Saturday, January 11, 2014

Harlan Ellison, 'The Simpsons' and Broken Promises

Victor Gollancz Ltd.
Dangerous Visions
Edited by Harlan Ellison
(Gollancz, $17.95)

Again, Dangerous Visions
Edited by Harlan Ellison
(, $23.95)

The Last Dangerous Visions
?Edited by Harlan Ellison?
     Harlan Ellison appeared as a character (himself) and guest voice on the Jan. 12 episode of The Simpsons. In an email alerting fans to this fact, Ellison referenced "Matt Groening (fulfilling) his 20-year-old promise to have me appear as a guest cameo on the show." 
     (The wait wasn't worth it. HE just played himself, waiting for a comic book in Springfield for some reason, getting into an argument with Bart's friend Milhouse and referencing how James Cameron's The Terminator borrowed ideas from his Outer Limits scripts.)

     Hasn't HE heard the adage that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw bricks? HE's career is full of unfulfilled "promises" to publishers as an author and to fellow writers as an editor. 

     HE has broken a lot of promises to readers and also to his fellow writers, most notably with the infamous unpublished anthology The Last Dangerous Visions.
     The odyssey begins in the early to mid 1960s, when HE persuaded a publisher to let him edit Dangerous Visions (1967), an original anthology of science fiction stories intended  to be ground- and taboo-breaking, with a more literate style similar to the British magazine New Worlds.
     The book was successful enough that the publisher persuaded HE to do a sequel, and in 1972 Again, Dangerous Visions was published. This time, however, Ellison himself promised within the pages of the book that a third volume, The Last Dangerous Visions, would follow in six months. As Again was longer than the first volume, The Last would be longer than Again, probably a two-volume boxed set, with entire novels by some of the contributors.
      Last has been awaiting publication since 1973, and Harlan Ellison has been aggressively defensive about the reasons it hasn't been ever since.
     When I joined the Science Fiction Book Club way back when, Dangerous Visions was one of the introductory offer volumes I chose. I subsequently picked up Again also. I have never obsessed about Last, but I have found its non-publication peculiar.
     When pushed, HE will say that it will be published when it's published, or compares himself to Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, or pleads health problems or other reasons that HE claims the complaintant -- often an author who is wondering why the story he sold to Ellison 20- or 30-odd years ago hasn't been published yet -- knows very well are justified.
     (NOTE: HE gets upset when he feels a writer has violated the contract between reader and writer. For instance, he has repeatedly criticized Damon Knight for a story, "Man in the Jar," in which he felt a promise was broken. Since the story may not be readily available -- I found it the 1976 collection The Best of Damon Knight -- SPOILER ALERT! The story concerns a man testing whether his bellboy -- whom he has trapped in a large jar -- is a legendary alien called a Marack. According to the antagonist, these alien beings have a skeletal peculiarity that prevents them from raising their arms above their heads. But in the end,  the "man in the jar" demonstrates that he can do this. HE cried foul, but Knight protested -- and I agree -- that this is one of a series of suppositions which -- if the man is one of these alien supermen, which isn't definitively resolved -- is disproved during the course of the story, so no promise was broken.
     (HE has broken many promises to his readers, however, by promising forthcoming titles on the "other books by" page of his books, many of which never actually materialized. His publishers have even taken out ads to promote these never-delivered manuscripts -- Prince of Sleep -- and cover art has been commissioned by well-known artists, i.e. for Blood's a Rover by Richard Corben. But while broken promises are nothing new for HE, Last is  different because it involves Ellison failing in his responsibilities toward other authors as well as his publishers and fans.)
    Christopher Priest, a Brit author of The Prestige and other novels, penned an interesting screed on the subject as The Book on the Edge of Forever. It's now out of print, but it details the many times HE said the book would be out in a few months (sometimes even claiming he had delivered the completed manuscript to the publisher), only to have it remain unpublished. It also details how many authors who sold stories to the book have since died. (Since the last edition of the screed in 1994, the list has probably grown much longer.)
     Ellison may soon join them. He says he is near death. When he dies, what will happen to the dozens of stories from The Last? Will they be returned to their authors or their estates? Will they be published without HE's introductions (that he hasn't written or completed them is the reason HE claims Last hasn't been published to date)?
     Maybe he will surprise everyone and publish it after all, possibly as an Edgeworks Abbey title. While I think most of the volumes in that series are overpriced at $40, Last might be worth it.