Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

A young Ellison,
at his Olympia SG 3
Alas, we seem to be losing all the great ones lately. Well, this is a common illusion when some beloved figure dies. Last week it was Harlan Ellison, who died June 28, just a week ago in his sleep at 84, after suffering a stroke in 2014. Ellison was probably the least known famous writer in the world. To me and a lot of writers who were his fans, he epitomized everything the brilliant, provocative, flamboyant, prolific, wild-eyed writer ought to be - and usually fall short of. Whatever one thinks of his prodigious body of work, one could not fail to admire his ferocity as a creative spirit and human being. "Born without an off-switch," his friends said. He went, Energizer-Bunny-like, fully until he stopped.

Jewish by birth, atheist by self-proclamation, Ellison lived consistently by the three great moral questions of Rabbi Hillel the Elder:

"If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?
"If I am for myself alone, then what am I?
"If not now, when?"

He championed fellow writers as much as himself. "Pay the writer!" He said, "They always want the writer to work for nothing. And the problem is there are so many goddamn writers who have no idea they're supposed to be paid every time they do something. ... I get so angry at this because you're undercut by all the amateurs." He was a man of unquenchable passion and splendid rage.

I could relate, which could get me started on a rant of my own. In another era, I worked as a paid writer - on staff, freelancing and stringing - for nearly fifty years. I wrote hundreds of articles, all on assignment or commission -  along with several books, for which I also was rewarded with advances. Of course, like most of us, my output has been a trickle compared to Ellison's prodigious half-century of game-changing, evocative, brilliantly imaginative, wide-ranging work that won him - among other awards, eight Hugos, four Nebulas, and two Edgars to name a few.

Young Ellison celebrates
Star Trek's finest episode
with its two biggest heroes.
The sheer volume and inventiveness of his works is staggering. He never stopped writing and creating, starting with comic books as a kid, through pulp science fiction in his youth, straight through 74 novels, novellas, anthologies and nonfiction books, along with nearly some 1800 short stories and essays published since the mid 1950s. A few of his tales perhaps relied too much on twists, but all showed his abiding compassion for characters, particularly underdogs with which he identified from childhood. His work redefined genres - beginning in the pulp SF golden age of the 1950s and 60s. His work and persistent advocacy redefined speculative fiction.

His stories could be lyrical; many were dark as anything by Kafka or Dostoyevsky, though in a tough American wisecracking, almost Hemingwayesque voice. His trademark was an uncanny inventiveness with which he could write his way in an out of the most bizarre fictional circumstances - for example, the Sartre-esque short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" in which characters argue endlessly while trapped in a post-apocalyptic virtual reality. "People confined anywhere are going to just naturally beat the crap out of each other," he once advised Babylon 5 creator and protge J. Michael Stracznsky on where to take the series.

His television work made him famous outside the trade, though not by name, instead by his memorable creations and iconic episodes. He turned out scores of teleplays which he wrote and/or created, and for which he is famous. These include iconic episodes of Rod Serling's The Twilight ZoneBabylon 5, The Outer Limits (Soldier, based upon Ellison's short story, "Soldier from Tomorrow,"which inspired the James Cameron's Terminator, subject of another famous Ellison legal battle), and Star Trek (including the series' critical best, City on the Edge of Forever, in cantankerous collaboration with Gene Roddenberry and Dorothy Fontana.). Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology series, published in the 1970s, changed the course of speculative fiction, broadening the genre's scope into trenchant social and philosophical issues, along with the inclusivity of its initially white-males-only domain.

As undervalued as writing might have seemed when I began, I could not have predicted the tsunami of devaluation that has drowned the profession in the 21st century. The Internet and digital publishing do give us independent authors publishing and distribution opportunities that didn't exist twenty years ago, likewise independent publishers. Social media corporations reap huge profits from exploiting user-generated content for free.

A few reformers chirp about returning a few pennies to the users for their generous sharing, but there is practically no chance of that happening short of mass revolt among the contented busy posting selfies and cute-kitty gifs between more substantial expressions. Little or none of this can be called professional writing, but the whole "free content" ethos is the current soup in which real professional authorship can be boiled and blanched if writers allow it. And, as Ellison pointed out, there are all too many amateurs willing to put out without even being bought dinner these days.

But back to writing itself. My favourite Ellison anecdote: A professor at Ohio State University told young Ellison he'd never make it as a writer. Ellison punched the professor, which got him kicked out. He never graduated, but for decades he sent that professor a copy of every award and every book published under his byline. The diminutive Ellison acknowledged always having been "a loudmouth and smart ass." He grew up fighting at school and being beaten down as one of the only Jewish kids in a white Christian, Ohio small town outside of Cleveland. He had loving parents and a great home life, he said, but outside his parents front door he was on his own, growing up as a perpetual outsider. He was loyal to his friends and committed to his art. At the same time he was inveterately combative - most of the time with his mouth - a few times with his fists - and often with lawsuits, seeming to especially relish challenging corporate publishers and filmmakers. He was one of the few writers to successfully nail corporate publishers and major studios for ripping off his creations. He could be hard on creative collaborators too. He didn't speak to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry - a difficult man himself - for years after City on the Edge of Forever.

He wasn't all that easy on fans either, though always a big draw of adoring followers at bookstores and conventions. "Inevitably, they asked me 'where do you get your ideas," he joked. "I say Schenectady. There's a service I pay $25 a week. Always, later," he added, "somebody asks me the address." He does advise budding writers seriously, however, sounding a little like the Red King in Alice in Wonderland: "Start at the middle. Find your beginning and work your way to the end."

Ellison and Williams mix it up
in "Dreams With Sharp Teeth" 
I didn't know him personally or professionally, though wish I had. We did have several friends and associates in common, however. I met him briefly at a Hollywood Hills party, holding court, telling stories as he frequently did - a live wire. He was already semi-famous for his short stories, many of which I had read as a nerdy science fiction magazine-devouring teenager, though we were contemporaries.

We had friends in common, me being writer and junior editor at the Los Angeles Times and he contributing polemical pieces to the L. A. Free Press, the still extant ("reincarnated by necessity) 1960s counter-culture paper founded by Art Kunkin.

Unlike many of his generation of counter-culture writers, he never smoked cigarettes, or did drugs or consumed alcohol. Regrettably, I never had the honor of running one of his stories or countless essays in the magazines I edited over the years, as I did get to work briefly with fellow speculative fiction giant Ray Bradbury, and knew fantasy icon Richard Matheson, both fast Ellison friends, along with Theodore Sturgeon. Robin Williams, whom I knew through his brother Todd in my San Francisco days, was also a close friend of Ellison and frequent visitor to the bizarro custom "Aztec Temple of Mars" house overlooking L.A.'s San Fernando Valley where he lived with his thousands of books, comic books, collectibles and at least eight secret rooms since the 1980s.

The late Williams called Ellison "a borscht belt comic in the body of a writer... He's a combination of borscht and Berkeley, when you realize that in the '60s he was a radical as it gets." Ellison's long-time friend Williams kicks off Erik Nelson's brilliant Ellison documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth. with a marvellously edgy tour-de-force exchange. He grills Ellison on the author's more notorious, anti-establishment escapades:
  • Williams: "True or false... you mailed a dead gopher to publishing house." 
  • Ellison: "Absolutely true!" 
  • Williams: "You once attacked ABC executive, breaking his pelvis." 
  • Ellison: "True," in argument over Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea script.) 
  • Williams: "Threw fan down an elevator shaft."
  • Ellison: "False! Absolutely false!"
A couple of my writer friends knew him well, however, including a long-time colleague from my 1960s California days whom he mentored and later befriended. She thought him "melodramatic b-movie" at first, she told me, "but then he had come from the school of NYC pulp fiction, sometimes turning out a novella in a weekend. He wrote a short story about our affair and breakup," she says, fictionalised. He delivered it "to my door in a perfectly typed manuscript with no spelling errors."

Elison's "Aztec Martian" LA house.
Ellison was another of those prolific authors who continued to write on a mechanical typewriter long into the computer age - in his case, an Olympia SG3 - overlooked in my recent blog on same. Using a manual machine "connects me with my writing," he said.

Ellison became famous for - among other performance-art antics - writing impromptu short stories while sitting in bookstore windows. He did this all over the place. He would take a previously unread phrase from a sealed letter or fishbowl supplied to him by a critic or member of the audience to assure them that nothing was pre-planned. There he would sit, typing away, turning out pages which were posted on the window for customers to read as he went along. Several hours later, he would finish the story and declare victory over the supplier of the clue, no matter how arcane. For example: "a one-hundred-year-old pregnant corpse."

Ellison with 5th and final
wife, Susan Toth
"I do it," he said of his window-writing stints, "to show that writing is a job like being a plumber or an electrician, not some mystical magical thing... People are so distanced from writing in this country that they think that writers are magicians who do it on a mountaintop somewhere."

That was Ellison. "Writing was his true love," says the friend who dated him and who prefers to remain anonymous. Despite Ellison's reputation as a womanizer, the five-times married Ellison remained faithful to his wife, or wives, if you will, according to his many friends. He and his fifth wife, Susan Toth, wed in 1986, remained devoted to the end.

Rarely has any writer written - or lived - with such passion and devilish glee. "I feel most alive sitting at my typewriter," he said. Though he frequently acknowledged that writing is hard, "it's not drudgery. ... I'm Captain Nemo at his pipe organ when I'm writing," he added. "I'd rather write than  f__k," he once told an interviewer.

Ellison was a force of nature, who deserves to be installed in the Dylan Thomas, Do-Not-Go-Gently Hall of Fame. "My philosophy of life is that the meek shall inherit nothing but debasement, frustration and ignoble deaths; that there is security in personal strength; that you can fight City Hall and win; that any action is better than no action, even if it's the wrong action; that you never reach glory or self-fulfillment unless you are willing to risk everything, dare anything, put yourself dead-on-the-line every time, and that once one becomes strong or rich or potent or powerful it is the responsibility of the strong to help the weak become strong." Amen, more than ever in this era overrun by fascists and Philistines.

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Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's NameOphelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and ZoĆ« Tosi - and resides in Chicago. (He can be reached at Umberto3000@gmail.com)   



4 comments:

Dipika Mukherjee said...

What a beautiful homage to a talented writer...I need to discover him for myself. What comes through so eloquently in all your posts, Umberto, is the magical, almost mythical, quality of your Californian days. One day, I’d like to read your memoir.

Rosalie Warren said...

I can only echo all that Dipika says. I've read very little of Ellison's work - must definitely seek him out. And yes, the memoir too, please!

Bill Kirton said...

Add me to the list of readers you've entranced by this wonderful appreciation of a writer I know only by reputation (an omission I now intend to rectify - can one rectify an omission?) Thanks, Umberto, for yet more insights from someone who clearly knows whereof he speaks.

Enid Richemont said...

Wow Umberto - what a post!I had never heard of Ellison, but my late (ugly word!)husband, David, was an avid reader of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and I have his carefully and lovingly-curated collection right here, so I looked, but couldn't find him. He sounds totally amazing, so I shall seek him out.