Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Rediscovering Harlan Ellison

     It's understandable if you've never heard of writer Harlan Ellison. Unless I've missed some titles, the last new book of Harlan Ellison fiction (as opposed to a collection of already published stories with maybe one new story and/or author's notes) was 1997's Slippage: Previously Uncollected, Precariously Poised Stories

     Now he's making a return to publishing online.

     At one time he was one of the best-known science fiction authors of short stories (he's written a few novels, but none of the best-regarded are science fiction), winning every science fiction award around, though he hasn't liked the science fiction label for at least 35 years.

     Ellison first burst onto the SF scene in the 1960s and ’70s with award winning stories such as “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (about a sentient computer tormenting the last surviving humans) and “ ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktock Man” (about a rebel in a world where being late is a crime against the state).

     He also famously edited the anthologies Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions (and as famously failed to edit The Last Dangerous Visions, some of the stories for which he purchased 40 years ago; many of the authors are now dead), both of which boasted award winners of their own.

     He's also written non-genre fiction, crime, mystery, horror and fantasy. One of his 1960s paperback originals, mostly realistic fiction, received effusive praise from the great Dorothy Parker (despite its title: Gentleman Junkie and Other Tales of the Mixed-Up Generation). He's also written acclaimed TV scripts, winning the Writer's Guild of America's best teleplay award at least four times, including for his original version of the Star Trek script The City on the Edge of Forever (although it was almost completely rewritten for broadcast). His feature film script resume is less stellar, with the only one to make it to the screen the dreadful 1966 film The Oscar.

     He has also assembled many volumes of essays, including of his late 1960s TV criticism column The Glass Teat.

     As good a writer as he is, he's also rubbed people the wrong way with his personality and tendency for over-the-top self-promotion. He has famous feuds with other SF fans and writers, sometimes violent. He promotes projects before they're finished (his books used to list forthcoming books, many of which never came forth, including The Last Dangerous Visions).

     While he's never succeeded in getting any of his film scripts (except for The Oscar) made, one of his stories was made into a decent film: A Boy and His Dog, starring a young pre-Miami Vice Don Johnson as a post-apocalyptic survivor with a telepathic, human-level intelligent dog (smarter than Johnson's character). The story is included in The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World and Other Stories.

     In the 1980s and ’90s he continued to publish, but health problems have limited his output in the last 20 years or so. In recent years, he has been known more for his lawsuits than prose: seeking a share of the money from City on the Edge of Forever merchandise, or suing to prevent the release of the film In Time because a critic had thought it was based on his story “ ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktock Man” (it wasn't; it's not even close to being plagiarism). He also sued James Cameron because The Terminator bore a remarkable resemblance to two of his Outer Limits scripts. (I believe he only asked for an “inspiration” credit on future prints and videos of the film, which seems fair because Cameron acknowledged being inspired by Outer Limits in earlier interviews.)

     Meanwhile, his impressive backlog (in quality and quantity) has repeatedly gone in and out of print, sometimes because he has cancelled contracts for some real or imagined slight. Several attempts at a uniform library flopped for one reason or another, most recently White Wolf Publishing’s Harlan Ellison Edgeworks series.

     Now the anti-computer Ellison is almost totally dependent on the world wide web for his sales. A publisher called has most of his old titles available in paperback, but seemingly only online, not through brick and mortar stores. They range from $15-$25 in paperback, with some as e-books for $6-$8.

     Apparently that wasn't restrictive enough for Ellison however, so he's now compiling new books (collections of some of his TV and film scripts, a career retrospective and revised versions of uncollected early stories and novels) for sale only through the Cafe Press web site (you can't even get them through Amazon or Barnes and Noble), and at what seem to be inflated prices. Four of the six titles so far released -- all paperbacks ranging from 336 to 476 pages -- cost $40 each. That seems like a lot for “found” books, and without even the benefit of hard covers. The latest two titles, which total 438 pages between them, are currently being sold only as a set for $75, so the price is going up.

     It's a strange turn of events for a writer who hates web sites and used to not only give readings in bookstores but actually write stories while sitting in bookstores like a performance artist.

     Maybe Ellison couldn't find another conventional publisher willing to work with him. Maybe the high prices are necessary to make a profit from these small presses. Maybe he's taking advantage of his dedicated fans (it doesn't seem likely that new readers are going to take a chance on these $40 books) because he needs the money and because he can.

     I can't recommend new Ellison readers pick up these new books, even if they were only half the asking price. With perhaps one exception, they're for Ellison completists only. (Some are rewritten versions of what he admits were sub-par works. Others are film scripts and teleplays, including a standalone screenplay adaptation of Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron, itself a rather dated and almost forgotten novel. That said, at a more reasonable price, I'd be interested in most of them.)

     For the new Ellison reader, I'd recommend instead looking for his earlier books in libraries or secondhand stores first. Alone Against Tomorrow and Deathbird Stories are good themed collections of his greatest hits, while Strange Wine, Shatterday and -- yes -- Gentleman Junkie are among his best. Look for the award-winning stories mentioned above in his self-titled collections or best-of science fiction anthologies.

     If you try one or two and find you like the way he writes, try one of the e-reads titles. After you've gone through those, if you simply must have everything he ever wrote and you have a lot of cash, or just want to support an aging writer in his twilight years (he's said he expects to die soon), then give some of these new titles a try.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home