03 July 2009

Harlan Ellison: The Terrible Baby of American Letters

2130.There are two SF authors I adore, even though I don't particularly like everything they've ever done. One of them is Ursula K. LeGuin.

This is not about her.

I recently got the chance to see the documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth, about the life and times and writings of the once-so-called enfant terrible of the SF world, Harlan Ellison. I first read Ellison when I was way too young, and I think it affected me in certain ways, sadly, none of which are actionable in court. But actually, I don't mind all that much.

I will say this much; if you have a SF-loving pre-teen and he or she gets their hands on a copy of Approaching Oblivion, don't let them read it without guidance. But do let them read it.

Harlan Ellison is many things. He is famously testy and fiercely opnionated. He will go balls-to-the-wall with you if you insist. He uses words as a battering ram, also writes as though he was making love to them. I've never seen him use a mis-turn of phrase. There are many reasons why he will ring down whatever years this civilization has left to it as a man of the L word (Literature, that is) and they'll make kids read him in schools: "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream", "Repent, Harlequin said the Ticktockman", the Dangerous Visions anthologies, and more.

There's a thing about Harlan Ellison that seems to say a great deal about him, but it's hard to say just what. He refuses to use computers. He does all his writing on an Olympia (I think it was) typewriter. He keeps several spare typewriters on a bookcase in his home and keeps spare typewriter ribbon in cold storage in his refrigerator (have you tried to find typewriters and ribbon lately?). He has an official website – Ellison Webderlandbut he does not run it nor (as far as I know) does he log on.

He's kind of like Pynchon, only not as snooty. I like that. I've tried to read Pynchon, though, and it's a little beyond me. Maybe I'm not that grown-up yet.

Anyway, all that rambling is more reaction than review. To say that Ellison is one of the most fascinating writers in SF and American letters overall seems weak and sycophantic, and I suspect he'd probably kick my ass for being too much of a fanboy for saying it, but all I have here is this idiom, see, and I've got to make do with what I have.

The movie itself is 96 minutes of Ellison being Ellison. It's worth watching just for the parts where Robin Williams (of all people) interview him. There's clips of him on Tomorrow with Tom Snyder during the 70s, speaking on campuses during the 60s, and just being his own damn self.

So, you know what? Watch the thing. Beware of the adulty words, though. Or maybe not. Take a chance and look at something that will put fire in you.

Something about Harlan Ellison makes me want to go off and write a story, even though I blow as a fiction writer.

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Judy said...

I once heard Harlan Ellison describe as someone who, if he didn't exist, would absolutely have to be invented. I
must say I agree.

Yes, I am woefully behInd re: blog reading.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

Just due to that movie, I went out yesterday and bought used copies of two famous Ellison collections: Approaching Oblivion and Ellison Wonderland. I am reading them now and remembering how good it felt to have my imagination pushed in that way and how it felt to read someone who talked bluntly and a bit saltily and challenged anyone who took the dare of reading him to deal with his opinions.

He didn't dress up his opnions to make them more palatable, and his opinions came from the storm and stress of the day.

I think that's why I liked him. He's always been concerned by what was important and mattered, and he makes you really look at it.

PS Your Continued reading of this meagre verbiage, regardless of when you get to it, is an honor to me. No need to apologize.