(Photo: Pip R. Lagenta/Flickr)
There are a lot of things I could say about such a giant in the field of speculative fiction, a man who has been writing for well over 50 years. I could talk about his controversial temperament, about his history of lawsuits (that he mostly won, to be fair), or about his groping of Connie Wilson at the Hugo Awards. I don’t think I’ve got much to add to any of those widely discussed things though, so what’s the point? I’ve said it before but I’ll continue saying it: acknowledge that your heroes are humans, and that they are just as capable of doing stupid, reprehensible things as the rest of us. Worship them at your own risk.
Now that that’s out of the way, we can get down to the important stuff (for a blog like this, at least): Ellison’s work is a goldmine of writing genius. For me, this shines through the most in his short stories – if the mine has countless reserves of ore, then the short stories are the valuable nuggets. Simply put, I could read them all day. The entertainment and pleasure that I get from the writing is first class, but the real treasure is in the uncomfortable questions I end up asking myself when I finish one of these bite-sized tales. I start the next one after a bit of contemplation, but the cumulative effect of these questions creates the gnawing sensation in the back of my mind that can’t be ignored for very long.
Now in general, I think short stories are really good for finding our personal pressure points and giving them a squeeze. All stories that are disturbing are good at this, but the short story manages to do it in one sitting – without a respite, the squeeze feels more poignant, more personal. Of Harlan’s, the one that did this the most for me was the classic I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. I don’t want to give anything away here – I urge you to read it yourself. It won’t take you more than 15 minutes, and I guarantee it will chill you to the bone.
While less horrifying (to me, at least), there are plenty of other short stories that Ellison wrote that will stay with me for a long time yet. The Man Who Was Heavily Into Revenge ends with the perfect quote for its story of an endless chain of (literally) senseless revenge.
“No snowflake ever feels responsible for the avalanche.”
– Stanislaw Jerzy Lec
And of course, there was Shatterday. This had it all. It’s about a man who one day answers his phone to…himself. Unfortunately for both of them (and for the reader too), there is no obvious clone. They are both, to the best of their knowledge, the original. But, as we suspect from the very beginning, only one can survive. The game for power ensues – one man has the safety of their home, the other has the freedom of movement outside. Ellison’s genius for me here is his characterisation. For both of them essentially being the same person, we actually feel a lot of sympathy for the poor home-dweller, who is constantly on the receiving end of a poor deal from…himself. The kicker comes at the end where, while the whole tale has disturbed us to no end, we understand the very important analogy the story represents: killing the old self and becoming something more. Something better.
It’s one of the few Harlan Ellison stories I’ve read and felt slightly more optimistic after reading. Perhaps its rarity makes it all the more powerful.