Harlan Ellison Ellison, Harlan (Vol. 139) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 J. Brady (essay date Spring 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Crow and Richard Erlich (essay date May 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Charles W. Sullivan III (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Marty Clark (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Clark (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Washington Post Book World (review date 25 September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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George Kirgo (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mitch Berman (review date 1 January 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.”


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Robert F. Moss (review date 17 September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ray Olson (review date 1 November 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Martin Brady (review date 1 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Washington Post Book World (review date 28 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dale Thomajan (review date November–December 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Darren Harris Fain (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Mort (review date 15 December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ray Olson (review date 1 December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Harlan Ellison (essay date 7 April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Eric P. Nash (review date 21 September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Cart (essay date 15 October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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