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Worlds Without End Blog

GMRC Review: Approaching Oblivion by Harlan Ellison Posted at 7:46 PM by Jonathan McDonald

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Harlan Ellison is one of those writers I not only love to hate but hate to love, one of those irascible writers who will permit no criticism of his work to sink in to any depth of his soul. He is also one of those wildly creative writers who is inexplicably able to form fictional worlds entirely different from one another both in setting (hard enough) and tone (nearly impossible). His progressivist politics and often blasphemous hatred of religion infuriates me, but in a seven page tour of a dying earth he can reduce me nearly to tears. Ellison has developed a powerful level of artistic talent, and he is not someone to be taken lightly. Many of the videos of the man one finds online too often depict him simplistically as an old crank—which, to be sure, he is—but this can scarcely explain the stories that could only come from a soul which feels deeply.

Too often Ellison’s wrath gets the better of him. “Knox,” the first story in this collection, depicts a liberal’s wet dream of a conservative racist party turning violent and creating a police state. Does Charlie Knox hate every person who is not wholly like himself, or is it truly himself that he hates?, Ellison asks, rather uninterestingly. The way in which Knox memorizes and recites his list of racial slurs might be revelatory in subtler hands, but with Ellison it comes off as a paranoid delusion. The great irony, though, is that Knox is revealed in the end to be telepathically manipulated by alien invaders who wish to destroy our civilization. And the worst irony is that Ellison probably didn’t understand the irony at all.

Other times Ellison’s penchant for wallowing in the bizarre and perverse gets the better of him, as in “Catman.” This is a story—if an incoherent narrative set in a incohesive future world can be called a story—which would be better left on the cutting floor, but which (I must suspect) Ellison furiously refused to trash simply because a friend recommended that course of action. Alternatively, one wonders if he wrote this story about freakishly Oedipal, immortal, machine-humping characters on a dare. There are discrete elements of creativity within the story which would be the envy of science fiction masters, but which are smashed together with such violence as to nullify any spark of humanity. The less said about it the better.

Harlan EllisonEven so, there are stories here which are worth tracking down at any cost. “Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman” is astoundingly different from Ellison’s usual approach, being the story of a saxophone player grieving for a dead lover, and his attempt to reach her from beyond the grave. “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” is a nostalgic look back at the influences that make us what we are as adults, and is haunting enough that I can forgive the time-travel conceit (well, mostly). “Hindsight: 480 Seconds” is a wistful look back at the Earth humanity is leaving behind, wondering what we could have done better, and what we still might. These are the stories which make one suspect Ellison of a hidden lycanthropic condition: the moon is new, and darkness consumes his soul; it is full, and he beholds the beauty of the night; it wanes, and he sleeps.

I don’t know what to make of this collection. It is distinctively bi-polar, and one must use discretion in approaching its individual parts. I suppose I must recommend it, but with all the cautions listed above intact. Ellison is a wild beast, but now and then you may find him in a sanguine, or at least tolerable, mood.

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5 Comments

Emil   |   28 Feb 2012 @ 08:55

One thing is certain: Ellison is polemical. I’m reading "Deathbird Stories" and find them equally intense and cynical. I think all his collections should have the caveat lector that warns the reader about what follows *smiley*. Nice review, thanks!

Scott Laz   |   28 Feb 2012 @ 14:23

Yeah – Ellison’s weakness is his inconsistency. A prolific writer is bound to write some forgettable stories along with the masterpieces, but Ellison hasn’t shown much willingness to make that distinction. As far as I know, he’s never published a "Best of" collection, which would be an essential volume if it existed (as opposed to "The Essential Ellison," which does exist, but is too long and wide-ranging to stick to only the best work).I’ve never seen Ellison as a crank. He’s been consistent in refusing to put up with bull*&^ or suffer fools. I can imagine his response to the opening comments in this review: It’s logically impossible for an atheist to blaspheme, and while all are welcome to their religious beliefs, others have the right to ridicule them. Famously, however, he doesn’t believe everyone has the right to an opinion. Rather, everyone has the right to an INFORMED opinion. This "Ellisonism" came to mind yesterday when I was looking at a new study showing that the biggest determinant of whether people "believe" in climate change (not just what causes it but whether it is even occurring!), is what they hear from politicians. The accrual of actual scientific evidence has almost no effect on opinion. Just the sort of thing that would set Ellison off an the sort of rant that makes him one of the most sought-after public speakers!

Alex W   |   28 Feb 2012 @ 15:48

I have a copy of THE OTHER GLASS TEAT, his something-like-an-early-blog of his work in writing for TV and Hollywood and comments about all that. It’s not all SF, but he’s very consistent. He works very hard and emotionally, and is fanatically devoted to his own works, to the point of eternal hatred to anyone who changes or adapts them. Famously, Gene Roddenberry earned Ellison’s eternal hatred toward him and Star Trek by making changes in "The City on the Edge of Forever." I don’t know enough to judge whose version was better, but it provoked Ellison to proclaim loudly that "Space 1999" was better than "Star Trek," which is ridiculous. "Space 1999" was just an Anderson series, and not even the best one, IMHO. But Ellison has earned some right to leeway. We won’t judge all his works equally good, but some, like "Repent, Harlequin" and "I Has No Mouth and I Must Scream" are indispensible.

Rhonda Knight   |   28 Feb 2012 @ 16:57

@ScottEllison came to speak at my college in the late 80s. He was fantastic in his irascibility. After I saw him speak, I wanted to run out and buy everything he had written. I didn’t. I haven’t. But I have made an honest attempt to do and have made it through the Essential Ellison that you mention. Alex W is correct: when Ellison is on, he is on. Rhonda

Thomas Baughman   |   28 Feb 2012 @ 21:21

Ellison’s progressivist Politics and Blasphemous hatred of Religion are for me his best features. Add to this that he has written at least 5 stories that will still be read in 100 years, and you come up with somone who deserves that title Grand Master.

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