Lost in the Islets of Langerhans: In Search of Harlan Ellison

PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor

A couple of months ago, Harlan Ellison turned 71 (on May 27 to be exact). Yet this event was not met with fanfare, no universal acclaim from fellow writers, fans or critics. Though he is arguably one of our greatest authors, a man who expanded the genre of sci-fi (a term he loathes) into the far more meaningful and modern doctrine of speculative fiction, he is still regarded as a rebel, an outsider/agitator out to feed his own fragile ego to the exclusion of all others. Perhaps this accounts for the lack of recognition… or maybe there is something more meaningful to it.

While his history would require too much time and space to outline, the highlights speak louder than any factual laundry list. Born in Cleveland in 1934, he ran away from home at age 13 to join the carnival. A college dropout by age 20 (he punched a professor at Ohio State University who said he had no talent) Ellison moved to New York with dreams of being a writer. Passing himself off as much younger, he spent 10 weeks with the street gangs of Brooklyn, using the experience for his groundbreaking work on juvenile delinquency, Memos from Purgatory.

Thus began one of the most prolific printed careers in the history of the medium. Over the course of his 51 years in publishing, Ellison has written dozens of books, hundreds of short stories and as many articles and critical papers. His efforts have resulted in 10 Hugo Awards, including the Hugo World Fantasy Award in 1993 for Lifetime Achievement, three Nebula Awards, 18 Locus Poll Awards, as well as the Bradbury Award, six Bram Stoker Awards (for horror), the Edgar Allan Poe Award (for mystery), and two Georges Méliès Fantasy Film awards. Beyond his fiction, Ellison also excelled in the factual realm, winning the Silver Pen for Journalism for his work on behalf of the First Amendment, as well as penning two classic tomes on television — 1970 The Glass Teat and 1975 The Other Glass Teat.

The Essential Ellison: A 50 Year Retrospective, Fourth Edition (Revised and Expanded)
by Harlan Ellison

Morpheus International
March 2005, 1,250 pages, $24.95

Even outside the printed word, Ellison is an acknowledged scribe, winning four Writers Guild of America and a Writers Guild of Canada award for screenplays and teleplays. He even holds the distinction of penning the episode of the classic original Star Trek series that most fans and pundits consider the show’s pinnacle, “The City on the Edge of Forever” (TV Guide even included it as part of TV’s 100 Greatest Moments). He’s produced and edited the noted Dangerous Visions anthology, and even has his own comic book, Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor, under the Dark Horse label.

With a resume as impressive and extensive as his, with tendrils cast out and into almost every foundational aspect of the modern science fiction format, it’s unsettling that Ellison is not more famous. He should be riding a wave of recognition and regard that often accompanies other seminal American writers such as Tom Wolfe or Stephen King. Instead, he can barely beat out the plethora of pulp hacks who soil the newsstand with their beach reading redundancy. If we value literature at all, we should be valuing Ellison. But we don’t, or at least, that’s how it appears. So the question becomes – just what has happened to Harlan Ellison? Why has he dropped off the face of the pop culture landscape, and better yet, why was it a place that he was so precariously perched on to begin with?

People can point to the changing tastes of prose fans, the more intellectualized science fiction of the past being replaced by the future shock cynicism of cyberpunk. Others can argue that, in a genre that loves to micromanage its imaginers, Ellison’s wandering style and select subject matter makes the “speculative” part of his preferred moniker appear that much more substantive. Since you never know what you’re getting with an Ellison work (a complex terror tale, a veiled race allegory, an autobiographical paean to the past). There is no sense of familiarity…or reliability.

But the truth is a little more complicated than that. As much as the public has ‘rejected’ Ellison, Ellison has truly rejected the complacency of the public. During a recent speaking engagement, the author likened himself to a minority class in the world, a marginalized portion of a society dominated by the overwhelming majority, which he calls “assholes”. So as much as fate has found him battling for the very ethical integrity he fought so hard to maintain, Ellison has seemingly placed his persona in self-imposed exile, hiding until the time is right to reemerge as the venerated victor of a creativity class war.

In many ways, Ellison was always a dissident, a writer flying outside the mainstream radar — both literarily and philosophically — who still demanded that he be considered a creator of populist prose. He never considered his work too esoteric — he considered the potential audience too stupid to understand it. He was a man of big ideas — with an even larger mouth to back them up. This applies to all aspects of his life. When he wasn’t championing the rights of his fellow authors, he was marching for civil liberties in the segregationist South or protesting the war in Vietnam.

There was also a dark side to the man, an unsettled streak of anger that goes beyond the current curmudgeon persona he puts on for the press. Ellison has always been a bit of a cad, a moral compass occasionally pointing in several strange directions at once. He’s notorious for starting feuds that last for decades and has burned bridges with potential (and even actual) employers that never even approach the rebuilding stage. He is a staunch defender of free speech and expression, yet tends to bristle when people want to exercise said right — even if it is to stick their foot in their mouth. He’s a dictator without a domain, an immensely talented author whose reputation suffers more from what happens before the words go on the page than anything he’s ever actually written down.

Still, no matter how minor his time in the limelight had been in the past, the late ’80s and ’90s appeared to be poised for a real Ellison renaissance. At the time, many critics felt the author was at the top of his game, churning out some of the best short fiction for his career. His opinion was valued, and he made regular guest appearances on television talk shows, most notably Tom Snyder’s The Late, Late Show and Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. When the Sci-Fi Channel finally hit the cable airwaves in 1992, Ellison was on board as a commentator for one of the channel’s premiere shows, Sci-Fi Buzz. He was even a “conceptual consultant” for the intensely popular Babylon 5 series for over five years — not to mention his work on revamped versions of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

But perhaps the biggest announcement from the Ellison camp came in 1996, when Harlan inked a deal with White Wolf Publishing to produce Edgeworks, a 20 volume compilation of the author’s writing: the first actual attempt to assemble everything Ellison had ever written into one massive 31 part collection. There was some sense of urgency in this decision. That year, in April, Ellison had suffered a massive heart attack and needed coronary bypass surgery. Call it mortality knocking, or the simple need to get his legacy in order, but the White Wolf deal seemed to signal the final phase of the Ellison/Phoenix act. If anyone was about to rise out of the ashes of obscurity, it was Harlan.

The anthology started with promise — the company released the first four volumes to critical acclaim and decent sales. For some, it was their first chance to experience such early Ellison works as Spider Kiss (his rock ‘n’ roll novel) and Harlan Ellison’s Movie (on of his more famous “un-produced” works). But somewhere around Volume 5 — a proposed reworking of the Glass Teat books with complete appendixes and massive annotation — the series went sour. Accusations flew back and forth, with Wolf claiming that Ellison was dragging his feet on the Teat revamp, while Ellison argued that the company was not committed to properly publicizing the releases. The animosity continued and swelled until Ellison eventually bought back his contract, vowing to release the series on his own (to date, no other Volumes of Edgeworks have been published).

In some ways, this began the author’s gradual disappearing act. Indeed, by 1998, the seismic shockwaves all struck at once. Sci-Fi Buzz was cancelled, Babylon 5 went out of production, and as stated before, the Glass Teat debacle was heating up. Other avenues for Ellison’s muse, like his appearances with Snyder, were drying up (big Tom called it quits in 1999, making room for Craig Kilborn). While there were the occasional short story collections — Slippage in 1997, for example — it appeared that Ellison was relegated to revisiting his carnival days. He occasionally pulled such strange literary stunts as writing a new piece of prose, from beginning to end, while seated in a bookstore window.

His infamous feud with Gene Roddenberry could have also helped fuel the fall. The hate/hate relationship he recounted in exacting detail in his blistering book Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay That Became The Classic Star Trek Episode just dripped with not yet dried bad blood. When it was released in 1996, many complained that Ellison was taking the opportunity to rewrite history, repaint the past in a light far more favorable to Ellison while kicking a dead man who couldn’t defend himself or refute the charges.

But the true deathblow occurred in 2000. While not exactly a Luddite, Ellison has never been a fan of the Internet, the World Wide Web or any of the other technological snake oil that comes with a permanent populist soap box. And for a man who is easily offended by the unintelligent drivel that spewed forth from idiot boxes and movie screens across the cultural landscape, to be flummoxed and flabbergasted by the level of illiteracy racing between servers and cyberspace seems perfectly normal. But along with fools needing to be suffered, Ellison soon discovered thieves, people publishing his writings on the web without consideration for a little something called copyright. Initially, Ellison approached the offenders, the news group, and the ISP to remove said stealing. The request turned into a lawsuit, a legal battle than ended up pitting Ellison against the largest Internet provider in the world — America Online (and its eventual omnipresent parent company, Time Warner).

With the undaunted David ready to take on the greedy Goliath in a Los Angeles Courthouse, Ellison stood fast. At first, it seemed like a stance worth taking. Metallica had just attacked Napster for similar infringement tactics. And unlike the heavy metal icons, Ellison didn’t risk revilement from a multitude of fans fretting over how they were going to get their latest cockrock fix without having to travel down to the local retail outlet to buy a CD. As preparations for trial consumed him, Ellison simply dropped off the cult of personality circuit.

After settling with the initial infringer and news service, Ellison was dealt a startling blow in 2002. The trial court ruled in summary judgment in favor of AOL, claiming that the limited liability section of the DMCA — the Digital Millennium Copyright Act — gave the company immunity from such prosecutions. Angered by the defeat and invigorated by the outpouring of support from his KICK Internet Piracy consortium (a fund set up to support the legal battle) Ellison cranked up the appeal process. In 2004, the Court of Appeals for the 9th District reversed in part the lower courts decision, remanding the case back for trial. The issue? AOL’s claim of limited liability. The DCA suggested that the company’s interpretation of the DMCA, as well as their own policies based on said reading, resulted in a legal issue of ‘contributory infringement’.

It was a major victory for Ellison, who now had the conglomerate in his sites. Four months later, the parties settled. Naturally, both sides claimed victory. America Online said that the agreement confirms their active commitment and responsibility to protecting the rights of artists, while Ellison argued that his recent victories helped ‘raise awareness’ (a proto-PC catchphrase if ever there was one) over the ongoing piracy sweeping the Net. All in all, it was a rather anticlimactic conclusion for what was promising to be the greatest little guy/big guy battle in recent memory. And while Metallica ended up being more hated than helped by their battle against technology-based infringement, it’s hard to say whether Ellison suffered at all for his efforts. His career arc had been so shaky to begin with that its hard to imagine a court case aimed at protecting writers could or would result in the same level of hacker hatred.

And so, as his 71st birthday comes and goes, and with his vaunted AOL case fading off into the distance, the question of Ellison’s legacy still remains an enigma. The author does travel the country, speaking at colleges and conventions in a clear case of preaching to the converted (or in his case, the ‘perverted’). But aside from 2001’s The Troublemakers (what promised to be the first in a Young Adult series) and his contributions to the new, expanded The Essential Harlan Ellison (the 50th Anniversary Edition came out in 2005), his creative input in his original element has been substantially stifled. Maybe as a result of age, perhaps as a penance for not completely winning the war against piracy.

So after this long, laborious journey, after taking on media titans and continuing to stir up long settled acrimony, what has Ellison actually won? Is he a better writer for all this confrontation, or has it, in small ways, undermined his already delicate place in history’s pantheon. Obviously, from a pure talent standpoint, the answer is no. Ellison will always be the writer that he is — brash, adventurous, deeply affecting and highly confrontational. And students who suffer through his short stories in high schools and colleges will still curse his name once pop quiz or exam time comes around.

As someone who always demanded a little bit of the limelight for himself personally, his lack of a public presence in 2005 must be maddening. Ellison was always someone with something to say. But to paraphrase the old saying — if a screed falls in the marketplace of ideas, and no one is around to hear it, does the message still matter? Harlan seems to think so. Here’s hoping he finds his way back to the fans who used to think it mattered as well. Otherwise, Harlan Ellison faces the dilemma of being a legend not of his own time (or mind), but a fable faded into the writing woodwork. He deserves better — or at the very least, his words do.