The Inverse Interview

The Unexpected Resurrection of Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison died in 2018. Now, thanks to J. Michael Straczynski, he’s back. And louder than ever.

Lais Borges/Inverse; CBS; Getty
The Inverse Interview

In 1968, a notoriously caustic science fiction writer accused Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry of peddling “utopian bullshit.” In 1978, this same writer — in an introduction written for Doctor Who paperbacks — mocked Star Wars, decrying it as “adolescent nonsense.” In 1983, when he learned that James Cameron had admitted to “ripping off” one of his stories, he sued and got his name put in the end credits of The Terminator. In a 1979 interview in Starlog, Mark Hamill, baffled by this angry, impish contrarian, said: “I don’t want to get on a panel with Ellison… I thought he was like a game show host.” So who the hell was Harlan Ellison? And more importantly, why did he matter?

For generations of science fiction and fantasy aficionados, saying the name Harlan Ellison is like uttering a dark spell. Ellison’s writing — primarily in short story format — is fantastic and provocative, but his reputation for contentiousness was equally potent, often overshadowing the art itself. And for younger genre fans, the name Harlan Ellison might not mean anything at all. If you’re into science fiction and fantasy and came of age in the new millennium (and his 2014 Simpsons cameo went over your head), there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Ellison.

“There was a time when he was one of the hottest speakers on college campuses anywhere, and now, he’s fallen between the cracks,” J. Michael Straczynski tells Inverse. “It was really important for me to introduce people to Harlan’s work again. A lot of his work just hasn’t been available for the past 10 or 20 years.”

Following Ellison’s death in 2018, Straczynski — comic book writing legend and creator of Babylon 5 — set out to reboot the legacy of the most energetic, and perhaps misunderstood, figure in all of speculative fiction. But this mission isn’t an attempt to sanitize or censor Ellison. Instead, with the release of a new book Greatest Hits (edited by Straczynski, with introductions from Neil Gaiman and Cassandra Khaw), Ellison’s specific brand of fantasy has re-emerged from those cracks, zombie warts and all.

The Leader of the New Wave

Harlan Ellison in 1977.

Barbara Alper/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Harlan Ellison hated labels. Especially the label of “sci-fi writer.” In a 2013 profile written by Jaime Lowe for New York Magazine, Ellison said, “Call me a science-fiction writer and I will come to your house and nail your dog’s head to the coffee table!”

Part of his animosity stemmed from his tireless work to undo the genre stereotypes and constraints put on writers who worked outside of the mainstream. From the beginning of the 20th century up to the 1960s, the genre of science fiction was very different from what came next. A huge part of that change was the revolution of the “New Wave” of science fiction writers who pushed back against the stodgier and stuffier traditions of “Hard SF” and infused the genre with more literary and poetic sensibilities. Some started saying the written genre of “SF” stood for “speculative fiction,” not just science fiction. But without Ellison, science fiction (or speculative fiction) might never have grown up.

“奥丑补迟 Harlan did in particular was to codify the New Wave,” Straczynski says. “With Dangerous Visions, he pulled it all together into one place and made it an event.”

Published in 1967, Dangerous Visions was a massive SF anthology of short stories, all edited and acquired by Ellison. (It’s just been republished, complete with a new introduction from Patton Oswalt.) The goal was to give writers a home for short stories that were so extreme or taboo that even science fiction publications wouldn’t touch them. The first volume included edgy tales from Philip K. Dick, Robert Bloch, and J.G. Ballard, while the second volume, Again, Dangerous Visions, boasted classic short stories from the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin, Kurt Vonnegut, Joanna Russ, and Kate Wilhelm. As something of a trademark of Ellison, each story contained a lengthy introduction about the author, written in a rapid-fire, off-the-cuff style that would make Hunter S. Thompson blush. In his introduction to Dangerous Visions, Ellison brazenly declared: “奥丑补迟 you hold in your hands is more than a book. If we’re lucky, it will be a revolution.” In a sense, he was right.

“There’s the whole thing about social movements,” Straczynski says. “Often, one person stands up and sort of embodies all of what they’re saying, and then it becomes a movement, and then it becomes a thing. And with Dangerous Visions and the New Wave, Harlan became that movement and that spearhead.”

But beyond bolstering the careers of others (he was Octavia Butler’s mentor and champion) Ellison’s own writing was unlike any other science fiction stories in the field. His two most famous stories, “Repent, Harlequin, Said the Ticktock Man” (1966) and “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (1967), are simultaneously arresting and, for their time, extremely creative. In the first, a future society obsessed with time subtracts minutes from people’s lives when they are late or break the law. In the second, a sadistic AI keeps six human beings alive and tortures them to the ends of the Earth. But that’s just the tip of the dark matter iceberg that is Harlan Ellison.

“He pulled it all together into one place and made it an event.”

He pioneered stories about super-powered telepaths with his classic “Deeper Than Darkness” (1957) and touched on concepts of immortal, undying evil in “Mefisto in Onyx” (1993). When read today, his doppelganger story “Shatterday” (1977) feels like a condensed version of a David Lynch movie, combined with the parallel worlds antics of contemporary Apple TV shows like Constellation and Dark Matter.

But Ellison’s brand of dark speculative fiction wasn’t just limited to the page. He was also part of a growing trend in the 1950s and 1960s, in which authors of prose sci-fi began writing for TV. With thrilling episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Outer Limits, plus authorship of what is considered to be the best episode of the original Star Trek, Ellison was like a one-person Black Mirror. Indeed, one of his sci-fi horror stories, “Life Hutch,” was adapted as part of Love Death and Robots in 2021.

So with all of this success and brilliant output, why was Harlan Ellison so angry?

The Antichrist of Science Fiction

Writer Harlan Ellison at Mile High comics book store in 1982.

Denver Post/Getty Images

Harlan Ellison wrote Star Trek’s seminal time-travel tragedy, the 1967 episode “The City on the Edge of Forever.” For almost six decades, this single story has often been cited as the best episode of Star Trek, ever, and its legacy continues to be relevant to the canon today — Michelle Yeoh’s upcoming Section 31 movie is a direct result of her character, Philippa Georgiou, stepping through the Guardian of Forever, a time portal originally introduced in Ellison’s episode.

Ellison infamously hated the aired version of the episode. While at least one entire book has been written about this kerfuffle, Ellison’s frustration basically comes down to a rowdy, and utterly divergent rewrite, which he said compromised his artistic integrity. Ellison felt steamrolled by Gene Roddenberry, which was ironic because just one year prior he’d formed “The Committee” — a select group of massive science fiction authors, including Frank Herbert, A.E. van Vogt, and others — with the express purpose of making sure Star Trek remained on the air.

“I think he just saw a lot of sloppiness going on [with Star Wars闭.”

“奥丑补迟 Star Trek really did was popularize science fiction in ways that hadn’t been done before,” Straczynski says. “It brought a new language in the vernacular to the popular culture. It galvanized the space program. There will never be another Star Trek any more than there’ll be another Beatles, and their place in the culture cannot be overestimated. The downside of that is that it codified a certain kind of storytelling in ways that limit other opportunities.”

Ellison clearly saw the rise of big franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars as a double-edged sword for the larger world of speculative fiction. Yes, it made SF more mainstream, but it was also reductive. So he went on the attack. In the humorous and raunchy story “How’s the Nightlife on Cissalda?” (1977), Ellison, still annoyed by his Star Trek experience, depicted a fictionalized version of William Shatner unsuccessfully trying to seduce an alien creature.

The classic Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever.”

CBS Photo Archive/CBS/Getty Images

When it came to Trek, Harlan Ellison liked to bite the hand that fed him.

“He could dine off of ‘I wrote for Star Trek’ for quite some time,” Straczynski says. “He was able to parlay that to success in many respects, even though he hated the process.”

While his anger over being rewritten explains some of his animosity with Star Trek — and its fans — why was Ellison so anti Star Wars? As someone from the print world of science fiction who had tried to start a more progressive, literary trend in the genre, Ellison almost certainly saw the gee-whiz swashbuckling brand of Star Wars’ heroism as inherently regressive, more reminiscent of the conservative era of SF publishing in the ’30s and ’40s, than anything from what was then the modern era of speculative fiction.

“I think he just saw a lot of sloppiness going on [with Star Wars],” Straczynski says. “Harlan was fairly rigorous in his writing, and there was just so much there that didn’t make sense.”

Ellison was hardly a voice in the wilderness on this topic: His friend and colleague Ursula K. Le Guin also trashed Star Wars in 1978, writing, “奥丑补迟 is nostalgia doing in a science fiction movie?”

Because of his acerbic and often petty put-downs, Ellison behaved in public more like a bratty rock star than a writer. In a 1977 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction, he even referred to himself as “the antichrist of science fiction.” In 1982, in the introduction for Ellison’s book Stalking the Nightmare, Stephen King acknowledged that not everyone was down with Ellison’s brand of iconoclasm but defended his artistic idealism, writing, “People who are afraid don’t like people who are brave.”

A Rebirth Before Death

Harlan Ellison and lifelong friend Walter Koenig (of Star Trek fame) at the Star Trek Las Vegas Convention in 2014. Ellison’s animosity toward Trekkies lightened up in the last years of his life.

Gabe Ginsberg/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Because he cared about human rights (and the often tramped-on rights of writers), Ellison didn’t make things easy on himself. As Straczynski writes in his introduction to Greatest Hits, it was “exhausting” to be Harlan Ellison.

But then, after 2006, following a surreal acceptance speech at the Hugo Awards, something unexpected happened: Harlan Ellison, publicly, appeared to repent for some of his bad behavior. He was no longer giving terse and angry interviews. He was apologizing. He allowed a documentarian to chronicle his life. He even lightened up on Trekkies. In 2014, with the full cooperation of the Star Trek licensing division, IDW Comics published Star Trek: Harlan Ellison’s City on the Edge of Forever, a five-part miniseries that presented Ellison’s original award-winning teleplay as an episode of the classic Trek. In the letters pages, Ellison even walked back long-held assertions about how his script was misinterpreted, admitting, among other things, that despite decades of complaining about other writers not knowing the difference between “runes” and “ruins,” it turns out no such confusion ever existed.

In 2011, I was asked to call Harlan Ellison, after having written a review of his short story, “How Interesting: A Tiny Man.” Fearful of his litigious reputation (I had compared Ellison to the Gallagher brothers from Oasis in my essay), I dialed the number with trepidation. But it turned out that the angry old man had merely wanted to thank me, saying “I appreciate you taking the time to read my story and say something about it.”

So, what happened? Why did Ellison mellow out later in his life? While it’s a much longer tale — that Straczynski plans to tell in due course — let’s just say that the lighter, more ebullient side of Ellison was partially because of the influence of Straczynski himself. There’s a reason why Ellison chose Straczynski to take on his literary estate, and their friendship and trust for each other is part of why Ellison’s final years were ones of good humor and grace.

A Writer’s Writer

Harlan Ellison, around the time he edited Dangerous Visions in 1967.

Everett/Shutterstock

Ellison disliked the pretension of writers and often insisted it shouldn’t be thought of as a “holy chore” but a job like any other. He often would sit in the windows of bookshops with his typewriter and write short stories based on prompts that were put in sealed envelopes ahead of time. In the final short story in Greatest Hits — “All the Lies That Are My Life” — Ellison makes a working-class distinction between an author and a writer. The former was someone who liked awards and prestige, the latter was “someone who gets hemorrhoids from sitting on his ass all his life… writing.”

This kind of attitude is probably best exemplified in his epic “Pay the Writer” rant, which highlights the ways in which the act of writing is so brutally devalued in the capitalist nightmare. Celebrated writer Patty Lin — the author of the recently published memoir End Credits: How I Broke Up With Hollywoodremembers Harlan Ellison’s staunch support of the rights of writers fondly. At the end of the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, Lin recalls Ellison being furious that the WGA had capitulated too easily. Wearing “rumpled pajamas,” Lin says, Ellison chastised the union leadership for not going far enough. “We had them by the balls,” Lin remembers Ellison saying, depressed that the WGA didn’t get a better contact.

“It was that no-bullshit, justifiably angry way he expressed it that was so on brand.”

“I loved Harlan Ellison for what he said that day,” Lin tells Inverse. “It was exactly what I was thinking and what many other people in that room were probably thinking. It was that no-bullshit, justifiably angry way he expressed it that was so on brand. And that dramatic flair was what made him a great storyteller.”

As the title suggests, Greatest Hits is a kind of historical document. These are stories that don’t necessarily reflect where science fiction and fantasy are going but where the genre has been, as seen through the dark lenses of Harlan Ellison. Some of the stories (like “Shatterday”) hold up beautifully. Some, as Cassandra Khaw points out in her introduction, have problematic elements.

But unlike recent reissues of books by Roald Dahl or Ian Fleming, these stories remain uncensored. The fight against censorship was one of Ellison’s lifelong passions, and so, other than a few content warning labels in the book, the sex, sci-fi, and rock ’n’ roll of this writer's vision remains intact and raucous. Like the punk rock of genre fiction, Ellison’s stories are as jarring and blistering as ever.

“No, no, you don’t touch Harlan’s stuff, man,” Straczynski says. “Even if he’s dead, he’ll come after you.”

Harlan Ellison’s Greatest Hits is out now from Union Square and Co.

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