Pictured: Peter David and Harlan Ellison at the former’s wedding in 2001, at which the latter served as best man. Peter always said that this picture perfectly summed up his and Harlan’s relationship, with Peter as the Daffy Duck to Harlan’s Bugs Bunny.
Harlan Ellison died peacefully in his sleep last night at the age of 84, thus marking the first time in those 84 years he did anything peacefully.
Harlan was one of the giants of the speculative fiction field. He was one of the greatest short-fiction writers the genre has ever seen (a list of his best and most influential short stories would still be longer than most writers’ entire bibliographies). He was a great screenwriter, having penned what most consider to be the best episode of the original Star Trek, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” as well as the classic Outer Limits episodes “Demon with the Glass Hand” and “Soldier.” And he edited two of the most important anthologies ever to be published in speculative fiction, Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions.
Harlan was also a big personality in a short body. He had very firm convictions and he not only never backed down from them, but he doubled down on them early and often. He did nothing halfway, and you always knew where you stood with him. This was not always a good thing, and it got him in trouble as often as it served him well. But he also often welcomed the trouble. Everything he did, he did with fervor, with energy.
A large chunk of that energy was used toward creators rights. He was a fierce, loud, and angry advocate of writers being treated well, of writers getting paid, of writers getting credit and recompense (the second being at least as important as the first) for their work. (Someone joked in my hearing once that his epitaph should be, “Here lies Harlan Ellison whose dying wish was that whoever wrote this gravestone damn well got paid.”)
I first started reading Harlan’s work as a teenager. His short-story collections were catnip to a young SF fan. I freely admit that my first exposure to him was through Trek. I wanted to know more about the guy who wrote “City,” and I quickly devoured whatever of his books I could get my hands on. I found myself more drawn to the introductions to his short stories and to his essays than I was to his fiction, and I honestly think those were even more influential on me as a nonfiction writer than his fiction was to me as an author. When I got my own column in the paper at Fordham University in 1987, which I called “Alarums and Diversions,” I imagined it being in the mode of Harlan’s L.A. Weekly column (collected in the volume An Edge in My Voice).
I first met Harlan in 1988 at the I-Con convention at Stony Brook University on Long Island, at which he was a regular guest. I got my copy of one of his short-story collections autographed, and I told him he was one of my heroes. He smiled and said, “You must be hard up for heroes,” and I said I prefer heroes who are real.
And Harlan was definitely real. Four years after that initial meeting, I wound up working for Byron Preiss, who had several projects going with Harlan. One of my earliest assignments there was to work on two anthologies, The Ultimate Alien and The Ultimate Dragon. Byron had talked Harlan and Robert Silverberg — two old friends — into collaborating on a short story, “The Dragon on the Bookshelf.” Then after they’d signed the contracts, but before the story was finished, Harlan and Bob had a falling out. So it was left to 25-year-old me to navigate these fraught waters, to coax Harlan into writing his half of the story (Bob had already done his part) and listen to each of them bitch about the other. (Within a year or two, of course, they were fast friends again.)
I remember one time Harlan came to New York, and he wanted to have dinner with a bunch of people he knew in town, and it included Byron, me, two other of Byron’s editors, and our respective spouses. So Marina and I went to the dinner, and it was amazing. When we got into the cab to go back home, Marina and I were both physically exhausted just from sitting at the same table as him. He was like a force of nature, a 5’2″ hurricane. (I also remember at the end of dinner, when he stood next to Marina, who is 5’11”. He was already sitting when we’d arrived, so this was his first time really standing next to her, and he looked up at her and said, “Jesus fucking Christ, you’re tall!”)
In 2001, Peter David married Kathleen O’Shea in Kath’s home town of Atlanta. At that point, Marina and I had split and I was dating Terri. We were invited to the wedding, and we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to swing the trip south. Then we found out Harlan was going to be the best man, and that clinched it. No way we were going to miss that. Harlan gave a hilarious best-man toast, while wearing orange shoes no less, and he was a joy to behold.
He also was responsible for one of the more surreal experiences of Terri’s life. She, he, and I were talking, waiting for Peter and Kathleen to come out from having their picture taken several dozen times, and I made some kind of crack or other that I thought was funny and Harlan obviously didn’t. He just stared at me, then turned to Terri, put what I’m sure he thought was a comforting hand on her shoulder, and said, “It doesn’t get any better than this, you know.”
(That wedding also gave me the opportunity to watch Harlan, Bill Mumy, and George Takei discuss things that are Jewish versus things that are goyish. As an example, a refrigerator is goyish; a frigidaire is Jewish.)
In April 2004, the Nebula Awards were held in Seattle, and I flew out there because a novelette in an anthology I edited, Imaginings: An Anthology of Long Short Fiction, was nominated in that category. (It was Adam-Troy Castro’s “Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs.” It didn’t win.) At the mass signing at a local Barnes & Noble at the beginning of the weekend, Harlan saw me, yelled across the bookstore, “Hey, DeCandido! You did Imaginings, right?” At my affirmative response, he continued, “That was fucking brilliant! Good job!” Coming from the editor of the Dangerous Visions anthos, this was the highest of high praise, and I still am extremely proud of that particular bit of kudos. I had envisioned Imaginings as being a long-running series of roughly biennial novelette anthologies that would showcase the longer short fiction that struggled to find homes in magazines with limited page count. Unfortunately, the editor gave the book no support whatsoever, and it died on the vine, getting only one review in a major publication, no award attention beyond this one nomination, and sales in the toilet. My one consolation to the general failure of Imaginings to be what I wanted it to be was that praise from Harlan.
Harlan was always very very good to his friends, and very very brutal to his enemies. And he didn’t always show rational or good judgment when it came to picking either one (nor did he much care). I remember one time at the Stoker Awards about 25 years ago, Harlan gleefully recounting a story where he tormented this guy in the production office of one of his publishers for a minor slight (and based on his description, it was extremely minor). He proudly went on about all the different things he did to this guy, including mailing him a dead rat.
I was lucky enough to be someone he considered a friend, so no dead rats in my mailbox, thankfully. He got pissed at me a few times, but every time he did, we talked about it and straightened it out. (Including one time at Dragon Con when I kissed him on the head in public.)
In fiction, there’s a common trope of the asshole who’s sufficiently good at what they do that they can get away with any awful behavior because they get results. (A particularly good semi-recent example being Hugh Laurie’s eponymous character on the TV show House.) Harlan was that trope in real life. He pretty much behaved how he wanted, as he wanted, without thought to consequence, because he was Harlan fucking Ellison, and he could. He once sued James Cameron for Terminator being a bit too close to his Outer Limits episode “Soldier,” and won — the movie is now forevermore listed as acknowledging the work of Harlan Ellison.
This sometimes made Harlan entertaining to watch from a distance, but had two rather unfortunate side effects. One was that his own behavior wasn’t always exemplary. Besides the tormenting-the-production-guy story I mentioned above, there was also his revolting public groping of Connie Willis at the Hugo Award ceremony at the 2006 WorldCon.
The second, more dangerous side effect is the emboldening effect it has had on other writers. I’ve lost track of the number of aspiring writers and very new writers who have seen Harlan as someone to emulate. One writer in particular was displeased with notes on a story I was editing, and started posturing and making threats that were very Harlan-esque. I was able to tamp it down, but just because Harlan did it and got away with it, doesn’t mean you can. Maybe if you actually get Harlan’s career, you can consider it, though it’s still a bad idea. You may need to drive back over that bridge you just burned.
But that was Harlan. He gave absolutely no fucks, which was both his greatest and his worst quality. As I said at the top of all this, he did nothing halfway.
He was a great man. He was a horrible man. He was a dear friend. He was a deadly enemy. He was a force of nature, in the same way that both a beautiful summer day and a Category 5 hurricane are forces of nature. There are writers — great ones — who owe their careers to his mentoring. There are others who were traumatized for life.
There was never anybody like him before. We’ll never see anybody like him again. This quote of his has been all over today, but it really fits, so I’ll end with it:
For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered.
We should all be so lucky.
Rest well, Harlan.