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Ellison, Harlan 1934–
Ellison, a short story writer, novelist, editor, and screenwriter, is one of America's foremost fantasists. His fiction most often depicts man in violent confrontation with the universe, a theme he presents in a prose rich in mythical allegory. An innovative craftsman, Ellison has forged a highly personal literary language. His work is both a critical and popular success, winning him many awards and prizes in the field of science fiction, including the Hugo and Edgar awards. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
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Ellison's wild style, his unfinished sentences, his tumbling, driving pace, his mad, mixed metaphors and symbols and similes have exploded in all sorts of markets—mostly minor: girlie books, record-review columns, mystery and detective pulps, novels, radio and TV and the movies. But he began in and with science fiction; and his latest collection, Paingod, provides a fascinating study of what he was, and what he is becoming. What he is becoming is great. What he is having is a ball. He has now reached a point where the very worst he can become is the most sharply focused image-maker of contemporary homo sap….
Ellison can be excruciatingly bad;… [but to dwell on examples] would be to commit a foolishness, for Ellison is a growing entity. One may recognize that a youth is not yet an adult; one does not, however, blame him for it. Buy Paingod and read it—and of it, especially the "non-introduction" and the rubrics between the stories. Then get hold of more Ellison titles—there are plenty. Watch him grow. Look, when the dazzle of his means fades from your reader's eye, at his ends: what he has to say, what he believes, believes in, and, clearly, is. (p. 690)
Theodore Sturgeon, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1966; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), July 12, 1966.
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No one but Ellison could have written [the tales in "Deathbird Stories"]. No one but Ellison could have prefaced them with a box headed "CAVEAT LECTOR," containing the following words: "It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting…." Like the prose in the box, the stories offer a mixture of overheated Hype and genuine concern for the human condition. It is Ellison's conceit that these stories form a "cycle" dealing with the death of mankind's old gods and the search for newer deities. A few stories, not necessarily the best, seem to fit into this framework; among them are the overrated "Paingod" and "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes." A story about a highway duel in the near-future, "Along the Scenic Route," doesn't fit at all; stripped of pretensions, it is simply a standard S.F. nightmare of the machine age.
As a writer, Ellison has always specialized in excess. In this book, I lost count of the number of references to a piece of flesh being torn from someone's body. With enough repetitions, even this image loses its impact; then Ellison has to up the ante….
There are times, however, when Ellison raises excess and pretension to a form of art. The last story in the book, "The Deathbird," is a compendium of every trick Ellison has ever pulled, every artistic sin he has ever committed; I found it genuinely moving. (p. 32)
Gerald Jonas, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 23, 1975.
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The Americans do not need symposia; they have Harlan Ellison, not a one-man band but a symphony orchestra, complete with a thousand violins, shofar, and ordinance. I find it difficult to speak temperately about him. On one hand he is responsible for Dangerous Visions, and its successors, anthologies as cardinal as New Signatures or des Imagistes; on the other hand—a smaller, nipping and less important hand, like a crab's left claw—he exhibits all that is hateful about SF: the biographical and autobiographical logorrhoea, the cute titles, the steamy, cosy, encounter-group confessional tone, the intrusively private acknowledgments, the blurbs and afterwords. When I have read a good story I like to rest and smoke a fag; I do not want a writer rushing over and asking if the earth moved….
Harlan Ellison has his own visions, some of a fine, universal menace, some dangerous only to the writer…. [The best thing in] Approaching Oblivion is another story of fascism with an American face, but the other stories are less uniformly minatory. There is one about new Orpheus—can anyone write about jazz without sickliness?—an involved and embarrassing Yiddish joke, and an introduction that takes it all back to being rejected by a gang of playground antisemites. Ellison has done a lot to drag SF out of the ghetto, but is building high, broken-glass-topped walls around his new Jerusalem. (p. 26)
Eric Korn, in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 14, 1977.
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Exuberance, an attractive and abundant quality in science fiction, is comparatively rare among its writers, as anyone attending an sf convention soon notices. (p. 405)
The most notable exception among contemporary writers of sf is Harlan Ellison, an aggressive and restless extrovert who conducts his life at a shout and his fiction at a scream. Teenage gang-leader turned Hollywood screen-writer [and] polemicist …, Ellison is one of the most interesting and talented sf writers to appear since Ray Bradbury. (pp. 405-06)
[Approaching Oblivion] has all the visceral and paranoid obsessions that run through [his] anthologies…. However lurid, the stories have a relentless imaginative drive, suggesting that Ellison may be the first of a new kind of sf writer, completely uninterested in science but attracted to the medium by the ample opportunities which New Wave sf offers for exploiting the most sensational emotional mixes. (p. 406)
J. G. Ballard, in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 25, 1977.
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Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog … is a cautionary fable employing satire and mythic patterns to define a future world that in some respects may already be with us. The "boy" is Vic … and the "dog" is Blood …; their world is the American Southwest in 2024, shortly after World War IV and the near-total destruction of the human race. (p. 162)
In Blood, we have one of the variations in mythic patterns and folk motifs that make … [Ellison's novella] so fascinating and disturbing. At first glance, Blood seems much like the wise magic animal of folk and fairy tales who comes to the aid of the hero when the hero is at an impasse. But Blood goes beyond this role to become Vic's link to the lost pre-war civilization, teaching him reading, arithmetic, recent history, and "Edited English" grammar. He becomes the culture-bearer of the bombed-out wasteland, superior to Vic in everything but the necessary skills of animal survival. The normal relationship of human and animal is inverted.
This inversion and others that follow acquire significance when we see them against the structural pattern of the story. The pattern is the basic descent-containment-reascent pattern of initiation, which in primitive societies is usually a formalized ritual designed to bring a boy into manhood. It also appears in myths of the hero, where the hero undertakes the task of renewing the wasteland. Through the many variations of the pattern, the task confronting the protagonist remains the same: to maintain conscious "human" control over the unconscious "animal" instincts and responses, thereby overcoming fear, fatigue, inattention or disobedience, or the temptation to indulge appetites such as hunger or the sex drive. Since the sexual appetite presents such a powerful and persistent temptation to the hero, the feminine becomes a symbol of the danger of losing consciousness and regressing to instinctual, unconscious motivation. On the other hand, the feminine can function as mediatrix of the life force that brings renewal to the wasteland. In myth, the feminine has either positive or negative value according to whether she overwhelms the hero and renders him ineffectual by depriving him of human consciousness or joins him in the task of rejuvenating the wasteland.
All the elements of this mythic situation are present …: the bombed-out wasteland incapable of the renewal of life; the feminine sexual lure into the descent, represented by Quilla June Holmes …; a hero divided between using good sense and pursuing his sexual desires; and the necessity for rebirth (the goal of initiation). (pp. 162-63)
Ellison's novella demands consideration of just how consciously our own society is proceeding into its technological future. It also has in its political implications a strong condemnation of any complacent "silent majority" who would deny time and change by a mechanistic application of outworn values…. [Ellison's story presents] a two-level world: on the surface we have "man in a state of nature," a la Thomas Hobbes, a life of "perpetual war of every man against his neighbor"; in the downunder we have a mechanized incarnation of Hobbes' Leviathan—a totalitarian society where people have renounced freedom, individuality, and, most of all, consciousness, for stability and order. This Hobbesian dichotomy presented in a mythic structure suggests the horror of a world not future, but present, a world where our surface struggles move in patterns dictated by our unconscious subservience to traditional forms. (pp. 165-66)
John Crow and Richard Erlich, "Mythic Patterns in Ellison's 'A Boy and His Dog'," in Extrapolation (copyright 1977 by Thomas D. and Alice S. Claveson), May, 1977, pp. 162-66.
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It seems amazing that a writer like Harlan Ellison, with twenty years of work and many memorable stories behind him, has never been studied seriously and at any length before. This is surely because he writes fantasy, and fantasy as a genre is still more or less ignored, even today, when other, more specious "minorities" are having their day in the sun. I find particularly ironic the term "mainstream." Coined by writers of the 1930s to designate that other, better literature, it has helped drive into the ghetto what in fact has always been a dominant mode of literary expression in America. The kind of tale Ellison writes was done not only by Poe, but by Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain as well—mythical allegories which explore the mind and soul of a nation without a long cultural tradition or firm landmarks. Ellison belongs in this genuine mainstream. (p. 3)
A tireless experimenter with forms and techniques, Ellison has gradually worked toward an intricate, highly personal language of mythical expression. (p. 5)
What is Ellison's path as he moves from more traditional modes of fantasy to the highly original mythical allegories that have become his trademark? From the first, his stories reflect strong moral concern…. [But he] is not a didactic writer in the narrower sense. The journalist can comment and preach, but the storyteller's job is to explore deeper realms of experience. Much scientific fantasy simply transposes contemporary society and its problems into the future; today's possibilities become actuality. For such tales, there is always an implicit moral: change our ways (or pursue them) before it is too late. Ellison, on the other hand, extrapolates downward and inward; his stage is man's primitive psyche, his basic urge for survival and revenge. It is not so much present and future time as mythic time. Increasingly, in his best stories of the Sixties and Seventies, Ellison makes bold use of the non-realistic conventions of fantasy to place his heroes on this timeless plane of action, to dig at the mythic underpinnings of basic human emotions, desires, and needs.
Ellison's man, unavoidably, is American man today, shaped by his particular ethos and landscape. The search for myth, for universal patterns, is necessarily a search for the meaning of modern life. Or is it rather an attempt to escape from it? At this point, Ellison's quest becomes perilous and paradoxical. (p. 6)
Since the Romantic writers, mythmaking has been discussed in terms of "concrete universals." The particular object or situation is rubbed, and archetypal patterns and primitive racial memories appear underneath; unusual and uncanny shapes are made to unfold in an unbroken line from the familiar thing, debased by too much use. This uniquely modern search for myth is a vital reaction to a world in which objects have become increasingly opaque, unresponsive to man's need to interact on deeper levels with his surroundings. Ellison's mythical imagination is impelled by the same wants. Oddly, though, in his earlier flights he tends to follow the logic of abandonment. In doing so, he runs two dangers. The lesser of these is the pitfall of private fantasy. (pp. 6-7)
A worse danger is the lure of myth itself. Instead of facing a difficult moral problem on its own ground, he bypasses it, transposing it to a plane beyond good and evil…. In thus trying to evade moral reality, one only magnifies it, and personifies it in the shadow. (p. 7)
Gradually, however, as his art evolves, Ellison not only discovers the danger, but puts it to creative use in his ongoing dialectic. The master myth of our time, he comes to realize, is escape, the transcendental pattern itself. His latest stories are quests of a new sort, neither withdrawal into self nor expansion outward. They are journeys backward and inward, in which an individual explores all avenues of communication between the moral and mythical levels of existence. In terms of form as well, the author is seeking new bridges across this empty center. Of these, the most interesting is his use of literary tradition itself, Eliot's "historical" link between the isolated case and totality. Ellison's formation as a writer was popular—he was weaned on the literature of fantasy and science fiction. Lately, though, he is turning more and more to the "classics," and to European tradition. The landscapes through which his heroes pass are no longer wholly timeless and faceless ones—naked urges, the eternal rhythms of survival or revenge. Now their journey is increasingly overlaid with references to other deeds, and other cultural heroes. A web of literary resonances surrounds the action that stood bare before, endowing it with a variety of potential moral meanings, at the very least.
Ellison today is a writer in ferment. The problems he is currently wrestling with are those of the American myth itself. The outcome of this struggle is, perhaps, no less than the validity of such mythical fantasy as commentary on our times. To study Harlan Ellison from this perspective is not to study a "science fiction" writer. It is to examine, in a living, dynamic fashion, the art of mythmaking in America today.
Even the most casual reader of Ellison is struck by what appears to be two divergent, irreconcilable aspects to his writing. On one hand, there is the journalist, the public moralist, and commentator on our times. On the other, there is the rather private fantasist, whose tales disorient the reader, plunging him into an offbeat, intensely personal world. What relation is there between these two halves?
First of all, they are linked by the fact that both issue from a common source: they are equally the product of strong feeling. Ellison's journalism is not objective; rather, it is opiniated and impassioned. His stories too, he tells us, come from deep down inside. A more obvious bond is that the two halves complement each other in a functional sense: they form gloss and text. (pp. 7-8)
[What] kind of journalism is Ellison's? Measured against more recent reportorial standards, it seems rather old-fashioned. The tendency of the "new journalists" is to let the facts of American life speak for themselves…. [These] journalists pursue their object, listen and observe, record, and withhold overt judgment.
Ellison's eye is never on the object for long. Before the reader can even begin The Glass Teat (1969), the author sets him straight as to what he will find there: "I am not really talking about TV here. I am talking about dissidence, repression, censorship, the brutality and stupidity of much of our culture, the threat of the Common Man …" Nor is Ellison a listener. He is impatient with the endless patter of American life, and rudely cuts it off, passing to the attack. At once he sets himself forth as a moral spokesman, ready to root out folly and viciousness wherever they lurk. To find an equivalent voice, we must go back to someone like H. L. Mencken, whom Ellison resembles in certain ways…. Each of Ellison's essays is, to use Mencken's term, a "prejudice," opinion laid bluntly on the line in hopes of arousing violent response.
Ellison is less interested in facts than opinions. The vast majority of these, we soon discover, concern the writer's own existence. And they in turn gravitate around his works of fiction. (pp. 9-10)
[His] commentary can, of course, be both obtrusive and coercive, for Ellison is not above telling us how we should read his stories. One way … is to preface each tale with a note that describes its genesis, the mood it hopes to cast, and, on occasion, its meaning. Another way is to record group reactions to the story. (p. 11)
It is possible to dismiss [his commentary] … as Ellison's attempt to build a screen against criticism…. In this display of openness, Ellison actually cuts the ground from under the critic's feet. In doing so, he refuses to let literature be a two-way exchange. He would have his stories affect others, change their lives, but he refuses to allow criticism of his work to affect him.
There may be some truth in this view. And yet it completely ignores the ironic element present here. The "voice" is primarily a literary device, one that Ellison discovers and perfects as his style evolves. (pp. 12-13)
[There are three types of commentary:] the voice outside, with commentary detached from the texts; the voice inside, seeking to become the hero of a piece of non-fictional fiction; and the voice as mediator, or commentary engaged in dialogue with texts and reader. (p. 13)
In a very real sense, the speaker in the essays feels he is a voice crying in the wilderness. The "liberal" is a mask; the stand taken is fundamentally aristocratic and conservative…. Ellison does not (any more than Mencken) deny the American language. On the contrary, he uses its powers boldly, and flays those who debase it…. On occasion, however, his judgments, confronted with problems of a different order, show for all their apparent hardness of edge a sentimental underside. The rhapsody on poor and rich in Rio, for instance, is sadly ineffectual if held up to the complex social issues themselves. The mass of men now ask to be considered neither as dupes nor villains, but as people whose standard of living must be improved. Such pragmatism is out of phase with Ellison's static division of mankind into forces of dark and light, with the former inexorably spreading its dominion.
We can say, then, that the farther this voice gets from its own stories (Rio was too far), the closer it gets to sentimentality and empty ranting. On the other hand, it also seems true that if it gets too close, it loses its sense of balance. In Memos from Purgatory (1961), Ellison tried to move his persona completely inside the tale, to make himself its hero. If this experiment is less than successful, it is still interesting in many ways. (pp. 14-15)
This book is one of Ellison's worst. But the failure is instructive, for in it we discover the temperament of the writer, and the true nature of his persona. Ellison would make himself the hero of the story, but finds that to do so is only to make this "self" another character, and thus condemn him to choosing a single point of view. But the persona, like the personality it represents, is too mercurial to accept such strictures, or even the hegemony of an object. In both parts of Memos, the speaking voice, the "I," invariably draws attention away from the object toward this self. Is the book about prison and injustice, or the many masks of Harlan Ellison? Alternately, we have Cagney-style tough ("Get it straight now …"), Kafkaesque victim, Marx-Brother zany, ranting Jeremiah, average citizen who wants no trouble with the law. All these are fantasy roles, facets of the real man, to be sure, but magnified and projected. They and others form the sweep of this versatile voice. When held to some analytical or documentary task, this mimic virtuosity is fettered; if it bursts wholly out of control, as in the "Tombs" scene, chaos is the result.
Recently, however, this voice has made a new debut, in a series of long, elaborate "introductions" woven in and around various collections of stories. Here at last Ellison seems to have found the right field of activity for his persona—the literary process itself, the complex interplay between writer, work, and reader. Now, in this middle ground, moralist and hero, braggart and ironist, are at last free to trade off, to juggle masks at will. Because stories and writers are the stuffs of illusion, they form the perfect context for this illusion master, who stands beside and behind them, animating and provoking reactions on all sides. One is struck by the speaker's sheer delight in his art of masquerade.
In Ellison's latest books, the use of this persona has achieved new subtlety as the means of binding and unifying collections of his own stories. The author is now showing extreme concern for the groupings he gives his tales. Deathbird Stories (1976), for example, is an attempt to gather a number of works under a common thematic canopy. In doing so, Ellison not only acknowledges his preoccupation with god-myths over the years, but tries to arrange his experiments in some sort of logical order. The new edition of Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled (1976) is organized around the intruding persona. It is the most extraordinary example to date of a structural use of this device. (p. 20)
Surprisingly few of Ellison's fantasy stories are purely moral tales—illustrative of social doctrine, or condemnatory of society in parable. From the beginning, in fact, action takes place on a much more elementary level: it is the brutal struggle of an individual to survive in a hostile world. The battles Ellison portrays are, essentially, physical rather than moral. (p. 23)
Couched in the violent surface of these tales is a belief in the uniqueness of man, a faith in his ability to survive against the onslaught of any enemy—alien, machine, man himself as destroyer of nature and life. But is survival all he can achieve? Gradually, Ellison's stories have become more pessimistic: man's condition seems one of neverending strife. Progress is impossible; there is some primal blight or flaw at the heart of this cruel universe. In a series of tales of the late Sixties and early Seventies, the writer comes close to Calvinist gloom. These stories mark a crucial point in his career. If the human condition cannot be explained in social or moral terms, the writer must seek to do so in religious ones—we have dark forces, cruel gods, Fear personified. These, it turns out, are nothing more than projections, shadows of our plight on earth. They resolve nothing, and certainly take none of the blame; the finger points right back at the source…. The passage from center to circumference, the attempt at transcendence, is doomed to failure. If there is an answer, it must be sought in the other direction, backward and inward, down to the point, through the needle's eye of self. (p. 24)
[In his latest tales, "Silent in Gehenna," "Basilisk," and "Knox"], Ellison gives us, instead of geometry, a genuine ecology of darkness. From situation to situation, man is woven more and more inexorably into the fearful dynamics of nature. Social action is all but impossible. The institutions of this world are not only treacherous, claiming to bring light and actually serving darkness, but flimsy and inconsequential as well. Man can do little or nothing collectively to change his lot; laws and education can easily become instruments of tyranny in the wrong hands. The battle, for Ellison, remains an individual one; the true law is that of survival…. Man is on his own, and the strongest survives. There is more than a tinge of Calvinist gloom cast over man's collective efforts. This whole middle ground between the individual and his dark gods is without substance. (pp. 41-2)
To what extent is man to blame for his condition? In all these stories, he has made it worse by not accepting it. But how can he accept violence and suffering? Can he do anything? "Knox" ends on a note of bitter fatalism that could be a ray of hope. Ellison gives us a quote from Jung: "The only thing we have to fear on this planet is man." The cycle will begin all over again. Failure and suffering are part of the universal order. But if man cannot change things, perhaps he can know more. The dark shapes are fed by our lies and hypocrisy; but must they always remain symbols of something incomprehensible? Must all our moments of recognition be as bewildered as that of Knox? In these stories, we have reached a "Job situation." Pain has become a fact of human existence, no more, no less. The "adversary" is neither wholly within nor wholly without. Nor is he a free agent. He is clearly recognized as part of a godhead whose real nature—like that of the leviathan—is beyond human understanding. The task of Ellison's mythical tales will be to rise to that superhuman plane, to explore the ways of these gods to man. (p. 42)
[Ellison's mythic tales] are of two basic kinds. First, there are the cosmologies, parables that explore the ways of the gods to man. What are the causes of man's condition? Is this natural order of pain and suffering part of some higher universal balance? Second, there are the tales of quest, individual man searching to define his role in the cosmic dynamic. Earlier heroes sought to conquer worlds; these seek to know self. (p. 43)
Only in "Paingod" (1964) do we first examine human suffering from the cosmic point of view…. The paingod has become dissatisfied with his job of dispensing pain: "It involved no feeling and no concern, only attention to duty…. How peculiar it was that he felt concern after all this time." But he is the highest authority, there is nowhere to go for answers but down. He goes all the way to the bottom of creation, skid row on the insignificant Sol III, a failed sculptor named Colin Marshack. Only when inside this minute human destiny can he feel the full, hot potency of this thing he so casually sprinkled over the universe. This in turn brings him to life the man out of his shell, and whirl him through infinite space: "He poured him full of love and life and the staggering beauty of the cosmos." The sculptor returns to life to create a masterwork, and face even greater suffering because of it; the god goes back to come of age. But will he now spare the creatures of the universe this suffering? No, he will send more and more pain, for this is the most fortunate thing of all, without it there can be no happiness. The god was bored. Man too gives him a gift—in exchange for an instant of pain he receives an eternity of happiness. (pp. 44-5)
There is room then for both gods and men to grow, to change, but only within the fixed limits of this balance of forces. How human actions affect this balance—the possibility that man's desire to "better" his universe could ever change or alter the workings of this system—is the subject of one of Ellison's most interesting stories, "The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World" (1968). (p. 45)
Man then is not the center of the universe. But he is, necessarily, one of its poles. In both "Paingod" and "Beast" there is always that small point of contemporary American life, from which the cosmos expands, on which it contracts. Modern scientific man however would be not only center, but circumference as well, erect his systems and machines as absolutes, play god. These systems, we have seen in Ellison's fantasies, invariably absorb their builder, trap him in an inverted, perverted cosmos, a hell of his own making. In two other mythical allegories, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" (1967), and "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes" (1967), Ellison anatomizes man's relation to his machines, explores the outcome of our Faustian dreams. (p. 47)
In both these tales, the machine becomes man's other self, his "double," and this creature of his desires and urges literally swallows its creator. In expanding his ego, man succeeds only in turning it inside out; it becomes an inverted cosmos, and he is trapped in the world of self. There seem only two alternative ways in life: man can dream, pursue wealth, ideals, a false love of others which is really hate, love of self; or he can accept the raw, bloody struggle to survive. In past tales, neither has led to freedom. Maggie touches on both. She escapes to Heaven or Hell (which we are never told), seducing Kostner, the eternal loser, who is condemned by his own weaknesses to turn endlessly in an indifferent play of forces. But is man's fate always to be this prison of materiality, cold equations and laws of balance forever deaf to human aspirations? We hear Baudelaire's cry of despair—never to leave this world of things, quantities. Is there no spirit, no true peace anywhere? There is a third direction in Ellison, a way which grows stronger and stronger in the latter tales—the journey inward. These are strangely literal quests for self at the center of one's own being…. This too has its dangers, for the world inside may be no less a lie, a labyrinth, a prison. (pp. 50-1)
The quest for self, in Ellison, may be a conscious one however…. The hero of "One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty" (1969) seeks his identity by actually going back in time, meeting his past self. The protagonist's quest for love in "Catman" (1972) is in reality a search for self as member of a family that must quite literally be recreated. If these two works seem to say, in various ways, you can't go home again, the third story, "Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38 54′ N, Longitude 77 00′ 13″ W" (1975) is in its own strange way a successful quest. In this work Ellison achieves his most complex and moving mythical statement to date.
The hero of the curiously autobiographical "One Life" simply digs up his past. No time machines or magic, the road just leads back. He must find out "what turning point in my life it had been that had wrenched me from the course all little boys took to adulthood; that had set me on the road of loneliness and success ending here, back where I'd begun, in a backyard at now-twelve minutes to midnight." For a destiny that thinks itself so elliptical, this one is oddly circular…. The past is a gallery of mirrors, life a series of hopeless returns. He has brought about the very thing he would abolish. Love again turns to hate, he becomes a shadow in the process…. The devices of time travel are skillfully adapted here to Ellison's personal myths. (pp. 53-5)
"Adrift" is a story of affirmation, perhaps a turning point in Ellison's career. A new optimism is not simply pronounced; it is wrung with great struggle from the elements of the old, pessimistic view of man. And yet there is something frightening about this struggle, all the contraptions and ingenious twists. Why is it so hard to die in Ellison's world? He has created the only heaven a materialist society can conceive—the one inside self. Is this not the ultimate act of survival, to declare one's own body everything and always, so that one can die to live forever in one's own form undecaying? We are reminded here not of Emerson, but of Poe, with his nightmare fears of being buried, whose Ligeia's will to eternity raises her body from the dead, but as a corpse. Ellison's myth succeeds in countering these fears, but by meeting Poe on the same ground, fails to break the circle of matter and quantity. His hero does not want death with all its terms, he desires "surcease," rest without decay. Ellison's tale is a masterpiece of wishful thinking. We are at point where myth becomes fantasy again.
This mood of reconciliation continues in Ellison's latest stories, tempered perhaps by irony. If "Adrift" is microcosm, then its companion tale, "The Deathbird" (1974), is macrocosm. In this retelling of Prometheus Unbound, quest for surcease passes through a mythic landscape, complete with snake-like nature force, and the tyrant god man has fashioned in the image of his unnatural aspirations. The hero is an American Adam, bearer of the human "spark." Genesis is reversed, and mankind's fall dates not from Eve, but from the earlier rupture with Lillith, the dark earth goddess. The hero, everyman, defeats God by withstanding despair; he ceases to believe, and the mind-forged chains fall. Rather than God, man should love fellow man, snake, animal—dog spelled backward is god. (pp. 59-60)
Other recent stories of this "optimistic pessimism" include "Croatoan" (1975), in which "dead dreams" are literally fetuses flushed down toilets, the aborted waste of perverted urban lives. (p. 60)
These late tales are all marked by new complexity of design and texture ("Deathbird" passes from high epic to a 'schoolboy" essay on the death of a dog). More and more, Ellison constructs not only the disparate voices of our modern world, but with its cultural bric-a-brac as well. Quotes, literary allusions are used increasingly; there seems a danger of overloading…. Yet this is done for reason. In the first work, man the dreamer assails nature; in the other, he suffers reversion to non-human form in the civilized nightmare he has created. Two juxtaposed visions form a new balance—the "monster" is man himself, his metamorphosis must be a return to nature. Like many American writers, Ellison is less intent on shoring up the ruins of tradition than in regrouping elements in flux, making them function as part of a new system. All these diverse cultural patterns are reduced to one basic polarity—man and universe.
Ellison's technical skill has grown, his vision of man shifted accents, but the underlying dynamic has not changed. This dynamic can be found in Emerson; it came to him as a fusion of Romantic science, native Calvinism, and Oriental philosophy. A century and a half later a modern fantasy writer is still shaping fiction in its matrix. Again it has proved flexible enough to unite the most disparate elements—social Darwinism, Old Testament ethic, Dionysian forces, modern ecology. Ellison's new "optimism" has not broken this balance; even though his heroes refute God, reestablishing primal bonds with family and nature, some price must still be paid. When love goes forward, hate goes backward. Ellison has not sought to strike a bridge from pole to pole, or offer a plan to replace the Genesis he casts aside. But how can the hater of systems make one himself? How can one who denies progress conceive human destiny in eschatological terms? We wonder where Ellison will go from here. Increasingly complex structures? More intricate, convoluted treatments of man's quandary? He has passed through the anger and violence, the grim despair at man's folly, to a mood of reconciliation. Still, the individual has not escaped the hateful contraries. Will Ellison suspend this iron law? Whatever the case, this genuinely mythic imagination will not stand still. Ellison has produced some of the finest, most provocative fantasy in America today; and more will surely follow. (pp. 60-1)
George Edgar Slusser, in his Harlan Ellison: Unrepentant Harlequin (copyright © 1977 by George Edgar Slusser), The Borgo Press, 1977.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 244
Let there be no doubt about it, a new Ellison collection is an event. Harlan Ellison is one of the best short fiction writers of our time, and [Strange Wine] gives ample evidence of his talent. Ellison writes with immense force and emotion….
Ellison's books are more than just a group of his stories slapped between two covers. They capture his personality. Lest readers miss the meanings of the stories, he adds an introduction to the book, and a preface to each story. The Introduction—"Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don't Look So Terrific Yourself"—is a dangerous vision more frightening than anything Ellison put into his two anthologies of that name. You will never again feel complacent about watching the boob tube.
Unlike the prior Ellison collection Deathbird Stories, Strange Wine is compiled of not-previously-collected stories. There is no way to summarize an Ellison story—they're so tightly interwoven within themselves that no summary can do them justice….
So well-known are Ellison's tales of the unpleasant inner morasses of mankind, that his lighter tales tend to be forgotten. That is a shame, since Ellison's lighter stories have a cutting, ironic touch….
[They are] draughts of very strange wine, indeed. Through the years, Harlan Ellison continues to improve, never resting on his ample laurels. This book is a must-read. (p. 39)
Mark Mansell, in Science Fiction Review (copyright © 1978 by Richard Geis; reprinted by permission of Richard Geis and Mark Mansell), September-October, 1978.