"The ability to dream is all I have to give. That is my responsibility; that is my burden. And even I grow tired." — Harlan Ellison

Facing the Forces of Darkness — The Georgia Straight, April 1992

Harlan Ellison

It’s a Monday morning when I call Harlan Ellison in Los Angeles, and Issac Asimov is dead. Gone in the night, barely twelve hours before, and Ellison has spent most of that time on the phone, doing what he does best, which is words. When I reach him, Ellison is friendly despite the very private pain that must, I think, accompany the loss of a friend. The networks are calling for interviews, he says, “because they knew we were close. They figure I’m articulate enough to speak about him.” And so we reschedule for later, and in the hours that I spend waiting, I hear first on Newsworld, as I hear on later MuchMusic, and on the networks, and in the papers, that “science fiction writer Issac Asimov” has left this earth at the age of 72. Asimov, I recall as I dial again, once called Ellison “the best damned writer in the world”; Asimov, who in his lifetime was a scientist, a sociologist, a fantasist, a dreamer, and so much more, and who will be remembered by those three words that explain and encompass nearly nothing of what he was. And it strikes me that his kind of honest testimony is getting harder to come by in a world of too many labels.

When I reach him again, Ellison is in the middle of preparing a eulogy for Asimov, a task that few would envy or could hope to rise to. In the introduction to his 1988 short story collection Angry Candy, Ellison recounted a eulogy to author and friend Theodore Sturgeon three years before, a man “whose brilliance remains as a reminder that this poor genre of dreams and delusions can be literature.” The “poor genre” in question is speculative fiction, contemporary fantasy — science fiction if you must, a label whose time passed thirty years ago, but which still refuses to stop breathing. Sturgeon, too, died a “science fiction writer”, all the more unfortunate for those who never knew his work because of the shelves it was stuck on.

We talk for a bit about labels and I mention Asimov’s unwitting epitaph, and Ellison is thoughtful in his reply. “Issac,” he says, “manages to escape the categorization because he was the great science popularizer. His effect on so many generations is so significant. For him, it didn’t hurt that much. For other writers who are put into that genre — or any genre, whether they call them mystery writers or western writers, or romance writers, or whatever — it’s pure death.” This much, Ellison knows from experience. In the handful of years in the ’60s that he was best known for his work in speculative fiction, Ellison, too, became the “science fiction writer”, because the niche is a convenient one. Thirty years after the fact, the North American market’s preoccupation with labels is something that Ellison — the essayist, the critic, the lecturer, the author — is still trying to leave behind.

May 24, the Harlan Ellison road show hits town for a lecture at the Robson Square Conference Center, one in a string of about 5,000 that Ellison has delivered over the years. “Speaking,” he says, “is just a part of the process of being a writer, I guess. It’s verbalizing the things that you put down on paper, and for some inexplicable reason, I can draw an audience.” Anyone who comes, Ellison says, should expect one thing — “Not to be bored. I cannot abide being bored myself, and so I bust my tuchis to make sure that I don’t bore others. My lectures, such as they are — and that should be in quotes — are more like what Mark Twain used to do, or Will Rogers, or Lenny Bruce. It’s just sort of a free-flowing comment on the peripatetic observation on the passing scene.” And he laughs, a warm sound on what must be, for him, a very cold day. “And that’s what it is.”

For something on the order of 40 years, Ellison’s attack on ennui has produced 58 books of consistently forceful prose, including somewhere in the neighbourhood of 25 short-story collections, two volumes of ground-breaking television commentary, a volume of film criticism, and three collections of essays. The two most seminal anthologies of speculative fiction, Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions bear his editor’s byline and a lot of Ellison’s blood. Among upwards of twenty major awards, he has won the Silver Pen from P.E.N. for journalism in defense of the First Amendment, a pair of Edgars from the Mystery Writers of America, the George Méliès film award (twice), the Milford Award for Lifetime Achievement in Editing, and he’s a four-time winner of the Writer’s Guild of America award for most outstanding teleplay for non-collaborative work — the only screenwriter able to claim that distinction. The Los Angeles Times, Playboy, and Washington Post Book World have called him “a phenomenon”, “a master storyteller”, and “one of the great living American short story writers”; Booklist has called him “the personification of obnoxiousness”. His work makes, if nothing else, a lasting impression.

Of Angry Candy, Bloomsbury Review wrote that “Jorge Luis Borge’s stories dovetail with Ellison’s...[he] has demonstrated in a painfully personal way that he and Borges are one, in risking the solitary death of the author in the name of art.” A reader of Ellison’s fiction becomes a glider on a flight path through the air of reality’s darker edges — a course cut on unseen wings, too fast at times to follow. His stories are a free fall into emotions that most people would rather ignore. Frenetically funny one moment, chillingly sober the next, he is a dangerous writer in every good sense of the word. And though consistently dodging the labels shotgunned at him — from “sci-fi guy” to “stuck-up bastard” and most things in between) — the magic realism of the Latin Americans is close to his heart. “Borges,” he says, “wrote speculative fiction, and Joyce Carol Oates writes it, and all of the Latin Americans write magic realism, which is basically what I do. I mean, that’s where my ideology and my kinship lies, with the Latin Americans. With Mario Vargas Llosa and Luisa Valenzuela and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Those are my literary family.”

Throughout a career that started when a twenty-year-old Ellison ran with a New York street gang in order to live through the source material for what would later become his first novel, the unifying thread of Ellison’s art has been the need to push past the fringes of the acceptable. As a writer and essayist, he’s made enemies of a great many people — other writers, critics, filmmakers, and more; as a screenwriter he’s been hired and fired by most of the major networks and studios (in the case of Disney, on the same day).

And his voice on the phone is never anything but friendly, but I ask him about this reputation he has — Ellison the iconoclast, Ellison the master of a spleen-venting, flipping-God-the-finger chutzpah which has been known to kill editors, publishers, and producers at a glance. A reputation carved out by the instinct to put words down on paper that too many others wouldn’t write.

“Basically, I’m what Ernest Hemingway said of a good reporter,” he says simply. “Hemingway said a good reporter has to have a very low bullshit threshold.” He laughs. He is closing in the near side of sixty now, but the writing of what he calls his “twilight years” has lost none of the energy or the anger of the previous four decades, and as much as any writer of his day, he has captured in his fiction a stop-motion portrait of the waves of rage and uncertainty that drive this century on, detailing with a specific clarity how the present and the past turn too rapidly into a future that too few people are willing to deal with.

And so I ask whether age has mellowed Ellison, then; whether the years have put him less at odds with the world than he might have once been. And there is the briefest of sighs.

“No,” he says, and a little bit of the tension that threads an Ellison story like piano wire creeps into his voice for the first time. “I keep hoping that that would be the case, but I go to bed angry and I get up angrier every morning. I mean, you look around, you listen to any of the crap that George Bush puts out and it gets you pissed off enough that it just rejuvenates the anger. And in a world where Hannibal Lecter is considered a real cool guy and a hero by teenagers, you dare not cease being angry. Because if you do, the forces of darkness take over. I mean, the anti-abortionists in the world, and the believers in flying saucers and creationism are ever with us, and if you let down for even a moment, they will be all over you,” he says, “like shit on a junkwagon.”

And then there’s the laugh again, warm. “But you can’t put that in your magazine,” he says.

I tell him we’ll see.