
“To say he was complicated is not to mitigate his failings or to minimise his successes. It’s more to say that he lived his life enormously, in all directions”.
His impact was as enormous as his ego. He was rage, compassion and intelligence rolled up in one. He died at the age of 84, still an “angry young man”.