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FOREWORD: The Frontiers of Edgeville BY NORMAN SPINRAD
Twenty-five years ago, when I wrote the original foreword to the original edition of OVER THE EDGE, I began by saying that it "seems to be more or less of a collection of science fiction stories by Harlan Ellison, but it doesn't wear the categorization very comfortably."
Twenty-five years on, that is even more true, and not just because the book has been updated and its table of contents somewhat altered.
Twenty-five years on, it is quite clear that Harlan Ellison has long seemed to be more or less of a science fiction writer, but doesn't wear the categorization very comfortably, and in retrospect, as this collection of mostly earlier works makes clear, never has.
In fact, the only pieces here that are unequivocally science fiction are "Blind Lightning" and "Night Vigil." "Pennies, Off a Dead Man's Eyes," "Shadow Play," "Rock God," and "Ernest and the Machine God" are the sort of contemporary fantasy stories that have long been sloppily classified as science fiction simply because both genres have long been published in the same places under the same logo, SF.
"The End of the Time of Leinard" is a western story. "Walk the High Steel" and "From a Great Height" are pieces of mimetic contemporary fiction. "3 Faces of Fear" is a piece of extended film criticism. "The Words in Spock's Mouth" is a polemic on writing for television. "Xenogenesis" is a polemic-cum-memoir of the author's (and many others') bruising life and times with the subculture of science fiction fandom.
The point of classifying the contents of OVER THE EDGE being that even twenty-five years ago, the contents ofthis book reflected rather accurately not only the multiplex aspects of Ellison's oeuvre at the time, but what was to come.
In point of fact, in terms of its proportionality to the total body of his work, Harlan Ellison has written comparatively little that is really science fiction by any meaningful definition. Nor has his science fiction, with the notable exception of A Boy and His Dog (and its separately-published other sections, all parts of the unpublished, but much anticipated long novel, BLOOD'S A ROVER), really been his strongest work, or central to his creative core.
Indeed he has probably published more short fiction--like "The End of the Time of Leinard," "Walk the High Steel," and "From a Great Height"--that is not even remotely "speculative" by any definition than he has actual science fiction.
As "3 Faces of Fear" and "The Words in Spock's Mouth" make clear, Ellison has long been involved in film and television as a screenwriter and critic. "Rock God" was written with comic book adaptation in mind, another form Ellison was to become fairly heavily involved in as both creator and critic later on. (He now has his own ongoing comic book, Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor, published by Dark Horse Comics.)
"Xenogenesis" gives us a primo example of Harlan Ellison the famous polemicist, heir to the sulfuric tradition of Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken and Ambrose Bierce.
All of which is to say that Harlan Ellison from the very beginning was a writer of wide range and scope whose straightforward "science fiction" was only a minor part of his evolving body of work. Nor has that changed at all in the succeeding twenty-five years since the original publication of OVER THE EDGE.
Yet to his despair, chagrin, and ire, and despite his mighty polemical efforts to the contrary, Ellison has been and continues to be known as a "science fiction writer."
Therein lies a tale.
In my foreword to the original publication of OVER THE EDGE, I devoted much attention to the "New Wave" phenomenon of which both Ellison and I were central figures at the time. Much of its relevance to the subject at hand may have faded with the white heat of the cultural war of which it was a part, and therefore bears no repeating here, but some of it remains quite to the point.
"Speculative fiction" was what we were trying to have our New Wave stuff called in those days, first because the term was more inclusive, second because it sounded tonier in the literary salons to which we aspired, and third, to hedge our bets when it came to getting it published, since it could still lay commercial claim to the initials SF.
And as I said then, the elusive essential nature of "speculative fiction" is somehow bound up with both the chameleonlike quality of this book and that of the author thereof.
In those days (and even today) the typical "sf" writer wrote "sf" almost exclusively and published most of it in the science fiction specialty magazines and the sf lines of book publishers. Then, and even more so today, Harlan Ellison did not at all fit this profile.
Today, when the same can be said of writers of science fiction or speculative fiction as diverse as J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, Michael Crichton, William Gibson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm and yours truly, among many others, we must be reminded that Harlan Ellison was perhaps the first to have "broken out" of the "sf genre" at the very same time he was breaking in.