Thursday, 28 June 2018

RIP Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison, one of science fiction's best-known and most polarising figures, has passed away at the age of 84.

Born in 1934 in Cleveland, Ohio, Harlan Ellison held a wide variety of jobs whilst he honed his skills as a writer. He was kicked out of Ohio State University for punching a professor who said he was a bad writer and claims to have sent a copy of every story he published for the next twenty years to that professor in revenge (later, more moderate accounts suggest he was kicked out for just yelling at him).

He sold his first story to The Cleveland News in 1949 and began publishing short fiction regularly in 1955. In 1962 he moved to Hollywood and began working in the film industry, submitting scripts to shows such as The Man from UNCLE and The Outer Limits. He first attracted widespread notice with his work for the latter, particularly his 1964 episode Soldier, a story about a murderous soldier who goes back in time. Twenty years later he declared that this episode had been ripped off by James Cameron for his movie The Terminator and won a significant out-of-court settlement.

During his time working in Hollywood, Ellison incurred the ire of Frank Sinatra during a billiards game, who objected to Ellison's footware.

Ellison began working on Star Trek, penning the original script for The City on the Edge of Forever, widely acknowledged as the finest episode of the original Star Trek series and one of the very best of the entire franchise. Ellison's script was reworked by Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana (among others) into the aired version, something that irked Ellison, although not to the point of removing his name from the script. Ellison won the Writer's Guild Award for the original version of the script and also the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, for the shooting script. Ellison continuously claimed his original script was superior, publishing it several times (critics were less in agreement). In 2009 he sued Paramount for royalties and profits made from the episode; a significant out-of-court settlement was reached.

Ellison worked at Disney, for a day, before being fired after joking that they should make an animated pornographic film featuring Disney characters. He then continued his career in short fiction, penning the short stories "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktock Man" (1965), "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" (1967) and "A Boy and His Dog" (1969). "I Have No Mouth" won a Hugo Award and was turned into a well-received video game in 1995, which Ellison collaborated on despite not owning a PC. "A Boy and His Dog" was filmed in 1975 (winning Ellison another Hugo) and was named as one of the key influences on the video game Fallout (1997); imagery from the film was particularly tapped in the marketing for the game Fallout 3 (2008). Presumably this escaped Ellison's attention, as he did not sue anyone involved.

In 1967 Ellison published the science fiction anthology Dangerous Visions. A ground-breaking work, it codified the New Wave movement of science fiction and was credited for almost single-handedly changing the way people thought about the genre. Three of the stories in the book won Hugo Awards and the book itself was massively successful and critically-acclaimed in and out of the genre. Ellison followed it up with Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972, which, improbably, reached similar levels of acclaim. Ellison announced The Last Dangerous Visions in 1973 and solicited approximately 150 stories for the third collection. The book was repeatedly delayed and some of the contributing authors either died or withdrew their stories. British author Christopher Priest was so incensed by the situation that he penned a non-fiction book about the affair, The Last Deadloss Visions (1987, reworked as The Book on the Edge of Forever ten years later), which exceedingly annoyed Ellison for the rest of his life. The Last Dangerous Visions, remarkably, remained unpublished at the time of Ellison's death, forty-five years after it was first announced.

In 1980 Ellison and Ben Bova sued Paramount Pictures, contending that their TV series Future Cop was based on Ellion and Bova's story "Brillo." Paramount decided to defend the case and lost, being forced to award the writers $330,000. 

In the mid-1980s Ellison worked on the rebooted version of The Twilight Zone, hiring George R.R. Martin as a writer on the show before Ellison quit in anger after disagreeing with the studio on the show's creative direction.

Ellison met Hollywood scriptwriter J. Michael Straczynski when the latter tracked down his telephone number and called him up, nervously asking what advice he could give a budding writer whose work wasn't selling. "Stop writing shit," was Ellison's response. They later met in person and struck up a friendship and collaborative relationship. Straczynski solicited Ellison's advice on his in-development TV series Babylon 5, and when the show was picked up by Warner Brothers Harlan Ellison came on board as creative consultant. Ellison contributed several voices on the show and cameoed as a Psi Cop in the Season 4 episode The Face of the Enemy, alongside Star Trek's Walter Koenig. Ellison hit on the idea of writing a sequel to his Outer Limits episode Demon with a Glass Hand, entitled Demon on the Run, for Babylon 5, but after several attempts was unable to complete a script to his satisfaction. He did collaborate with Straczynski on the Season 5 episode Objects in Motion. Straczynski spoke briefly about his passing today.

In the 2000s Ellison became known for his increasingly angry activism on behalf of writers: his rant "Pay the Writer!" where he talks about the contempt Hollywood holds for writers despite them being their most important resource went viral and has been cited many times in response to the suggestion that writers should work "for exposure." Ellison also became known for being disrespectful at public events; his most notorious moment came at the 2006 Hugo Awards when he groped writer Connie Willis on stage during the ceremony. He later apologised for the incident, but then complained when his apology was apparently not accepted.

It'd be fair to say that Harlan Ellison was one of science fiction's most colourful and divisive writers. A passionate advocate for not just creative impulse of writing but also paying the writer their due, he worked hard to ensure that his work was not plagiarised and his rights infringed. He wrote more than 1,500 short stories (some of them whilst sitting in bookstore windows in a kind of live performance art process) and dozens of scripts. He won seven Hugo Awards, three Nebulas and three Writer's Guild of America Awards, along with the 2005 SFWA Grand Master Award and the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. His actual fiction - sometimes overshadowed by the author's tendency towards gossip-inducing shenanigans - was often scathing and powerful. According to John Clute, Ellison's writing shows that he was "a central witness to the pain of the world."

Ellison was also irascible, rude, quick to anger and slow to forgive. He never burned a bridge when he had the option of dropping a Tsar Bomba-class nuke on it instead. By the end of his days he'd managed to piss off everyone from Frank Sinatra to Gene Roddenberry to James Cameron. His colourful "bad boy of SF" image was tarnished by some of his behaviour at conventions towards the end of his life, particularly the shameful Connie Willis episode.

Love him or hate him, Ellison was impossible to ignore and will be difficult to forget. That, I think, is an epitaph he would be content to go out on (having first suspiciously checked his back catalogue and consulted a lawyer to ensure it hadn't been stolen from one of his short stories).

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