Remembering Harlan Ellison, One of Science Fiction’s Most Notorious Minds

Harlan Ellison has died at the age of 84. An award-winning fantasy and science-fiction writer (although he loathed being called as such), Ellison is best remembered for writing dark and bleak science-fiction in an era when most writers were optimistic about the future. His best-known story is arguably I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. In this, a computer designed to optimise warfare wipes out all but five humans who are then made immortal and tortured for the computer’s amusement. He also edited the influential anthology Dangerous Visions, a season of readings that present uneasy reflections of the future.

News of Ellison’s death was made by Christine Valada, who tweeted that Ellison’s wife, Susan, had asked her to announce that he died in his sleep.

Over the course of his career, Ellison won many awards including multiple Hugos, Nebulas and Edgars. He also received four WGA Awards for his TV work and the Silver Pen for journalism. What was perhaps more interesting about his life was his character; the author of a 1980 L.A. Times profile famously declared “Ellison is fiercely independent, proudly elitist, frequently angry, tenacious and downright vengeful.”

Throughout his life, Ellison did little to challenge notions that he was a cankerous and provocative individual; in 1993, when he was named a regular commentator on the American Sci-Fi channel, he said: “I enjoy doing this because it permits me the opportunity to annoy hundreds of thousands of people all at once”. He never shied away from speaking his mind and in many ways, he was a stereotypical creative genius in that he would break (explode) before he bent (compromised).

Ellison once got asked to pitch ideas for an early Star Trek movie. Idea after idea was shot down, as he was deemed to “not be thinking big enough”. Finally, Ellison proposed something spectacularly original; the Enterprise would pop out of hyperspace and crash into a solid brick wall that seemingly surrounded the known universe. After blasting through it, the crew would then gaze at the face of God himself. In response to this idea (which frankly would drive most viewers into existential depression), one exec still claimed that he was not thinking big enough. Ellison gave him the finger and stormed out.

Such stories are delightful and endearing, but Ellison also proved on more than one occasion that he could be a bit of a bad egg. Isaac Asimov recounted that when he first met the writer in the early sixties, Ellison approached him and asked if he really was “the” Isaac Asimov. Thinking he was dealing with a fan, Asimov confirmed that he was. In response, Ellison spat out “well I think you’re a nothing!”

He was also no stranger to the courts; he sued James Cameron after the 1984 release of The Terminator, claiming that it copied a story that he’d published in 1957 called Soldier from Tomorrow. Cameron and Ellison reached a private settlement over the matter and Ellison’s name was later added to new additions to the franchise. Crucially, Cameron has said that he was pressured into the deal as a then-struggling director. Make of that what you will.

His outbursts were legendary, but behind this fiery façade was a serious artist and a progressive thinker. Famously, Ellison marched with Dr King to Selma during the civil rights protests. He was also very active in the anti-Vietnam war campaign. We might think such attitudes to be commonplace nowadays, but back in the sixties it was risky and did end up costing the writer work from some studios, though he never relented.

Ellison was married five times, with at least two of those marriages lasting only weeks or months. Survivors include his fifth wife, Susan Ann Toth.


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