Author, author: What you need to know about the iconoclastic Harlan Ellison

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Jun 16, 2017, 9:34 PM EDT (Updated)

As Blastr's month-long celebration of books continues, our final author profile brings you the force of nature known as Harlan Ellison.

If you work in science fiction, you just know him as Harlan -- even if you don't know him personally. But when you say "Harlan," everyone knows who you're talking about. The irascible, irritable, irreverent and irreplaceable Harlan, who celebrates his 82nd birthday today (May 27), is not only one of the great storytellers of his age, but a tireless champion of artists' rights, human rights and his right -- earned over a six-decade career -- to be the biggest troublemaker he can be and a sharp stick in the gut to anyone who gets in his line of fire.

He's written some of the most iconic short stories in all of science fiction, not to mention a handful of television's greatest science fiction episodes, and his vast imagination is matched only by his stubborn determination never to see his work compromised -- a trait that has caused him to give nightmares to many a TV producer. And he's a tireless champion for the rights of writers to a) get paid and b) control their own work. Luckily he's still with us despite some health issues, and he is quite possibly the last of his generation of science fiction writers, one of many who grew up in the original age of pulp sci-fi but then pushed the genre in new, bold and provocative directions.

Here are 9 things you need to know about Harlan Ellison ... and if he reads this, I hope like hell he likes it.


The Basics

Harlan was born in Cleveland on May 27, 1934 to a dentist named Serita and a jeweler named Louis. Right from the start, Harlan was a troublemaker -- he ran away from home often and even though he attended Ohio State University between 1951 and 1953, he was expelled after 18 months (more on that later). Harlan says that as a teenager, the odd jobs he took while traveling around the country -- particularly the South -- included tuna fisherman, crop-picker, nitroglycerine truck driver, short-order cook, cab driver and door-to-door salesman. But his real life's work awaited him in New York City. Although he sold two stories to a local paper in Cleveland in 1949 and one to EC Comics sometime in the early 1950s, he moved to the Big Apple in 1955 and began churning out tales, selling more than 100 within two years. The Age of Ellison had begun.


The Stories

One thing Harlan never wrote a lot of was novels: he wrote four official ones, including Web of the City (1958), The Man with Nine Lives a.k.a. The Sound of a Scythe (1960), Spider Kiss (1961) and Doomsman (1967). But he did write hundreds of novellas and short stories that made his reputation as one of science fiction's greats, including classic longer tales such as "A Boy and His Dog" (1969), "All the Lies That Are My Life" (1980) and "Mefisto in Onyx" (1993). As for his short stories, many remain indelible: the whimsical time bandit who wages a one-man war on a totalitarian society in "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" (1965); the race of advanced beings who accidentally let the essence of insanity loose in the universe in "The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World" (1968); the last five humans on Earth trapped in the bowels of an insane computer in "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" (1967), a confrontation with the evil entity that has been calling itself God for millennia in "The Deathbird" (1974), the little boy who never grows old in "Jeffty is Five" (1977) and many more like "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World," "Shattered Like a Glass Goblin," "Croatoan," "From A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet," "Shatterday," "All the Birds Come Home to Roost," "Paladin of the Lost Hour" (if nothing else, Harlan remains a master of amazing titles)...there are scores of them.


Harlan on TV

In addition to his stories and books, Harlan has written extensively for television. His early scripts found homes at shows as varied as Star Trek, The Outer Limits (more on those two below), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Route 66, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and even The Flying Nun. Curiously, he never wrote for Rod Serling's original Twilight Zone, although he was a consultant and writer for the mid-1980s revival; perhaps his most memorable episodes were a creepy adaptation of Stephen King's "Gramma" and his adaptation of his own "Paladin of the Lost Hour." He also served as a creative consultant on Babylon 5. He created the infamous 1973 sci-fi series The Starlost, although he became so incensed at budgetary cuts and creative changes inflicted on the show that he changed his credit to "Cordwainer Bird" (more on that below) and quit before the show even aired. His original pilot script, not the one that aired, won a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay.


The City on the Edge of Forever

Harlan wrote just one script for the original Star Trek, but to this day it is considered the greatest single episode of the original series. "The City on the Edge of Forever" followed Kirk and Spock through a time portal back to Depression-era New York, where they have to stop a drug-deranged Dr. McCoy from changing history in such a way that the Nazis win World War II. While in the past, Kirk falls in love with an angelic woman -- only to discover that she must die to preserve the timeline. Harlan's experience writing the script was enormously difficult for him and the staff of Star Trek, as he turned it in late and delivered an episode that was overbudget and overlong. While recognizing its excellence, Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had it rewritten several times, including a pass he did himself that ended up being the one that was filmed. Harlan was not happy, but both versions of the script won awards: the original script won the 1968 Writers Guild Award for best episodic drama in television, while the shooting script won the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. There's even a book about the episode that includes the original script, Harlan Ellison's The City on the Edge of Forever. Harlan continued to blast Roddenberry until the latter's death in 1991 (and perhaps even after that).


Demon with a Glass Hand

The original Outer Limits only ran for two seasons, between 1963 and 1965, but the science fiction anthology series remains one of the best genre shows of all time. And in typical Harlan fashion, he wrote not just its best episode, but a science fiction TV classic. Season 2 entry "Demon with a Glass Hand" told the story of Trent (Robert Culp), a man with no memory who is pursued through a vast office block by aliens from the future. The beings want Trent's glass hand, a sentient computer which can give Trent the answers he needs if he can retrieve three missing fingers from Trent's pursuers. The ultimate revelation about Trent's identity and purpose is both majestic and agonizingly lonely. The script won a Writers Guild of America award and was adapted as a graphic novel, although a long-proposed film version remains lost somewhere in development. Harlan also wrote the Season 2 opener, "Soldier," about a warrior of the future who is flung back into the present -- another excellent episode although not quite as brilliant as "Demon."


Harlan at the movies

To date, only one Ellison story has been fully and officially adapted for the movies: A Boy and His Dog, filmed in 1975 by director L.Q. Jones. The story and movie told the story of a feral young man named Vic (played by Don Johnson in the film) and his telepathic mutant dog Blood as they make their way and do what they must to survive in a blasted, post-apocalyptic landscape. Although the faithful adaptation of Harlan's novella won the 1976 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, it was not a box office success. But the film developed a cult following over the years and is now considered one of the best and more offbeat science fiction movies of the '70s -- a reputation it deserves. Rumors of a sequel have kicked around for years, but nothing ever came of it. Meanwhile, a documentary about Harlan himself, Dreams with Sharp Teeth, was released in 2009 featuring extensive interview and archival footage.


Dangerous Visions

In 1967, Harlan edited the groundbreaking speculative fiction anthology Dangerous Visions, widely seen as the book that helped to popularize the New Wave movement in science fiction. The stories in the book, by both established and less recognized writers, largely cast aside the conventions of science fiction from the past and focused more on "soft" sciences like sociology and psychology. The treatment of sex in the anthology was also mostly unprecedented in the genre. A second volume, Again, Dangerous Visions, was published in 1972, also featuring the same diversity and experimentation. A third volume, The Last Dangerous Visions, was supposed to see publication for decades but has never been completed by Harlan -- angering a number of writers who submitted stories for it (many of whom have since died).


Harlan and the law

Harlan has never been afraid to use copyright law to protect his work -- and more often than not, he has been proven right. Most famously, he sued Orion Pictures and James Cameron's production company over the 1984 film The Terminator, claiming that it lifted elements from his Outer Limits episode "Soldier." The suit was settled out of court, with Harlan also winning a credit in later prints of the film acknowledging his work. He and and fellow SF author Ben Bova also won a $337,000 judgment against ABC-TV after it was determined that the network's Future Cop series was based on a short story they co-wrote called "Brillo." Although Harlan initially sued the producers of the 2011 film In Time over similarities to "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," he later withdrew the suit after seeing the movie. He's also gone after people who have republished his stories online without his permission, reportedly taking legal action against more than 240 people in the last decade.


Random facts

1) Harlan has been married five times, with the first four lasting from four years to seven weeks. He's been married to his fifth wife, Susan, for 30 years. 2) Why was Harlan expelled from Ohio State? Allegedly for punching a professor who criticized his writing. As the story goes, Harlan sent a copy of every tale he published to that professor for the next 20 years. 3) Harlan was hired briefly as a staff writer for Disney, but was fired on his first day of work after chairman Roy Disney overheard him joking about making an animated porn movie starring Disney characters. 4) Harlan marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in the historic 1965 civil rights march led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 5) Although he used numerous pseudonyms early in his career, Harlan applied the name "Cordwainer Bird" to projects that he felt were creatively compromised, usually TV episodes. 6) To research his first novel, 1958's Web of the City, Harlan joined a Brooklyn street gang called the Barons for 10 weeks under an assumed name. 7) Harlan's list of accolades includes 8 Hugo Awards, 4 Nebulas, 5 Bram Stoker Awards, 2 Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, 2 World Fantasy Awards and 2 Georges Méliès fantasy film awards, in addition to a World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association, induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and numerous others.