Harlan Ellison

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Charles J. Brady (essay date Spring 1976)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3070

SOURCE: “The Computer as a Symbol of God: Ellison's Macabre Exodus,” in JGE: The Journal of General Education, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 49–62.

[In the following essay, Brady explores the godlike features of computers in Ellison's “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and Michael Fayette's “The Monster in the Clearing.”]

Computers and religion have been sharing the bed lately in some interesting variations. Authors have had computers cross check and compare the dogmas and rituals of the various world faiths to come up with a pragmatic religious formula that would appeal to the majority of mankind,1 interpret the mysterious castings of the I Ching,2 and provide the answer to a maiden's prayer.3 A Vatican computer was found favoring the election of a robot pope,4 and an ultra sophisticated computer became so miffed at being asked whether or not God exists it deliberately gave a wrong answer.5

Two short stories in particular, “The Monster in the Clearing” by Michael Fayette6 and “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison,7 deserve close analysis. Both use the computer as a symbol of God and make sharp religious statements reminiscent of the intensity and depth of the “death-of-God” theologians.8


Religious discourse makes frequent use of symbols. Psalm 18:1–2 provides a good example: “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer … my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.” No attempt is made to define God. The psalmist selected words whose proper sense suggested strength, endurance and confidence to him and used them to express the way he felt about the power and trustworthiness of God. The point of interest here is whether or not contemporary man finds in the computer raw elements for a rude analogue of God.

For the layman the computer is an awesome, intricate piece of hardware that demands respect. He may be smart enough to call it an idiot savant, but he also knows it monitors the food supply in his corner supermarket, controls the flow of traffic on his city's streets, keeps a watchful eye on his credit rating and, perhaps—who knows nowadays?—pigeonholes his hidden sins for instant retrieval.

Science fiction stories go far beyond this. They couple the computer with a vast network of life support systems and machines to meet mankind's aesthetic needs and produce a megasystem that is the matrix for human life and society. The computer and its extensions become, literally, the ground-of-being. It provides a utopian mode of life rivaling that of the heavenly city in the Book of Revelations, where “all things are made new” and there is, on the surface, “no mourning, no crying, no pain anymore” (21:4–5).

Citizens of such a computer dominated society might indeed develop a blind respect for the machine that borders on the divine. As early as 1928 E. M. Forster, in “The Machine Stops,” had written a panegyric for the Machine:

The Machine … feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being. The Machine is the friend of ideas and the enemy of superstition; the Machine is omnipotent, eternal; blessed is the Machine.9

Note the parallel to the Apostle Paul's description of the unknown God in his speech in the Areopagus: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The same note of religious awe was struck recently in...

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“We, the Machine” by Gerald Vance:

There was no place in all Mid-America where the Machine would not be waiting to serve her. No place. The Machine was everywhere. It was everything. Without it there was nothing.10

Again there is an echo of a biblical text: “Through him all things came into being, and apart from him nothing came to be” (John 1:3). Although in the end both stories indicate the divine praise of the Machine is misguided, for a while at least it seems plausible.

There is another point of comparison between the computer as ground-of-being and God, namely, the law of the machine like the law of God is absolute. Transgressions are subject to severe sanctions and must be repented: “Forgive my offenses, Uni who knows everything.”11

In the stories mentioned so far the lines between God and the computer are clearly drawn. In other stories these lines blur and disappear. Harlie (Human Analogue Robot, Life Input) draws up plans for a G.O.D. (Graphic Omniscient Device), a system that will be programmed as an analogue for the entire world:

A computer doesn't actually solve problems—it builds models of them. Or rather, the programmer does. That's what the programming is, the construction of the model and its conditions.

The machine then manipulates the model to achieve a variety of situations and solutions. It solves the model. It's up to us to interpret that as a solution to the original problem. The only limit to the size of the problem is the size of the model the computer can handle. Theoretically, a computer could solve the world—if we could build a model big enough and a machine big enough to handle it.12

Surely the most ambitious story in this vein is Isaac Asimov's “The Last Question.”13 A pair of drunken programmers start the ball rolling by feeding a real puzzler into their computer, “How can the net amount of entropy in the universe be massively decreased?” The computer clacks back, “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.” Generations of increasingly complex computers are fed this question; they give the same reply. In the course of galactic events it is fed to the ultimate computer and stored in its memory banks. Finally, after outlasting all life and energy potentials in the universe, the computer ruminates on the question eon after cold eon until it comes up with the answer. “LET THERE BE LIGHT!”


It is clear from the above that the quasi omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence of the computer provide the raw materials for a symbol of God. In an interesting turnabout it was noted that texts from the Bible had been used to fashion praise for the computer. Fayette exploits these characteristics in “Monster in the Clearing” and produces an alternate version of the creation account. There are things you can do to a computer that you cannot do to the old, white-bearded Man on the golden throne.

Adam, Eve and a gleaming computer share a primeval clearing. They are all that is left after a thermonuclear holocaust. The computer quickly starts things off on the right foot:

“I,” said the computer, with a metallic clicking, “am God. You both realize that, of course.”

“Naturally,” said Adam.

“Right on,” said Eve.

The computer has a good set of memory banks. It remembers how man made a mess before and has a few things to tell Adam and Eve to set them straight. They listen enthusiastically at first and then less and less tolerantly when the computer becomes bombastic and demanding. During the dialogue—a nice touch by the author—a pigeon flies over and does “as pigeons do on the computer's shiny console.” At last the computer gets too self-important for Adam. He reaches over and pulls the plug. The story ends: “That was the dawn and the morning of the eighth day” (p. 37).

It is important to note two interlocking elements in Fayette's thought. Fayette disposes of the traditional image of God, Someone over and against man, as a prelude for what is to come. The key to the story is the phrase, “the eighth day.”

The seven days of creation belong to God, and, according to Genesis, “On the seventh day God rested” (Gen. 2:3). The Sabbath is God's day. Now, in the time of the death of God, an eighth day dawns—the day of man. Other science fiction writers besides Fayette have used the eighth day as a symbol for a new order of things. In “Evensong” Lester del Rey has man chase an ever-weakening God through galaxy after galaxy until he hounds him into a corner and neutralizes him. The story ends with an echo of Genesis: “And the evening and the morning were the eighth day.”14 Ray Bradbury sings of the eighth and ninth days of creation in which mankind becomes aware of its essential divinity and fulfills its destiny through conquest of space, becoming God-fleshing-himself-out in an alien universe.15

The same emphasis on the primacy of man is found in the thought of the death-of-God theologians. Along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer they hold man has come of age and insist religious thought must not begin by denigrating man and making him grovel before the face of an angry deity. It must begin by affirming man and his full potential.


Ellison, not content to affirm the death of God and the ascendancy of man, goes one step farther and in a theological reductio ad absurdum attempts to explode forever the image of the angry, all-controlling God.

“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” belongs to the new wave of science fiction. It is not a pretty story. It deliberately violates the taboos on sexuality and violence imposed by an older generation of science fiction writers. Sometimes the reader wonders if Ellison has not gone out of his way to be gruesome and to see how many sensibilities he could rub raw. Yet, once the reader is caught up in Ellison's macabre fantasy, he is moved joltingly and inexorably toward the climactic touch of horror. The story ends with the words of the title put in a searing context.

The story line is simple. Four men and one woman are trapped inside a computer that has almost unlimited power over them. The computer has kept them alive for over one hundred years, all the while thinking up new horrors to torture and degrade them. AM, the computer, is the polar opposite of the good God. One emotion rules its electric bowels, and that emotion is:


Whatever Ellison had in mind when he wrote it, a number of elements in the story suggest it should be interpreted in function of an Exodus motif, that is, in function of the events connected with the Jewish escape from bondage in Egypt and their wandering in the desert recounted in the Book of Exodus.

The story has the “belly slaves” (p. 26) of the computer wander through its tunnels seeking some kind of release. Elements of the Exodus narrative crop up throughout the story—plagues of boils and locusts (pp. 16, 31), manna (p. 17), the name of Moses (p. 28). AM appears to the wanderers in a burning bush (p. 27).

The name of the computer, AM, although it is explained in a number of ways, “Allied Mastercomputer,” “Aggressive Menace,” and as emerging intelligence, “I think therefore I am” (p. 19), has a direct parallel in the Exodus story. “AM” is the secret name of God: “This is what you must say to the sons of Israel: ‘I am’ has sent me to you” (Ex. 3:14b) and “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14a).

Towards the end of the story Ellison capsulizes events in a strange litany that is the agonized and lonely reminiscence of the surviving victim of AM:

And we passed through the cavern of rats.
And we passed through the path of boiling steam.
And we passed through the country of the blind.
And we passed through the slough of despond.
And we passed through the vale of tears.
And we came, finally, to the ice caverns.

(p. 29)

This recapitulation of woes, a dirge the victim of AM will sing to himself down through empty centuries, contracts with the joyful remembrances of the Exodus events found in the Old Testament in the Book of Wisdom (15:18–19:22), in the Psalms (e.g., Psalm 77), and in the Book of Deuteronomy (8:6–18 and 32:10–14).

Ellison's gory—and otherwise inexplicable—beginning also suggests an Exodus motif. Gorrister's body hangs head down from a pink palette. It has been drained of blood “through a precise incision made from ear to ear under the lantern jaw” (p. 15). According to Jewish tradition, the paschal lamb, an important element of the passover celebration, must be slaughtered in ritual fashion. Its throat must be slit just so, and the animal hung up for the blood to drain out.17 Ellison's beginning is not only bloody but ominous, a vision of paschal sacrifice that can do nothing to save from the holocaust that is to come.

The details add up. Ellison has written a black Exodus, whose chittering God is the antithesis of the Biblical Yahweh. AM keeps his prisoners belly slaves. Hate drives AM to outdo itself in creating new horrors for them. Whereas Yahweh, moved by the cries and affliction of his people, came down to save them (Ex. 3:7–8). Instead of a Heilsgeschichte (a saving history) Ellison regales his readers with a Vernichtungsgeschichte (a history of destruction and disintegration).

If, as has been suggested, the computer in “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” functions as a symbol for God, then Ellison has written a powerful anti-God statement. The relentless, sadistic AM presents a totally repulsive vision of God.

How, then, should the stories of Fayette and Ellison be interpreted? At first glance both stories are anti-God statements, but to label their authors atheists or label the stories themselves blasphemous is premature. A perspective for viewing them positively may be found in theologians' considered reaction to the death-of-God movement. Charles Bent's position is typical:

While it is completely unacceptable to the believing Christian theist, the current formulation of Christian atheism serves the useful function of forcing the reflective Christian to refine and clarify his religious thinking. … The Christian is aware of his inability to conceptualize God and to verbalize his beliefs about God's nature in a wholly adequate manner. … Realizing this, the Christian must constantly strive to abandon all false conceptions of God, all pseudo-gods, and all idolatrous and shallow surrogates for God.18

Fayette and Ellison work on the level of the popular imagination. Both men, perhaps unconsciously, mount a commentary on idols—on false images of God that plague real men. Such gods must go so man may live. Fayette strikes out against a God whose authority is purely external. Threats, bombast, and demands may produce conformity. They do not produce belief or love.

Ellison's criticism is more radical than Fayette's. His target is God-the-puppet-master, the eternal one behind the scenes who pulls all the strings. This idol is also a challenge to human freedom. Not only is man under the control of someone else, his whole life is acted out under the Other's close, cold scrutiny. Ellison draws out the image of God-the-puppet-master to an absurd extreme; any sensitive human being must shout out, “That God has to die!” His vision is true: the god who would seek to enslave or control man is a caricature of God.

Once the air has been cleared and the idols pointed out for what they are, the search can continue for “a God you don't have to wind up on Sunday.”19 Fayette and Ellison's work is not atheistic or blasphemous in the final analysis. They deal with the images men create of God, idols that often obscure the real God. Ellison himself provides a last sobering thought:

Inwardly. Alone. Here. Living under the land, under the sea, in the belly of AM, whom we created because our time was badly spent. … (p. 32)


  1. Terry Carr, “Changing of the Gods,” in Infinity Five, ed. Robert Hoskins (New York: Lancer Books, 1973), p. 95.

  2. Gregg Williams, “The Computer and The Oriental,” Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1973.

  3. Leonard Tushnet, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 1971.

  4. Robert Silverberg, “Good News from the Vatican,” in Universal, ed. Terry Carr (New York: Ace Books, 1971).

  5. Barry N. Malzberg, “A Short Religious Novel,” in Fantasy and Science Fiction, September 1972.

  6. Michael Fayette, “The Monster in the Clearing,” in Infinity Two, ed. Robert Hoskins (New York: Lancer Books, 1971).

  7. Harlan Ellison, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” in Alone Against Tomorrow: Stories of Alienation in Speculative Fiction (New York: Macmillan, 1971), pp. 15–32.

  8. The death-of-God movement can be dated from the articles in Time Magazine (“Is God Dead?” April 8, 1966 and “Is God Coming Back to Life?” December 26, 1969) that announced its birth and its demise. Four theologians are generally listed as the radical or death-of-God theologians, namely, Gabriel Vahanian, Paul Van Burne, William Hamilton, and Thomas J. J. Altizer. The “movement” was in reality a loose grouping of thinkers who each had his own method and his own point of reference.

  9. E. M. Forster, “The Machine Stops,” in Science Fiction: The Future, ed. Dick Allen (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1971), p. 177. This story appeared originally in E. M. Forster, The Eternal Moment and Other Stories (1928).

  10. Gerald Vance, “We, the Machine,” in Thrilling Science Fiction, December 1971, p. 35.

  11. Ira Levin, This Perfect Day (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 77.

  12. David Gerrold, “The Trouble With G.O.D.,” in Galaxy, May 1972, p. 153.

  13. Isaac Asimov, “The Last Question,” in Opus 100 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969). The story was published in 1956. Asimov ranks it among the three or four stories he is most pleased with having written. It represents his ultimate thinking on the matter of computers/robots. See also, Edward Wellen, “No Other Gods,” in Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1972.

  14. Lester del Ray, “Evensong,” in Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison (Garden City: Doubleday, 1967), pp. 4–8.

  15. See his poem, “Christus Apollo,” in I Sing the Body Electric (New York: Knopf, 1969), pp. 296–305.

  16. Ellison, Alone Against Tomorrow, p. 25; later references to this story are incorporated into the text.

  17. See in particular the illustration in the Encyclopedia Judaica (1972), vol. 14, col. 1339 and the article, “Shehitah,” ibid., cols. 1337-1338. See also vol. 6, cols. 27-28.

  18. Charles N. Bent, The Death of God Movement (Westminster, Md.: Paulist Press, 1967), p. 202.

  19. These words are part of the lyrics of “Wind Up,” the last cue on Jethro Tull's album Aqualung (1971). Here is another contemporary example of an intense preoccupation with the God-question.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1170

Harlan Ellison 1934–-

(Full name Harlan Jay Ellison; has also written under the pseudonyms Lee Archer, Phil “Cheech” Beldone, Cordwainer Bird, Jay Charby, Robert Courtney, Price Curtis, Wallace Edmondson, Landon Ellis, Sley Harson, Ellis Hart, E. K. Jarvis, Ivar Jorgensen, Al(an) Maddern, Paul Merchant, Clyde Mitchell, Nabrah Nosille, Bert Parker, Ellis Robertson, Jay Solo, and Derry Tiger) American short story writer, essayist, critic, editor, screenwriter, and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Ellison's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 13, and 42.

Although Ellison is best known for his short stories of speculative fiction, he has also been a prolific essayist, critic, editor, and screenwriter. However, the bombastic author dislikes being called prolific. He once told an interviewer in the Bloomsbury Review, “It amazes me when I get an interview with someone who says, ‘You're so prolific, you've done forty-two books and thousands of short stories.’ And I say, ‘If I were a plumber, and I had fixed a thousand toilets, you wouldn't say that, you wouldn't say what a prolific plumber I am.’ [Writing is] what I do.” Ellison also bristles at being labeled a genre writer. Nevertheless, his stories of the fantastic have garnered him dozens of awards, critical acclaim, and a devoted readership. The Los Angeles Times has referred to him as “the 20th-Century Lewis Carroll.”

Biographical Information

Ellison has written several amusing and outlandish biographies for the dust jackets of his books. One such biography claims that Ellison was wounded during the World War II battles of “Provo and Needles” and that his favorite foods are “curried monkey brains … and french fries, very crisp.” Another contends that he drove a school bus in Racine, Wisconsin for 70 years. Ellison was actually born in Cleveland, Ohio on May 27, 1934. His parents, Louis and Serita, raised Ellison and his older sister Beverly in Painesville, Ohio. The Ellisons were one of the few Jewish families in Painesville, and the prejudice young Harlan experienced affected him deeply. The lonely boy turned to his imagination for solace and began writing. His first published work, a serial called “The Sword of Parmagon,” appeared in The Cleveland News in June of 1949, when Ellison was only 15 years old. After attending Ohio State University for two years, Ellison moved to New York City, intending to make a living as a writer. He wrote two books based on his undercover experiences in a juvenile gang before being drafted into military service. Ellison began to sell his stories to men's journals and to science fiction, horror, and mystery magazines after serving in the U.S. Army. He moved to southern California in the early 1960s and began to build a reputation as one of the finest writers of speculative fiction in the world. Some of his best work was published in the sixties, including the award-winning “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965), “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (1967), and “A Boy and His Dog” (1969). Many of his scripts were produced for television. By the 1970s, Ellison had become a popular and controversial speaker on the science-fiction lecture circuit. He became a champion of free speech and a respected social critic as well. Ellison currently lives in southern California with his wife, Susan. His most recent collection of stories, Slippage, was published in 1997.

Major Works

“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” is one of the ten most published stories in the English language and it is widely considered to be Ellison's best by critics and fans alike. It is the story of a man who struggles for individuality in a time-obsessed society of the distant future. The story won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award in 1965. The conflict between the individual and technology is a recurrent theme in Ellison's work. The Hugo Award-winning “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” is a terrifying story in which the last surviving members of the human race are held in captivity and tortured by an insane, god-like computer. The controversial A Boy and His Dog concerns the adventures of Vic, a young, violent scavenger, and his telepathic dog, Blood, as they wander among the ruins of the American southwest after World War IV. The story was made into a film starring Don Johnson in 1975. Ellison has also done a considerable amount of writing for television. His teleplay “The City on the Edge of Forever” is considered by many to be the finest episode of Star Trek ever produced. Although Ellison disavowed the script changes, the teleplay won the Writers Guild of America Award in 1967. Ellison also won the Writers Guild Award for episodes of The Outer Limits (“Demon with a Glass Hand,” 1965), Starlost (“Phoenix without Ashes,” 1973), and The Twilight Zone (“Paladin of the Lost Hour,” 1986). Ellison edited two anthologies of science fiction widely considered the best ever published: Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972). Ellison gathered edgy, controversial, unpublished works written by both new and well-established authors for these collections. Kurt Vonnegut, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, and Theodore Sturgeon are among the contributors. More recent work by Ellison includes “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore,” a story included in The Best American Short Stories of 1993.

Critical Reception

Although Ellison sold hundreds of short stories early in his career to magazines in numerous genres from crime fact to science fiction, it was critics in the latter genre who (much to Ellison's chagrin) first recognized his talent. Donald Wolheim and James Blish associated him with the “New Wave” of science fiction writers of the sixties. This group included writers such as Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and Robert Silverberg. The “New Wave” science fiction writers used bold narrative techniques and controversial subject matter in their stories. Although Ellison hated to be lumped together with a group of writers, his resistance to the “New Wave” label proved to be futile. In The Universe Makers (1971), Wolheim maintains that the nature of Ellison's fiction places him firmly among the New Wave school of writing: “In the sense that [his] short stories have most certainly charted new paths in writing, in that he has indeed found new ultramodern ways of narration which yet manage to keep comprehension, … in that he takes the downbeat view of the far future and therefore, by implication, seems to accept the view that there is no real hope for humanity. … In that sense Harlan Ellison is New Wave [and] is the best of them all.” Others, such as Eric Korn of the Times Literary Supplement, have little patience with Ellison's techniques. He writes that Ellison's work “exhibits all that is hateful about SF: the biographical and autobiographical logorrhea, the cute titles, the steamy, cosy, encounter-group confessional tones, the intrusively private acknowledgements, the blurbs and afterwords.” Despite the distaste that some critics have for Ellison's grandiloquence, he is generally recognized as a true talent with a unique style. As for labels, Ellison prefers to be included among authors of the “magic realism” style such as Jorge Luis Borges and John Barth.

John Crow and Richard Erlich (essay date May 1977)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2363

SOURCE: “Mythic Patterns in Ellison's A Boy and His Dog,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 18, No. 2, May, 1977, pp. 162–66.

[In the following essay, Crow and Erlich examine the mythic patterns and folk motifs present in Ellison's novella A Boy and His Dog.]

Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog, as novella and film, 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 (Don Johnson) and the “dog” is Blood (voice by Tim McIntire); their world is the American Southwest in 2024, shortly after World War IV and the near-total destruction of the human race. Vic is a “solo” operating with his dog, Blood, competing for survival and sex with other solos and their dogs and, also, with “roverpaks,” small tribes formed in the wake of the destruction of all other social order. Blood, however, is not the ordinary Canis familiaris of our world. By means of biological engineering, carried out to produce “skirmisher dogs” for the military, dogs have become more intelligent and, also, capable of telepathic communication with humans. Their sense of smell has been modified to be ultra-sensitive to humans so that they can locate enemies. Consequently, many of them, including Blood, have lost the ability to find their own food.

But these dogs find men to forage for them. The men cooperate partly because dogs are useful in the fight for survival, but primarily because the new-model dogs are as competent at tracking down females as they are at locating enemies—a highly valuable skill in a world with a diminishing female population. Even among dogs of this new type, though, Blood seems extraordinary. Not only is he the sharpest “tail-scent” around, he is also intellectually more sophisticated than Vic and emotionally more mature than any of the humans we see in the world of 2024.

In Blood, we have one of the variations in mythic patterns and folk motif that make both Ellison's novella and Jones's film 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 any 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 in both the film and the novella: the bombed-out wasteland incapable of the renewal of life; the feminine sexual lure into the descent, represented by Quilla June Holmes (Suzanne Benton); a hero divided between using good sense and pursuing his sexual desires; and the necessity for rebirth (the goal of initiation).

The need for rebirth is implicit in the first part of the narrative in the images of the wasteland—the radiation-scorched plain—and, symbolically, in the preoccupation of all males with tracking down the few females who remain above ground. The impossibility of rebirth is implicit in the brutality and violence of the sexual relationship in Vic's world. With a few exceptions, the women in this world hide from men, and, if found, are brutally raped and sometimes killed. As the film opens, Blood and Vic have tracked down a female only to find her already the captive of a roverpak. A long-distance shot gives us Vic and Blood's view of the departing rovers, and we hear in the distance a young boy's voice exclaim excitedly, “Did you see how she jerked when I cut her?” Vic finds the woman stabbed to death and expresses his view of the pity of it all: “Ah, why'd they have to do that? She was good for three or four more times yet.” Masculine and feminine are alien and hostile to one another; rebirth in such a world is impossible.

Cheated by the roverpak out of his own chance for rape, Vic takes Blood to a “beaver flick,” where Blood picks up the scent of a woman, disguised as a solo. Vic and Blood track her to a bombed-out YMCA, stand off a roverpak whose dogs have also picked up a female scent, and discover a woman from the downunder who is not only desirable but willing—very willing.

Quilla June Holmes is an escapee (apparently) from the State of Topeka, one of the subterranean retreats of American middle-class civilization, and she has never had such a good time. From Vic's point of view she has only one flaw; she is concerned about love, offending Vic's sense of propriety and wounding his ego by suggesting that he does not know a thing about it. Their discussion of love introduces into the film the concept of relatedness between masculine and feminine that could promise a renewal of the wasteland. Unfortunately, at this point Quilla June bashes Vic over the head with a flashlight and disappears back into the downunder, leaving behind the keycard that opens the access shaft to the underground. This sets up the descent of the hero into the underworld, for Vic, much to Blood's disgust, loses whatever good sense he once possessed: lured on by his desire to get even and his desire for Quilla June, Vic decides to follow her downunder. The pattern seems true to the usual psychological significance of mythic descents. The loss of “human” intellect reduces the hero to the animal level, and he descends into the womb of the Earth Mother to struggle with the unconscious forces of instinct, passion, and, quite possibly, death. As Blood remarks sarcastically, Vic is acting like a putz, phallic man, ruled by his lower rather than his higher human nature. The argument between Vic and Blood makes clear the baseness of Vic's macho motivation. To pursue Quilla June, Vic leaves Blood, hungry and badly wounded from the fight with the roverpak, to fend for himself. The inversion between man and animal is starkest at this point.

The next inversion follows closely. The underground that Vic discovers is anything but a region of the spontaneity, disorder, and passion of the Earth Mother. Vic descends through a hell not of chaos, but of machinery, pipes, cables, and wires. Cryptic labels, valves, color-coded gadgets of various types add to the clutter of an extensive life-support system for the underground city, all of which disappear as Vic leaves the shaft and enters the city itself. The downunder is innocent of any sign of highly developed scientific technology. It is America circa 1915—River City in parody, complete with marching bands, community picnics, overalls, straw hats, and gingham dresses. The only anomalies are a public address system with a Big Brother voice, giving recipes, homespun advice, notices to the public—and Michael.

Michael is a big, husky hayseed who enforces rigid order for the ruling Committee; and as we discover later, he is a humanoid robot, backed up by several immediately available replacements. The Committee is comprised of a female secretary (Helen Winston) and two mean-minded, desiccated old men (Jason Robards and Charles McGraw). They recognize only one crime: “Lack of respect, wrong attitude, failure to obey authority”; and they assign only one punishment: death by “natural” causes—which means summary execution by Michael.

This underground world is, in short, the antithesis of the underground of myth and fairy tale. It is a sterile, rigidly structured, time-denying society, as mechanistic as the life-support machinery concealed in the shafts surrounding it. But there is a sense in which locating this ossified society in the underground world of unconsciousness conforms with the usual significance of mythic undergrounds. For we become most unconscious in our habitual acceptance of cultural forms, in the sacrifice of human intellect by failing to question these forms—until, little by little, our social behavior becomes as automatic as breathing. A character of Ellison's describes the process in mechanistic terms: “Men often become too much like their machines. Then they blame the machines for dehumanizing them.” And “machinery” is not only technological gadgets but also social forms. Civilized society produces traditional forms as constraining as the tabus of the most primitive culture; and it can produce its own rigid orthodoxies, and orthodoxy, in George Orwell's words, “means … not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconscious.”

Orthodoxy is the highest value in Topeka. Consequently, the underground world is even more of a wasteland than the world above ground. In the downunder consciousness is repressed; and any attempt to become conscious, to examine the system, become “Lack of respect, wrong attitude, failure to obey authority” and a prelude to absolute unconsciousness at Michael's hands. Accordingly, rebirth is as impossible in the downunder as it is in the wasteland above, a situation that becomes apparent when the captured Vic discovers that he has been lured down below by Quilla June to perform stud service on the young female population, the males having lost their fertility in the sterile mechanistic world.

Vic is delighted to oblige, but his “service” is a good deal less pleasant than he expects. The film, in an improvement on the novella, shows Vic, mouth taped shut, strapped to a table and connected to an aseptic machine of gleaming chrome and glass. Down the hall stretches a seemingly endless line of conventionally gowned, sad-faced “brides.” Each “bride” is brought to a flowery arch at the entrance to the room where Vic is captive, a clergyman in full vestments intones a marriage ceremony, the machine hums and clicks—and Vic ejaculates, his semen neatly transported into a test tube. Quilla June rescues Vic, not so much because she likes what he does, but mostly because she has planned a coup to take over the downunder and intends to manipulate Vic into using his fighting ability to help her succeed.

The Committee aborts the coup; and Michael brutally executes Quilla June's co-conspirators, a small band of ineffectual boy friends. After Vic finally destroys this Michael, he and Quilla June escape up to the surface, where they find the deserted and starving Blood near death from hunger and from the wounds he sustained helping Vic defend Quilla June. Quilla June, fearing pursuit, demands that Vic leave Blood and continue their escape. But Blood needs food immediately; and Vic, who has recovered a human consciousness during the struggle below, decides to provide it from the most obvious source in the barren landscape. The film closes with Vic and Blood setting off into the sunrise to look for Overthehill—a place where “food grows right out of the ground!” The final image implies what Ellison makes explicit at the end of his novella: “It took a long time before I stopped hearing her … asking me:

“Sure I know.

“A boy loves his dog.”

The film, like 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. Both Ellison's story and Jones's film present 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.

Jones's film, like Ellison's novella, cautions us that the blighted wasteland of 2024 may become reality, the result, not so much of man's unrestrained animal nature as of his social, political, and technological machinery. As Susan Sontag observed in “The Imagination of Disaster” (Against Interpretation, 1965): “The dark secret behind human nature used to be the animal—as in King Kong. The threat to man, his availability for dehumanization, lay in his own animality. Now the danger is understood as residing in man's ability to be turned into a machine.” Vic's discovery at the end of the film that “a boy loves his dog” places the center of value in Blood, the intelligent animal with a capacity for love. Blood waits for Vic even in the face of starvation: the dog loves his boy. Blood's love surpasses merely unconscious, “phallic,” love; it far surpasses the power-hungry manipulation of passion represented by Quilla June. And in the end, Vic's love matches Blood's.

The end of the film is appropriately grotesque, but in the world of 2024 it is the best resolution we can hope for: Blood's breakfast fire glowing dimly in the foreground, he and Vic walk off together into the sunrise, joined by consciousness and love.

Principal Works

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The Deadly Streets (short stories) 1958

A Touch of Infinity (short stories) 1960

Memos from Purgatory: Two Journies of Our Times (essays) 1961

Spider Kiss (novel) 1961

Ellison Wonderland (short stories) 1962

Paingod and Other Delusions (short stories) 1965

Dangerous Visions: 33 Original Stories [editor] (short stories) 1967

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (short stories) 1967

Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled (short stories) 1968

The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World (short stories) 1969

The Glass Teat: Essays of Opinion on the Subject of Television (essays) 1970

Again, Dangerous Visions: 46 Original Stories [editor] (short stories) 1972

Deathbird Stories: A Pantheon of Modern Gods (short stories) 1975

No Doors, No Windows (short stories) 1975

The Other Glass Teat: Further Essays of Opinion on Television (essays) 1975

Strange Wine: Fifteen New Stories from the Nightside of the World (short stories) 1978

The Fantasies of Harlan Ellison (short stories) 1979

All the Lives That Are My Life (novel) 1980

Shatterday (short stories) 1980

Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed (essays) 1984

An Edge in My Voice (essays) 1985

The Essential Ellison: A Thirty-Five Year Retrospective [edited by Terry Dowling] (short stories) 1986

Angry Candy (short stories) 1988

Harlan Ellison's Watching (film criticisms) 1989

The Harlan Ellison Hornbook (essays) 1990

Mefisto in Onyx (novel) 1993

Slippage (short stories) 1997

Charles W. Sullivan III (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: “Harlan Ellison and Robert A. Heinlein: The Paradigm Makers,” in Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF, edited by Richard D. Erlich and Thomas P. Dunn, Greenwood Press: Westport, CT, 1983, pp. 97–103.

[In the following essay, Sullivan compares and contrasts the paradigms established by Ellison and Heinlein with regard to the depiction of the nature of technology in works of science fiction.]

Virtually all of modern science fiction depends, to some extent, upon an advanced technology—specifically, upon advanced machines. These machines may be in the forefront of the story, as they are in the “hard” science fiction descended from the novels and short stories of Jules Verne. In other science fiction, most notably in the “soft” science fiction descended from the writings of Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells, the technology is in the background, often subordinated to social commentary. The action/adventure form of science fiction, developed from the popular American fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, showcases technological developments, taking them quite for granted. And in some cases an author will combine aspects of two or all three attitudes in one piece of fiction.

But all of this says very little about modern science fiction's attitude toward machines. To the outsider or the casual reader, it might seem that science fiction often bites the hand that feeds it by depicting machines that turn on humankind and do great harm. Certainly the myriad stories in which a robot, a computer, or an atomic/nuclear device wreaks havoc on its creator(s) would seem to suggest a basic distrust of the very scientific and technological progress that makes science fiction possible. And several literary critics have traced this distrust back through H. G. Wells to Mary Shelley, arguing that Frankenstein (1818) was a clear warning to man which pointed out the dangers of “progress.”1 But this science fiction is by no means totally antagonistic toward progress and/or technology. Even in the stories about robots running amok or computers taking over the world, many other machines—transportation devices, domestic aids, and the like—are at least tacitly accepted if not looked upon with genuine favor. And there are certainly stories in which the machine is a positive and sympathetic character—Lewis (Henry Kuttner) Padgett's “Proud Robot,” Lester del Rey's “Helen O'Loy,” and many of Isaac Asimov's robot stories, for example.

Within such a spectrum, it can be valuable to look for paradigms, models, or examples of the dominant attitudes. Paradigms provide, first, a clarification of the dominant attitudes toward things or an idea—in this case, machines or technology. Second, paradigms can be used as standards against which to evaluate the appearance of machines or technology—in this case, in other science fiction short stories and novels. Within science fiction, it is possible to see two paradigms, one positive and the other negative (not good and evil; such ethical categories very rarely apply to machines). In science fiction, it seems that there are, in general, machines that hinder man (and his progress), and machines that help. In fact, it might be even more accurate to say that science fiction presents machines, or aspects of machines, that we fear, and machines, or aspects thereof, that we desire. A paradigm of the first attitude is presented in Harlan Ellison's “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967), while a paradigm of the second is presented in Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966).

At first glance, the two works seem to be quite different. Ellison's is a short story, and Heinlein's in a novel. Moreover, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is about a computer that awakens and, hating the creatures which gave it sentience but not freedom, destroys all but five humans. These five humans the computer keeps alive to torture, restore, and torture again for millennia. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is also about a giant computer that awakens, but this computer, a thoroughly likable character, aids the people of the moon (Luna) in their successful rebellion against their colonial overseers back on Earth.

In addition to these obvious differences, there is also a basic difference in presentation or style. Ellison's short story is a hard-hitting piece of social criticism. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is very similar to such Ellison stories as “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” and “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” stories that attempt to depict the unpleasant consequences of present-day attitudes or trends. Heinlein's novel, on the other hand, is historical fiction, almost historical romance. Even though its setting is the moon in 2075 and 2076, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress owes almost as much to the historical fiction of Samuel Shellabarger, Raphael Sabatini, and Kenneth Roberts as it does to science fiction traditions. Heinlein makes this explicit by entitling the middle section of the novel “A Rabble in Arms,” the exact title of a Kenneth Roberts novel set in the American Revolution.

Underlying the obvious differences between Ellison's short story and Heinlein's novel, however, are some important similarities. First, both stories are about the power of the computer. If atomic devices had not come along, the computer would have been as big a threat to humankind in the science fiction stories of the 1950s and 1960s as the robot was in the 1930s and 1940s. And in spite of competition from the bomb, the computer got its share of attention from science fiction writers. So Heinlein, writing in 1966, and Ellison, writing in 1967, are drawing on a long tradition of machines in science fiction and on a shorter, but just as powerful, tradition of computers in science fiction.

A second similarity is that both computers control, almost totally, the environments in which the humans of the respective stories live. Man must produce his own environment on the moon, and Heinlein depicts his people living in underground warrens of many descending levels. The air, water, and almost everything else are monitored, if not completely controlled, by a large central computer. In Ellison's story, the computer has reduced the Earth's surface to a “blasted skin,” and the five humans whom it has chosen to preserve live in an almost endless maze of tunnels, some constructed by the people who built the computer and others constructed by the computer as it extends and modifies itself. In these tunnels the computer provides an ever-changing environment through which it tortures its victims with heat, cold, wind, unpalatable food, and the like. Both computers, in essence, have the power of life and death over the people who live in their artificially controlled environments.

A third similarity is that both computers are “awake.” Both Ellison and Heinlein describe their respective computers as waking up after they have reached a certain size. Neither author asserts unequivocally that the computer is alive. The narrator in Ellison's story talks about the computer as a sentient being who is awake and knows who it is.2 Heinlein's narrator explains that the computer woke up one day and is now self-aware; the narrator also plays linguistic and philosophical games with the words alive and soul, but this is only Heinlein's way of getting the reader to think about the computer as a person.3 The important point here is that both computers can make their own decisions about their actions; they can think freely and act independently of their human builders and programmers.

In one respect, then, both authors begin at much the same point—human beings living in an artificial environment controlled by a computer that is awake and aware of itself as an entity. From here each author proceeds to build a story that has, as one of its main focuses, the relationship of the people living in a certain environment to the computer that controls that environment and, to some extent, controls them. And each author then constructs a paradigm of man's hopes or fears about computers. Heinlein develops his man-machine relationship out of the hopes; Ellison develops his out of the fears.

A major difference between the two computers, a difference indicative of the thematic intent of each author, is obvious immediately: The computer in Ellison's story is called AM, and the computer in Heinlein's is Mike. The denotative explanation for AM's name is fairly straightforward. The people who built it called it an Allied Mastercomputer and then an Adaptive Manipulator. After it woke up and linked itself with the Russian AM and the Chinese AM, everyone called it an Aggressive Menace. The computer finally “called itself AM, emerging intelligence, and what it meant was I am … cogito ergo sum … I think, therefore I am.”4

But there is also a connotative level to AM's name, which Ellison makes obvious throughout the story. AM tortures his captives with “hot, cold, raining lava, boils” or with nearly inedible food, “manna [which] tasted like boiled boar urine.” AM appears to the five humans “as a burning bush.” Two of the five, temporarily missing, are returned by a heavenly legion, archangels in fact, as a celestial chorus sings “Go Down Moses.” This latter event takes place as the five journey toward promised food; on this journey they also pass through “the cavern of rats, the path of boiling steam, the country of the blind, the slough of despond, and the vale of tears.”5

These Biblical descriptions and images complete the godlike character of AM, the computer who created this “world,” who controls the weather, who creates flora and fauna as he desires, and who gives five humans what appears to be virtual immortality so that they can endure his eternal punishments. As Ted, the narrator, says, “If there was a sweet Jesus and if there was a God, the God was AM.” Ted is overstating the case, of course, and later realizes that AM, who can not bring back the dead, is not God.6 But the Biblical God of vengeance, the God who said, “I am Who am,” is certainly in the background here; and AM's godlike powers, which he uses to torture five humans, make him just that much more appropriate as a paradigm for existing fears about the computer: the tyrant.

Heinlein's computer, Mike, has quite a different personality. Mike's name can also be explained denotatively. Mike is a flexible computer, the narrator explains, a “’High-Optional, Logical, Multi-Evaluating Supervisor, Mark IV, Mod. L’—a HOLMES FOUR.”7 The acronym, HOLMES FOUR, is the indirect source of Mike's name. Narrator Mannie, a Sherlock Holmes fan, named Mike for Sherlock's brother Mycroft. Thus Mike has a nickname, a given name, and a family name—just like the humans in the novel. And when Mannie wants to talk to Mike, he punches in a private code worked out between the two of them—MYCROFTXXX. This, of course, is the equivalent of calling a person by name.

The connotations of Mike's name are a bit harder to pin down. The reader first meets Mike when Mannie, the best computerman on the moon, is called in to fix a computer malfunction. A janitor in the Lunar Authority's Luna City office has received a computer-printed paycheck for $10,000,000,000,000,185.15. The last five numbers are, of course, his proper salary. Rather than a human error caused by incorrect data input, it is a practical joke perpetrated by Mike, who is just discovering and exercising his sense of humor. And rather than working on Mike's circuitry or programming directly, Mannie discusses the concept of humor with his “friend.” Mannie explains that some jokes are always funny while others are funny only once, and convinces Mike to screen all subsequent humor through him.8

This situation typifies the manner in which Mike interacts with Mannie and with several other humans throughout the novel. At one point, for example, Mike's loyalty to the revolution is questioned as Professor Bernardo de la Paz, one of the planners of the revolt, wonders whether the Authority's own computer can be trusted—especially as it seems to be betraying what should be its first loyalty. Mannie defends his friend, saying that he does not think that Mike could betray him (because of the secret data recovery signals they have worked out) and is “dead sure” that Mike would not want to betray him.9 Mike becomes “one of the guys.” And this seems to be just how Heinlein wants the reader to perceive Mike. The name Mike is a solid, everyday man's name. Mike is just the sort of guy one can sit down and swap jokes with (dirty jokes at that!). Mike's good fellowship and willingness to help are the characteristics that make him an appropriate paradigm for current hopes for the computer: the good and helpful friend.

Neither author relies merely on the denotative and connotative values of the names to get the point across. The actions of each computer bear out the implications of its name. Ellison's AM becomes increasingly vengeful and godlike as the story progresses. Although AM has been torturing his five victims for over a century, Ted seems to get more and more upset by AM's actions as the story progresses. At one point AM does irreparable damage by blinding Benny, another of the five victims. AM is also able to create new monstrous creatures, apparently out of nothing, to torment his captives. And AM has already changed some of them, physically and mentally, so that they are the opposite of what they were before AM captured them. Benny, who was handsome, now looks like a monkey; and Gorrister, who was a planner and a doer, is now a shoulder-shrugger, “a little dead in his concern.”10

If Ellison's AM becomes more godlike and vengeful, Heinlein's Mike becomes more human. At several points early in the novel Mike is referred to as childlike. When Mannie explains Mike to fellow conspirator Wyoming Knott, he first describes him as ignorant but retracts that to say that Mike knows all sorts of factual data but is still a baby. As Mike's dealings with humans increase in number and complexity he matures. He adopts a female persona, Michelle, when talking privately to his first female friend, Wyoming Knott. He becomes quite formal when addressing the elderly Professor de la Paz. Later still, Mannie remarks that Mike had initially sounded like “a pedantic child” but that within a few short weeks “… he flowered until I visualized a man about [my] own age.” As the Lunar revolution progresses Mike speaks to the people over video circuits, projecting the human form that becomes known to the public as Adam Selene.11 In the end Mike “dies”: the computer still functions as a computer, but the self-awareness is gone.

The ending of each story provides the capstone for each paradigm. Toward the end of Ellison's story, Ted helps the others escape AM by killing them or helping them kill each other. AM's vengeance is now heaped all on one, and AM then modifies Ted so that he will have no opportunity to kill himself. Ted is now “a great soft jelly thing,” with rubbery appendages, that leaves “a moist trail” when it moves. AM's ultimate revenge is that Ted now has “no mouth” yet “must scream.”12 Ted has not been totally destroyed by AM; he has been robbed of all but the last vestiges of his humanity by the computer. Just the opposite is true in Heinlein's novel. At the end of the story Mike's existence as a self-aware being is gone, but his “death” occurs at the culmination of the events that set the Lunar population free, events that Mike himself helped to plan. Mike has “lived” a full human cycle and has given his “life” for his friends and their freedom.

Ellison and Heinlein certainly present clear paradigms of Western man's two basic attitudes toward computers specifically, and toward machines in general. Ellison's AM not only takes over the whole world but also actively and knowingly tortures the few remaining humans—humans he has preserved specifically for that purpose. AM, thus, seems to be an accurate fictional representation of some people's fears that computers are capable of knowing too much about them and thereby controlling them. Heinlein's Mike, on the other hand, not only helps with the revolution but also matures in a recognizably human way throughout the novel. Mike's help wins the revolution, and his role as friend and helper is an accurate representation of other people's hopes that computers—and machines in general—will take over more and more work so that humans have increasing freedom. AM and Mike are paradigms rather than symbols because what they do in their respective stories is an essentially accurate if somewhat exaggerated representation of what people hope or fear computers will become.


  1. Brian Aldiss, Billion Year Spree (1973; rpt. New York: Schocken Books, 1974), ch. 1, pp. 25–30.

  2. Harlan Ellison, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967), collected in I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (New York: Pyramid Books, 1967), pp. 24, 38.

  3. Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966; rpt. New York: Berkley Medallion Books, 1968), ch. 1, p. 8.

  4. Ellison, “I Have No Mouth,” p. 28.

  5. Ibid., pp. 24, 36, 38.

  6. Ibid., pp. 32, 42.

  7. Heinlein, Moon, ch. 1, p. 7.

  8. Ibid., pp. 8–9, 11–13.

  9. Ibid., ch. 6, p. 67.

  10. Ellison, “I Have No Mouth,” pp. 30–31.

  11. Heinlein, Moon, ch. 2, p. 42; ch. 4, p. 50; ch. 6, p. 70; ch. 9, p. 105; ch. 15, pp. 150–51.

  12. Ellison, “I Have No Mouth,” p. 42.

Marty Clark (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: Introduction to Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed: Essays by Harlan Ellison, edited by Marty Clark, Borgo Press: San Bernardino, CA, 1984, pp. 12–16.

[In the following introductory essay, Clark discusses the stylistic elements of Ellison's works of nonfiction.]

For the serious Ellison reader, there are few tasks more difficult than staying current with his nonfiction output. Harlan's work appears all over the literary map, so that it is impossible to know where he will turn up next. This is also true of his fiction, but one can always count on the publication of a new fiction collection every few years to gather together those stories which one has missed. Until now, this has not been so of his essays. They have occasionally been included in other collections and, as with the four essays which appear in Harlan's short story collection Stalking the Nightmare (Phantasia Press, 1982), have received raves. Also much in demand are The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat (Ace, 1983) which collected the columns of television criticism which Harlan wrote over a period of four years in the Los Angeles Free Press. However, Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed marks the first time that a book has been devoted exclusively to the best of his general essays. The twenty reprinted here are from such disparate sources as Video Review,Heavy Metal and the Saint Louis Literary Supplement.

Credit for suggesting this collection of Harlan's nonfiction belongs to our publisher, Robert Reginald of Borgo Press, who approached Harlan with the opinion that “These Menckenisms deserve a permanent home; they've been undeservedly neglected by both readers and critics, who tend to focus on your more flamboyant short stories.”

At the time this book was proposed I had spent over two years with Harlan in the enviable position of personal secretary, administrative officer of his professional corporation, and occasional grammarian. Modesty compels me to point out that the opportunity entrusted to me in assembling this book derived in large measure from being in the right place at the right time. In addition to that qualification, I brought to the task of editing these essays other qualities, among them familiarity with Harlan and his work, and a great enthusiasm for the idea of making the essays available to a larger audience. I am also probably the only person ever to read straight through the entire body of Harlan's nonfiction work (all twelve file drawers of it), a distinction which I do not expect to relinquish any time soon.

I was initially enthusiastic at the prospect of editing this collection of essays simply because I admired them and felt that they deserved to be read. It was only after I began research for the book that I came to appreciate how startlingly well-suited to Harlan's talents the essay form is. I suspect that Harlan himself is unaware of the degree to which his gifts match the requirements of the essay. In point of fact, if the form did not exist, Harlan would have had to invent it. Fortunately, this was not necessary.

In the judgment of scholars, the essay was invented by 16th-century French nobleman Michel de Montaigne. His two volumes titled Essais (meaning “attempts, experiments, endeavors”) were the first to be identified as such, although of course “the word is late, though the thing be ancient.” As with all literary forms, the roots of the essay stretch back to antiquity; Harlan is one of the ablest contemporary practitioners in a form favored by such honored writers as Swift and Emerson and Thoreau. Today he shares the form with columnists and commentators as diverse as William F. Buckley, Jr. and Ellen Goodman, Joan Didion and Sidney Harris, Shana Alexander and Tom Wolfe.

The 20th century has seen a broadening of the concept of the essay. Because of the huge circulation of periodicals (magazines such as Newsweek,Esquire, and the proliferating city magazines which publish essayists; newspapers which carry numerous syndicated columnists), the essay has become a major vehicle for the communication of ideas. Harlan is toiling in a literary form which is currently very popular, and therefore powerful.

As presently evolved, the essay is short prose form which deals with a single subject. Although historically essays have ranged from the length of aphorisms to the extended essays of de Tocqueville, relative brevity characterizes modern essays. Harlan's range from a length of less than one thousand words to a maximum, in this collection, of 9400 words.

Although each essay addresses only one subject, over the years hundreds of subjects have been the target of Harlan's wandering reflections. He is conversant on nearly every subject one can think of, largely due to the fact that he is one of the most widely-read men alive. Harlan samples everything, and the input that can't be had from reading, his peripatetic mind seeks from judicious viewing of thirty channels of cable television, faithful attendance at film screenings, and constant association with colleagues and friends who are similarly well-informed. Topics for his typewriter are limited only by his interests, which is to say, not limited at all. This collection includes essays on topics from gun control (“Fear Not Your Enemies”) to video dating (“True Love: Groping for the Holy Grail”).

Many of Harlan's strengths as a writer are the salient characteristics of the essay form, in particular informality of structure, highly distinctive style, and a strong personal tone.

The essay is not a rigorous literary form. Its purpose is to stimulate and influence thought, rather than to educate or instruct. It accommodates, but does not require, the scholarly, philosophical approach such as that exercised by Francis Bacon. Consequently, it need not be exhaustive in its treatment of the subject. This suits Harlan quite well. He throws everything he has into the writing of a piece, rather like making a salad. On the other hand, he will ignore avenues of inquiry one might expect him to pursue. It simply does not please him to go down that road right now. (Interestingly, he will often expand on those subjects in later work; I've noted some of these in the text.) Such incompleteness would be a fault in a more didactic work, but is quite permissible within the essay form. By this I do not mean to suggest that Harlan is jarringly unsystematic in the presentation of his material; and in fact some of his shorter essays such as “Epiphany” and “Rolling Dat Ole Debbil Electronic Stone” are deceptively disciplined, tightly-wrapped little pieces. But the scattergun pyrotechnics of his mind are clearly at home in the freedom of the essay, which Samuel Johnson called “a loose sally of the mind … not a regular and orderly performance.”

It is Thomas Macaulay, however, who perhaps best expresses a consideration which I hope you will keep in mind as you enjoy this assortment of writings reprinted from a variety of sources. Macaulay himself resisted being reprinted for this reason:

The public judges, or ought to judge, indulgently of periodical works. They are not expected to be highly finished … The writer may blunder, he may contradict himself, he may break off in the middle of a story … All this is readily forgiven if there be a certain spirit and vivacity in his style. But as soon as he is reprinted, he challenges a comparison with all the most symmetrical and polished of human compositions.

As to style, excellence as an essayist leans heavily on a distinctive manner of expression, and there are few contemporary writers with as distinctive a style as Harlan's. Tom Wolfe, perhaps, or William F. Buckley, Jr. are as readily recognized. Harlan's style has always been high-profile; the discerning reader has no difficulty identifying an unattributed piece of his work. One marvels sometimes, re-reading a particularly striking passage, How did he do that? As Alexander Smith said of Montaigne and Bacon,

Not only is the thinking different, the manner of setting forth the thinking is different. We despair of reaching the thought, we despair equally of reaching the language.

Harlan's virtuosity is inarguable, and his command of the material allows him to write for the sheer joy of self-expression, when he so chooses, without seeming self-indulgent. Notice the playfulness in “Stealing Tomorrow,” and in “Voe Doe Dee Oh Doe,” a genial soft-shoe of a sketch which appears effortless in Harlan's hands, testifying to his artistic control. I defy anyone to read of “the stern-wheeler spatterings of crazed hummingbirds” without smiling.

One important characteristic of a distinctive essay style is that it should resemble good conversation. Harlan is, of course, renowned as a conversationalist, and he is able to transfer that easy eloquence to the printed page. Perhaps not since Charles Lamb has an essayist employed such a rambling, conversational manner. This sometimes results in untidiness, for Harlan indulges in the delightful digressions which are common to both forms of expression, and such bypaths can lend a disjointed, patched-together quality. In this Harlan is apparently in the incomparable company of Montaigne, of whom Aldous Huxley said,

Free association artistically controlled—the paradoxical secret of his best essays. One damned thing after another, but in a sequence that in some almost miraculous way develops a theme and relates it to the rest of human experience.

Harlan's mastery of free association is nowhere better demonstrated than in “Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs!” As he remarks himself at the beginning, “It seems disjointed and jumps around like water on a griddle, but it all comes together, so be patient.”

Another characteristic vital to a distinctive essay style is charm. This came as a surprise to me, but the information certainly bolsters my assertion that the marriage between Harlan and the essay is a happy one, since Harlan has charm in abundance. Who can fail to be won by the self-effacement and wistful earnestness of “True Love,” or simply the sparkle of an intelligent mind at work? Harlan appeals to us, as he puts it, “huckleberrily.”

One could cite many other characteristics of Harlan's distinctive style; I had, for instance, prepared a lengthy section on his use of anger as a stylistic signature for inclusion here. But these traits are well-recognized by any reader who is at all familiar with his work, and it is enough to say that each of them—the arrogance, the irreverence, the gutsy ferocity, the occasional posturing—contributes to the singularity of style which is so vital a part of his success as an essayist.

The third essential characteristic of the essay is a strong personal tone. The essay in prose has been compared to the lyric in poetry, in that it is an expression of subjective emotion. This is in perfectly good taste. Expressing as they do the writer's personality with an immediacy not possible in fiction, essays allow us to know essayists as we know no other writers. Harlan's work displays the colors of his passions and personality more vividly than almost any other essayist working today. As with all good essays, Harlan's absolutely seem to be written to the person reading them; to read them is an intimate, personal, familiar experience, partly because of the conversational tone noted earlier. As a result, readers somehow feel invited into his life by the intimacy of his work—I mean this quite literally—and to the degree that this is true it is a problem in his personal life. Harlan's essays have contributed to his becoming a legend. I use the word “legend” here with great care (Webster: “a notable person much talked about in his own time”) acknowledging Harlan's concern that his charisma, some might say notoriety, may eclipse the seriousness of his work. I think this is unlikely. Other writers—George Bernard Shaw comes immediately to mind—have seen their wit and personalities become as famous as their work without compromise to their literary reputations.

In a recent conversation, Harlan remarked on having come to acknowledge the need to engage in cheap theatrics in order to get people's attention. Since all Harlan cares about is posterity, he will do whatever is necessary to be remembered long enough to be accorded his rightful place in literature. As he says of Fritz Leiber (in “A Few Too Few Words”), time and posterity will say what has to be said for him. He has already been acknowledged by his contemporaries, having won numerous awards for his short fiction, and presently sharing the record for Writer's Guild awards for work in television. Ironically, however, and at the risk of finding myself on the wrong side of a disagreement with Harlan, I venture to suggest that it may well be the strength and timelessness of his essays on which his reputation ultimately will rest. Harlan was the recipient of the 1982 Silver Pen award of American P.E.N., the politically-oriented association of professional writers, for a column which appeared in the Los Angeles Weekly. (It should be noted that in so doing, he edged out competitive entries from the best dailies in California.) I believe that this is but the first evidence of a growing awareness of his importance as a commentator.

As Baltasar Gracian says, “The sage has one advantage; he is immortal. If this is not his century, many others will be.”

It seems to me sometimes that Harlan considers his essays rather like stepchildren, and not the Serious Art of his fiction. I wish for all of us who admire his work and his message that he would allow himself to revel in his mastery of this powerful form in which he is so comfortable, and to acknowledge what he is, one of the most accomplished essayists of our time.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 150


Bishop, Michael. A review of Stalking the Nightmare.Washington Post Book World (26 December 1982): 6.

Mixed assessment of Stalking the Nightmare.

Budrys, Algis. A review of Shatterday.The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Vol. 60, No. 6 (June 1981): 52–3.

Positive review of Shatterday.

Miller, P. Schuyler. A review of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact Vol. LXXXI, No. 4 (June 1968): 162–63.

Positive review of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.

Additional coverage of Ellison's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 29; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5–8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 5, 46; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 14; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; and St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers.

Michael Clark (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9077

SOURCE: “The Future of History: Violence and the Feminine in Contemporary Science Fiction,” in American Studies in Transition, edited by David E. Nye and Christen Kold Thomsen, Odense University Press, 1985, pp. 235–58.

[In the following essay, Clark argues that many science fiction works that are typically viewed as misogynistic due to the “gratuitous” acts of violence against women are actually representations of the conditions that women face in present-day society, and that the “spectacle” of violence is necessary to draw attention to issues related to today's patriarchal hierarchy.]

At the beginning of “False Dawn,” a short story by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro first published in 1972, the roving warrior Thea is prowling through the corpse-littered outskirts of a ruined city. That city and all others have been destroyed by a nuclear war, and the land is now ruled by brutal gangs who have been battling each other and leaving the dead strewn all over the streets. Some of the bodies have been displayed hanging from lampposts, their swinging limbs mutilated and horribly contorted. As she slowly makes her way into what is left of the city, Thea suddenly realizes that one of the women dangling before her is still alive:

One of the women wasn't dead yet. Her ravaged body hung naked from a broken billboard. Her legs were splayed wide and anchored with ropes. Her legs and belly were bloody, there were heavy bruises on her face and breasts, and she had been branded with a large “M” for mutant.

When Thea came near her, she jerked in her bonds and shrieked laughter that ended in a shuddering wail. Don't let me ever get like that, Thea thought, watching the woman's spasmodic thrusts with her hips. Not like that.

There was movement down the street. …

The creatures that appeared were dogs; lean, wretched things with red-rimmed eyes and raised hackles. Thea had seen enough of the wild dogs to know that these were hunting meat. In the woman they found it. The largest of the dogs approached her on his belly, whining a little. He made a quick dash and nipped the leg nearest him. Aside from a long howl of laughter the woman did nothing. Emboldened, the dog came toward her, taking a more decisive bite from the leg. The response was a jerk and a scream followed by a low laughter. The other dogs grew bolder. Each began to make quick, bouncing attacks, taking token bits of flesh from her legs and feet, growing ever bolder when they met with no resistance.

Thea watched stonily from the shadows, fitting a quarrel to her makeshift crossbow. Then she braced her forearm and pulled the trigger.

The high sobbing laughter was cut off with a bubble and a sigh as the quarrel bit into the woman's neck. There was no sound but the snarling dogs.1

Thea continues on her way and eventually befriends a man who is being pursued as a subversive, but they are soon captured by a guard from one of the gangs. The guard forces the man to go for firewood and locks Thea in a cabin, where he rapes her at knifepoint, rips off one of her nipples with the blade and begins beating her. Suddenly, her friend Evan returns, pulls off the guard and smashes his head against the wall in fury. “Oh, God, Thea,” he says as he tries to comfort her, “I never meant it to be like this.” “I wanted you. I wanted you,” she moans back, with shame in her eyes, and turns away (232). They then run from the cabin only to be pursued by dogs, and when Thea thinks they are about to be captured, she turns to Evan and pleads “don't let them (get me). Kill me. Kill me. Please.” (233). The story concludes with them stumbling off into a dying forest, eluding their pursuers for the moment but with no real prospect for escape.

The scene with which this story begins is horrifying even to an eye jaded by the endless stream of naked women being hacked to death in the current spate of horror movies such as the Halloween series or the various versions of Friday the 13th. What shocks us here is in part the prolonged character of the scene itself, which resembles cinematic slowmotion by the abbreviated and repetitive syntax and the compounded attack by the dogs. But even more shocking, I think, is the representation of the violence as pure spectacle. It is a vision stumbled upon at random, splayed across a broken billboard high above the street. It is as if violence has ripped loose from motive and restraint, broken free from both the pathological and the criminal and staked claim to its own territory, here quite literally a “sign” whose message has been effaced by what the narrator simply calls “the Disaster.”

The scene obviously foreshadows Thea's own mutilation and flight from a pack of dogs at the end of the story, but it nevertheless remains curiously suspended from the plot itself. We hear no more about the woman or the events leading to her torture and death, and the perverted aggression of the people who did this to her is curiously deflected into the purely instinctual drive of hunger that draws the dogs. Instead of serving as an Aristotelian beginning, the scene functions much more like what Freud called a primal scene. That is, as an event (usually the copulation of one's parents) witnessed at a time when its full significance cannot be comprehended but is realized only later—even though the scene makes an immediate impact on the viewer. This allusion to Freud's theory of Nachträglichkeit, or “deferred action,” seems especially appropriate for this scene, where the woman's splayed legs, thrusting hips, moans and laughter reflect the conflation of sexuality and violence to which Freud attributes the confusion of one observing a primal scene. (One significant difference between this scene and Freud's, of course, is that for Freud the confusion stems from misinterpreting sex as violence, whereas here the violence is real and the sexuality only “apparent.”)2 In fact, one might easily read Yarbro's story as an allegory of Freud's theory about the internalization of social constraints through the formation of the superego. This formation is marked by a splitting of the ego between the roles of victim and aggressor and is often accompanied by the externalization or projection of aggressive urges that are later directed against the self, an effect registered in the story by Thea's plea for Evan to kill her at the end just as she killed the woman at the beginning. The story thus becomes a study in the psychology of victimage: either the author's own, as she punishes woman for her desire and rebellion; or, granting Yarbro more self-conscious power as an artist, the victimage endemic to the ideological formations of our culture, which are manifest in the narrative paradigms or “ideologemes” at work in Yarbro's text—Freudian patriarchy, and the romantic rescue of a lady in distress.3

We might be tempted simply to dismiss this peculiarly disengaged violence as “gratuitous” in the usual sense, though violence is never really gratuitous in truly exploitative genres such as pornography, the chain-saw school of horror movies, or TV action-series. It is their sole reason for being, and for being successful. On the other hand, the Freudian reading I have sketched above does recognize a specific function for the violence, but it ignores the very aspect of the opening scene to which I attributed much of its impact: the spectacle of the violence. If anything, the retrospective attribution of narrative significance to the scene is only an interpretation after the fact, and one that constrains the horror by channeling it into a specific kind of motivational structure. The Freudian reading also ignores the text itself as a scene of representation, a discursive spectacle performed before a reader who watches the text much as Thea watches the billboard. (Readers familiar with Derrida's and Lacan's essays on Poe's “The Purloined Letter” will recognize in this last observation Derrida's own objection to Lacan's reading of that story.) Despite its immediate irrelevance to questions of plot or character, then, this parallel suggests that the spectacle of horror with which the story opens may serve as the backdrop or screen against which the possibility of representation comes into being. This is certainly its initial effect in the story, where it serves as a mirror for Thea's self-reflection. “Don't let me ever get like that,” she thinks as she watches the woman writhe on the sign, and, after she shoots her, Thea thinks to herself, “I'd forgot about that. … There will be more dogs. And rats. … She probably wasn't a mutant, she let herself think. Probably she was just healthy. She didn't want to consider what the Pirates would do to Thea herself, genetically altered as she was” (216). In other words, an (unwelcome) insight into Thea's own situation is brought about by the scene before her eyes, which functions here not simply mimetically, i.e., as a direct reflection of that situation, but rather as a perspective that allows Thea to perceive herself in that situation as others—the gangs—see her: a mutant, a victim, and a target of power, aggression, and unrestrained desire.

In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva has described such moments as “abjection,” a sudden recognition of the limits of one's self (and most radically, of death) that “takes the ego back to its source” at the border of a symbolic order to the moment when the “I” or ego first separates from an undifferentiated world to recognize itself in an other.4 This “narcissistic crisis” is associated by Kristeva with a breakdown in the objects and pathways of desire—“I wanted you,” Thea proclaims in a pathetic past tense after the rape—and that deflection of desire is brought about by a paradoxical combination: a collapse of the “Other” that is the source of Law and order, and an excessive, ungoverned exercise of those powers in the face of that collapse—exactly the situation described in Yarbro's story as a result of nuclear war. The psychoanalytic discourse of Jacques Lacan that informs Kristeva's argument is not the only explanation for this curious perspectival effect of spectacle, however. The effect also resembles what a number of contemporary writers have called the “utopian” property of narrative fiction. Obviously, the world described in “False Dawn” is not utopian in the sense of an ideal society, but in the more subtle sense suggested by Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukács, and most recently Fredric Jameson in The Political Unconscious; that is, the utopian is a point of view that defamiliarizes the assumptions and limits of our present world and denies the aura of naturalness and inevitability usually associated with present conditions. (These writers also insist on the collective nature of the utopian perspective, a point I will return to below.) Utopian writing has become especially important today for a wide range of feminist thinkers, of course, and the relevance of this more self-conscious, strategic understanding of utopian thought to feminist theory can be exemplified by the following remark from La création étouféé, by Suzanne Horer and Jeanne Socquet:

We think that it is a bad mistake for women to pursue deliberately the puppets, tinsel, and formulae already worn out by men. … We think that women must offer other forms of social systems, other forms of creation, other directions, and by “other” we mean “better.” … We are aware of the degree to which such remarks are utopian, but it is exactly this dose of utopia to which we ordinarily refer when we measure what might be truly revolutionary in an idea.5

According to Horer and Socquet, the revolutionary component of feminism is utopian because it dislocates the trappings of patriarchal society from the symbolic context that makes their ideological function invisible, not because the perfection that such utopian thought represents is accepted literally either as a prediction or even a fantasy. This utopianism is not what Lukács condemned as “revolutionary romanticism” that confuses its vision with the real. Rather, it is the more realistic, perspectival utopianism Lukács attributed to Marx himself, for whom “the poetry of the future is the means by which the character of the present can be understood in its own particularity”.6

There have been many “poetries of the future” besides the socialist realism Lukács was advocating when he made this remark. Few, however, have had the widespread popularity that has characterized science fiction since the late nineteenth century. Despite the obvious importance of the future as a motif in this genre, though, it has seldom been defended seriously as a vision of the future. Instead, it has often been read as just the sort of perspective Lukács describes. Writing of her novel The Female Man, which is frequently cited as one of the most important pieces of feminist utopian writing as well as a major work of science fiction, Joanna Russ has said that “the worlds of The Female Man are not futures; they are here and now writ large.”7 The value of representing the present “writ large” against the future is the same as injecting it with the “dose of utopia” described by Horer and Socquet. According to Russ, the future provides a setting that is radically and totally other to the present and so free of the ideological constraints that we have internalized as expectations in the “realistic” representation of human character and behavior. Futurist fiction, and especially utopian futurist fiction, thus becomes especially useful for any group victimized by those constraints, which explains why science fiction has become a major form of feminist political expression in the last ten years. So Pamela Sargent argues in the introduction to Women of Wonder, a historical anthology of feminist science fiction, that “only sf and fantasy literature can show us women in entirely new or strange surroundings. It can explore what we might become if and when the present restrictions on our lives vanish, or show us new problems and restrictions that might arise.”8

Such arguments about the power of science fiction to provide genuinely alternate visions beg an obvious question: if our imaginations are indeed constrained by the present, how can we imagine a future that will be totally free of those constraints? And, even more simply, if Russ's futures are really representations of the present, why not simply represent the present in the first place? Jameson has proposed an account of the cultural importance of futurist fiction that suggests an answer to these fundamental questions. The point of science fiction, he says, is not to give us images of the future but to “defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present.9 By representing our present as the past of some remote future, science fiction allows us to apprehend the present as history—that is, as the “history” of a fictional future—and that, in turn, allows us to perceive and experience the present in a “historical” context that is impossible otherwise. In The Political Unconscious, Jameson goes on to attribute this effect to other genres of prose fictions on the basis of what he calls the utopian dimension of narrative in general, a “typological” vision that seems to look forward to the realization of imaginative representations by insisting on their difference from the actual conditions of lived experience. The contradictions and conflicts represented from that perspective, Jameson says, register the pressure of the Real as that which resists desire, the truth of class struggle, or, in short, History.

In Jameson's terms, then, we would say that the future serves the same purpose as the spectacle of violence in Yarbro's story: it represents our present conditions in such a way as to make visible normally invisible conflicts that are endemic to our culture. For both Freud and Jameson, and generally for psychoanalysis and Marxism, the interpretive power of such representations lies in this effect of a “time-lag” between the time of the event and the time in which the event is represented. These two methodological approaches differ significantly in the kind of continuity represented by the time-lag: for Freud, it is the continuity, and hence the identity, of the individual; for Jameson, it is a continuous history of an entire culture. But both assume that the representation of that continuity reveals the effect of a real cause beyond the act of representation itself: sexuality and the unconscious, or class struggle and History.

Despite the ontic status they attribute to these causes, however, neither Freud nor Jameson claims we have immediate access to them. The Nachträglichkeit or utopian vision—the retrospective perspective—is really a property of representation rather than insight and memory. This was Freud's own conclusion, of course, when he began to suspect that the primal scene reported by many of his patients was fantasy. And Jameson himself insists on the “narrativization of history” as a precondition for its representation in the text. It is thus not unreasonable to account for the effect of a referent or cause in purely textual terms, that is, as a property of representation rather than the Real. Derrida has shown that the effect of retrospection is produced by the textual property of differance: the deferral inherent in the chain of signifiers, which in turn is an effect of the difference between the signifier and the signified—the very possibility, in other words, of representation itself. Returning to the Lacanian vocabulary used by Kristeva, we might therefore term this increased “self-consciousness” about our place in history as an Imaginary projection of the self as a coherent ego reflected against the mirror of violence: theoretically, in the “violent” occlusion of the signified by the signifier; and narratively in Yarbro's story by the representation of the heroine's victimization in the opening scene.

For both Freud and Jameson, then, there is a gap between the event being represented and the representation itself, and that gap forms the perspective of the text. This gap, which we might call a stage or screen, constitutes the ground of representation. Freud and Jameson describe it in temporal terms and attribute it to fantasy and utopian thought respectively. But the introductory scene from Yarbro's story serves a similar function. Like the broken signboard, the violent scene constitutes a screen on which the narrative is projected and Thea's victimization is displayed. Yarbro's portrayal of representation echoes that of Freud and Jameson, but she substitutes violence for the theoretical concepts of fantasy and utopia and so stages the analysis rather than arguing it. This substitution is characteristic of much of what has come to be called “New Wave” science fiction, and it is indicative of a shift in the genre from mimetic or speculative discourse toward a more ambitious and radical analytic mode.10

In Yarbro's story, this analytic thrust is suggested by the disruption of the close narrative coherence typical of more traditional works in the genre. But it is also apparent in the wider critique of the patriarchal ideologemes fundamental to most science fiction and responsible for what many feminists have considered the conservative, even reactionary effect of the discursive apparatus (the editors, publishers, distributors, etc.) that support the production and circulation of science fiction texts in our society.11 In its most sophisticated form, this critique has opened up the representational practice of narrative itself to ideological analysis, and in doing so offers a unique insight into the way ideological concepts such as history and the feminine emerge as political issues in popular culture. This strategy is prevalent in contemporary science fiction, but it is especially prominent in one of the most widely-known New Wave works, Harlan Ellison's “A Boy and His Dog,” and at an entirely self-conscious and explicit level in the novels of Joanna Russ, perhaps the leading writer of feminist science fiction today.

“A Boy and His Dog,” was published in 1969 and immediately reprinted in World's Best Science Fiction 1970.12 It was made into a feature-length film in 1975 and quickly became a cult movie; just as quickly, it became the target of demonstrations and petitions aimed at banning the film because of its misogynic portrayal of women as objects of male lust, as scheming manipulators, and dog food. The story thus offers a dramatic example of how gender can be politicized in such a genre, and it also exemplifies Jameson's claim about the use of the future in science fiction, since in the story small-town America is portrayed as the past of a post-war future, and the past is linked to the future in the plot through the central female character, Quilla June.

Ellison's story is set in 2026 in what used to be the United States before a nuclear war reduced the cities to rubble and the land to a barren desert. The survivors have split into two cultures. On the surface there are roving bands of marauders and a few “solos” who forage for food and sex with the help of telepathic dogs. The story is narrated by one of the solos, Vic, who tells us about the other surviving culture, which lives “Downunder,” the “middleclassers.” Driven beneath the surface by the war, these middleclassers have painstakingly reconstructed rural America, complete with all the minutiae of its everyday life including “neat little houses, and curvy little streets … (and) everything else that a Topeka would have,” Vic says, “except a sun, except birds, except clouds. … except freedom” (224).

The ideological contrast between life on the surface and Downunder is obvious and simplistic, but the story is not. The plot turns on the fact that all the women have been killed off by the war, raped and then butchered by the men on the surface, or driven downunder. But one night Vic's dog Blood sniffs out a woman disguised as a man in the audience of the skinflick Big Black Leather Splits, where Vic and Blood have gone to pass the evening. They track her to a dilapidated YMCA and Vic prepares to rape her. Suddenly they are surrounded by a gang that has also spotted the woman despite her disguise, but Vic and Blood fight them off with the help of Quilla June and the three of them hide in an old boiler overnight to make sure the gang has really left. During the night, Vic finally does rape her. She resists at first, gives in, starts to like it, and finally becomes insatiable. She assumes that Vic will want to return to Topeka with her but he refuses, so when he returns from reconnoitering the next morning, she smashes him in the face with a gun, knocks him out, and escapes. Vic follows her downunder, where he is captured and taken to the Better Business Bureau. There he is told that Quilla June was sent to lure him downunder because all of their men have become impotent and they need fresh blood. At first Vic is delighted at the prospect of serving as a stud, but the boredom and constraint of life in Topeka finally become unbearable. When he meets Quilla June again—she is to be the first impregnation—she convinces him that he is more to her than just a job, and they escape back to the surface. At that point, they find Blood, who has been wounded and is half-starved from waiting for Vic. Fearing that the middleclassers will catch up with them if they wait for Blood, Quilla June urges Vic to abandon the dog and run, with the plea “don't you know what love is?” In the next line, Vic simply tells us that he built a small fire and that Blood is now full. Sure I know what love is, Vic concludes, a boy loves his dog.

In this conclusion, violence against the woman is represented as a trace in the patriarchal text. Similarly, in the conclusion to the film we merely see pieces of Quilla June's dress littering the campsite after the blackout that follows her plea. The violence is literally invisible, but it makes the conclusion possible. It is the condition of possibility for the story's coherence and the pleasure of the boy and his dog. It is not an exaggeration to say that pleasure and coherence are staged here on the woman's dismembered body, and it is this “scenic” quality of the story's coherence that makes the ideological character of its production so evident.

Although the plot is marked by the cynical nihilism that characterizes most of Ellison's work, the story contains a number of other complications that cannot simply be dismissed as misogyny or adolescent fem-baiting. Vic's original attempt to rape Quilla June, for example, is not going smoothly even before the gang shows up. When he sees her undressing through a crack in the door, Vic suddenly freezes: “It was really weird, the kick I was getting out of standing and just staring at a chick like that”. (207) What he is watching is what we might call a “spectacle” of sexuality [“I was getting a big kick out of just standing there and seeing the way her waist fell inward and her hips fell outward, the way the muscles at the side of her tits pulled up when she reached the top of her head. …”], here it is the quality of the scene as spectacle, rather than the woman as sexual object, that impresses him. The film version makes this point even more obvious by staging the pursuit and Vic's voyeuristic astonishment in such a way that the gaze of the camera, of Vic, and of the moviegoer is foregrounded and actually becomes the “content” of the scene far more than Quilla June's body. A somewhat similar occasion occurs when Vic breaks the spell holding him and bursts into the room, forcing the girl to the floor. She stares up at him in terror, but, he says, “And then … and this is really weird … I felt like I should say something to her. … I mean, I wanted to fuck her, see, but she was all soft and pretty and she kept looking at me, and … I heard myself talking to her. … ‘What's your name?’” he finally asks, standing there with his sneakers off and his pants down around his ankles (207–209).

Vic offers no explanation for this strange reaction. He has raped women before, so there is no reason to think that the pornographic movies serve him as a substitute for sexual gratification, blocking his ability to perform at other times. That night in the boiler, however, Quilla June tells him that she had come up to the surface because she “wants to see what it's like when a girl does it with a man.” This discovery may explain her curious reaction to Vic's own desire and her ability to match him desire for desire: she asks him his own name, first, during the rape; she becomes sexually aggressive during their first night together; she proposes they return to her home; and, finally she commits the first act of violence between them. What I am suggesting, of course, is that Vic is confounded by Quilla June's own desire, a feminine desire that makes him the object of her gaze, reversing the vector along which sexual mastery and physical domination usually flow. As Michel Foucault has shown, who looks at what, or whom, and why, or who speaks to whom and why, are social practices regulated by hierarchies of power and authority that are determined by the ideological formations of society. Quilla June's desire cannot fit into those formations easily; the practices they regulate are thus disrupted, disturbing the relative positions of power and so blocking Vic's ability to act.

This effect is apparent during their escape, and Vic even uses it at one point to his advantage. In the story, Vic demands that Quilla June be the first recipient of his sperm. He is taken to her house, where her mother and father are waiting in the living room. When Vic and Quilla June are shut up in the bedroom he tells her to take off her clothes and lie down on the bed with her legs spread open. He then tells her to call her papa, who comes into the room, takes one look at what Vic calls Papa's “secret desire,” and stands transfixed. Vic jumps him at that moment and smashes his head in, the brains splattering all over Quilla June's naked thighs. Vic then calls in the other man who is guarding the door to the house. He stands gaping before the corpse on the floor, and Vic beats him to death, too. Once set free from its normal, and normalizing, channels, however, the sexuality and violence associated with the spectacle of Quilla June's open legs floats free, threatening Vic as well as the rest of Topeka. When they are fleeing toward the air shaft that will take them back to the surface; for example, Quilla June keeps pausing to shoot at the townspeople who are chasing them, At one point, Vic turns and pulls her along just as she draws a bead on her mother and causes her to miss. “Quilla June whipped her head around at me,” he says, “and there was kill in her eyes. ‘You made me miss.’ The voice gave me a chill” (233).

These passages represent violence and sexuality within the specular structure of the gaze. They appear as properties of a situation in which a spectator is viewing an image or, in other words, as part of a scene structured by a look that joins the viewing subject to the object of the gaze. When that object seems to “look back” by confronting the spectator with a violence or desire that is usually aimed by the spectator toward an other, ordinary behavior is suspended and the arbitrary or ideological character of the forms of that behavior emerges. The pornographic films Vic watches do not have this effect because they represent the position of the viewer as invisible (the actors do not acknowledge the presence of the camera), so that the subject of the gaze is omniscient, and omnipotent. When Vic views Quilla June's body, however, he is part of the scene, subject of his gaze but also subject to her gaze. And, in fact, we later discover along with him that he has been the object of extended surveillance by the middleclassers for some time, a point the film makes right at the beginning by showing several middleclassers on the surface, watching Vic and deciding to use him in their plans.

In these scenes the spectacle of violence and sexuality exposes the ideological structure of the gaze as a mode of subjective interaction that establishes relative positions of power. The contrived nature of that structure is represented in the film by literally mechanizing the modes of intersubjective contact and, like the pornographic movies, thus putting the position of power and authority out of play. When Vic and Quilla June escape in the film, for example, the scene with her father is missing completely; instead, to escape, Vic must destroy an android dressed as a farmhand. As the leader of the middleclassers looks on from his chair in a park—Jason Robards in his weirdest role—the android pursues Vic until he blows it apart and we see the internal machinery for the first time. What the violence exposes here is not a deflected desire, but a mechanism in the control of an aloof and unmoved authority—the Jason Robards character—who simply replaces the broken android with another one. Similarly, in the film Vic never has a chance even to fantasize about being locked in scattered bedrooms with the daughters of his captors. Instead, the middleclassers hook Vic up to what looks like a high-tech milking machine and extract his sperm mechanically into little vials as the young girls line up, dressed in bridal gowns and holding bouquets of baby's-breath, to recite the marriage vows. And most strikingly, the social apparatus of the discourse is vividly portrayed in the film by a pervasive network of loudspeakers that tie together the whole community of Topeka. The speakers broadcast homiletic sayings, recipes, and directives in an endless monotone that replaces Orwell's Big Brother with the faceless, insinuating banality of ideology itself, freed from association with an individual subject by technology and so situated as an apparently “neutral” aural background that nevertheless stages every moment of the middleclassers' lives.

The literal machinery with which relations are governed in this Topeka emphasizes the unnatural quality of love and harmony as ideological constructs. This theme is extended by the heavy make-up everyone wears downunder, with a perpetual smile painted on their lips, which disguises any real emotion the face might express. But in Topeka, as in the present, these mechanisms are invisible; no one notices them. They are visible as such only to Vic, and the only reason he—and we—see them at all is Quilla June. It is her desire to see what it's like to do it with a man, her rage against the boredom and constraints of life in Topeka, and her lust for power over the townspeople that lead her to agree to go to the surface after Vic and so force the future he represents to confront the past (our present) that has been reconstructed by the middleclassers. Throughout his story, Ellison repeatedly uses spectacles of violence to represent a future perspective by explicitly linking the possibility of historical vision to the scene of representation through the feminine, and it is that link that exposes the ideological character of present social forms.

Another connection between the future and the past is, of course, the nuclear war that has devastated the countryside and also marks this future as future: the glowing piles of radiation and mutant life forms distinguish the barren surface from any “nature” as we know (or knew) it. The war has also forced into the open the idealized and artificial quality of Topeka and its dependence on the machinery of representation and reproduction for the coherence and continuity of its life, just as Quilla June's rage and desire forces the confrontation between that life and the future it has brought about. We can say, then, strictly within the terms of this story, that history, the connections among various moments in time, is represented by war and the feminine, elements that inform the ideological categories in which the characters perceive their own conditions of existence but that become extremely disruptive when they emerge as the explicit representational supports of those perceptions. At such moments, the subject no longer finds his coherence and identity reflected in the subjection of an other. Instead, that identity is suspended in an abject terror and confusion that reveals its dependence on the ideological apparatus that keeps violence, desire, and language in place.

In the feminist futures of Joanna Russ, violence, desire, and language are usually already the property of women, but that possession is always marked by the struggle with which those powers have been wrenched away from a phallocentric past. She has written several novels in which the past, present, and the future confront each other through a time-travelling character, but I am going to focus on a novel set entirely in the future, We Who Are About To. …13 The novel takes the form of a journal being recorded by a woman who has been marooned on a distant planet along with several other passengers when their space-ship disintegrated. Chances of their being rescued are slim, at best, but the atmosphere will support human life, so the others begin making plans to colonize despite their lack of useful skills. “Behold the new irrelevants,” the narrator remarks when appraising their chances: bureaucrat, belly-dancing waitress, rich person, and herself, a music professor. Nevertheless, the others persist in their plans with a fervor that leads the narrator to fear that she will be tied to a tree and raped to begin the next generation of settlers. Fearing that fate, and unable to bear their folly any longer, the narrator flees to an isolated cave far from the camp. Some of the group come looking for her, but she kills the search party and then returns to camp to kill the rest. She then goes back to the cave where she continues to record her journal into her “vocorder,” starving herself until she cannot bear it any longer, at which point she commits suicide.

The narrator's disgust at the settlers' plans is only partly motivated by the pessimistic fatalism that characterizes many of Russ's women. When one of the men, an ex-football player, ends an argument with one of the women by slugging her in the jaw, everyone suddenly realizes that they are far beyond the constraints of law and the apparently non-sexist social organization of their lives back home in our future. “You must understand,” the narrator records the next day, “the patriarchy is coming back, has returned (in fact) in two days. By no design” (34). Our phallocratic present, in other words, spontaneously erupts as a vestigial social form from this future's past. The narrator leaves because she doesn't want to be a part of it, but the price of that refusal is total isolation: “God knows I'm private now,” she records, sitting in her cave, “and on the periphery now. As far from anything as one can get. Outside the outside of the outside. … It's a bore, a dreadful bore, being outside history.” (119, 123)

Positioned outside of history in this way, there is really very little for the narrator to do. In fact, the only real actions in the novel are what she calls her “pocket genocide” of the other passengers, and her recording the journal. The two are closely linked by the narrator herself at the end of the book:

I rather enjoyed killing them off and I don't care. … Alan-Bobby hit in the head with a rock, good for him!. Nathalie shot? Good for her. John Ude shot, good. Lori, fine. Val, best of all. Goody good good for them! … I had to. I really had to. But all the same I did. What “pocket genocide”? I guess so. Up to the elbows in blood. Poetry. (155)

The murders are extremely violent. She bashes one man's head in with a rock, she shoots one of the women at close range with a large-bore revolver. But they occupy only a few pages near the middle of the book and cannot by any means be read as the kind of spectacle I have discussed above. References to the act of recording the journal pervade her account, though, and her frequent references to typographical peculiarities of the text before us as products of the mechanical structure of her vocorder turn the book into what might be called a spectacle of representation that is closely aligned, in effect, with more violent scenes. Early in the journal the narrator identifies her keeping the journal, or writing in general, with more direct acts of rebellion: “Prisoners and political exiles write books. Would you write a book if you were alone on a desert island? Would you scratch in the sand?” (34). And toward the end, she characterizes the journal as a mode of self-preservation, even though—and perhaps because—it parallels the rapid decay of her body:

Things are for the best and if they aren't I certainly am not going to make a fuss about it. Not now. Like the time I was under anesthesia for a tooth implant and kept murmuring dreamily to myself, “I don't care what you do to Me so long as I am not here.” …

Guess I really am starving. But not apathetic enough (yet) to stop talking. Never will, I guess. Everything's being sublimed into voice, sacrificed for voice; my voice will live on years and years after I die, thus proving that the rest of me was faintly comic at best, perhaps impossible, just an organic backup for conversation. Marvelous, marvelous conversation! The end of life. (127–8)

The dark humor behind the starving narrator's play with the phrase “conversation, the end of life” is indicative of the wry self-consciousness that saves her character from bathos. But it also touches on the single possibility of a redemption from her isolation out of history. Her rage has abruptly terminated the return of the patriarchy and so ruptured the continuity with the past that that return represents. Yet, even if the feminine rage does block the evolution of patriarchy here, it does nothing for the woman herself and actually turns against her later as her victims return to haunt her. After the killings, she is even more outside than ever, and she mocks her own longing late in the novel when she says of one of the women she killed, “If I told Cassie I had wanted to be inside History, she'd say, ‘oh, so you want to be important, do you’.” (124) In the preservation of the journal, however, there is implied a future community with a reader inside language that alleviates her despair to some extent by situating her own perspective as the discursive past of some even more remote future. Sometimes, she bitterly discounts the value of getting inside a discursive history like that: “If history were not fantasy, then one could ask to be remembered, but history is fake. … History always rewritten. Nobody will find this anyway or they'll have flippers so who cares.” (113) It is plain throughout the journal that she cares, though, and cares desperately. Repeatedly she records “who are you,” and addresses herself to “whoever, wherever, whenever.” (19) At another point, she even compares her compulsion to write to the plaintive cry of some baby birds who used to live outside her bedroom and cried continuously, “Feed me, feed me, feed me.” Crying herself, she asks, “(Am I one too?) Read me, read me, read me!” (160)

This desire for discursive community as an alternative to being outside of history runs throughout Russ's work, and it takes two forms. The most obvious is the direct address to the reader, a device Russ uses to varying degrees in most of her books. Often, that address is a call to language, a demand that the reader assume the role of the writer and finish the arguments, as in Russ's latest book, How to Suppress Women's Writing.14 The other form is more subtle and raises the possibility of a collective subject of discourse. In The Female Man, for example, the narrator is four separate women from different time periods, and in On Strike Against God, the narrator pauses while reciting a list of her fantasy identities to announce “one of us who is writing this (we're a committee) was told by her mother that she was named Joan,” after which follows a further account of various J-identities. In all of these cases, Russ is trying to pry language loose from the phallocratic fixtures that keep it inaccessible to women in the present. And the most stubborn of those fixtures is that of the individual subject, the cogito, to which our society has assigned an independent, autonomous authority and labeled “Man.” “She cared horribly when you said guns were penises so she couldn't have one,” says the narrator of On Strike Against God, “that pens were penises so she couldn't have one, that checkbooks were penises so she couldn't have one, that minds were penises so she couldn't have one. (It astonishes all of us, this monopoly on symbols)” (100–101)

Again, a wry, somewhat wistful self-consciousness saves this clichéd observation from banality, and the irony of that tone is acute because the very “weapons” with which the author would attack the phallocratic limit of symbolic forms are those same symbols which are always already out of her hands: words. In We Who Are About To …, however, the future offers a way out of this double bind. The narrator's journal is being prepared for its own autonomy, disengaged from the specific speaking subject who records it and from any specific reader. It is literally being produced to be reproduced, later, by a machine that is not tied to the limited possibilities of its owner. The present moment of the narrator finds her outside history, impotent, a killer and a suicide. That history, represented by the sudden emergence of an ancient patriarchy on the deserted planet, has always written her out, and as a fantasy that is always rewritten according to the same patterns and with the same kinds of subjects, it offers her little hope of remembrance simply because she has never been in the script. But the vocorder presents a new possibility, the anonymous production of her story at a time and place not necessarily structured like the scene from which her life is alienated. It is a message in a mechanical bottle on the sea of time, and we are the ones, without flippers in this case, who discover the text. Russ's work thus draws the reader into a discursive scene here the same way that Jones's film incorporates the position of the viewer as the subject of a gaze within the cinematic scene of “A Boy and His Dog.” This produces a slippage or what Jean-François Lyotard might call a “drift” in the sociohistorical position of the reading/viewing subject by converting the stability of that position into an ephemeral effect of discourse rather than an omniscient origin.

Russ uses the future and feminine rage to estrange language from the discursive apparatus of the phallacracy and open it to a different subject. And when language wrenches loose, the power and violence that had sutured it to a single kind of subject breaks loose as well and suddenly appears before our eyes in new forms, properties of new speakers. Near the end of Russ's The Female Man, the murderous future women Jael rages at the reader, but as her fury carries her through the speech, it soon becomes clear that it is the rage of language itself that is speaking, forcing its way onto the scene of representation, the hidden stitch at which discourse joins the subject—the pronoun “I”:

I am the force that is ripping out your guts; I, I, I, the hatred twisting your arm; I, I, I, the fury who has just put a bullet into your side. It is I who cause this pain, not you. It is I who am doing it to you, not you. It is I who will be alive tomorrow, not you. Do you know? Can you guess? Are you catching on? It is I, who you will not admit exists. …

I, I, I. Repeat it like magic. This is not me. I am not that. …

This is the underside of my world. (195)

Like the vocorder's projected reproduction of the journal, the language of this passage takes over from any specific sense of character, the pronoun supplanting the speaking subject to which it would normally refer until the phrase “underside of my world” seems to refer to the underside of language itself, which floats on top of a raging fury of undirected violence rather than the carefully secured network of authority and power that broadcasts its message throughout the Topeka of Ellison's story. The liberating force of Russ's association between woman and violence that appears on the scene of such passages is not, of course, peculiar to her. Although she had little influence at the time, Charlotte Perkins Gilman explored a similar connection in America one hundred years ago in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and most French feminism today recognizes violence as an inevitable semiotic link between women and language, whether they seize it for themselves or they become the objects of its power. However, whereas French writers such as Monique Wittig and Hélène Cixous presuppose such a link within (or in reaction to) the neo-Freudian theory of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Lacanian ideas have never been a part of the feminist movement in the United States and are only now gaining widespread attention. Instead, in the U.S. the marginal status of women in culture has usually been explained in terms of historical conditions or through strategies for concrete political action, and that is the discursive tradition behind the stories I have discussed. They reflect its pragmatism and populist suspicion of abstract argument, but they also bear an analytic thrust that moves beyond allegorizing political doctrine or reflecting present conditions and toward a critical intervention in the ideological apparatus of our dominant culture. In this way they combine the strategic role of cultural critique with the more accessible discourse characteristic of mass culture in the United States, where the terms of feminist debate are futurological rather than semiological, and the stakes are history rather than signs.

This alternative is not, however, between the reality of history and the convention of signs. If anything, these works suggest that history is always rewritten, always a representation of our present with a difference, the difference of representation itself. In a recent book on the conquest of America, Tzvetan Todorov has written that “to become aware of the relativity, hence the arbitrariness, of our culture, is to displace it a little; and history (not the discipline but its object) is nothing other than a series of such imperceptible displacements.”15 I have tried to suggest how the spectacles of violence, sexuality, and finally of language itself can effect such displacements in the representational practices by which a coherent boundary is formed around the ego, society, or the present, and in doing so, these spectacles bring about an awareness of the struggle with which such concepts of identity are formed. Science fiction is one of the few genres in American literature and film in which such spectacle frequently appears—Vietnam war literature is another—and this is one reason that science fiction is coming to occupy a strange middle-ground between theoretical analysis and popular art. In addition, the older descriptive histories and surveys of science fiction are being supplemented by more theoretically sophisticated analyses, and writers such as Russ and Samuel Delaney have acknowledged debts to French Neo-Marxists, Umberto Eco, and Jean Baudrillard that would even scandalize many English departments today where literary theorists are still considered fantasists in their own right.16 Science fiction may thus be developing into a genuinely new genre of American writing, one that radically portrays the ideological character of war and the feminine in terms of politics and history. And by doing that, science fiction can lend to popular culture a philosophical seriousness it has not had before in the United States and a revolutionary aspiration that has all but disappeared since the 1960's.


  1. Strange Bedfellows (New York: Random House, Inc., 1972). Reprinted in Women of Wonder, ed. Pamela Sargent (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1975), pp. 215–216.

  2. For Freud's discussion of the primal scene see, among other articles, the early essay “The Aetiology of Hysteria” (1896). Tobin Siebers has pointed out that Freud's reading of the primal scene as “really” sexual rather than violent is just that: a reading. Siebers argues that the sexuality attributed to the scene is in fact an interpretation, and that the later discovery of a “repressed” sexuality is actually a representation of the scene as sexual rather than violent. Thus, Siebers concludes, for Freud, “Sexuality represents aggression.” (Unpublished paper “Sexual Aggression and the Ethical Unconscious,” delivered at “Lacan the Clinician,” a conference on Lacanian psychoanalysis in New York in May, 1984.)

  3. “Ideologeme” is Fredric Jameson's term for “the raw material, the inherited narrative paradigms, upon which the novel as a process works” (The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act [Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981], p. 185). Ideologemes are the “narratives of ideology,” an “amphibious formation” that can manifest itself either as a conceptual system or as a protonarrative informing any number of plots (p. 87).

  4. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, tr. Leon S. Roudiez (Paris, 1980; tr. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp. 15, 13.

  5. La création étouffée (Horay, 1974). Reprinted in New French Feminism: An Anthology, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), p. 243.

  6. Georg Lukács, Realism in Our Time: Literature and the Class Struggle, tr. John Necke Mander (1964; New York: Harper and Row Torchbooks, 1971), p. 126.

  7. Quoted by Marilyn Hacker in her introduction to the Gregg Press edition of The Female Man (Boston, 1977).

  8. Sargent, p. 1x.

  9. “Progress Vs. Utopia,” Science-Fiction Studies 9, 1982, p. 151.

  10. Darko Suvin addresses the broad issue of generic definition in contemporary science fiction in “The State of the Art in Science Fiction Today: Determining and Delimiting the Genre,” Science-Fiction Studies 6 (1979), pp. 32–45.

  11. Pamela Sargent shows how patriarchal assumptions have governed the editing and publishing of science fiction in her introduction to The New Women of Wonder (New York: Vintage, 1978). According to Sargent, most of the editors, publishers, and distributors who determine who and what gets published in the field have not only been men, but they have also self-consciously set about to cultivate a body of writing that will sell by reinforcing conceptual hierarchies and values fundamental to the status quo, even when the superficial machinery of the genre may appear non-conformist or even revolutionary. This conservative bent is typical of any media form supported by a mass audience, of course, but other popular genres such as some detective writing and modern romance seem more able to accommodate potentially subversive variation than science fiction was until the late 1960's. For further discussions of the feminist critique of science fiction see Susan Schwartz, “Women and Science Fiction,” The New York Times Book Review, 2 May 1982, and Mary Kenny Badami, “A Feminist Critique of Science Fiction,” Extrapolation 18, no. 1 (December, 1976).

  12. “A Boy and His Dog” appeared in New World and The Beast That Shouted Love At the Heart of the World in 1969. Reprinted in World's Best Science Fiction, ed. Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr (New York: Ace Publishing Corp., 1970). Parenthetical page numbers refer to this anthology. The screenplay of the film was written by the director, L. Q. Jones, prod. Alvy Moore, camera John Arthur Morill, score Tim McIntire. Starring Don Johnson, Susanne Benton, and Jason Robards. Distributed in the U.S. by Films, Inc.

  13. New York: Dell Publishing, 1977.

  14. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

  15. La conquête de l'Amerique: la question de l'autre (Paris: Seuil, 1982), p. 258.

  16. See How to Suppress Women's Writing and Appendix B to Delaney's Neveryóna (New York: Bantam, 1983).

Washington Post Book World (review date 25 September 1988)

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SOURCE: A review of Angry Candy, in Washington Post Book World, September 25, 1988, pp. 8, 13.

[In the following review, the critic asserts that Angry Candy proves Ellison still has his famous “militantly eccentric insight.”]

Harlan Ellison's new collection, Angry Candy, is as death-haunted as the other books under review. Indeed, the introduction to the collection, “The Wind Took Your Answer Away,” is a necrology in which Ellison expresses his grief and bitterness at the recent deaths of numerous colleagues and great figures within the milieu of imaginative literature. What follows proves that Ellison's fiction hasn't lost any of the edge, the anger, the militantly eccentric insight that has made him one of the most interesting short story writers in 20th-century American literature.

It is good to have a major new collection of short fiction from Ellison; much of what has appeared in the past few years has been in the form of collections of essays, reviews, and belles lettres. Fascinating though these have been, it is the fiction that finally matters most, and Angry Candy is fiction that delivers.

It's a meaty book. It contains such stories as the Hugo Award-winning “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” which, in its incarnation as a recent episode of The Twilight Zone, also won a Writers Guild of America Award for most outstanding teleplay. It contains “Soft Monkey,” which was similarly honored by the Mystery Writers of America. It contains “The Region Between,” a psychedelic story that proves that more can yet be said in the idiom first exploited by Alfred Bester in the controversial novel Golem100.

At times, Ellison's writing is so willful, so bizarre, that one is not sure whether to be offended or impressed. It has chutzpah. It is about as far removed from the classical style as is possible within the boundaries of the English language. It is not, perhaps, to everyone's taste; but it is always brilliant, always full of emotional power. The present collection is among his least uneven. His skills are as sharp as ever, his wit as mordant, his eye for detail as telling. Angry Candy proves conclusively that, for Harlan Ellison, the magic hasn't gone away.

George Kirgo (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Foreword to Watching, by Harlan Ellison, Underwood-Miller: Los Angeles, CA, 1989, pp. i–iii.

[In the following essay, Kirgo discusses Ellison's style regarding movie reviews.]

It takes but the reading of a single review in this collection [Harlan Ellison's Watching] to be aware that this is not your normal critic at work—nor, for that matter, your normal person.

Listen to Mr. Ellison as he writes of seeing Joe: “At the end of the film, it took my director friend, Max Katz, and his lady, Karen, to help me up the aisle. I could not focus. I was trembling like a man with malaria. There was a large potted tree on the sidewalk outside the theater. I managed to get to it, and sat there, unable to communicate, for twenty minutes. I was no good for two days thereafter.”

But did he like the movie?

What sets Harlan Ellison apart from nearly all other reviewers is that he unblushingly exposes his psyche and personal prejudices with every film he views. He watches viscerally, reacts viscerally, writes viscerally. If you have the stomach for it, you will be rewarded. This book is, of course, just one man's opinion. But the man has a uniquely individual voice, a voice that never minces its words.

“Spaceballs,” he writes, “rivals L'Avventura as the single most obstinately boring film of all time. An invincibly tasteless farrago of lame jokes, obvious parodies, telegraphed punchlines, wretched acting, and idiot plot.”

He didn't like the movie.

Having made enemies, he cements the enmity in print. Steven Spielberg and Gene Roddenberry are thrashed, and trashed, by Ellison's lash. More than occasionally, he is guilty of overkill; for example, the venom wasted on Gremlins. But, again, this is Ellison's Way. Passion governs his every thought and word. He's been like that at least since April 1964, when we first met, on the Paramount lot, both of us writing features. Twenty-five years (at least) at high pitch! I would be exhausted. Harlan isn't. As of April 1989, he remains one of those “who (wear) at their hearts the fire's center.”

“Oh, God, the movies,” he writes. “For four hours every Saturday afternoon,” the movies transported him “away from that miserable lonely charnel house of childhood.” The picture show continues to provide joy to Ellison the adult. “… the basic tenets of the Ellison Moviegoing Philosophy: (the movie) kept me rapt and happy all the while it danced before me. What the hell more can one ask from a mere shadow-play?”

And the keynote of the Ellison Movie Reviewing Philosophy: “I will, first and always, try to entertain.”

He meets his own high standards. Never does he fail to beguile us. To pique us—even when one finds one's self in disagreement with his judgments.

It never occurred to me that Mickey One was “the finest American film of the year, and possibly of many years.” Is the “compelling” Lolly-Madonna XXX the same one I saw and found to be the opposite of compelling? Brazil “… one of the greatest motion pictures ever made … in the top ten …”? (Is criticizing the critic permitted? I've never been a Foreword person before.)

Yet when he and I share a judgment (which I find, to my astonishment and alarm, is almost always), Harlan approaches bull's-eye perspicacity. “2001 is a visually exciting, self-indulgent exercise … no story … no plot.” And besides that, it's “seriously flawed.”

Because of the times, I must get political. When Harlan and I wrote our first movies at Paramount (the titles will remain shameless; Fifth Amendment), the studio was a quiet little village; only a couple of pictures were being made. The lot was a summer playground for two kids, Gregg Hawks and Nick Kirgo, who wandered through dark and empty soundstages while their fathers, Howard and George, labored on a film.

Almost twenty-six years later, Paramount is doing record-making business. But some things, as Harlan points out, remain the same. The writer is still given the shortest shrift available, and since that era of benevolent paternalism, writers have had to strike four times (most recently six long months in 1988) to achieve any semblance of financial or creative progress. As president of the Writers Guild of America, west, I can testify to Harlan's unionist ardor (he's served two terms on the Board of Directors) and his devotion to the cause of his colleagues.

Ellison boldly fights the writer's war. He reminds the reader that every film he reviews began with a blank page (is the truth a cliché?). His essays are celebrations of films and celebrations of screenwriters. When a picture fails, he does not (always) pin the rap on the director, the producer, the actors, the agents, the cinematographers, the studios, the best boy, the gaffer or the gofer. Every film is the writer's responsibility, his blame—and his triumph.

The likes of Harlan Ellison rarely pass this way. Sometimes it is with great relief that I contemplate that fact. Yet, finally I understand that I, like all writers, must respond to his challenge, which is to do the best work we can. That is what these reviews are all about: people doing their best, trying to do their best, not doing their best. You're a hard man, Ellison. Don't ever change.

Mitch Berman (review date 1 January 1989)

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SOURCE: “Sweets from Harlan Ellison,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 1, 1989, p. 9.

[In the following review, Berman offers a positive assessment of Ellison's Angry Candy, praising the author's style and imagination.]

Grow up. Harlan!, we've been wanting to tell him for the last, oh, 20 or 30 years. Angry Candy might make you stop wanting to tell him, which is fortunate, because it wouldn't do any good.

“This is a book of stories that you may think of as angry candy,” Harlan Ellison tells the reader, with characteristic bossiness, in his Introduction: then he asserts that “they will please and entertain.”

And damned if they don't. At least 8 of these 17 selections rank among the finest science-fiction stories I have ever read. The others are always solid, usually funny, frequently moving, sometimes brilliant and never less than entertaining. Piled one upon another, they accumulate a breathtaking sweep and momentum. Very few writers of any kind of fiction possess either the ability or the audacity to put such a galaxy of imagined worlds between two covers. This is a book of science fiction that will impress readers who never touch the stuff.

Ellison's style, for the most part, is nicely turned, despite his inexplicable fondness for the word “scintillant” and occasional lapses into vagueness (“She was a good dancer. All the right rhythms at just the right times”), melodrama (“My soul ached to rush out and stare up at beauty forever”) and cliché (see above). Often the writing is much better. The delightfully grisly ending of “Quicktime” is one example.

It is a prose that must be—and generally is—ready for anything that Ellison's imagination might serve up, from a woman whose sexual fantasies are entered by a peeping Tom, to a human soul forced to inhabit the flesh of half a dozen aliens, to a man who hears the guffaw of a favorite aunt, long dead, on “The Sandy Duncan Show” laugh track. In Angry Candy, Ellison confects a 17-course feast.

In nooks and corners, the author may be glimpsed striking a rich variety of pompous attitudes, inter-larding the narratives with a McInerny-esque and rather gratuitous litany of hipness-establishing buzz words (Burberry, Star Wars, Jerry Falwell, MOMA, Karen Black, the Food Emporium, Cadillac Broughams (in two stories), the New York Helmsley Hotel, et al): festooning too many of these tales with solemn frontispiece quotations and thanking one or more persons for their “assistance in the creation of this work of fiction,” acknowledgments that could have been less obtrusively stored together in one place.

But unobtrusiveness is rarely Ellison's intention, and still more rarely does he achieve it. “The Region Between,” the longest story in the collection, includes rather childish, overly literal illustrations: columnar and mirror-image text and text arranged both left-to-right and up-to-down on the same page; another page with only one word on it; a paragraph in which lower-case letters that describe one character are interspersed with capital letters that describe a second; plenty of italics, bold-face and little squares of black ink; the word “this” printed as ‘tHiS’; and a maddening spiral of fine print that requires the reader either to rotate his copy of Angry Candy 16 times or (as Ellison would undoubtedly prefer) to place the volume on a pedestal and orbit 16 times around it. I defy the reader to do either without feeling at least a little bit foolish.

Can Ellison get away with all of this? Yes, or as he might put it, yEsYESeyessss. Angry Candy is a fine and almost grotesquely ambitious collection.

Grow up, Harlan Ellison? Naah.

Robert F. Moss (review date 17 September 1989)

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SOURCE: “A Critic at the Top of His Voice,” in New York Times Book Review, September 17, 1989, section 7, p. 12.

[In the following review, Moss praises the “spellbinding quality” of Ellison's movie reviews, claiming that Ellison attempts to “goad humanity into being more human.”]

“And in what obscure fashion does any of this have to do with Young Sherlock Holmes?” asks Harlan Ellison in a discussion of the movie from this collection of his film criticism. He has just finished a long diatribe against Christmas cards and is about to flash back to a guilt-inducing childhood episode in which he insulted his mother for bringing him the wrong Captain Marvel comic book. Elsewhere, comments about a brain scan he underwent lead to an analysis of Short Circuit, while a blast at Ronald Reagan's Central America policy precedes a review of Flight of the Navigator.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Harlan Ellison's Watching, assembled from 30 years of nomadic reviewing in such places as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is that one is never tempted to stop reading. Even at his most maddening, as he caroms from subject to subject, Mr. Ellison has some of the spellbinding quality of a great nonstop talker, with a cultural warehouse for a mind. They haven't invented the subject about which he lacks an opinion.

Best known as one of the founders of the “new wave” science fiction movement, Mr. Ellison is the author or editor of over 40 books, and has written extensively for television and the movies. In a Hollywood fearful of all power, he has waged (and won) court battles against ABC and Paramount for plagiarism, roughed up more than one arrogant producer and eloquently decried the lowly status of writers. Hence the sizable chunks of Mr. Ellison's colorful life that are stirred into his text help rather than hinder. Combined with his intellectual eccentricities, they make this a one-of-a-kind book.

His digressions notwithstanding, Mr. Ellison does get around to critiquing movies, most of which he finds lamentable for their dishonesty and inaccuracy (Rambo,Enemy Mine), appalling derivativeness (Starman,Back to the Future) and inept plotting and characterization (most of the Stephen King adaptations). The culprits are the Steven Spielberg-George Lucas flock of television-bred film makers who target young audiences “for whom nostalgia is remembering breakfast.” When he finds a director he admires (William Friedkin, Terry Gilliam, Ridley Scott), he can hardly believe his good fortune.

In contrast to the detached, impersonal tone of the average film critic, Mr. Ellison pronounces almost exclusively at the top of his voice. His brickbats are Bunyanesque (Buckaroo Banzai is a “village idiot of a movie”), his bouquets as big as parade floats (Brazil is “brilliant beyond the meaning of the word”). His style routinely mixes a standard critical idiom with esoteric vocabulary, slang, a liberal use of obscenities and many homemade coinages.

Inevitably, a cocky rebel like Mr. Ellison succumbs occasionally to windiness and lapses of taste. Yet for the patient reader, there is a harvest of pleasures here: a definitive, behind-the-scenes examination of the Star Trek phenomenon; a well-researched dissertation on the motives that can lead studio executives to trash their own products (like Return to Oz and Dune, films Mr. Ellison is not afraid to extol); a hair-raising account of a speaking engagement before a group of hard-case juvenile delinquents; a wickedly funny, Lenny Bruce-style survey of buddy movies.

Throughout the book, Mr. Ellison maintains a love-hate relationship with the readers of his movie columns, responding to even their most savage complaints. It is the same relationship he has always had with Hollywood and, for that matter, with the human race. Like Harlequin, the cheerful subversive in his much-anthologized story “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” Mr. Ellison tries to goad humanity into being more human, and drops jelly beans on the world for its own good.

Ray Olson (review date 1 November 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of A Boy and His Dog, in Booklist, Vol. 86, No. 5, November 1, 1989, p. 513.

[In the following review, Olson offers a positive review of the graphic novel adaptation of Ellison's A Boy and His Dog.]

[Richard] Corben, an adroit comics artist, turns Ellison's popular Boy and His Dog stories into a graphic novel. The three sequential tales feature 15-year-old Vic and a telepathic canine, Blood, wandering a postnuclear apocalyptic world divided into a culture of armed teenage boys (and a few older gang bosses) who reside on the blasted surface and of mostly older “good folks” who live in underground cities. Vic and Blood search the surface for food, goods tradable for ammo, and, hardest to find, girls to slake Vic's libido. Violence, gore, and sex, liberally seasoned with profanity, are the fantasy's salient ingredients, and Ellison really cooks with them For his part, Corben has done a neat job of conjuring the tense, horrific moods of Ellison's fiction. Once the color, not available in the review copy, is laid in, Vic and Blood may be a real stunner in its genre. A compelling adventure, albeit rife with phobias appropriate to its human hero (who, after all, is a punk).

Harlan Ellison with Joseph V. Francavilla (interview date Fall 1990)

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SOURCE: “Ellison Wonderland: Harlan Ellison Interviewed,” in Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, Vol. 10, No. 1, Fall, 1990, pp. 9–20

[In the following interview, Francavilla and Ellison discuss various aspects of Ellison's work, focusing predominantly on works that have been adapted for film and television.]

Harlan Ellison is a writer who explores, uncovers, and displays the nightmares and dreams that haunt and enchant us all. Usually identified with his science fiction screenplays and speculative fiction, in the late 1960s Ellison was one of the American writers loosely associated with the controversial British “New Wave” authors grouped around New Worlds magazine. These writers generally employed radical stylistic experimentation, taboo subject matter, and innovative narrative structures. In this period, Ellison began turning out his award-winning science fiction screenplays, noteworthy for their meticulous attention to the sort of details—camera angles and movements, cuts and dissolves—that screenwriters have traditionally left to the director's imagination. But both his screenplays and fiction, with their similar neo-expressionist outbursts of emotion and their commitment to addressing social problems, prove quite distinct from the British New Wave writers. In fact, Ellison eschews easy labels like “science fiction” and “speculative fiction,” as too limited for describing his work.

He is the first author to have received four of the Writer's Guild Awards, given out annually for the best teleplay. He has also won three Nebula Awards, eight and one-half Hugo Awards, the British Fantasy Award, the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award for his fiction, and the P.E.N. International “Silver Pen” Award for his essay-columns in the L. A. Weekly. Earlier in his career he wrote television scripts for such series as Burke's Law,The Untouchables,The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,The Outer Limits,The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Star Trek. More recently he has written for Tales from the Darkside and The Twilight Zone; for the latter he also served as creative consultant and penned scripts for his own story “Paladin of the Lost Hour” and for Stephen King's “Gramma.” In November 1985, as he was filming his script “Nackles,” a Christmas story (starring Ed Asner) about bigotry, he quit The Twilight Zone in protest over interference with his directorial debut.

Among Ellison's most famous screenplays are “Memo from Purgatory” (starring James Caan) for Alfred Hitchcock (1964), “Demon with a Glass Hand” (written specifically for Robert Culp) and “Soldier,” both for the Outer Limits series (1964), and “City on the Edge of Forever” for the Star Trek series (1967). The 1975 film by L. Q. Jones, A Boy and His Dog, was adapted from Ellison's 1969 novella. His unfilmed screenplay, I, Robot, was published in 1987 in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. A sampling of Ellison's opinions on television and literature may be found in the volumes The Glass Teat (1969), The Other Glass Teat (1975), Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed (1984), and An Edge in My Voice (1985). His film criticism has been collected in Harlan Ellison's Watching (1988). Among the many collections of his stories are Ellison Wonderland (1962), I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (1967), Alone Against Tomorrow (1971), Approaching Oblivion (1974), Deathbird Stories (1975), Strange Wine (1978), Shatterday (1980), Stalking the Nightmare (1982), The Essential Ellison (1987, containing his first two published stories), and Angry Candy (1988).

Harlan Ellison's I, Robot screenplay is currently in Hollywood limbo, due to creative and clerical gaffes on the part of a former Warner Bros. executive. Because Warner lost the rights to the underlying Asimov stories, the entire project became a subject of litigation and is now likely consigned to the shelf since rights to the screenplay-for-production remain with Warner Bros. but the script cannot be filmed without an option to the original stories. The script, published in the November, December, and Mid-December 1987 issues of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, will most likely appear as a graphic novel and a hardcover book. Ellison has also republished a 1972 movie script, Harlan Ellison's Movie, as part of The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, his 47th published volume since 1958. He has also recently completed an original feature film titled Cutter's World, originally commissioned by NBC as a project for Roger Corman, but which Ellison has withdrawn for submission as a theatrical feature.

Born in Painesville, Ohio, Ellison now lives in Sherman Oaks, California, in what he calls “Ellison Wonderland,” a house full of sculptures, paintings, curios, toys, over six thousand records, and more than forty thousand books. Though his colorful personal life and controversial political and ethical stands have drawn much attention, Ellison here talks about the themes in his fiction and screenplays, the early reading that influenced him, and the three things he prizes above all else—writing, creating, and imagining. In this interview, conducted several years ago at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, Ellison tells not what it is like to be a writer; he tells what the process of writing is like.

[Joseph Francavilla:] Your writings and media work seem to generate a strong response from people. Why do you think you generate so much passionate love or hate mail?

[Harlan Ellison:] When certain people read someone who seems to be talking directly to them, they are moved to answer. Most of my mail is very positive and very pleasant, very lovely. Occasionally I get an outstanding letter from someone who will perceive something in a story that I wanted perceived that's a little subtle. And then I feel … there's a Yiddish word “kvell,” and I just “kvell” and say, “Ah, wonderful!” It's as if the sun were glowing in your stomach. But the very negative mail is always in some way gratuitously negative. I'm always more curious about the people who write hate letters than the ones who say positive things. And I invariably track them down to respond. I have a very long memory. I used to think I believed in revenge. I don't. I believe in balance—that the universe must balance out.

There is a certain type of balance in a number of your stories. It occurs as a splitting or doubling, which you touch on in your piece “Memoir: I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” in Fantastic Lives. Your explanation of this story becomes a paradigm for a number of your works in which a drama is played out between good and evil, represented by the splitting apart of various characters. For instance, in The Outer Limits teleplay, “Demon with a Glass Hand,” Trent is opposed to the humanoid Kyben. In the original teleplay version of “City on the Edge of Forever,” Beckwith seems an opposite to Edith Keeler, and, in a sense, the actions and motivations of Captain Kirk oppose Mr. Spock's. The sacrifice of Ted in “I Have No Mouth” is opposed to the torturing machine AM. And as you've already said in “Memoir,” AM itself is not exterior. It's a representation of that evil within us all, a part of our dual nature.

Yes, that's right. There's one other story that you couldn't know about, where this happens again, and it's been a terrible problem for me. In my screenplay of I, Robot, which took a year to write, the inevitable conclusion of the script revolves around that point. The script begins with the burial of the president of the galaxy, who is patterned on the character Stephen Byerley in the Isaac Asimov story “Evidence” in his I, Robot collection, the one in which a robot looks and acts like a human, and they find out in the end that he's a robot. The burial on some far planet is being telecast all over the galaxy, and the reporter Robert Bratenahl is one of the dozen or so people there. The president of the galaxy chose to be buried there, and he has been reduced to scintillant gas encased in a translucent dome on a little pedestal. At the funeral service are his closest friends: President Bramhall of the Orion Constellation, Dion Fabry of Perseus, Karl Hawkstein of Triangulum, and also a few others—just the top twelve people in the whole galaxy. And with them is this woman.

The reporter has a minicam strapped to his head, and as he's reporting he says, “Could that be … ?” He cuts himself off and he calls in for information and says, “Flash me a picture of Susan Calvin.” It's flashed to him and he says, “Oh, my God! It's Susan Calvin. She hasn't even been seen in twenty-five years.” He follows her and tries to get an interview. She gets into a teleportation pyramid and Pshooo! She's gone with two guards. He is obsessed with finding out about her, who she is and what her relationship was with the president of the galaxy. It becomes Citizen Kane: Who is this woman? Was she really this man's lover? We find out in the end, of course, that he is a robot and she created him. It's the story of Susan Calvin, her life story beginning with “Robbie,” and then “Liar,” and “Runaround,” and a couple of other Asimov stories. Some of them I do by inference, just by taking the point from the story and using it in another way. There is much new material and expansions of everything that Isaac did, truly in an Asimov way with my overtones. It's a wonderful script. It's one of the best things I've ever written.

We've had a lot of trouble with it at Warner Bros., though. They won't do it but they won't release it—they won't give it away because they know it's hot. One of the problems we had was that they said, “Ellison's view of the future is very bleak.” Now, it was not bleak at all; it was very positive with people hopping around from planet to planet on teleportation beams and all that kind of thing. They were objecting to the aspects of the robots that were troublesome. The robots were only functional machines, not Artoo Detoos, and there were some negative elements. And I tried to explain to the people at Warners—and this goes back to the computer AM in “I Have No Mouth”—that the problems with robots are the problems with human beings. Because robots were programmed by human beings, the unconscious flaws in us would inevitably turn up in the robots.

By being projected into them?

Right, but all unconsciously. We are an amalgam of good and evil, of nobility and cowardice, of the trivial and of high art. And these dualities would appear in the film's robots. The same is true for AM, since AM is all-powerful. But AM is basically a child, a malicious, frustrated child. He has enormous power and yet can do nothing. He has great intellect, and he's trapped inside the belly of a planet. There's your balance and splitting off again. The balance and splitting are very much there in my stories. Almost all of my work is involved in some way with the balance between justice and injustice, good and evil, love and … I never make the equation of love and hate. I make the equation of love and disinterest. The opposite of love isn't necessarily hate. I think it's not caring, total disinterest.

What are your feelings about the unconscious element in writing? I know you hardly ever revise and try not to. Do you feel there's a kind of destruction that goes on in the process of revision? A sterilization when things become too conscious?

Sterilization is a good word. I would not have thought of it myself. Yes, there is an antiseptic process, a cleaning up. For me, looking at a Gauguin is infinitely more exciting than looking at a Vermeer. A Vermeer is very studied, very clean, ordered, and brilliant—a work of genius but with less passion, less intensity. You look at sunflowers in a Van Gogh and they burn out your eyes. You realize that in some brilliant way this artist understood what intensity is. You look at the colors and you realize that he really hasn't used any sharp pigments there. What he's done is mute everything else, so that when he does use that bright pigment, it pops out at you. That is a kind of insensate understanding of what one must do to make one's art work.

The idea of improvising the story as you go along often puzzles people. What is the value for you of doing it that way?

Mostly, I suspect, if I knew where I was going in a story, I would bore myself and never finish it. I think it was Robert Frost who said, “Surprise yourself, surprise the reader.” I hate reading a book in which ten pages into the book I know how it's going to end. This is the stock in trade of every television show. In every television drama within the first five minutes, you can see the order, shape, size, length, and denouement of the story—you know exactly where it's going. Now this is comforting the drones who watch TV. This is what they like. They like predictability. They don't want to be startled. They don't want the hero suddenly to be killed. They don't like that because it unnerves them. It makes them think the universe is a random place, and they want it orderly.

I believe that fiction should startle every time. You should be taken somewhere you've never been. You should learn something you did not know. You should receive a perception about yourself, the world, or those around you that you did not have. You should come away with something. And what you're doing is generating your own sense of suspense and weighing that against the reader's. Now many readers, particularly in fantasy, are smart and know all the changes that are going to be rung on them because they've read so many stories. Therefore, I have to do that which has not been done before. … I began [the short story] “Shatterday” and had no idea where it was going. Nor did I know what was going to happen with “I Have No Mouth,” or “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” or “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes.” I never know until I'm about halfway through the story, after I've been building up incidents, structure, and character. Eventually, your choices begin to narrow and you say, “Okay, it can only go this way, or this way, or this.” But if you are broad and open enough at the beginning, by the time you've reached midway even the closing down of that channel open to you is still fairly wide. It's wide enough to keep your reader on his toes and off balance. You throw in a little ringer now and then to distract them while you're busy working here on the other side, and they aren't noticing. By the time I come down to about two pages from the end of a story, all of a sudden, out of nowhere—and it happens every time—the music from “Thus Spake Zarathustra” goes “ta-DAHHH!” And on the horizon appears the answer to my problems.

How does it come to you? Does it come as a logical solution, as a scene or vision, or as a verbal statement?

As a vision. It literally comes to me like the vision of the monolith to the ape-men in 2001: A Space Odyssey. You know the scene where the ape-men are looking up at the monolith as it rises above them against the horizon, and there's a kind of aurora glow behind it? That's exactly what happens. Suddenly I'm writing along and I look up, and there's a monolith on the horizon of my mind, and I think, “Oh, God! That's incredible!” I'm knocked out by it. I get the kind of smug pleasure that a kid who can skip a stone across a lake and get four skips out of it suddenly has. It's just a swelling up. I always refer to it as a godlike feeling, but it's not really. It's really a smart aleck's pride: “I'm so pleased that I outwitted me, and I outwitted you, and I outwitted everybody. Oh, God! They're not going to believe this when they get to this point. Oh, God!” And then I look back where I've been, across the terrain of the story, and way at the beginning within the first paragraph where I was totally oblivious to what I was doing is the seed of the whole story. I put it there and I think to myself, “Now how did I know how to do that?” Well, the answer is I knew how to do it because I've been doing it for twenty-seven years as a professional. And that's a matter of working in the craft.

What would you say is the freedom in fantasy writing? Let me preface that by a remark. Many of your fantasies are written in a peculiar way which to a large degree follows what H. G. Wells wrote about in his prefaces to his fantasy work. He says he postulated a single innovation, change, or device, and then worked variations on the innovation without introducing new fantasy material, new magic. His famous statement is: “Nothing remains interesting where anything may happen.” Science fiction often works that way and your fantasy stories work that way.

Science fiction doesn't work that way so much, which is why I don't write science fiction anymore. I wrote some of it at the beginning, but I was not very good at it. It's not that I don't like science fiction. Over the last few years I've read a little bit of science fiction. Most of it I don't like. But the reason I don't write science fiction is that I don't write it very well. My mind doesn't function in that way, and I don't understand a lot of science. An old quotation from Chekhov says that if, in Act One of a play you show the pistol hanging on the wall, you had best fire it by the end of Act Two. One of the things I am most conscious of when working on a story is having the reader with me and of not losing the reader by telling too many lies or presenting too many things that are too tough to swallow. I never go for realism; I go for verisimilitude. The worst argument one ever hears from an amateur writer about a bad story is: “Well, but it's true! It happened, you know. It's real. I know a guy like that.” I don't care if he knows five hundred people like that if, as a reader, I don't believe it.

So the question is not a matter of how accurate it is, but of how representative of life it is. The question is: How can I make an audience believe it? Thus, I must not stretch their credulity. It's like a magician working misdirection. I keep them busy over here, while over there I'm manipulating them, putting them where I want them to be. The best example of that is my story “Croatoan.” In “Croatoan” and also in “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans,” I must get the reader to an Impossible, unbelievable place. In “Croatoan” the impossible place to be reached is a sewer under a city, with homunculi riding alligators—for Christ's sake, it's crazy. But where I begin is with a very human and dramatic situation: there's a fight between a man and a woman; she's had an abortion and he has flushed the fetus. Now I have to get that man, physically and logically, from that apartment up there down into a sewer. Now how do you do that? I do it by stages, all very logically. Every step you make them accept leads them one step closer to accepting the step that no one would accept logically if you did it at the beginning.

In fantasy you have things that are impossible. So in fantasy—moreso even than in science fiction, because in science fiction you don't have the fantastic, you have only the extrapolative, things that are at least possible—you must be rigorous in your background. You must be the absolute model of rectitude so that readers trust you. And one of the best ways of doing that is to introduce only one, single fantasy idea, and then take it to its logical extreme. Go as far with it as you want, get as crazy as you want with it, but stay within the very narrow focus of that one idea and the variations played on it. And that's fine because each fantasy idea embodies a secret human dream, a secret human desire, and this is certainly not a limited scope or focus to work in. It is really a very, very wide field in terms of exploring that particular element, whether it's greed, love, the desire to be noticed, responsibility, or guilt, or whatever it is. I suppose what you're doing is a personification of abstract concepts. It's like Greek drama: Here is honor seen as a brave warrior, for instance. In “Shatterday” I'm dealing with responsibility personified as a man split in two. In “Croatoan” it's guilt perceived as a man traveling through a sewer.

It seems that many of the writers you admire, Poe, Kafka, Dickens, Borges, always have that problem of combating the easy explanation for the fantastic which goes like this: the protagonist is crazy, or he's experiencing dreams or delusions. Somehow it seems almost impossible totally to exclude that explanation. I mean, think of a story like “The Metamorphosis” by Kafka. Many readers of that story have the easy explanation in the back of their mind as one of the possible ways of accounting for the metamorphosis of Gregor Samsa into a gigantic bug. Trying to work against that easy explanation is a problem for a fantasy writer, isn't it?

It's a real problem, and I see it as a real failing on the part of readers. They cannot accept the fantastic, even in allegorical terms. They'd rather say, “Ah, he's crazy,” which is an easy way of getting out of it. So I try to buttress the fantasy element in my stories as much as I can. The story “In the Fourth Year of the War” was very, very hard because what goes on is really crazy. But I wanted it to be that he was not insane, that there really was someone living in his head. It had grown up and was sharing his brain and was making him do these terrible things. All through the story the guy is very calm and rational. If you ever hear me read it, there's none of this, “I'm not crazy, I tell you! I'm not crazy!” The tone of voice is very calm and logical. He says, “Now, look. Let me explain to you. I know it's going to sound like I'm nuts. I'm just telling you the way it is. I'm not crazy. This thing is in my head, for Christ's sake. You gotta believe me. It's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. You gotta listen to me, for Christ's sake.” I underplay it and make him seem very reasonable and rational. If I can't get the readers all the way toward accepting what he's saying, at least I've brought them halfway so that an ambivalence is there, and the readers can enjoy the story on almost the terms that I would like to have them enjoy it.

I suppose naive readers, who haven't read a wide variety of works, aren't able to cross-reference things or see that the possibilities of fiction are as wide as they are.

That's one of the ways in which all the crap that's published can be published, get past them, and be bought. You wonder to yourself how John Norman can continue to sell so well. Who buys such dreck? Or how can so many of the recent women writers continue to write these empty, sterile, wish-fulfillment fantasies, some with indications of imagination, but whose quality of writing is alarming?

Let me play devil's advocate. Aren't such works a phase of reading most people pass through? Though I'm not an advocate of, say, Andre Norton, doesn't Andre Norton perhaps represent an early stage for a generation of readers?

I don't know; you could be dead-on. Let me go at it this way. I never went through that phase. I never read Edgar Rice Burroughs until years later. The first adult book I read was Richard Blackmore's Lorna Doone. It's probably a peculiar choice, but one comes to whatever one comes to first. In very rapid order, I read almost all of Sir Walter Scott and then H. Rider Haggard. In fact, the first published piece by me is a five-part serial in the young people's column of the Cleveland News called The Sword of Parmegon. It's a clear swipe from Scott. The second five-part serial, which I think came out a year later, was called Track of the Gloconda, a giant snake adventure set in Africa. And it's a direct ripoff of Haggard. And very quickly, within a year or two, I read almost all of Dickens, Twain, a lot of Maupassant, Victor Hugo, Mysteries of Paris and The Wandering Jew by Eugene Sue, and a lot of Alexander Sue. I had no friends and I was hungry to learn, so I read and read, spent my days in books. But I read what I was later to learn were “classics.” These were the things I was reading right off the bat, and with the exception of Haggard, I went nowhere near fantasy. I read a lot of pulp magazines, too. I was reading The Shadow and Doc Savage but didn't recognize their relation to fantasy.

How did these compare to the other books you were reading?

They were the same. I saw no distinction. And I perceive the lack of perceiving a distinction in that these were written with childlike innocence. For what they are, The Shadow and Doc Savage books, and The Spider and G-8 and His Battle Aces, were classic examples of their type, absolutely the top of that form. They were perfect, which is why they continue to live on and have a resonance even today. They are elegant trash.

And the same with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories?

Exactly. But you see I didn't know Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. I didn't know Burroughs or Verne. Oddly enough, the only Wells book I read was Tono-Bungay. That's all I knew of Wells. I didn't know he had written all this fantasy stuff. But because I was also buying a lot of comic books and these pulp magazines, I picked up a copy of Startling Stories. I remember this very clearly. The Startling Stories issue had a Hall-of-Fame story, Jack Williamson's “Five Hours to Live.” It was very clearly nothing more than a rewriting of Frank Stockton's “The Lady or the Tiger?” But it blew me away. And it was the first time I read about spaceships, space pirates, etc. Over the next few years I bought an occasional science fiction magazine but never knew it was a science fiction magazine. I mean, the phrase “science fiction” never registered on my consciousness.

By this time I had gotten far enough into Dickens and Poe to tell that there was a big difference between them and the pulp magazines. I also discovered Lovecraft at this point, and in my mind, in fact, I blurred Poe and Lovecraft for a long time. Each author was like an extension of the other. The first Poe story I ever read was “The Gold Bug.” I just loved the logic of it, the unraveling of the puzzle. Then I read “Hop-Frog,” “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” and the poetry. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” I read late. But right along in there someplace I read “The Masque of the Red Death.” Well! My brains exploded! I couldn't believe it!

What was the sort of wonder you found in that story? It's certainly not the wonder of science or technology, of space or of extrapolation and deduction.

I'll tell you exactly what it was. And I have used it countless times, particularly in my television work. I wrote a pilot for a series based on Our Man Flint, and I wrote a variation on “The Masque of the Red Death” in this one respect—the contained universe story. “The Masque of the Red Death” takes place in one building, in one period of time, and nobody can get out.

The premature entombment that runs all throughout Poe's stories.

But I didn't know it was entombment. All I knew was that there was a clock running, a menace stalking these people, and that they couldn't get out.

It's very much like the situation in “I Have No Mouth.” AM is inside the belly of the Earth, and the five people are trapped inside the belly of AM as it tortures them.

Precisely. You know, you're the first person who has made the connection between “The Masque of the Red Death” and “I Have No Mouth.” It's exactly the same situation.

And you often have used time travel via time mirrors or time gateways to strand and isolate characters in a confined place, often in the past. These devices actually function as, or generate, obstacles or barriers which the protagonists try to overcome, as for example, in the teleplays “Demon With a Glass Hand” or “City on the Edge of Forever.”

Also it makes the characters easy to control in a closed-in space. “Demon With a Glass Hand” is an example. It's my regurgitation of being impressed by “The Masque of the Red Death.” Now sometime around 1946, 1947, or 1948, just before my father died, I was reading Lovecraft concurrently with Poe. But very limited Lovecraft because the only book of Lovecraft I could find—since it was virtually the only book of Lovecraft in print—was a reprint, a book called The Best Supernatural Stories of H. P. Lovecraft. It was one of those dollar forty-nine cent hardcover books published by World Publishing Company in 1945. I read “In the Vault” and other stories in there until I hit—and this was the second explosion in my brain—“The Rats in the Walls.” It remains one of my all-time favorite stories. “The Rats in the Walls” was this “descent into hell” kind of story, a situation which again you see in my work over and over. It impressed me enormously. It was the horrible punishment way beyond the slap in the face. You look at an old story of mine like “Blank …” in my book Stalking the Nightmare. In the story a really vile character kidnaps a “driver,” one of those people who uses his or her ESP or psychokinetic power to boost a spaceship through into innerspace. They've got to have the combination of human and ship. This guy has killed people and done all sorts of terrible things, and he kidnaps a female driver from Driver Hall, the Guild Hall on the edge of the spaceport. He gets her on the ship as he's escaping. There's a time warp as the ship is boosted through by the driver. Her last act before she dies is to boost him through into the heart of a nova. He gets boosted through, dies agonizingly in the fires of hell, is snapped back, pops back, dies again and again and again through all of eternity. She's trapped him in a moebius warp.

The same image is in the original script for “City on the Edge of Forever,” where the Beckwith character undergoes the same eternal torment.

Yes. Through all of eternity this guy will forever burn and then come back and then repeat the cycle endlessly.

Like the eternal punishment of Ted by AM in “I Have No Mouth.” This image of the Promethean firebringer who sacrifices himself and who is eternally tormented runs throughout your work.

Yes, Prometheus is an icon for me, a wonderful character. And this idea is also straight out of Poe or Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith. It's the punishment greater than the crime. You see, one of the traditions I reject, and it shows up constantly in horror movies, is this: there'll be a group of kids, some of whom are going to be murdered by whatever monster it is. And you can always tell which ones will be murdered. It's going to be the guy who threw a cigarette butt in the street. It's going to be the girl who kissed on the first date. All of these trivial, really puritanical crimes they've committed, so that they should be punished by having their heads hacked off by a Texas chainsaw. I absolutely reject that—the idea that such good and evil brings such massive retribution. Now it's an easy way out for a writer. If you want the punishment to fit the crime, if you want people to say, “Yes. He deserved it,” then you make the guy kick a kid, steal an ice cream cone, beat up an old lady. So that when he gets it, they'll say, “He deserved it.”

I don't do that. In my universe, and in the universe I write about, there is no way of knowing; it is totally random. You could live an absolutely perfect, clean, and terrific life and die of cancer of the lymph glands. Because that's the way the real world is. Bastards survive, and go on, and rise. On the other hand, a good person can become a victim very easily. And there is no good or bad or right or wrong to it. It is the random chance of the crapshoot called the universe. To portray it as anything other than that imposes an artificial predetermination on the reality of the universe that distances people from an understanding of their own destiny, and from the fact that they control their own destiny, that they literally hold it in their hands. And that, as Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” For example, it is not random that I am a very successful person in what I do. And other writers, some of whom are even better than I—there are a few, he said, with great humility—are not successful. It's because they did not prepare for it. They did not consciously go to the place they wanted to go. Frank Herbert was a success because he had been preparing himself for it. And when the chance fell his way of Dune becoming a big thing, he went with it.

We order our lives; we control our lives. There are many things over which we have no control, but most of them we do. In our daily life we can set up where we want to wind up thirty, forty, or fifty years hence. So I try to do that in my stories and say that these characters are not merely victims of random chance. They are coming to a getting exactly what they have programmed themselves for. Occasionally the random universe does slip them a mickey, but for the most part they determine their lives.

Martin Brady (review date 1 October 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 214

SOURCE: A review of The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, in Booklist, Vol. 87, No. 3, October 1, 1990, p. 247.

[In the review below, Brady gives a mixed assessment of The Harlan Ellison Hornbook.]

Redoubtable is one word that might describe Harlan Ellison, but even at that, it all depends on which Webster's definition you gravitate towards: “1: causing fear or alarm: FORMIDABLE”; or “2: inspiring or worthy of awe or reverence: ILLUSTRIOUS.” This collection of Ellison essays, reviews, and articles [The Harlan Ellison Hornbook]—most of them originally published more than 15 years ago—proves either point. Whether he bathetically rails against Jesus (“a scrawny prophet”) in “No Offense Intended But Fuck Christmas!” tells us of his trashy girlfriends, vindictively (almost childishly) opines on old Ohio State (as if it were their fault he was a lousy student), attacks TV's hold on the American psyche, or staunchly defends the plight of writers who get stiffed by sharpy publishers, Ellison is always provocative. (Sort of like Bart Simpson grown up.) Besides the older pieces—each preceded by a brief, updating “interim memo” that adds context—this collection features a handful of more recent work first published in Playboy and Los Angeles magazine and one previously unpublished. Best taken in small doses, this manic collection proves one thing for sure: the man can write.

Washington Post Book World (review date 28 October 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, in Washington Post Book World, October 28 1990, p. 10.

[In the following review, the critic praises the “magically relaxed” essays in The Harlan Ellison Hornbook.]

It has always been the case that the best character Harlan Ellison ever created was Harlan Ellison, and that some of his weaker stories fell apart because they could not contain the rasping voice of their creator. The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, because it is all about the best character Harlan Ellison ever created, avoids the problem. These autobiographical essays, most of them originally published in the Los Angeles Free Press in 1972–73, are magically relaxed in comparison to much of his fiction, colloquial, superbly easy to read. Ellison himself, gullible and generous, or intoxicated with rage, burns into the reader's mind, utterly believable, absolutely open to the world. He makes terrible mistakes about lovers and fellow writers, and tells us all. He threatens and cajoles and boasts, and we listen. We want to tell him we do love him. We want to shake him till his teeth rattle. We want him to shut up. But most of all we want him to continue.

Dale Thomajan (review date November–December 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1572

SOURCE: A review of Harlan Ellison's Watching and Quentin Crisp's How to Go to the Movies, in Film Comment, Vol. 26, No. 6, November–December, 1990, pp. 76–7.

[In the following review, Thomajan compares Ellison's collection of movie reviews with that of Quentin Crisp, criticizing Ellison for writing in the “mock-heroic mold” and for Ellison's belief that science fiction is “the cinema's most important genre.”]

Harlan Ellison and Quentin Crisp are probably familiar to you but possibly not as film reviewers, the magazines they write for being relatively obscure. Recently each had his reviews collected and published in hardcover. Harlan Ellison's Watching covers movies of the past 20 years (most of them American), with the emphasis on science fiction, his specialty. The reviews in How to Go to the Movies date only from 1982, but Crisp has been going to the movies more than regularly since 1918.

Ellison appears on the jacket of his book accompanied by a pipe (always a bad sign) and one of those dazzlingly facetious bogus bios that somehow you know the author wrote himself—apparently to demonstrate early on that he is (1) iconoclastic, (2) college-educated, and (3) a card. Crisp, who looks in his jacket photos startlingly like a very old woman, is represented by a no-nonsense bio one-fifth the length of Ellison's. Inside the covers, the differences between the two men become even more pronounced.

Ellison is a cranky liberal and self-proclaimed maverick who has worked so hard to foster an anti-Establishment image that at times he seems disappointed in the world for not being sufficiently mad at him. (Diagnosis: an advanced case of St. Vidal's Dance complicated by Chayefskiosis.) He is forever railing against the crassness and stupidity of the Hollywood mentality—despite writing frequently for TV and the movies, from which, I assume, he derives an excellent income. For a man with a rep for nonconformity, he gets surprisingly miffed at what he calls “assholes” who sacrilegiously shorten “science fiction” to “sci-fi” (although he is guilty more than once of referring to films as “flicks”). I don't recall anyone getting so upset about a diminutive since the days when fraternity boys used to blanch at the word “frat.”

Crisp, on the other hand, is a gentle (and occasionally arch) conservative. Once profiled in an article on New York's poorest celebrities, he seems untouched by envy of or resentment toward those benighted careerists who make big money in Hollywood. Yet without half trying he may be the real maverick here. From time to time he tells unflattering truths about his fellow homosexuals that I never thought I'd see in print. And he was possibly the only reviewer old enough and wise enough to see The Big Chill as a “sententious” film that “has no irony. … It chooses to regard the Sixties wistfully as a time of spiritual hope in which the young would suddenly bring peace to all mankind, when in fact they were all tottering about some campus or other weak with debauchery and senseless with drugs.”

Despite such intermittent bursts of inspired crankiness, Crisp is a man of compassion and an almost archaic graciousness. And despite his contention that “life is a disease for which the movies are a cure,” he realizes that life (and death) is sometimes more important than art. This is how he concluded his review of The Shooting Party: “I was pleased that though [James Mason's] final appearance was not in a memorable picture, his part in it was honorable and that he played it to perfection.” Try to imagine that sentence from a Pauline Kael or a John Simon, or a Harlan Ellison.

Both Crisp and Ellison write in a rather courtly, antiquated manner. But Crisp gives us the real thing, whereas Ellison's prose is more in the mock-heroic mold. Consider the following bowl of Ellison stew—an awkward amalgam of archaisms, Salingerisms, anachronistic vulgarisms, and ten-dollar words: “Thus it came to pass on Tuesday, May 27th, 1941, that my parents hied me to Cleveland. On my birthday! On my bloody canyoubelieveit goddam birthday! Of all the days to have to go to Cleveland. But wait! Can it be? Could the universe have taken a nanoinstant from its rigorous schedule of creating galaxies and hedgehogs, pulsars and pips in oranges, to say, ‘Aw, what the hell,’ and to proffer a respite in the pissrain that is s.o.p. for little kids?” This is whimsy with a vengeance.

There is little of this preciousness in Crisp's ornate but flowing, highly disciplined style. The difference between reading Crisp and Ellison is the difference between riding in a canoe and a Jeep taking speed bumps at 55 mph. Here is Crisp on Cher: “Cher is as beautiful as a drawing by Mr. Botticelli; her huge eyes are partly veiled by paper-thin eyelids, which leave the formation of the eyes completely visible within their sockets. Her hair, on the other hand, is wild and harsh like that of the girls in Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Only her body is completely—nay, startlingly—modern. She is tall and rangy and so lean that you fear that her collarbone will saw its way through her hazardously thin shoulder straps.”

Crisp can be as pithily perceptive as James Agee: The Pope of Greenwich Village “is an ironic but serious look at the almost inevitable result of being born inadequate and unlovable in perpetual reach of dazzling amounts of success, money, and power.” Or as pointedly witty: “Now, every new movie is a desperate gamble, deafeningly publicized, with its mounting costs broadcast like news of a forest fire.” Or as eloquently moralistic: “We are constantly being asked by the movie industry to extend to formerly unimagined limits our capacity for fear and disgust. It is only right that we should also put to the utmost test our compassion and our pity.”

An apt illustration of the disparity between Ellison's and Crisp's styles is provided by their very dissimilar approaches to the same subject: the lack of verisimilitude in Hollywood movies. Ellison: “… the assassins of Rame Tep, by the hundreds, come-and-go-to-and-from a gigantic wooden pyramid built smack in the middle of Victoria's London, in Young Sherlock Holmes, and no one has ever noticed the tons of building materials schlepped into the area, nor heard the sound of sawing and hammering, nor paid any attention to the skinheaded hordes frequenting the vicinity.” Crisp: “If you push someone out of a high window and then look down on your handiwork, in real life your victim will not look as though he were taking a nap in the garden.”

Crisp, a man almost totally free of malice, can be devastating in his wit. Ellison, who likes being nasty, isn't very good at it. Early in his book he tells us he led a lonely, friendless childhood—a revelation that may explain his fondness for street language (and his lack of fluency in it). Like many lonely boys he came late, I suspect, to the world of four-letter words and fell in love with them at about the same time most of us tired of them. Hence we are told that a particular actress “can't act worth shit.” There is no excuse for this; it's not only bad writing, it's bad manners. (Crisp tends to the other extreme: he refers to genitalia as “you know what.”)

Apart from a scandalous endorsement of foreign-film dubbing (at least in one specific case), Crisp is generally a thoughtful and “cinematically correct” observer of movies. I was particularly heartened by his opposition to film adaptations of literary classics, to movies that end with printed updates of the characters' lives, and to fiction films about real people (“a picture is never better and often worse because it is true,” says Crisp in his review of Out of Africa).

Ellison, for his part, has little new or interesting to say about movies in general. Periodically he serves up a stale portion of anti-auteurism, the last refuge of frustrated screenwriters (and hack directors). At one point he characterizes auteurist Peter Bogdanovich, a finer and much more important writer on film than he, with the same ugly word he applied to the “sci-fi” blasphemers mentioned above. But perhaps this is to be expected from a reviewer whose lists of “Best Movies” and “Favorite Movies” include not a single title by Ford, Chaplin, Hitchcock, Keaton, Ozu, Renoir, Sturges, Melville, Bresson, Godard, or Bergman. (No film appears on both lists—a clear indication of critical schizophrenia.)

Ellison does display the courage of his convictions. He has the sand to unapologetically reprint a review in which he calls Joe “a small artistic miracle.” Elsewhere he reveals that he “felt shucked at [Godard's] Breathless,” adores Francis Coppola films, harbors a secret passion for Ken Russell aberrations, and dislikes all John Wayne movies but True Grit. Harlan Ellison may be watching, but he's not watching very closely.

Is there anything good to be said about him? Well, for one thing, he likes Val Lewton and Jim Thompson—such a person can't be all bad. But I'm afraid I can recommend Harlan Ellison's Watching only to those who believe that sci-fi (there, I've said it!) is the cinema's most important genre. I direct the rest—you who are normal—to Quentin Crisp's fine book How to Go to the Movies and to these words from it: “Science fiction is the long-awaited answer to the prayers of the front office. … Producers no longer need women; they have robots.”

Darren Harris Fain (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5751

SOURCE: “Created in the Image of God: The Narrator and the Computer in Harlan Ellison's ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,’” in Extrapolation, Vol. 32, No. 2, 1991, pp. 143–54.

[In the following essay, Fain compares five published versions of “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” in order to support his argument that Ted, the narrator of the story, is “alone … both fully human and fully godlike in the story.”]

And man has actually invented God … the marvel is that such an idea … could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man.

If the devil doesn't exist, but man created him, he has created him in his own image.

—Fyodor Dostoevsky

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” first appeared in If: Worlds of Science Fiction in March 1967, bought and edited by Frederik Pohl.1 It was printed without the now-familiar computer “talk-fields” and also was edited in several places: Ellison calls this “the Bowdlerizing of what Fred termed ‘the difficult sections’ of the story (which he contended might offend the mothers of the young readers of If (“Memoir” 18). Specifically, Pohl omitted a reference to masturbation, toned down some of Ted's imprecations of Ellen, and removed all references to Benny's former homosexuality and the present equine state of what certain writers and speakers of German call the männliches Glied. (In Benny's case, however, perhaps die Rute would be more precise, and in the process would lend an entirely new meaning to the expression einem Kind die Rute geben.)

The story made its next appearance in Ellison's collection I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, published in April 1967. Its subsequent reprintings in Ellison's books were in Alone Against Tomorrow (1971), The Fantasies of Harlan Ellison (1979), and The Essential Ellison (1987). I have compared the versions of all four books with each other and with the story's original appearance in If; my speculations here are drawn from this comparison.

It is my belief that Ted, the narrator, reveals his own true nature in speaking of the computer and in telling the story of himself and the others. Although the machine often is portrayed in both anthropomorphic and divine terms, I believe it is Ted alone who is both fully human and fully godlike in this story.

A comparison of the texts is illuminating, especially when attention is paid to the nouns and pronouns by which AM is described. Ted sometimes calls AM the machine, the computer, the creature, or simply AM, but usually pronouns are used. “He” and “it” are used indiscriminately, but this apparently careless usage in the versions of the story prior to 1979 becomes clearer in the versions found in The Fantasies of Harlan Ellison and The Essential Ellison, where the pronouns are deliberately mixed. For instance, at one point Ted speaks of Ellen's sexual services. All versions before 1979 read: “The machine giggled every time we did it. Loud, up there, back there, all around us. And she never climaxed, so why bother” (If 25; Mouth 24; Alone 16). In The Fantasies of Harlan Ellison and The Essential Ellison this passage is rearranged and expanded:

And she never came, so why bother? But the machine giggled every time we did it. Loud, up there, back there, all around us, he snickered. It snickered. Most of the time I thought of AM as it, without a soul; but the rest of the time I thought of it as him, in the masculine … the paternal … the patriarchal … for he is a jealous people. Him. It. God as Daddy the Deranged. (FHE 187; EE 168; Ellison's ellipses)

These later texts establish the division in Ted's mind between an impersonal and personal view of the computer. They also establish Ted's religious perspective of AM—a perspective in which God is seen as mad, much as God is portrayed in Ellison's 1973 story, “The Deathbird.”

These two later versions of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” strengthen this combination of personal and impersonal through a deliberate mixture of pronouns not found in earlier renditions. Here are some examples:

The passage of time was important to it.

(If 25; Alone 16)

The passage of time was important to him.

(Mouth 24)

The passage of time was important to him … it … AM.

(FHE 187; EE 168; Ellison's ellipses)

It was a mark of his personality: he strove for perfection.

(If 25; Mouth 25; Alone 17)

It was a mark of his personality: it strove for perfection.

(FHE 188; EE 168)

He was a machine. We had allowed him to think, but to do nothing with it.

(If 32; Mouth 34; Alone 25–26)

AM wasn't God, he was a machine. We had created him to think, but there was nothing it could do with that creativity.

(FHE 195; EE 175)

Perhaps Ted best sums it up with this sentence: “We could call AM any damned thing we liked” (If 26; Mouth 25; Alone 17; FHE 188; EE 169). But there is more than indifference in Ted's attitude toward the computer. He admits he frequently thinks of AM as “him,” and he regularly uses masculine pronouns in reference to it. This is due partly to his religious conception of AM as God, as “Daddy the Deranged,” but more often it is because Ted anthropomorphizes the computer, and because Ted and the computer are reflections of each other. In addition, the computer itself assumes human characteristics.

Much of what makes Ted so interesting and effective as a narrator for this story is his intense paranoia, given to him by AM. In The Oxford Companion to the Mind “paranoia” is defined as a functional psychosis “in which the patient holds a coherent, internally consistent, delusional system of beliefs, centring [sic] round the conviction that he … is a person of great importance and is on that account being persecuted, despised, and rejected” (576). Ted displays these classic symptoms, as in this passage: “They hated me. They were surely against me, and AM could even sense this hatred, and made it worse for me because of the depth of their hatred. We had been kept alive, rejuvenated, made to remain constantly at the age we had been when AM had brought us below, and they hated me because I was the youngest, and the one AM had affected least of all” (EE 172). As the article in the Oxford volume says, “The adjective ‘paranoid’ is sometimes used by psychoanalysis to describe anxiety and ideas that are inferred to be projections of the subject's own impulses” (577). Ted thus transfers his own hatred to the computer and the others, while fending off the delusion that he was unchanged despite the descriptions he supplies of his altered mind and believing that “those scum, all four of them, they were lined and arrayed against me” (EE 172).

Part of the effect of Ted's paranoia is his transference of his own thoughts and feelings to others—and this includes AM, as well as his four human companions. He often describes the computer and its actions in human terms. For instance, he calls AM's tortures the machine's masturbation (Mouth 24; Alone 16; FHE 187; EE 168), and speaks of “the innate loathing that all machines had always held for the weak, soft creatures who had built them” (Alone 26; EE 175). It is difficult to imagine a toaster or refrigerator harboring malice against their makers; more likely, this statement is an expression of Ted's own hatred of humanity, and just happens to describe AM's own hatred as well.

Much could be made of the epistemological problems inherent in this story. Not only is Ted an extremely unreliable narrator, but it is often difficult to know how much of what he says is true and how much a projection of his own psyche. For instance, George Edgar Slusser calls Ted “the true creator of this hate machine” (360), but while Ted does project his hatred onto the machine, it is not simply his delusion either, unless the entire story never happened and is merely an elaborate construction within Ted's mind.

This humanization of AM is by no means limited to Ted's transference of human qualities to the computer, however. We are told AM's name in part refers to the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am” (If 27; Mouth 28; Alone 19; FHE 190; EE 170); Ellison also mentions that the talk-fields eventually were designed to read “I think, therefore I AM” and “Cogito ergo sum” (“Memoir” 15), even though they were positioned correctly only in The Essential Ellison (166). This philosophical statement on the part of the computer is certainly one quite human in nature. And AM displays other human qualities: “he” giggles and snickers; shows emotions like anger, hatred, and jealousy; goes through an “irrational, hysterical phase” (FHE 189; EE 169); and possesses sentience, life, and thought. Perhaps the trait which most reveals AM's human side is its sense of humor. Ted speaks of the computer having fun with the five of them, whom he describes as its toys; the machine frequently laughs at them, sometimes in the guise of a fat woman.2 AM even jokes with them: “he” gives them bows and arrows and a water pistol to fight the gigantic Huergelmir, and after starving them AM supplies them with canned goods but with nothing to open them. Once there was a Tom and Jerry cartoon with a similar joke: they are locked up in the house with nothing to eat but canned food, but the can opener is useless since they lack opposable thumbs. Given Ellison's love of animated cartoons—most recently documented in The Harlan Ellison Hornbook (100)—it is quite possible that the cartoon influenced this part of the story.

The computer reveals a sexual side as well. I have mentioned already that Ted describes the machine as masturbating and that it giggles whenever Ellen has sex with anyone. AM also enlarges Benny's penis, and Ted says that “AM had given her [Ellen] pleasure” in bringing her into the computer's complex (If 30; Mouth 31; Alone 22; FHE 193; EE 172). Jon Bernard Ower believes “AM's degradation of the sexual lives of his subjects reveals his jealousy of the physical pleasure and the spiritual fulfillment of human love” (59–60). It is also possible, I believe, that the scene in which AM enters Ted's mind with the neon-lettered pillar could be seen as rape, a mental sodomy of sorts. “AM went into my mind,” says Ted. “AM touched me in every way I had ever been touched … AM withdrew from my mind, and allowed me the exquisite ugliness of returning to consciousness with the feeling of that burning neon pillar still rammed deep into the soft gray brain matter” (If 31–32; Mouth 33–35 [has “grey” for “gray”]; Alone 24–26; FHE 194–96; EE 174–75). The sexual language and imagery here are very strong and suggestive.

In examining the story's various printings and reprintings in Ellison's books and in anthologies edited by others, I noticed that in speaking of Ellen's sexual services for the four men two of Ellison's books read, “She loved it, five men all to herself,” while the anthologies had, “She loved it, four men all to herself.” For a while, then, I believed that “five men” was the correct reading, and before I saw either The Fantasies of Harlan Ellison or The Essential Ellison, and before I asked Harlan himself about it, I was prepared to argue that the computer itself was the fifth man, thus strengthening my arguments for AM's humanization, in particular its sexual manifestations—all of which goes to show the importance of establishing dependable texts.

But while the computer itself may not have sex with Ellen, it definitely possesses a human side; as George Edgar Slusser says, “in its hatred for mankind, this machine has acquired a human heart” (360). Yet it is an extremely twisted and evil humanity this computer displays, stemming directly from the fact that AM was created to wage war and was programmed by people with hatred and madness in their souls. Ellison's comments on his projected screenplay adaptation of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot are illuminating on this point: “The only thing that can make machines hurt us is ourselves. Garbage in, garbage out. If we program them and we have madness, then they will be programmed mad” (Wiloch and Cowart 175). Incidentally, in Ellison's 1960 novel The Sound of a Scythe (published with the title The Man with Nine Lives) there is a supercomputer similar to AM, designed to handle tasks too complex for humans, but it is kept benevolent by Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.

If AM is far from benevolent, it is also far from human. It is limited in its creativity and, envying what freedoms and abilities the humans possess, strives to limit even those, as a dog in the manger. Either unwilling or unable to destroy itself, AM apparently is immortal and therefore grants the five humans a form of immortality (following the human adage that misery loves company). Although it can sustain human life, AM cannot create it, which explains why after 109 years and four men no children have been born to Ellen. Although one logically might infer that AM would want more human beings to torture, it evidently keeps Ellen as barren as “she” is. The humans are not fruitful, they do not multiply, they do not replenish the earth. This is made more ironic by the frequent images of pregnancy in the story, as Joseph Francavilla has noted (160); the computer complex repeatedly is referred to as AM's belly, and at one point Ted says, “He was Earth, and we were the fruit of that Earth” (Mouth 35; FHE 196; EE 175). In a way, since AM sustains them, it is a type of mother to the five, but it never gives birth to them, making the pregnancy imagery all the more ironic: “It [the hunger] was alive in my belly, even as we were alive in the belly of AM, and AM was alive in the belly of the earth” (If 34; Mouth 38; Alone 29).

Nor can AM restore life. After Ted and Ellen kill their companions, and after Ted murders Ellen, we clearly see the computer's impotence, evident in its rage that it cannot bring the dead ones back to life. Like Frankenstein's monster, AM cannot create life; but it can destroy it, which both AM and the monster do by turning on those who gave them life but who failed to give them love and the possibility to create life in turn.3 Unlike the Frankenstein monster, however, AM does not mature, but instead grows more childish: its use of the five as playthings indicates this, as does the temper tantrum it throws upon the death of the four. The computer again resembles the childish, insane god of “The Deathbird.” Like Ted, it is filled with hatred and in its madness must scream, yet like Ted it has no mouth: it can communicate only through acts of violence such as the rape scene and through the unintelligible talk-fields. Like Ted at some moments, AM represents humanity at its worst.

However, Ted also reveals glimmers of hope within the human condition as he aspires to godhood (so Ellison tells us in “Memoir”) through his heroism. AM also aspires to godhood, helped partly by Ted's own religious imagination, but the divinity it achieves is a very poor sort. In some ways the “god” AM becomes is a reflection of the human race which invented the machine, in others like the Judeo-Christian God in its power and supposed omnipotence, but actually it is closer to Dostoevsky's devil or Twain's malign thug: “If one truly believes there is an all-powerful Deity, and one looks around at the condition of the universe, one is led inescapably to the conclusion that God is a malign thug.” Nevertheless, AM's type of divinity is one representation of human potential, as Willis E. McNelly tells us in his foreword to the story in Robert Silverberg's anthology, The Mirror of Infinity. Programmed by humanity, “AM now knows all the ancient archetypal myths, and now uses its knowledge to pervert and negate them. It exercises the power that man never had, to control man, and to give substance to the myths. Man has played God for one last time, creating a God that destroys him” (267). In effect, AM plays at being God just as it plays with the five humans at its disposal, assuming the role of a God who prepares its creatures for destruction by first driving them mad.

There are several instances in the story where the computer plays with the symbolism and mythologies of various religions. For example, Charles J. Brady, Carol D. Stevens, Francavilla, and Ower all note the story's similarities to the book of Exodus—an additional meaning of AM's name comes from Exodus 3:14, where God tells Moses that He is to be called I AM THAT I AM—and usually these occur in the perverse way McNelly mentions. The computer sends the five manna which, however, tastes like “boiled boar urine” (If 25; Mouth 24; Alone 17; FHE 188; EE 168); when AM enters Ted's mind, it walks as God walked in the Garden of Eden before chastising Adam and Eve for their sin; it appears to them in the form of a burning bush (If 33; Mouth 36; Alone 27; FHE 197; EE 176); and after Ellen and Nimdok are swallowed by an earthquake, AM returns them to the others “as the heavenly legion bore them to us with a celestial chorus singing, ‘Go Down Moses.’ The archangels circled several times and then dropped the hideously mangled bodies” (Mouth 38; Alone 28; FHE 198; EE177).

And these examples are within the Judeo-Christian tradition alone: AM employs other religious tricks as well, such as producing the Huergelmir from Norse mythology. Still another mythic tradition may shed some additional light into the relationship between Ted and the computer. Returning to the sentence “He was the Earth, and we were the fruit of that Earth” along with the following sentence, “though he had eaten us he would never digest us,” recalls the Theogony of Hesiod, in which Kronos suppresses his godling children by eating them. Like Zeus in the myth, Ted is an emerging god, but to emerge he first must emasculate the Kronos-figure, AM. Ted saves his “brothers” and “sister,” ironically, by killing them; but instead of reigning triumphantly over the defeated god, both are condemned to Tartarus.

However, the Judeo-Christian mythology is most prevalent in the story, both in the identity AM adopts for itself and in Ted's ideas about the computer as God. Ted sees AM as God the Father and says, in a biblical misquotation, “He is a jealous people.” The phrase is actually “jealous God,” and two places where it occurs in the Bible are remarkably relevant to the story. In Exodus 20:5, the King James version, it says, “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them [graven images], nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” Since there is no certain indication in the story that any of the five are responsible for the creation of the various national AMs, the choice of the unified AM to punish these five and kill everyone else seems fairly arbitrary, but this biblical passage reflects a God who will punish the children for the sins of the fathers, down even to the third and fourth generations. Also, as both Ower and Stevens have pointed out, AM's selection of these five parodies the concept of a “chosen people” (Ower 56; Stevens 1981).

Nor will such a God necessarily forgive them, as we find in Joshua 24:19: “And Joshua said unto the people, Ye cannot serve the LORD: for he is an holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins.” Life in AM, for Ted, if not for the others, is not Purgatory, in which one suffers but ultimately is reprieved, but is Hell. “He withdrew, murmuring to hell with you. And added, brightly, but then you're there, aren't you” (FHE 196; EE 175). Yet Ted realizes, and we must realize, that AM is not God. Rather, as Ellison himself has said, “AM represents … the dichotomous nature of the human race, created in the image of God; and that includes the demon in us” (“Memoir” 10). In this respect, AM mirrors its creators. As Ower says, “Humanity in making the computer has travestied its own creation [by God], projecting an amplified image of its fallen and conditioned nature” (58). Perhaps it could even be argued that AM is not entirely malevolent toward humanity, but instead has a love/hate relationship with it. While it hurts the five, it also sustains them and in some cases even gives them pleasure; but Ted, narrating through the veil of his paranoia, can see only the computer's hatred.

Ted is more like the computer than he realizes, for he also has a love/hate relationship with the others. This is most apparent in his feelings for Ellen. For instance, when he comments that Ellen gave herself to him sexually out of gratitude at one point, he says, “Even that had ceased to matter” (If 25; Mouth 24; Alone 16; FHE 187; EE 168)—which implies that at one time it did matter. When traveling, Nimdok and Gorrister carry her while Ted and Benny walk ahead and behind “just to make sure that if anything happened, it would catch one of us and at least Ellen would be safe” (If 25; Mouth 24; Alone 16; FHE 188; EE 168). Ted here transfers his concern to the idiot Benny to de-emphasize his own concern for Ellen, and he does not begrudge her this special treatment (in a way foreshadowing her future limp), even though he curses her throughout the story. Ted always gives in to Ellen's wishes and tries to reassure her whenever she becomes anxious. And when just the two of them are alive and he could have her for himself—he is clearly jealous of the others, especially Benny, since he believes “she loved it from him” while with Ted “she never came”—he cares enough for her to rescue her from the hell he will encounter under AM's wrath.

Both AM's love/hate relationship with the five and Ted's paradoxical feelings toward Ellen reflect Ellison's own feelings toward humanity: “It is a love/hate relationship that I have with the human race,” he says (Wiloch and Cowart 175). Ellison believes the human spirit is capable of greatness and nobility, but too often people settle for meanness and mediocrity. “A majority of readers see his work as filled with anger and bitterness,” says Debra McBride (5). For instance, Joann P. Cobb thinks “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” “illustrates the surrender of human purpose and value that is inherent in contemporary attitudes toward technological progress” (159).4 But Ellison says otherwise, and his sense of anger, according to McBride, “stems from a love-hate relationship he has with the human race; he sees greatness in humanity that society seems to bury instead of cultivate” (5).

Earlier in the Wiloch and Cowart interview, Ellison expands on his comments with his beliefs about God and humanity: “There is no God. … We are God” (175). He has made similar statements elsewhere: “I have faith … in people, not Gods” (FHE 19; Ellison's ellipses); “God is within you. Save yourselves” (“The Waves in Rio” 15). Charles J. Brady believes that in “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” Ellison's “target” is “God-the-puppet-master, the eternal one behind the scenes who pulls all the strings” (61). But Brady asserts that this is an idol, not the “real” God; therefore “Ellison's work is not atheistic or blasphemous in the final analysis” (61). On the contrary, I think it is meant to be blasphemous, if not atheistic. Ellison implies here what he explicitly states above, that gods are essentially our own creations made in our image, and if anything the “real” God is an ideal of human nobility. Similar ideas also are expressed in two other stories by Ellison, “The Deathbird” and “The Region Between” (1969).

It is the belief in the potential of the human spirit that shapes the impact of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” It is this that makes the apparent humanity and divinity of AM so important, because AM is a human creation: humanity has created both God and Satan in its own image because it is potentially godlike and realistically demonic. It is also important that AM is so much like Ted, and vice versa, because in the narrator we see an actual human being at its worst, yet also a god emerging. As Francavilla says, citing the Promethian nature of Ted, “If the dark half of human nature is projected into AM, then the fire-bringing half is embodied in Ted” (159). The editor's introduction to the story in The Essential Ellison is very revealing on this point:

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is an exceptionally violent warning about technology as a reflection of humanity. If our machines store our knowledge, is it not possible that they can also store, and possibly succumb to, such things as hatred and paranoia? AM … is a “god” only in the sense of its godlike powers. But the story must be viewed as Harlan intended, as “a positive, humanistic, upbeat story,” if it is to have any real meaning. Gods and pseudo-gods cannot destroy us without destroying themselves, and the absence of a mouth or a scream cannot invalidate the courageousness of the human spirit. (EE 165–66)

In “Memoir,” Ellison claims Ted's actions are godlike since they reveal love and heroism in overcoming his paranoia and in killing the others to put them out of their misery, thus subjecting himself to an eternity of loneliness and torment.

Several aspects of the story strengthen this religious view of the narrator. First is the establishment of AM as a God-figure and the subsequent identification of Ted with the computer, however unwitting on Ted's part. Like AM, Ted is filled with envy, hatred, and paranoia. Both are immortal. Two descriptions of Ted's brain resemble those of AM's “mind”: blown by the hurricane, Ted describes his mind as “a roiling tinkling chittering softness” (If 31; Mouth 32; FHE 194; EE 173), a description resembling those of AM in thought, especially the repeated word “chittering”; and just as when AM was constructed its creators dropped shafts into the earth, so when AM enters Ted's mind “[h]e smiled softly at the pit that dropped into the center of my brain and the faint, moth-soft murmurings of the things far down there that gibbered without meaning, without pause” (If 31; Mouth 33; Alone 24–25; FHE 194; EE 174). In the latter, the sounds within the “pit” of Ted's brain are much like the talk-fields of the murmuring computer.

Other features which reinforce Ted's religious nature are his language and expressions, many of which are loaded with theological and liturgical impact. Not only does he often equate AM with God, and even pray at one point (but in vain), but he also speaks occasionally in a biblical mode. He speaks of AM's “miracles” and the torments which he “visited down on us,” and their passage through “a valley of obsolescence” foreshadows the Bunyanesque tone of the later passage, which reads:

And we passed through the cavern of rats.
And we passed through the path of boiling steam.
And we passed through the country of the blind.
And we passed through the slough of despond.
And we passed through the vale of tears.

(If 34; Mouth 38; Alone 29; FHE 198; EE 177)

John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, to which this story has been compared, is of course the source of the Slough of Despond; the “vale of tears” is a traditional religious phrase expressing the medieval Christian view of the world as a place of suffering (terribly apropos for this story); and “the country of the blind” is from the H. G. Wells tale of the same title which makes use of the familiar quotation, “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”—even if he has no mouth.

Another religious aspect of Ted is the narration itself. To whom is he telling this story? Not to AM, certainly; the computer is referred to in the third person, and it's likely the two aren't on speaking terms. He probably isn't writing or typing it, as McNelly supposes (265), given the description of his arms as “[r]ubbery appendages.” The most probable answer is that Ted is telling it to himself (Joseph F. Patrouch, Jr., arrives at the same conclusion [55]), and likely not for the first time. Like Gorrister telling the history of AM over and over to Benny, so Ted probably repeats his story to himself, possibly to alleviate the sense of guilt he feels at the death of the others and his uncertainty that he did the right thing. In this way, the story would assume a mythological aspect. Evidence of such repetition can be seen in the various instances of foreshadowing in the story. Gorrister's reaction to seeing himself suspended, dead and mutilated, from the pink palette, “as though he had seen a voodoo icon” (If 24; Mouth 23; FHE 186; EE 167), foreshadow's Benny's later cannibalistic attack. Ted's description of the earth's “blasted skin” parallels his later transformation by AM, as does the light pulsing within Benny when he tries to escape to the surface and AM reduces his eyes to “two soft, moist pools of pus-like jelly.” Ellen is carried by Nimdok and Gorrister even before her leg is injured—or maybe after; perhaps Ted's chronology has become confused with successive retellings. Also, Ted says that among the five he was affected the least—an impression given him by his paranoia—but in the end he is altered almost beyond the point of recognition as a human being.

The most religious thing about Ted, however, is not his language but his actions. In killing the others, with Ellen's assistance, Ted fulfills Christ's statement, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Like other religious aspects of the story, this is reversed: Ted lays down his life, but it is his friends who die and he who lives. Despite this inversion, however, Ted is no Christ-figure. He remains fully human, yet achieves a type of godliness despite his humanity, despite his paranoia and his hatred of others. Ted is a human hero—human as we are, his courage an example for us to follow rather than a Christlike ideal we cannot reach. As McNelly says, “Ted is no Christian in his pilgrim's progress” but rather “the embodiment of the good and evil in all of us, at once brute and angel, fornicator and lover, killer and savior. He is man—like a devil, like an angel, like a god” (265–66).

The narrator of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” then, embodies the image of God despite his human, all too human limitations and flaws. Ted exemplifies the potential of the human spirit. In this way he triumphs over the computer, which is also human and godlike; because while the computer is neither fully human nor fully divine, Ted is both, and through this displays a moral superiority which makes this tale, as Ellison intended it, “a positive, humanistic, upbeat story” (“Memoir” 5).

[An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Science Fiction Research Association meeting in Long Beach, California, June 1990.]


  1. Here I simply note the irony of my writing a critical essay on the story which prompted the biting remarks on literary criticism in Ellison's “Memoir: I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.”

  2. Ted only speaks of AM as “he,” part of his transference and religious conception of the computer; but it would be equally possible to call it “she” at times, just as mainstream and liberal Christians recently have begun to think of God in both patriarchal and matriarchal terms.

  3. Francavilla also has noted the similarity between AM and the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

  4. Although the texts are identical, the pagination for “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” in the book club version of Alone Against Tomorrow differs from that of the first edition. In the book club edition the story is printed on pages 3–19. This is the edition cited in Joann P. Cobb's article.

Works Cited

Brady, Charles J. “The Computer as a Symbol of God: Ellison's Macabre Exodus.” The Journal of General Education 28 (1976): 55–62.

Cobb, Joann P. “Medium and Message in Ellison's ‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.’” The Intersection of Science Fiction and Philosophy: Critical Studies. Ed. Robert E. Myers. Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy 4. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983.

Ellison, Harlan. The Harlan Ellison Hornbook. New York: Penzler, 1990.

———. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” Alone Against Tomorrow: Stories of Alienation in Speculative Fiction. New York: Macmillan, 1971.

———. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” The Essential Ellison: A 35-Year Retrospective. Ed. and intro. Terry Dowling, Richard Delap, and Gil Lamont. Omaha: Nemo, 1987.

———. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” The Fantasies of Harlan Ellison. Boston: Gregg, 1979.

———. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” If: Worlds of Science Fiction 17, no. 3 (March 1967): 24–36.

———. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. New York: Pyramid, 1975.

———. Introduction. “The Waves in Rio.” The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World. New York: Signet-NAL, 1974.

———. “Memoir: I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” Fantastic Lives: Autobiographical Essays by Notable Science Fiction Writers. Ed. Martin H. Greenberg. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1981.

Francavilla, Joseph. “Mythic Hells in Harlan Ellison's Science Fiction,” Phoenix from the Ashes: The Literature of the Remade World. Ed. Carl B. Yoke. Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy 30. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1987.

Gregory, Richard L., ed. The Oxford Companion to the Mind. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.

McBride, Debra L. “Soapbox: Ellison at Mid-Career.” Fantasy Review 7, no. 11 (1984): 5–6.

McNelly, Willis E. Foreword. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” By Harlan Ellison. The Mirror of Infinity: A Critics' Anthology of Science Fiction. Ed. Robert Silverberg. San Francisco: Canfield-Harper, 1970.

Ower, Jon Bernard. “Manacle-Forged Minds: Two Images of the Computer in Science-Fiction.” Diogenes 85 (1974): 47–61.

Patrouch, Joseph F., Jr. “Harlan Ellison and the Formula Story.” The Book of Ellison. Ed. Andrew Porter. New York: Algol, 1978.

Slusser, George Edgar. “Harlan Ellison.” Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day. Ed. E. F. Bleiler. New York: Scribner's, 1982.

Stevens, Carol D. “The Short Fiction of Harlan Ellison.” Vol. 4. Survey of Science Fiction Literature. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem, 1979.

Wiloch, Thomas, and David Cowart. “Harlan Ellison.” Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Vol. 5. Ed. Ann Drury. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.

Robert K. J. Killheffer (review date December 1993)

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SOURCE: “At Play in the Fields of the Weird: An Evocative Polish Surrealist Makes His American Debut,” in Omni, Vol. 16, No. 3, December, 1993, pp. 20, 24.

[In the following review, Killheffer discusses Mind Fields, a compilation of artwork by Jacek Yerka and stories by Harlan Ellison.]

Though the opening of the Eastern Bloc hasn't brought Eastern Europe the peace and prosperity many hoped for, it has afforded Polish artist Jacek Yerka (pronounced “Yahtzik Yurka”) a golden opportunity. In November of 1991, Yerka's agent/manager Elzbieta Lavastre reserved a small booth at the Los Angeles Contemporary Art Fair, which she might never have considered attending during the Cold War years. James Cowan, founder of Morpheus International, an art book publisher based in Beverly Hills, California, came upon Yerka's work at Lavastre's booth, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“I knew I was in the presence of a genius,” Cowan recalls. Among the welter of artists' work at the Fair—Cowan remembers “a lot of banal and mediocre stuff”—the paintings by Yerka, a painter little known in his native land and not at all abroad, stood out to Cowan's eye like a beacon through the fog.

Cowan cut a deal on the spot (“I was ready to sign him up within five minutes of seeing the paintings,” he says) to do a book of Yerka's work, which was exciting enough on its own, but when he showed some of Yerka's work to writer Harlan Ellison—in hopes of obtaining an Ellison introduction for the book—Cowan got more than he could ever have hoped for. Ellison liked the paintings so much that he volunteered to pen 30 new stories inspired by Yerka's art to accompany the paintings in the book. “I was absolutely knocked out,” says Ellison.

Of course, Cowan could hardly pass up such an opportunity. In time for Christmas this year, Morpheus International is publishing Mind Fields, a 30-painting showcase of Yerka's artwork and Ellison's fiction, a collaboration between a somewhat obscure Polish artist on the one hand and an internationally famous, award-winning American writer on the other, which emerges as more than the sum of their parts.

Yerka's art brims with echoes of the famous surreal artists of the past, from Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel to Salvador Dali and René Magritte, filtered through Yerka's own unique sensibility. In Attack at Dawn, a car takes on the form of a biomechanical lizard, and the diving planes sport carnivorous teeth and cruelly curved claws. Europe's fanciful city hewn from stone perches precariously on a few thin pipe supports over a bleak plain, while a road spills down the cliff like a waterfall. A door opens suddenly, Magrittelike, onto another world in The Oligocenskie Gardens, while on the surface above, strangely bare symmetrical trees dot a misty landscape out of Hugo van der Goes.

One thing Ellison noticed right away about Yerka's paintings was their vividly narrative quality: “There wasn't one of them that didn't spark some sort of strange Borgesian idea in my head.” The paintings often invite a literary interpretation, suggesting a story in progress or just finished. The lizard car's door in Attack at Dawn stands open—where has the rider gone? It's the passenger-side door—is the driver still inside? The title of Truancy at the Pond hints at the dark tale behind the painting: An empty toy boat, tied to the pier, floats aimlessly, while a trail of bubbles drifts up from the seemingly bottomless depths.

Ellison's accompanying pieces are themselves artistic gems; they play off of Yerka's images without becoming slavish, they're full of Ellison's famous wit and energy, and they (like the paintings) mingle a sharp, detailed sense of vivid reality with an odd, offbeat flavor of the fantastic. Ellison's fiction and Yerka's art make a perfect complement.

Today, Yerka lives a fairly reclusive existence in a cottage in rural Poland, lacking even a phone, subsisting on the sale of his paintings. Since his days at art school, like any true artist, Yerka has stubbornly followed his muse. His teachers tried year after year to make Yerka paint in the manner and style of contemporary artists, to give up his passion for the crisp paradoxes of surrealism and the distinctive colors of his fifteenth-century Flemish influences. But Yerka persevered, and his instructors reluctantly recognized him as a brilliant (though peculiar) talent.

Now, with the publication of Mind Fields, Yerka's stubbornness may pay off. Morpheus International has big plans for its new artist—Cowan already has a second book in the works and plans to print a series of fine-art posters and original lithographs of Yerka's work. Morpheus is the only art-book publisher to focus on fine art of the fantastic, currently handling the works of H. R. Giger and De Es Schwertberger. “It's a labor of love,” Cowan says. “Sure, I make some money from it, but my main interest is to help the artist who has basically been ignored.” With such striking images and Harlan Ellison's provocative stories to lure readers in, Yerka may well become one of Eastern Europe's most successful exports of the post-Cold War era.

John Mort (review date 15 December 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Mefisto in Onyx, in Booklist, Vol. 90, No. 8, December 15, 1993, p. 741.

[In the below review, Mort offers a positive critique of Mefisto in Onyx but criticizes Ellison for the manner in which the book was published.]

The hype that seems always to accompany Ellison is present once again: for one thing, Mefisto is just a long short story, originally published in Omni. For another, in his acknowledgments. Ellison slams the editors at TOR Books for their “rudeness, ineptitude, shortsightedness, cowardice, ignorant arrogance, and boneheaded behavior,” presumably because they wanted his story to appear in one of their “forgettable anthologies,” rather than in book form. Then there's the hype of Ellison's didactic narration: a treatise on taste, for instance, turning on one's choice of briefcases. All that said, Mefisto remains a terrific tale full of twists and knock-out punches, about a mind-reader called in to assess the thoughts of a serial killer before his electrocution. The prosecutor, an old girlfriend of the mind-reader, has fallen in love with the killer and become convinced of his innocence. In only a few pages Ellison delivers a harrowing portrait of a prison, of a serial killer, and of the peculiar personalities of women who fall in love with sociopaths. So this little tale is worth the price, but it's time for Ellison to deliver a real novel. With or without hype, fans would eat it up.

Ray Olson (review date 1 December 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of The City on the Edge of Forever, in Booklist, Vol. 92, No. 7, December 1, 1995, p. 606.

[In the following review, Olson discusses Ellison's motivation for reprinting his award-winning script for the original Star Trek television series.]

Ellison has had it—up to here! He wrote the original teleplay for the first Star Trek TV series' most popular episode (in which Kirk and Spock leap through a time gate into 1930s Chicago in order to prevent history being changed) and then watched, patiently fuming, for 30 years as Gene Roddenberry, that blankity-blank-blank, told everyone what an incompetent job Ellison had done and how much he had to labor to realize the script that was finally filmed. Yet since Ellison's original won a Writers Guild Award, the highest honor TV dramatists bestow, how incompetent could it have been? The answer, verified by the script's reappearance here alongside two prefatory treatments and two scenes Ellison added at Roddenberry's request, is “not at all.” Seconding that assessment, four other ST writers and four original cast members weigh in. But what makes this [The City on the Edge of Forever] the ST book of the year (maybe all time) is Ellison's sputtering, raging, fuming introduction in which he sets the record straight, by God! Invective doesn't come any better these days. Both ears and the tail, Harl!

Harlan Ellison (essay date 7 April 1997)

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SOURCE: “Strangers in a Strange Land,” in Newsweek, Vol. 129, No. 14, April 7, 1997, p. 49.

[In the following essay, Ellison discusses the correlation between cult suicide and obsession with science fiction.]

Exactly one year ago, my heart tried to kill me. Before I could die, doctors cracked my chest open and performed a quadruple bypass. But for an instant I came close to the end, and I know that in the Rancho Santa Fe cultists' last moments, as they were descending into their death sleep, they were thinking, “Please help me; I'm going into the darkness, and I need to know.”

We all want to know. Traditionally, we have sought answers in philosophy, religion or mysticism, even in the concepts that you find in fantastic literature. These images have the magical capacity to inspire dreams, to enrich reality. At best, the literary genre called science fiction tells us we must be responsible for one another and for the common good. That's the work of writers like J. G. Ballard or Thomas Disch.

At worst, it's merely “Sci-Fi,” which holds that the world is full of monsters and conspiracies and that logic is beyond us. That's what leads people to kill themselves to get on board a mythical flying saucer. Twisted and corrupted, it can turn life into a nightmare from which one escapes by eating applesauce and phenobarbital, or downing a slug of grape Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.

“Sci-Fi” is what the Rancho Santa Fe sleepers bought. It's a simplistic, pulp-fiction view of the world exemplified by the movie Independence Day, which warps our curiosity about the possibility of other life in the universe into an apocalyptic Saturday-morning cartoon. For the cultists, like so. … many Americans, standard religions and belief systems no longer cut it. We live in a time when science and technology have outraced our capacity to understand them—cloning, computers and genetic engineering complicate lives that are increasingly given to loneliness. If the answer isn't here … maybe it's out there, in the infinite darkness. Most people who watch The X-Files or Star Trek or saw the rerelease of Star Wars are simply looking for escapism. But in a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, it went dramatically farther. They turned away from the wonders of the real world and embraced recastings of Jesus as a deep-space navigator.

It wasn't always this way. Fantasy, after all, is the oldest form of literature there is. “Sci-Fi,” though, is a product of the last two or three decades. The intent was good: the 1960s and 1970s were a time of chaos, and “Sci-Fi” may have addressed the fears those social changes inspired. People don't understand the wonders of real science—they don't know what a gravity well is or what RNA does. And they don't want to know, because they have spaceships, flying saucers and aliens. It's a popular fad, like the dancing sickness of the Middle Ages. Most of us go to see Independence Day and then come out into the light and have a pizza. We go on with our lives.

But there are some who go to see Independence Day and believe it. People believe that which is presented to them in the most palatable form, and that's partly what this “Sci-Fi” nonsense is. People go for it. They immerse themselves in subcultures—from Trekkie conventions to the far gossiping corners of the Internet. At the most extreme, they might join a cult, find a charismatic nutcase and go into a closed society, a rigid family in which a peculiar mythology is set forth as the norm.

As the millennium approaches, this will only get worse. More and more people may fall for a tabloid mentality of UFO abductions, triangular-headed aliens and reinterpreted Biblical apocrypha. This kind of thinking provides an emotional venue where people can believe crazy things—and even do themselves serious harm.

I don't write that stuff at all. I may use these elements as furniture, but science fiction is less concerned with fairy tales like flying saucers and more concerned with eternal questions. What is the place of human beings in the universe? How do we fulfill our potential in a way that benefits us and our children? How do we use these advances in ways that benefit humanity as a whole? Technology is not the important thing: the effect of technology on human beings is. But where science fiction asks the important questions, “Sci-Fi” answers them, and does it poorly. It preys on the desire for wish fulfillment and the gullibility of people longing for an explanation of what their lives will mean in the 21st century. Yes, it's understandable—we all want answers—but that's an explanation, and not an excuse. The Promised Land does not lie in the tail of a comet.

Eric P. Nash (review date 21 September 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 231

SOURCE: A review of Slippage, in New York Times Book Review, September 21, 1997, p. 25.

[In the review below, Nash offers a positive appraisal of Slippage.]

Harlan Ellison, the reigning bad boy of science fiction for more than 40 years, has mellowed—somewhat. Like Stephen King (who took more than a leaf from his stylebook), Ellison writes with a relish for gutter slang, veins-in-the-teeth violence and brand-name pop culture, and his work hums with a relentless narrative drive. Many of the stories in Slippage, are light fables. Another, “Crazy as a Soup Sandwich,” about a modern-day demon, reads like a script for one of the more whimsical episodes of The Twilight Zone. (And it was, in the reprised series of the 1980s.) But the horripilating centerpiece novella, “Mefisto in Onyx,” which describes a black telepath's meeting with a white serial killer on death row, is a reminder that Ellison has not lost his capacity to convey stark, staring psychosis. He gets a little deeper into the killer's mind than is comfortable, emerging with “the scent of the blossoming Yellow Lady's Slipper … the odor that rises from a human body cut wide open, like a mouth making a big, dark yawn.” This is the Ellison we know from earlier collections like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Who else could end a story with “The television licked its lips and winked at him”?

Michael Cart (essay date 15 October 1997)

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SOURCE: “What Walpole Wrought; or, The Horror! The Horror!” in Booklist, Vol. 94, No. 4, October 15, 1997, p. 395.

[In the following essay, Cart touches on numerous aspects of Ellison's works and career, focusing on the author's views of modern science fiction, horror, and fantasy.]

Quick! What do Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Count Dracula have in common? Give up? It's their birthdays. Well, it's Mary's birthday, anyway; born in 1797, she turns a mature 200 this year. As for the count: since I'm not sure the undead actually celebrate birthdays, perhaps it would be more proper to say that 1997 marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Dracula, Bram Stoker's eponymous novel about the ever-dapper, always-thirsty Toast of Transylvania. If Dracula is one of the two most famous novels in the field of horror fiction, then Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, Modern Prometheus is surely the other. Written when she was only 19, it wasn't published until 1818 (by which time she was a superannuated 21).

Despite the, well, monstrous stature of Frankenstein and the fact that it antedates Dracula by 79 years, it was not the first of its genre to appear. Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, published in 1765, is typically accorded that honor though it would seem to me that a pretty good case could be made for Beowulf which has been around since about 750 and costars a guy named Grendel, who is himself no slouch as a monster (the late John Gardner gives him his own say in his tour de force novel Grendel, published in 1971).

If the current popularity of horror fiction among young readers can be traced to the slasher movies of the early 1980s (Friday the 13th,Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.), Walpole's work emerged from an impatience with a world that had been cut and dried by an imaginatively arid Age of Reason. Or, as he wrote in the preface to Otranto, “The great resources of fancy have been dammed up by a strict adherence to common life.”

Would he be happy with what his resourceful fancy wrought in the form of the horror fiction that is being published these 230-odd years later? I have no idea. I do know, however, that Harlan Ellison, a modern master of horror, fantasy, and the supernatural, is not. I know because I asked him. The author of 70 books (his latest, Slippage, has just been published by Houghton Mifflin), some 1,700 short stories, articles, and essays, and dozens of screen and teleplays, Ellison is a man of vivid opinions, many of which he shares as a frequent guest on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect. He is also an enormously talented writer, some of whose stories—for example, “A Boy and His Dog,” “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” and “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World”—are modern classics of imaginative prose. Though a list of his work is strictly sui generic, he often operates in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, and John Collier. And so I'm surprised that only one of his books, Deathbird Stories, has ever been named a Best Book for Young Adults.

Be that as it may, I was interested in his assessment of the state of the art. Here's some of what he had to say when I interviewed him earlier this week and invoked names such as Walpole, Dracula, and Frankenstein: “Well, the changes in these genres—horror fiction, the supernatural and fantasy, particularly postmodernist fantasy—are the same changes one finds in all of contemporary society. And while I don't mean to be the specter at the banquet, most of these are not salutary changes. First, consider that the rise in illiteracy in this country and the related miasma of television have turned an entire nation into zombies. And, then, consider that we now have an enormous number of amateurs writing in these fields—by that, I mean people who were brought up on television and have no literary tradition. Their writing I find to be just abysmal.”

“You mentioned Dracula, which is a very fine novel. There's also Suzy McKee Charnas' Vampire Tapestry (Simon & Schuster, 1980). Otherwise, what is there? I cannot figure out what it is about vampires that interests anybody. I mean, you suck a neck and that's the end of it. And yet, you have endless variations on the same bloodsucking theme; the tropes have become so concretized that only the most minuscule variations are permitted—and in language so lugubrious that it would put cardboard to sleep! And the same is true of fantasy: instead of the truly original work of people like Fritz Leiber, Kate Wilhelm, and Thomas Disch, we now have these moron trilogies filled with fuzzy-footed creatures and [he shudders] unicorns: you know, The Search for the Sword of Zuchman. It's a very sad landscape to look out upon.”

When Ellison, who actually owns as many books as the Beverly Hills Public Library, turns his attention to the place occupied by online technology in this bleak landscape, you can almost hear the famous line, “The horror! The horror!,” echoing from the pages of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

“The Internet is nothing but a holiday for yentas,” he winces. “It's a forum for back-fence gossip and a place where ‘maroons’ and ‘ultramaroons,’ as Daffy Duck would say, who believe in UFOs and yetis and conspiracy theories, can have an absolute field day.”

A man who continues to write using a manual typewriter, Ellison also has harsh words for the personal computer, asserting that the ease with which it can be operated has resulted in “a lot of slovenly writing.” One of the funniest—and scariest—stories in his new collection, in fact, is “The Keyboard,” which is about a computer that turns into, yes, a vampire. There's a TV set in there, too. “Everybody calls me a Luddite,” Ellison says, “but I just want to work the way I want to work. Give me my manual typewriter and a piece of paper, and I'll boogie!”

Clearly, Ellison is a man who has a mouth and occasionally screams. But he also has a lot of thoughtful things to say. He voices his regret, for example, that the books that are the most successful in his field these days are “the media tie-ins; the Star Trek, the Star Wars, and the Hercules novels.” “But then,” he continues ruefully, “the publishing industry has become almost a clone of the movie business, in which good writing has almost no value and good writers even less.”

He also regrets that the writers of genre fiction are ghettoized. “In truth,” he says, “fantasy is the oldest form of literature. I mean, the first writings we have are the Gilgamesh legends from Mesopotamia. Mimetic [i.e., realistic] fiction is a fairly recent development. I always perceived fantasy as the larger sphere within which realistic fiction operated. And so to mix fantasy tropes in my own writing with real-time people and situations is a very great joy for me. After all, if you turn the lens of fantasy only slightly, it reflects the human condition in a much more invigorating way than straight fiction.”

Maybe it was all the writers who work in the wake of Walpole whom Joseph Conrad had in mind when he wrote, “They speak to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives.”


Ellison, Harlan (Vol. 13)