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Harlan Ellison’s biggest contributions to science fiction

Contributed by
Jun 28, 2018

Today, at the age of 84, the writer Harlan Ellison died in his sleep. The sleeping detail is notable, only because Ellison himself would probably have predicted that he’d die mid-sentence, likely pontificating about the various injustices committed against writers as a profession, or the human race as a whole. Ellison marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in the ‘60s, and wrote science fiction and fantasy the same way rock bands might create new guitar riffs. He wasn’t really known for one singular great piece of work, but instead for a whole body of writing, all of which seemed authentically him.

But, in case you’re late to the Harlan party, you might not know specifically why so many people in the science fiction and fantasy communities are freaking out about his importance. A great deal of Ellison’s influence and contributions to sci-fi and fantasy are connected to his personality, but there are tangible, lasting impacts, too. Here are a few ways Ellison changed the course of science fiction history.

His Outer Limits Scripts Were Crazy Influential

Ellison only wrote two scripts for The Outer Limits, but both of them were way ahead of their time. In “Demon With a Glass Hand” the entirety of the human race is stored in memory circuits contained in the hand of a man who thinks he’s human, but is, in fact, a robot. Ellison’s other script, “Soldier,” is all about combatants from a far-future war being swept back to the present day. Apocryphally, James Cameron was so taken with this idea that he used it as the basis for The Terminator. In a long, complicated legal struggle, Ellison got Cameron to settle out of court, which is why, when you watch the end of the movie, the words “Acknowledgment to the works of Harlan Ellison” appear on the screen.

He Helped Make Star Trek Smart

Harlan Ellison is also famous for his one and only Star Trek script, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” mostly because it is often cited as the best Star Trek episode of all time. Whether this is true or not isn’t really important, because the big thing people tend to forget about Ellison’s involvement with Star Trek is that it predates him writing for the show. While vice president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, Ellison was an early champion of the show and screened the pilot episode (“Where No Man Has Gone Before”) for audiences at big conventions. In The Fifty-Year Mission, Ellison said he was “optimistic” that it was his “intercession” that got big-name authors like Theodore Sturgeon and George Clayton Johnson to write for the show. “Everybody else takes credit for this,” he said. “But all those people were friends of mine, and I got them on the show.” To put this in perspective, if Ellison is right, then he’s responsible not only for his “City” script, but also indirectly for “Amok Time,” “Shore Leave,” and countless other high-concept Trek episodes.

He Basically Invented Black Mirror

Outside of his TV writing, Ellison’s main output is short stories. And if you’ve never read them, you’ll be astounded by not only their darkness, but their complexity, too. His famous short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” feels as though it could be a contemporary Black Mirror episode, and in fact aspects of the episode “USS Callister” actually seem to contain overt references to that short story. Meanwhile, stories like “Deeper Than Darkness,” or “Go Toward the Light,” all contain mind-bending twists and turns that are so inventive that it’s shocking that all of his stories haven’t been adapted at some point or another.

Dangerous Visions

Ellison’s curatorial efforts on the anthologies Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions are legendary for one specific reason: The short stories published in these volumes were actually considered to be too risky or edgy to be published in any other kind of traditional venue. In other words, Ellison actively sought to push the envelope with what fantastic fiction could do, and make it clear that sci-fi and fantasy were certainly not just the realm of juvenilia. A stand-out short story from the first Dangerous Visions is easily Robert Bloch’s (the guy who wrote Psycho) “A Toy for Juliette,” a story that reveals what might have happened to a time-traveling Jack the Ripper. But then again, Again, Dangerous Visions has a story by Kurt Vonnegut called “The Big Space F***.” So, basically, you’re dealing with books full of short stories you wouldn’t read anywhere else, and Ellison believed in all of them.

His Attitude About Writing and the Science Fiction Genre Was Revolutionary

Somewhat infamously, Ellison actually disliked the term “sci-fi,” as he felt it was just a portmanteau of “high-fi” and “science fiction,” and therefore meant absolutely nothing. He eschewed labels and frequently rejected the idea that he wrote in any one specific genre at all. Because Ellison’s writer buddies were not only other science fiction and fantasy writers, but also Dorothy Parker, too, this attitude was somewhat justified. Ellison didn’t feel writing was something that belonged to ivory towers or panel discussions, and used to type new stories out on his typewriter in the windows of bookshops to remind the patrons that the writer was the reason people bought books at all. He also famously loathed the idea of writers working for free, and his battle cry of “pay the writer!” can still be heard reverberating throughout the multiverse today.