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.”
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.
“‘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.
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.