The Harlan Ellison FAQtotum*
*translated From Ancient Quechumaran
Who is Harlan Ellison?
Author. Essayist. Screenwriter and television scenarist. Lecturer. Political activist. Film reviewer. Conversationalist. Movie and TV critic. Rabble rouser.
What has Ellison written/done that I've read/seen/heard of?
If you're a "Star Trek" enthusiast, you know of "City on the Edge of Forever," the episode in which Kirk falls in love with Joan Collins.
If you've read 1960s- and 1970s-era science fiction and fantasy, you may have come across the short stories "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," "The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World" or "A Boy and His Dog," or the anthologies "Dangerous Visions" and "Again, Dangerous Visions."
If you're an "Outer Limits" fan, you probably remember the episodes "Soldier" and "Demon with a Glass Hand."
If you're a bad-movie buff, you may have seen "The Oscar," for which Ellison wrote the screenplay
If you're an aficionado of low-budget indie flicks, you might have come across "A Boy and His Dog," based on a novella written by Ellison.
If you watch TV talk shows, you may have seen Ellison on "Politically Incorrect" or one of Tom Snyder's chat fests.
If you follow Internet and copyright issues, you probably know about Ellison's lawsuit against America Online and others over illegal distribution of his stories online.
How can I contact the Harlan Ellison Recording Collection?
HERC, which is run by Ellison and his wife, Susan, is a must for any HE aficionado. In addition to offers of Ellison spoken-word recordings and books, members ($15 annually) receive Rabbit Hole, a quarterly-or-thereabouts newsletter chock full of Ellisonalia, including announcements of upcoming speaking appearances and publications. Write to the Harlan Ellison Recording Collection, P.O. Box 55548, Sherman Oaks, CA 91413.
Does Harlan Ellison have his own Web site?
Yes -- at least, a site that bears his name and his blessing. Ellison Webderland, Rick Wyatt's awkwardly named but well-designed site, is big, fun and carries the seal of approval of The Man himself.
Originally devoted more to examining Ellison as a phenomenon than as a serious author, it has grown to include the full text of several Ellison stories, critical reviews, an online bibliography and more. It is also much more comprehensive than the site you're visiting, including frequent updates about publishing events, one-of-a-kind photos and many, many more links than you'll find here.
In 2002, Wyatt established a special online bulletin board that Ellison himself frequents. If you don't really know who Harlan Ellison is, Webderland is the place to start.
Is there an Internet newsgroup devoted to Ellison's work?
Yes, alt.fan.harlan-ellison. But it gets little traffic, thanks mainly to a couple of trolls who refuse to allow even the most innocent question or comment pass without insult. If you're seriously interested in discussing Ellison, the man or his work, you're better off visiting the online forums at Ellison Webderland.
What are the Islets of Langerhans, and do they have anything to do with diabetes and/or Firesign Theater?
The title of one of Ellison's best (and best-known) short stories is "Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54' N, Longitude 77° 00' 13" W." This Web site takes its name from the story.
To reveal more would spoil the story. Suffice it to say that you'll find no health care information here and, except for this one, no reference to the popular comedy troupe Firesign Theater, which mentioned "the far-flung Islets of Langerhans" on their album "How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When Youre Not Anywhere at All?"
What are some of the pseudonyms under which Ellison's work has appeared?
From Rabbit Hole, the newsletter of the Harlan Ellison Recording Collection:
Phil "Cheech" Beldone
Sheik Harlan Ben Ellison
Note that most of these pen names were affixed -- sometimes without Ellison's knowledge or permission -- to stories and essays written for pulp magazines in the 1950s and 1960s. With only a few exceptions ("The Starlost" TV series being most notable), all of Ellison's work since 1970 has appeared under his own name.
Did Harlan Ellison write gang novels under the pen name Hal Ellson?
No. Although books by Hal Ellson are sometimes offered on eBay as "lost" Harlan Ellison novels, the two are distinctly different writers. Hal Ellson's professional writing career predates that of Harlan Ellison by at least a decade. However, according to Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever, the sight of a book bearing Hal Ellson's so-similar name did inspire Harlan Ellison to try his hand at gang fiction.
Is it true that Ellison once wrote a complete story while sitting in a bookstore display window?
Yes. In fact, he has written more than 40 stories that way and in other public places, including a live radio show. He sometimes asks spectators for a story title or theme and produces a story to match on the spot. Among the tales generated in this fashion:
- "From A to Z, in the Chocolate Alphabet" (1976)
- "Broken Glass" (1981)
- "On the Slab" (1981)
- "Stuffing" (1982)
- "When Auld's Aquaintance is Forgot" (1982)
- "The Hour That Stretches" (1982)
- "The Avenger of Death" (1986)
- "Eidolins" (1987)
- "From A to Z, in the Sarsaparilla Alphabet" (2001)
- "Goodbye to All That" (2002)
Ellison Under Glass, a three-volume compilation of HE's shop-window works (subtitled, sequentially, He Cut Off Their Tails (Tales) With a Carving Knife; Chicanery Row; and The Eighth Day of Creation) was announced for publication in the early 1990s but has never appeared.
When is The Last Dangerous Visions going to be published?
The final anthology in Ellison's planned trilogy of edgy speculative fiction has been in the works since the mid-1970s. The book's non-appearance has become something of a running controversy in genre circles, fueled partly by Christopher Priest's The Book on the Edge of Forever, a chapbook-length temper tantrum disguised as a critique. Ellison says the book will be ready when it's ready.
What are those strange, dot-filled stripes separating sections of the Ellison short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream"?
They're called talkfields. They represent the voice of AM, the computer in the story.
Dominik D. Freydenberger <firstname.lastname@example.org> posted to the alt.fan.harlan-ellison newsgroup, 22 Nov 2000:
The bars are encoded in ITA-2, an ancient ASCII precessor, developed for teletyping machines. Although the computer world abandonded it decades ago, it's still in use in some places. (e.g., the German Army still has a 100Bd telex network. That's why some young people (like me) still learn how to roll up ticker tapes. Praise the compulsory military service. :-|)
Obviously, there are two different bars, the first one meaning "i think, therefore i am" and the second one "cogito ergo sum" (the same phrase in Latin.) Yup, ITA-2 has no capital letters. Actually, the code (as seen in The Essential Ellison) translates to "[LF][CR][LF][CR][LF][CR][LF][CR][A..]i think[1..], [A..]therefore i am[CR][LF][CR][LF][CR][LF]", where [LF] is line feed and [CR] carriage return. [1..] sets the machine to "special character" mode and [A..] puts it back into "alphabetic character" mode. Typing on one of those things is quite 'amusing'. (Especially when you hit a wrong key and have to correct the punched code.)
The story was written in 1967 and is probably second only to "Harlequin" as his most reprinted story. Yet Ellison says the version of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" that appears in the first edition of The Essential Ellison (1991) is the first one in which AM's talkfields "appear correctly positioned, not garbled or inverted or mirror-imaged as in all other versions."
Was Ellison really fired on his first day as a writer at Disney for suggesting that the studio make a porn movie?
Yes. The complete version of the story can be found in Stalking the Nightmare. The short version, from the Urban Legends Reference Pages:
A few hours after arriving for his first day of work at Disney Studios, Ellison and several fellow writers headed off to the studio commissary for lunch. Once there, Ellison jokingly suggested they "do a Disney porn flick" and proceeded to act out the parts while imitating the voices of several animated Disney characters. Unbeknownst to him, Roy Disney and the other studio heads were sitting adjacent to his table. Ellison claims that he returned to his office to find a pink slip on his desk and the name on his parking space whited out.
Was Ellison really there when L. Ron Hubbard invented Scientology?
Excerpted from a posting on the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup, 2 May 1995:
The following excerpt was taken from a magazine called "Saturday Evening Wings," which was printed for awhile in the 1970s. "Wings" described itself as "Wings -- The New Age Satire Magazine". The issue this excerpt was taken from was the Nov.-Dec. '78 issue. It is of great interest, because Harlan Ellison, a rather famous science fiction writer, claims to have been present the night L. Ron Hubbard decided to write "Dianetics."
On Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard:
Ellison: Scientology is bullshit! Man, I was there the night L. Ron Hubbard invented it, for Christ Sakes!
I was sitting in a room with L. Ron Hubbard and a bunch of other science fiction writers. L. Ron Hubbard was famous among science fiction writers because he was the first one to have an electric typewriter.
Wings: He claimed to have written "Dianetics" in a weekend, and nobody can deny it.
Ellison: That's true. He wrote "Dianetics" in one weekend, and you know how he used to write? He used to take a roll of white paper, like paper you wrap fish in. He had it on the wall, and he would roll it into the typewriter and he would begin typing. When he was done, he would tear it off and leave it as one whole long novel.
We were sitting around one night. ... who else was there? Alfred Bester, and Cyril Kornbluth, and Lester Del Rey, and Ron Hubbard, who was making a penny a word, and had been for years. And he said "This bullshit's got to stop!" He says, "I gotta get money." He says, "I want to get rich".
Wings: He is also supposed to have said on that same night: "The question is not how to make a million dollars, but how to keep it."
Ellison: Right. And somebody said, "why don't you invent a new religion? They're always big." We were clowning! You know, "Become Elmer Gantry! You'll make a fortune!" He says, "I'm going to do it." Sat down, stole a little bit from Freud, stole a little bit from Jung, a little bit from Alder, a little bit of encounter therapy, pre-Janov Primal Screaming, took all that bullshit, threw it all together, invented a few new words, because he was a science fiction writer, you know, "engrams" and "regression", all that bullshit. And then he conned John Campbell, who was crazy as a thousand battlefields. I mean, he believed any goddamned thing. He really believed blacks were inferior. I mean he really believed that. He was also very nervous when I was in his office because I was a Jew. You know, he was afraid maybe I would spring horns or something.
Anyhow, the way he conned John was that he had J. A. Winter, who was a doctor, who was a close friend of John's, and he got him to run this article on Dianetics, the new science of mental health.
Wings: Dianometry was the first article, I believe.
Ellison: Right. And science fiction fans will go for any goddamm thing. They'll believe anything, man, they will believe in the abominable snowman and the Bermuda Triangle, in Pyramid Power, in EST, in Scientology, in the Second Coming, they'll believe in any goddamm thing, they don't give a shit. They go to see "Star Wars"; they think it is for real!
So science fiction fans picked it up, they began proselytizing, he started making money, when he had made enough money he was able to spread out a little more, then he got more cuckoos, you know, pre-Charlie Manson assholes that had no place else to go, and he began talking to these loons as if "Dianetics" really meant something. Then he wanted to get tax-exempt status, so he called it "The Church of Scientology".
Now, they've gotten so big that they own property all over the country, and it is impossible to stop it. They infiltrated the FBI, they infiltrated the tax department, ... the funny thing is, Ron Hubbard and I still occasionally communicate with each other. Every once in a while, a couple or three times a year, we exchange letters. And I write to him, you know, and I say, "Hey Ron, when is this bullshit going to cease? These cuckoos are really driving me crazy! They come around the house with pamphlets!" And he writes me back, and he says, "It's the good work, it's the good work."
It's all very funny stuff. He was going to write a new story for me for the last "Dangerous Visions", but I guess he got too busy counting his money. I don't know.
Is it true that Ellison once punched out Frank Sinatra?
No, but he might have come close. From an Esquire article in the 1960s, written by Gay Talese and reprinted a few years ago in the L.A. Weekly:
The room cracked with the clack of billiard balls. There were about a dozen spectators in the room, most of them young men who were watching Leo Durocher shoot against two other aspiring hustlers who were not very good. This private drinking club has among its membership many actors, directors, writers, models, nearly all of them a good deal younger than Sinatra or Durocher and much more casual in the way they dress for the evening. Many of the young women, their long hair flowing loosely below their shoulders, wore tight, fannyfitting Jax pants and very expensive sweaters; and a few of the young men wore blue or green velour shirts with high collars, and narrow tight pants and Italian loafers.
It was obvious from the way Sinatra looked at these people in the poolroom that they were not his style, but he leaned back against a high stool that was against the wall, holding his drink in his right hand, and said nothing, just watched Durocher slam the billiard balls back and forth. The younger men in the room, accustomed to seeing Sinatra at this club, treated him without deference, although they said nothing offensive. They were a very cool young group, very California-cool and causal, and one of the coolest seemed to be a little guy, very quick of movement, who had a sharp profile, pale blue eyes, light brown hair and squared eyeglasses. He wore a pair of brown corduroy slacks, a green shaggy-dog Shetland sweater, a tan suede jacket, and Game Warden boots, for which he had recently paid $60.
Frank Sinatra, leaning against the stool, sniffing a bit from his cold, could not take his eyes off the Game Warden boots. Once, after gazing at them for a few moments, he turned away; but now he was focused on them again. The owner of the boots, who was just standing in them watching the pool game, was named Harlan Ellison, a writer who had just completed work on a screenplay, "The Oscar."
Finally, Sinatra could not contain himself.
"Hey," he yelled in his slightly harsh voice that still had a soft, sharp edge. "Those Italian boots?"
"No." Ellison said.
"Are they English boots?"
"Look, I donno, man," Ellison shot back, frowning at Sinatra, then turning away again.
Now the poolroom was suddenly silent. Leo Durocher, who had been poised behind his cue stick and was bent low, just froze in that position for a second. Nobody moved. Then Sinatra moved away from the stool and walked with that slow, arrogant swagger of his toward Ellison, the hard tap of Sinatra's shoes the only sound in the room. Then, looking down at Ellison with a slightly raised eyebrow and a tricky little smile, Sinatra asked: "You expecting a storm?"
Harlan Ellison moved a step to the side. "Look, is there any reason why you're talking to me?"
"I don't like the way you're dressed," Sinatra said.
"Hate to shake you up," Ellison said, "but I dressed to suit myself."
Now there was some rumbling in the room, and somebody said "Com'on, Harlan, let's get out of here," and Leo Durocher made his pool shot and said, "Yeah, com'on."
But Ellison stood his ground.
Sinatra said, "What do you do?"
"I'm a plumber," Ellison said.
"No, he's not," another young man quickly yelled from across the table, "He wrote 'The Oscar.'"
"Oh, yeah," Sinatra said, "well I've seen it, and it's a piece of crap."
"That's strange," Ellison said, "because they haven't even released it yet."
"Well, I've seen it," Sinatra repeated, "and it's a piece of crap."
Now Brad Dexter, very anxious, very big opposite the small figure of Ellison, said, "Com'on, kid, I don't want you in this room."
"Hey," Sinatra interrupted Dexter, "can't you see I'm talking to this guy?"
Dexter was confused, then his whole attitude changed, and Dexter's voice went soft and he said to Ellison, almost with a plea, "Why do you persist in tormenting me?"
The whole scene was becoming ridiculous, and it seemed that Sinatra was only half-serious, perhaps just reacting out of sheer boredom or inner despair; at any rate, after a few more exchanges, Harlan Ellison left the room. By this time, the word had gotten out to those on the dance floor about the Sinatra-Ellison exchange, and somebody went to look for the manager of the club. But somebody else said that the manager had already heard about it -- and had quickly gone out of the door, hopped in his car and drove home. So the assistant manager went into the poolroom.
"I don't want anybody in here without coats and ties," Sinatra snapped.
The assistant manager nodded, and walked back to his office.
Why do the words "Inspired By The Works Of Harlan Ellison" appear in the end credits of the movie "The Terminator"?
Because the film's director, James Cameron, admitted in an interview that Ellison's work inspired the movie. In particular, "The Terminator" borrowed plot points from "Soldier," an Ellison-penned episode of the early "Outer Limits" TV series. The movie studio reportedly agreed to the end credit as well as a cash settlement.
Didn't I hear that Harlan Ellison had died a few years ago?
Yes, you probably did. But that was Ralph Ellison. As the story goes, an excitable fan heard the words "Ellison" and "dead" on NPR, and immediately posted the news of Harlan's demise to an online bulletin board, where it spread out in a thousand directions for days before Harlan was able to confirm that rumors of his demise had been greatly exaggerated.
If I describe the plot of an Ellison story that I read back in junior high school, could you tell me the title?
Maybe. Odds are it was either " 'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" or "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," since those seem to be the Ellison works that non-Ellison readers seem to have read most often. Or it might be any of several hundred other short stories he has written, in which case I might or might not be able to help.
And if it's by another author entirely -- Philip K. Dick, Philip José Farmer and, believe it or not, Ray Bradbury have all been confused with Ellison -- then I can't help you. You might try posting a query to the Ellison Webderland bulletin board, whose participants tend to be much more well read than I am (and much friendlier than the trolls in the alt.fan.harlan-ellison newsgroup).
Can you e-mail me a copy of one of Ellison's stories, or tell me where on the Net I can download one for free?
Don't be ridiculous.