Harlan Ellison, Rebel with a Typewriter

Melissa Mickael

One of most interesting things about Harlan Ellison is that, on his first day employed for Disney, he jokingly said they should do Disney pornography. They promptly fired him. Though this may make him out to be a fool, he is actually one of the leading science fiction authors of the 60s and 70s, amazing hundreds with his controversial themes about sexuality, alienation, urban violence, and loss or repression of the individual self. His progressive journey to this point is a long one that is still ongoing. Similar to many great authors, however, the reasons behind his famous works are rooted in his past.

Harlan Ellison was born in Cleveland, Ohio on May 27th, 1934. His parents, Louis Laverne and Serita Rosenthal Ellison, probably had no idea how successful he'd become in the future. As a boy, he acted in the children's local playhouse, the Cleveland Playhouse, for several productions, and published his first story in the Cleveland News when he was only thirteen. Ellison reveals in his later biographical collection Approaching Oblivion (1974) that his interest in the labels people create for themselves, as well as the opposition to such labels, began when he was taunted as a child. Other children beat him and called him a Jew, excluding him from most of their games. Taking in the concepts of identity and the self from these past skirmishes, Ellison moved forward and founded the Cleveland Science Fiction Society when he was sixteen. He was at Ohio State University from 1951 to 1953, but was asked him to leave over a dispute with a professor who had said he had no talent. Since then, Ellison has gone on to do several jobs, including editing Rogue magazine in 1959, founding his own press (Regency Books) in 1960, and writing TV commentaries for the Los Angeles Free Press in the later 1960s. He also served in the army for two years, married and divorced four times, and most of all, wrote some of the most engrossing science fiction literature of his time.

During the 1960s, a "New Wave" of science fiction took the world by storm. As the world began changing, new themes started appearing in science fiction stories. According to the Dictionary of Literary Biography (1981), Ellison who had a rebellious style and controversial themes seemed to fit in as a leader in this front, though he vehemently denies it now. Still, he did use strong, graphic scenes displaying sexual descriptions (something that had been previously taboo), dark tales about urban violence in the city, and an obvious interest in the individual self. For example, "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" (1973) was a piece about a woman who stands by and watches as a stranger is murdered. Not only does the story delve into urban violence and its destructive path, but it deals heavily with the darkness that lives in every individual. The woman who witnessed the crime eventually realizes that she holds the same capacity for doing harm to people on the street. This realization of the self and her own loose boundaries is typical in Ellison's work; he often has the hero or heroine of the story realize some dark truth about themselves. These concepts and ideas seemed to fit the New Wave of science fiction very well.

Many of his stories also involve the oppression or discovery of identity, sometimes twisted by outside forces or governments and the social destruction of America. In "'Repent, Harlequin!' said the Ticktockman" (1964), we see a strong example of these themes played out in Ellison's writing. It is about a world where man has been enslaved with their own minds and desire to be on time, and one person's rebellion against that devastation of self will. Likewise, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" (1967), a story about a world taken over by androids that have enslaved humanity, tries to show the struggle of autonomy and individuality against oppressive forces. The hero of the story, Ted, is a slave of an android and punished for mercifully killing his fellow prisoners- they trap him in his own mind, unable to express himself. This example of the collapse of self-will and our ability to be free individuals is something that repeats often in his short stories.

Overall, Ellison is still working on several projects to this very day. Besides his numerous collections, which include Deathbird Stories (1967), Dangerous Visions (1967), and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (1973), Ellison writes short stories and television scripts. He's even done work for Star Trek episodes on television. He has taken his lessons and brought them to the world through his unique and, according to the Dictionary of Literary Biography (1981), revolutionary writing. After winning more Hugo and Nebula awards than any author in his genre, he is still working on educating the world… on a mechanical typewriter, no less.


Harlan Jay Ellison
Born: Cleveland, Ohio; May 27, 1934

Major Works

Dangerous Visions. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1967. An anthology of several stories from various science fiction authors, it also has quite a bit about Ellison's past experiences in it. Similar to an autobiography, he discusses reasons behind his writing and why he is so interested in writing about themes of identity and oppression. This is considered one of the greatest anthologies created yet, and also has a sequel, Again, Dangerous Visions, and an unpublished third yet to come.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. New York: Pyramid Books, 1967. Ellison delves into science fiction in this futuristic piece, in which the gigantic computer system AM decides to destroy all human kind. Once it does take over the world, it keeps five humans racing through its huge circuits to act as playthings, torturing them on a daily basis. Finally, Ted kills his four companions but is sentenced to an eternity in the prison of a subhuman physical existence, unable to express himself in any way. A dark tale of oppression, Ellison once again delves into the horrific idea of a loss of human identity and will.

Pretty Maggie Money Eyes. New York: Knight, 1967. Printed in Ellison's Deathbird Stories collection, this tale involved the friendship between a female spirit trapped in a slot machine and a gambler. One of Ellison's more moving stories, it spends time looking at the mysteries of men and women, lovers, victims, and all the people alone in the world.

The Whimper of Whipped Dogs. New York: Bad Moon Rising, 1973. The story that won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1973, this disturbing tale of urban violence and the human psyche was published in Ellison's Deathbird Stories. In it, Beth O'Neill is one of the many witnesses who saw the murder of a young woman, but stood by and did nothing. As more shocking events progress, Beth is forced to face the inevitable violence of the city, as well as her own capacity for doing harm. Ellison explores the idea of being a victim or watching others become victims in this horrifying look at urban life and the instinctive reactions of mankind.

Secondary Sources

Clute, John and Nicholls, Peter. "Ellison, Harlan." The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993. The article listed a detailed list of all of Ellison's work, information on his past and current career, and several important facts.

Contento, William. "Ellison, Harlan." Index to Science Fiction anthologies and collections. London: George Prior Publishers, 1978. This gave me a detailed, incredibly long list of all of Ellison's stories and scripts, including information about their publishers, page numbers, and year of publication.

Cowart, David and Wymer, Thomas L. "Ellison, Harlan." The Dictionary of Literary Biology: Twentieth Century American Science Fiction Writers Part One: A-L. Volume 8: pp. 161 168. Michigan: Gale Research Group, 1981. The most detailed source I used, this article not only listed most of Ellison's biographical information and past, but his reasons for writing, data behind why he used certain themes, and general summaries of many of his greatest works.

Wingrove, David. "Ellison, Harlan." The Science Fiction Source Book. pp. 18 20, 54, 63, 68 69, 111, 142, 164. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1984. This held some excellent biographical information, as well as how Ellison contributed to the New Wave of science fiction in the 1960s, and the public's reaction to his work.

Wyatt, Rick. Ellison's Webderland. Oct. 1St, 2004. http://harlanellison.com/home.htm. This page claims to be the official homepage for Harlan Ellison, even saying it has his express permission to call itself that. Whether it is or not, the man running it has an insane amount of information not only on his many books, but his life and current situations, as well. Other pages also credit it as the "official" site.

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