Harlan Ellison: He’s Not Dead Yet, and He’s Not Done Either

In a 1994 Babylon 5 episode “TKO,” a character in the year 2258 is seen reading, and laughing, at a book titled Working without a Net, written by one Harlan Ellison. Years later, Harlan, who’d been working as a consultant on the show, said that was the working title for his memoir. Now, we know that he eventually asked Nat Segaloff (TV writer-producer, film critic, author, and biographer) to write his official biography instead. That book, A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison, an Exploration, is due out later this year. Probably. As with any Harlan Ellison book, publication dates are best considered…fluid. Back when he was editing the anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, Harlan announced its upcoming publication, promising it as early as 1973. We’re still waiting.

Harlan turns 83 on Saturday. To get a sense of depth and breadth of talent on display over the course of his six-decade career, take a look at a list of some of his awards: Nebula Awards (5), Hugo Awards (8 1/2), World Fantasy Awards (2), Locus Awards (18), Writers Guild of America honors (4), Edgar Allan Poe Awards (2), Bram Stoker Awards (6), George Melies Fantasy Film Awards (2). His works include “’Repent Harlequin’, Said the Ticktockman,”  (one of several of his stories to serve as the grounds for a feud with Hollywood), “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” “A Boy and His Dog,” (considered the gold standard of depressing sci-fi stories), and the script for the revered Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

Harlan is also known for his tirades and lawsuits. Gene Roddenberry and CBS Paramount Television got both over that Star Trek episode. He’s known for having a temper, and for showboating and grabbing the spotlight, sometimes to the detriment of his reputation—and at the expense of others. At the Hugo Awards in 2006, he groped fellow writer Connie Willis onstage, an act some tried to brush off as a thoughtless joke or Harlan being Harlan, but which looked a lot like a sexual assault to many in the audience. Reports differ on whether he ever apologized.

In the realm of publishing, his reputation is less clouded (though with Harlan more than most people, that likely depends on who you ask). Not content to just collect his own awards, Harlan helped others out too. He edited the anthology Dangerous Visions (1967), which was the crash of science fiction’s “New Wave” on the awards shore. SF notables from Poul Anderson to Roger Zelazny contributed (and some not-yet-famous authors as well).  It included a short story that won the Nebula, a novella that won the Hugo, and a novelette that won both. It also collected five other nominations for the Hugo or Nebula. Harlan won a special Hugo as editor. The followup anthology, Again Dangerous Visions (1972) includes an Ursula K. LeGuin novella that received a Hugo trophy and a Nebula nomination, and a short story by Joanna Russ that won the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo. Harlan got another special Hugo too.

Even the notoriously still unpublished third book of the series, The Last Dangerous Visions, which Harlan has been threatening to release for around four decades, helped an author to a Hugo nomination. Christopher Priest wrote a long essay about the history of that legendary anthology, called “The Book on the Edge of Forever.” It was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Related Work in 1995.

I have been a big fan of Harlan since the ’60s, but I have to admit, I lost track of him in the 21st century. He didn’t stop writing (presumably, he is still getting his ideas from the idea service in Schenectady). He is also still winning awards—and not just “lifetime achievement” awards, though his gotten those too—he was named a SFWA Grand Master in 2006 and appointed to the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2011. “How Interesting: A Tiny Man,” a Harlan short story with two different endings, won the Nebula in 2010. That story is in his latest collection, Can & Can’tankerous (2015). In that same collection, Harlan tells a poignant true story, weaving the narrative of his 2014 stroke through the book, in-between the other stories, taking us from the first unrecognized symptoms through his recovery.

Another recent release is a retrospective collection of Harlan’s best stories, Top of the Volcano. (This following earlier 10-year, 35-year, and 50-year retrospective collections). His best work is worth introducing to a new crop of readers every decade or two. And the list of his best keeps growing.

On the TV and film front, 2007 saw the premiere  of a documentary about his life, Dreams with Sharp Teeth, the culmination of a decades-long collaboration with filmmaker Eric Nelson. Harlan also found time to voice a character in the 2010 Carton Network series Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated. (He played a professor of literature at Miskatonic University, who advised Scooby and the gang about alternate timelines in several episodes.) And he had a cameo appearance as himself in a 2014 episode of The Simpsons, “Married to the Blob.” He behaves just like we’d expect, berating Milhouse as he waits in line at a comic book store, then accuses him of stealing an idea.

Even Harlan has to slow down, however. I mean, he hasn’t written a story on demand in a bookstore window in years. But whatever he does in the time he has left with us, he’s already had huge impact on many fields. He even marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. So I hope A Lit Fuse is published soon, because I really want to read it. In his 1976 review of Again Dangerous Visions, Michael Moorcock said Harlan was “the fox in the SF hen-coop,” who some in SF community believed would destroy the coop; others thought he would “produce a brighter, fiercer hen… laying a tastier, more nourishing egg.”

We have all been eating better eggs for decades, thanks to Harlan Ellison.

What’s on your list of essential Harlan Ellison works?

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