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Harlan Ellison
Tachyon, 321 pages

Harlan Ellison
One of the most acclaimed and prolific writers of the genre, Harlan Ellison has published over 1,300 stories, essays, scripts and reviews. His work has received seven Hugos, three Nebulas and he was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1996. He had his own name registered as a trademark in 2005.

Harlan Ellison Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Dangerous Visions
SF Site Review: Edgeworks 4
SF Site Review: Slippage

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

The problem with reading a collection by Harlan Ellison is the introductions. Pages of them, not just to the book, but to each individual story. These are remarkable creations, constructing a character, "Harlan Ellison," who is aggressive, self-aggrandising, self-deprecating, vain. It doesn't take long to become tired of the way any stranger who doesn't immediately understand the Ellison ego in its every weird contortion is casually labelled a "feep." It doesn't take long to develop a profound distrust of the way every loyalty to Ellison is lauded to the high heavens, but Ellison's own serial disloyalties are lauded even higher. The insistent way he repeats that "writers take tours in other people's lives" becomes creepy, like a form of literary stalking. Except that Ellison doesn't really take a tour in anybody's life except his own, as these introductions tell us with equal insistence.

I first read Shatterday back in the early 80s (the collection was first published in 1980), and I don't recall being as irritated by the introductions then as I am now. But in those days I read a lot of Ellison, I was inured. Collections that didn't accompany each story with a long screed delivered at fever pitch and top volume seemed somehow lacking. Now I find I prefer to read naked stories unadorned by such accompanying matter, not least because I don't want to be told how to read, how to interpret a story. And that is something Ellison does all the time.

"Why is he telling me this?" he asks, rhetorically, in more than half of the story introductions. The answer, invariably, is so that you will recognise the genius he disavows, accept a version of events that shows him in the best light, and take his word for how the following story should be read. The most egregious example of this comes with the story "All the Birds Come Home to Roost," which he puffs as one of the best things he has written thanks to an editor who made him dig deep into his private nightmares. Read this story, he instructs us, with sympathy for all the terrors I faced, and had to face all over again when writing this story.

But wait a minute, the nightmare that this story leads towards but never quite confronts, is that the first wife of the character in the story, and of Ellison its author, went mad and was confined in an institution. Yet there is not one word of sympathy for that poor woman or the terrors that she had to endure; rather, she is the villain of the story, the threat that overshadows an entire life. And the crime she committed, the nightmare Ellison must confront, is that she made things so difficult for him when he was trying to write that he once hit her. Oh yes, Ellison is clearly the suffering party in all this.

In the introduction to another story, "The Other Eye of Polyphemus," he straight-facedly compares his suffering during his involvement with two women to "the Spanish Inquisition, the murder of Garcia Lorca, the genocide of the Brazilian Indians, the crucifixion of Spartacus' army of slaves, the sinking of the Titanic, the fire-bombing of Dresden and the trial of the Scottsboro Boys." Nobody suffers like Ellison.

Oh yes, we know how self-sacrificingly he has worked for the Equal Rights Amendment (he tells us so), we know how sympathetic he is to all women (he tells us that as well), but to be honest, behind the often ludicrous bombast and braggadocio of these introductions is someone completely unaware of how badly he treats women. And that same attitude surfaces again and again in the stories, which so often feature men wandering from affectless relationship to affectless relationship, as if women are at best an artefact to be collected, at worst an agent of retribution.

The other persistent theme in these stories is of a life blighted by a wrong done in childhood. There's a rather bizarre congruence of these two themes in one of the best stories in this collection, "All the Lies that Are My Life." The longest piece in this collection, it is a thoughtful portrait of the lifelong but often strained friendship between two writers. It is told mostly in retrospect by the less successful but more caring of the two; his friend, a hugely successful, egotistical, brash, all-action-hero wish-fulfillment version of Ellison himself, has just died and is reading his own will on video. But at one point this contrast in types abruptly stops while an inordinate proportion of the story is given over to the successful writer roundly and publicly attacking and humiliating his own sister because of the way she tormented him when he was a child. And we are clearly meant to applaud this behaviour, because of the way the sister is presented as being worthless. But then, this whole collection is full of fancied slights being avenged. In the introduction to one of the weaker stories in the collection, "In the Fourth Year of the War," he recounts how one year, while he was away at summer camp, a neighbour had his dog put down. Then in the story he recounts exactly the same incident, in almost exactly the same words.

The stories themselves, good and bad, stand up much better than the introductions. There are weak pieces here. In the 70s, Ellison had a grandstanding habit of writing stories in shop windows, on air, in tents pitched at World SF Conventions. He includes several of them here -- "Flop Sweat," "Django," "Count the Clock that Tells the Time" -- though more than anything they demonstrate why most writers prefer not to work in such a public way. "Flop Sweat" is also the most obvious example of a tic that Ellison relies on a lot: set up a situation of mounting horror that seems to be leading inevitably to a gory death, then don't let the protagonist die. Living in horror is more dreadful than death he told us in "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," and he is still telling us the same thing. Variations on this, though usually in not so schematic a way as "Flop Sweat", crop up several times in this collection. Still, better the formulaic horror than the comedy. Ellison can't do comedy, as the single worst story in this collection, "How's the Night Life on Cissalda?," amply demonstrates. A traveller returns from another dimension, and brings with him sex-hungry aliens who are soon clamped to every human on the planet. The comedy is broad, crude (not in the sense of being rude but in the sense of being unsophisticated), repetitive and not at all funny.

The good stories, on the other hand, are among the best that Ellison has written, bold, challenging, insightful and brilliantly structured. "Shoppe Keeper" is marred by a clumsy ending but otherwise is a delightful account of why a shop of wonders might exist. "Alive and Well and on a Friendless Voyage" about a Flying Dutchman character who absorbs the despair of others, and "The Executioner of the Malformed Children" in which a man with special talents discovers the truth about his battle against alien invaders, are both better. But, alongside "All the Lies that Are My Life," the two stories that stand out in this collection, the ones that stick in the memory long after you close the book, are the ones that open and close the volume.

The title piece, "Shatterday," is the last of the 16 stories gathered here. It tells of a man split in two, and the battle of wills between the two versions over which will survive. But the shattering allows a questioning of the protagonist's moral choices that is as humane as anything else Ellison has written. But, good as it is, even "Shatterday" pales beside the story that leads off this collection, "Jeffty is Five." This Hugo-winning story about a boy stuck forever at five years old, but with full and continuing access to all the comic books and radio serials that have disappeared from the real world, is a wonder of sustained nostalgia coupled with despair at the modern world. (Ellison often seems to regard the modern world with outright hatred despite the fact that he is continually telling us how scarred he is by the past.) With a curious arrogance, Ellison tells us in the introduction to this story that the subtlety of the ending means that many readers don't understand what happens. Don't believe him, the ending is clear in the story and it would take a very unsubtle reader indeed not to work it out. Since the story only really succeeds because of the tragedy of that ending, I don't really see how it would have won the awards or the praise it did attract if this ending had been obscure to the majority of its readers. But then, it's probably better to read this collection without the introductions anyway.

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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