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Harlan Ellison: 1934-2018

American writer Harlan Ellison is dead at the age of 84. The Los Angeles resident and former lord of the architectural marvel known as the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars did not pass on, nor is he resting in peace. He's dead, an existential reality that he'd probably be the first to acknowledge were he still with us. The Cleveland-born Jewish-American was an atheist who hated to be pigeonholed just as much as he hated to be called a "science-fiction" writer. That term famously made his skin crawl, though his most famous works were in that genre, including the mega-popular short story "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" and the teleplays for "Soldier" and "City on the Edge of Forever," the former of which is the classic "The Outer Limits" episode that James Cameron notably ripped off (and was successfully sued for plagiarizing) when Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd co-scripted "The Terminator," and the latter of which is inarguably the best installment of "Star Trek" (suck on that, Gene Roddenberry, also dead). 

Then again, Ellison's discontents are, by now, somewhat legendary. He mailed dead gophers and bricks, filed lawsuits and hired hitmen, and just generally struck fear into the hearts of would-be collaborators and colleagues that he disdained and/or mistrusted. Ellison was once famously fired before completing a full day working at Disney Studios because he boisterously regaled some co-workers with details of an imaginary Disney-produced porno that featured all of the company's signature cartoon characters in an improbable orgy. 

Ellison also sometimes used the pseudonym of "Cordwainer Bird" (Or, a shoemaker for birds) on any project that he penned, but felt was inadequately realized and/or produced by others. These projects include produced scripts for TV shows like "The Hunger," "The Flying Nun," and "The Starlost," the last of which was originally conceived by Ellison. These experiences—and many, many more—led to Ellison's reputation as a pain in the ass with a modicum of integrity, which led to his serving as a Creative Consultant on the '80s revival of "The Twilight Zone" and then later as a Conceptual Consultant on "Babylon 5," a collaboration with former "The Twilight Zone" writer J. Michael Straczynski.

Ellison was also quick to dismiss any piece of pop culture that he thought made consumers think that they were smarter than they actually are (ex: the now defunct game show "The Weakest Link"). He hated anything that he thought was meretriciously or just irresponsibly sappy (ex: "Saving Mr. Banks"), and he stomped on many fictional works that he thought were insultingly derivative (ie: he hated John Carpenter's "The Thing" and thought "Star Wars" was just as bad as the original "Battlestar Galactica"). He publicly railed against most forms of contemporary music—I'm still laughing at the memory of an aside where he recalled the time that an unwitting friend begged him to listen to the Dead Kennedys—but he also selectively championed modern favorites, particularly Susan Rabin. 

Ellison also famously demystified the process of writing—a profession whose required discipline is often dismissed by anybody who doesn't actually do the work—by spending a week writing short stories in the display window of the Santa Monica bookstore A Change of Hobbit. He used his LA Weekly column to forcefully and eloquently—and at some length—lament the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment and rail against the scourge of misogynistic "knife-kill" films, a term coined by horror filmmaker Mick Garris. He begged his readers to think critically, and to not even treat his words as gospel. Ellison also feuded with anybody he thought was bullying or taking advantage of him or his friends. Remember Gay Talese's classic "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" article? In that article, Ellison is the guy who stares down Sinatra and his entourage. Not exactly a cuddlebug, but what would you expect from a guy whose self-described public persona was equal parts Jiminey Cricket and Zorro?

You could see Ellison's unswerving social conscience throughout his fiction and critical essays. In essays like "The Great Oreo/Hydrox Conspiracy," he asked readers to question the nature of planned obsolescence and the quality of the food they ate. And in stories like "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" and "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs," he despaired the many little ways that we allow ourselves to become complacent and insensitive. Ellison also wrote autobiographically about the dehumanizing horrors of the prison system in "Memos from Purgatory," and the standards-lowering and reality-warping effect that then-contemporary television shows had on viewers in both "The Glass Teat" and "The Other Glass Teat." Ellison prided himself on his ability to "rap" (not literally) with high schoolers simply by cursing and joking with them, and generally addressing them in a way that showed that he wasn't talking down to them, or underestimating their intelligence. He also once yelled at me when I was 16 years old because I nervously misused the word "awesome" to describe the reprinting of some of his books, but that's another story for another time.

Ellison's legacy can be seen not only in his writing and his impact on readers and fellow writers, but also in the way that he struck fear into a lot of people, both mediocre and worthwhile. He wrote and performed the narrative of his life like a man who knew that once you're dead, you're gone. He leaves behind several tantalizing projects that never quite got off the ground—including unproduced, but still-in-print movie adaptations of "I, Robot" and "Bug Jack Barron." There's even a decent film adaptation of his post-apocalyptic comedy "Eggsucker" called "A Boy and His Dog," and it's good enough that even Ellison got over his initial reservations (specifically about its ending). There are also, of course, a lot of great Harlan Ellison anecdotes and tall tales, most of which are recounted by Ellison in his many collections and on his very own YouTube channel. There's also a halfway decent documentary about Ellison called "Dreams with Sharp Teeth," one of the first films I reviewed at the New York Press.

That said: if you want to send Ellison off in style, do as he encouraged, and not just as he wrote: read more; talk back to any authority figure within earshot; raise a stink if you feel like you're being taken advantage of, even if it's by a friend; value your time, and don't be afraid to walk away from somebody you love if they don't; respect artists by paying for their work; denounce superstition whenever you can, especially when it seems harmless; reject platitudes, and don't let anybody tell you that your informed opinion doesn't matter. Life may be a series of confrontations, as Ellison said at least once, but you can't let the bastards get you down. 

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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