A tribute to Harlan Ellison

Legendary author Harlan Ellison left us last week. But heck, did he leave an awful lot behind...

When I learned that Harlan Ellison had passed away, my first reflex was to dive into one of his books. It’s hard to find any book among the thousands of volumes littering every room of my home, but the ones by Ellison are always easy to spot – they are some of the most dog-eared from repeated reading and the abuse of carrying them around like a safety blanket.

I found Shatterday rather quickly. The bookplate on the first page read “Book No. 3”. It’s one of the first five books I ever purchased.

As I am writing this sentence, another article, either vaunting or criticising Ellison (or a mix of both, more likely), is probably being posted on the Internet. How many more will have been published by the time I am done writing this? What will be left to say about Ellison that will not already have been said? I could list his many works; I could talk about his numerous awards; or I could rehash some of the most juicy tidbits from his very colourful public life—from his chair-throwing tantrum to his firing from Disney after only one day on the job—but no! I’d rather talk about what Harlan Ellison’s work meant to me.

When I was still learning how to become a writer, the subject of the most influential writers came up during a workshop on style. When I mentioned Ellison, the teacher was quick to say: “I must warn you about trying to emulate Ellison; his style is very hard to master.”

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She was right. I don’t think anyone else ever mastered his style. He was one of a kind. On the day Ellison passed, Stephen King tweeted, “There was no one quite like him in American letters, and never will be.” But he’s inspired and influenced countless writers. While his prose seemed to flow like it had been written effortlessly (to me, it often read like a stream of consciousness from God), he was often quoted as saying that writing was difficult. Some will remember this quote from Ellison: “People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.”

Ellison was one of the hardest working writers around, then. As I read his work, especially his non-fiction, I could almost feel him furiously pounding away at the keyboard. “I go to bed angry and I get up angrier every morning,” he once said. You could feel that in his writing, especially his non-fiction. If writing was just a job to him, I know of very few people who put so much passion into their work.

His stories transcended sci-fi, which is why I was never surprised to find his books in the literature section as well as the sci-fi section of many bookstores. He didn’t like being labelled as a science fiction writer, however. He preferred his work being called “imaginative fiction”, and that fits. That fits very well. He could spark the interest of even the most jaded reader of any genre. I’ve lost count of the number of readers I’ve introduced to Ellison. I invariably always used the same approach: I made them read The 3 Most Important Things In Life. That usually did the trick. He could shock you and make you laugh within the same paragraph, sometimes even within the same sentence.

His sense of humour could be a slap in the face or very subtle, both on and off the page. I remember a scene in the Babylon 5 episode TKO where Ivanova is reading Working Without A Net by Harlan Ellison. She bursts out laughing within a second or two. You can truly appreciate Ellison’s humour there because that book still had not been published by the time Babylon 5 filmed. Once asked about the book, J. M. Straczynski replied, “The book is Harlan’s autobiography, which he plans to write around the year 2000, and yes, that’s his photo. (He borrowed the prop when we were finished and casually carried it with him to a few places, just to make people nuts thinking there was a book out they’d missed).” He had a gift for infuriating his fans as well as the people who offended him.

His work helped shape the genre, not only in book form, but also on the screen. He helped Straczynski define one of the greatest pioneering shows ever broadcast on television, Babylon 5. It is still debatable what Ellison contributed to Babylon 5, but I remember reading somewhere that Straczynski simply let him loose on set, which was probably the best thing to do. Anyone who’s ever watched Babylon 5 and also read Ellison will recognize his touch here and there in many episodes.

Even though I was too young to truly appreciate it at the time, he also gave us one of the best Star Trek episodes ever, The City On The Edge Of Forever. The broadcast version may have been a far cry from Ellison’s original script, but anyone familiar with his work will recognize his imprint on the episode. If you’ve read his actual script, or the graphic adaptation by IDW, you’ve experienced Ellison’s version of Star Trek at its best. Like many of his works, and despite Star Trek’s progressive nature, it was too ahead of its time, and Star Trek would have to wait until Deep Space Nine before it could even approximate the grit of Ellison’s style.

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He could say, do or write the oddest things, at once both shocking and funny, like how he purportedly said he only wrote an episode of The Flying Nun to get to Sally Field. His words could be described as caustic at worse, and sarcastic at best, but combative is what hits closest to home for me. Regardless of how you felt about his writing, he showed his readers what it was like to be human.

Jeffty Is Five was the first Ellison story I ever read. It was nostalgic, sad and violent. I immediately identified with Jeffty. Jeffty and I had a lot in common. Jeffty had a lot in common with many of us. Jeffty was a geek (sorta). I read later on that Ellison had been bullied as a kid. So maybe there was a bit of Jeffty in Ellison as well. Write about what you know − That may not seem to apply where sci-fi is concerned, but the best sci-fi stories are often steeped in a bit of everyday real life. And Ellison could write about real life like few others could, probably because he got to live like very few can. I remember reading about how his foot slipped off a conference table when he took a swing at a television executive and his fist connected with his opponent’s throat instead of his jaw. It turns out that Ellison, in real life, was just like a character out of one of his stories.

I’ve read all the stories about Ellison’s numerous rows with people that crossed paths with him, including the Bruce Lee chokehold on his publisher and his snarky repartee with Frank Sinatra, and I can only smile. No matter how wrong Ellison might have been in those moments of aggression, I can relate, to some extent. Because like Ellison, and like Jeffty, I was bullied as a kid. And it’s obvious that Ellison had outgrown his own bullies and would not be bullied again. Maybe he overcompensated, but I’m not here to discuss that.

As much as I wanted to write fiction, I learned from Ellison that writing about life was at least as important. By far, my favorite Ellison piece is The 3 Most Important Things In Life. One of the beauties of this piece is that it’s impossible to tell where fiction begins and reality ends (much like Ellison’s true life anecdotes). The piece, I think, is Ellison’s answer to “What is the meaning of life?” And the answer is in three parts: People are weird; violence is real; and don’t screw around with the Mouse. (You’ll just have to read it.) I think they were actually lectures he gave at some point. If they were, I never met a teacher or speaker to this day who could speak like that. Whether those stories are real is another question, but all three anecdotes appealed to me, made me laugh and awoke in me a deep desire to write such stories of my own.

His work was an influence on many writers. Readers of literary fiction will often denigrate sci-fi. I once overheard a customer in a bookstore refer to the sci-fi section as the “children’s books section”, but I won’t have to convince you that sci-fi is the genre that has the most power to underline social issues, to influence readers, and to enact change. And Ellison was one of its most powerful agents.

I grew up in a very conservative French Catholic environment. Besides my parents’ efforts to shield me from the discriminatory cultural background I grew up in, I can list Ellison’s work as one of the few other influences that allowed me to evolve beyond my background.

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He died way too early, but my lord, will he live on! Ellison wrote dozens of books, but he also wrote over one-thousand essays. His work covered every possible type of writing. He will not be forgotten. I regret that I never got to meet him. I’ve met so many of my favourite writers. It puzzles me that I never went to a convention he was attending. Maybe it’s for the best; within five minutes of chatting with him, we probably would have ended up disagreeing and even hating each other’s guts. But that would only have made me like him even more.