It’s a long time since I’ve read any Harlan Ellison, though in the years of my obsession with SF and things associated therewith, he was one of the authors whose work I assiduously collected. Now, at the age of 84, and after a decade (I understand) of illness, he has passed away. As with so many others, the world is diminished today.
Ellison was one of those few writers whose life was often as important as, or even more important, than his works. After growing up under the pressure of anti-semitism as a Jewish child in a protestant Ohio town (aptly named Painesville), Ellison ran away in his teens, taking the classic variety of oddball menial jobs, before reaching New York in the early Fifties.
By dint of sheer force, he made himself into a prolific writer of short stories (Ellison only wrote one novel), and into a very successful and award-winning writer for TV, with two classic Outer Limits episodes and one of Star Trek‘s best episodes, ‘City on the Edge of Forever’.
This latter won a Writer’s Guild Award, based on the original screenplay, which was hacked around for the finished episode. Ellison loathed this, spoke of it often, even published the screenplay many years later. He was a man who glorified writing, who was fiercely protective of his work and who fought tenaciously against those, especially in TV, who thought it could be taken to pieces without understanding it.
This led to many controversies. Ellison was a controversialist who espoused many many causes, most of them noble and great, but some of them more akin to feuds in which it seemed that the controversy was more important than the cause. There was the infamous Michael Fleisher libel case against the Comics Journal over what was clearly praise from Ellison, in an unorthodox fashion, that Fleisher chose to interpret as insult, where Ellison defended himself vigorously.
But he was like that. His writing was fierce, concentrated, aggressive, out to shock, disturb, unsettle. He papered his stories with forewords and afterwords in which he could at times be explicit about what most people would regard as personal and private. He would experiment with form and approach, would insist that writing could be done anywhere, under any circumstances.
There was a lot to like and dislike with Ellison and a lot of people did one or the other or even both. There was no such thing as fence-sitting around Harlan.
Now he’s gone. It’s years and years since I moved all my Ellison books out. I don’t and won’t miss his writing, and I’ve long since ceased interest in the air of chaos that he perpetuated. But Harlan Ellison was grit in the works, sandpaper to the soul, someone who would never let himself and that which he believed in be worn down, co-opted or compromised. Right or wrong, we have too few of those already and now we have one less. Notice must be taken of his passing.