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Harlan Ellison is revolting: Speculative Fiction and the revolution of the mind

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In every generation there is a moment when some writer, artist, politician or whatever comes forward to announce that their generation is at the start of a revolution—some seismic shift in culture and society that will change everything for the better—forever. It’s rather like the way each generation appears to think it is the first to discover sex or sexuality and flaunts it through clothes, songs or horrendously written books.

A case in point is this roundtable discussion with a young Harlan Ellison from sometime in 1969-70, when the author declared “We’re in the midst of a revolution.”

It’s a revolution of thought, that is as important and as upending as the industrial revolution was—sociologically speaking. We’re coming into a time now when all the old “-isms” and philosophies are dying. They don’t seem to work any more.

All the things Mommy and Daddy told you and told me were true were only true in the house—the minute you get out in the street, they aren’t true any more. The kids in the ghetto have known that all their lives but now the great white middle class is learning it and it’s coming a little difficult to the older folks—which is always the way it is.

We are no longer Kansas or Los Angeles or New York—it’s the whole planet now. They got smog in the Aleutian Islands now; they got smog in Anchorage, Alaska; they got smog at the polar icecaps—can you believe it, smog at the polar icecaps. There is no place you go to hide anymore. So the day of thinking that the Thames or the English Channel or the Rocky Mountains is going to keep you safe from some ding-dong on the other side doesn’t go anymore. A nitwit in Hanoi can blow us all just as dead as a nitwit in Washington.

We’re beginning to think of ourselves not as just an ethnic animal, or a national animal, or a local or family kind of animal—we are now a planetary animal. It’s all the dreams of early science-fiction coming true.

That Ellison could have made this speech in nineties or the noughties, or indeed any decade, only shows how each generation discovers certain truths that are eternally consistent.

Humans, he continues, are now aware of a bigger picture and that by not taking responsibility for our actions—whether thoughtlessly throwing away a cigarette butt or garbage—is “screwing up the ecology.” Which is apposite considering the news of some scientists claiming Earth is on the brink of its sixth extinction.

But Ellison—in sunglasses looking like a Jordanian revolutionary—is only warming up to his theme—the importance of speculative fiction (or that dreaded word “science-fiction”) in imagining (shaping) the future. He has a very valid point—but again one that is made generation to generation-six years before this the writers of previous generations C. S. Lewis, Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss held an informal chat on the same subject where they agreed:

...that some science fiction really does deal with issues far more serious than those realistic fiction deals with; real problems about human destiny and so on.

Harlan Ellison is one of those very rare writers who is always inspirational or thought-provoking in everything he writes or says. Like most people, I came to his work through TV before having the greater pleasure of reading him. His seminal episodes of Outer Limits, “Demon with a Glass Hand” and “Soldier” (which James Cameron later used as a basis for Terminator), or his script for Star Trek or “The Sort of Do-It-Yourself Dreadful Affair” and “The Pieces of Fate Affair” on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. stayed with me long after viewing and were cause for my seeking out his fiction. This interview comes from just after Ellison had edited the classic volume of speculative fiction Dangerous Visions, which he hoped might lead to a revolution in the mind of its readers.

It probably did, but the revolution is always moving, changing, evolving.
 

 
The conclusion of Harlan Ellison’s talk, after the jump…

READ ON
Posted by Paul Gallagher
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06.22.2015
11:41 am
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‘Bullshit’: Harlan Ellison is really pissed off about ‘Saving Mr. Banks’
12.19.2013
11:03 am
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Harlan Ellison describes himself as “a child of the Disney era,” whose first taste of the magic of cinema was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. But Disney’s latest movie (made in collaboration with BBC Films) Saving Mr. Banks has so pissed off the already notably cantankerous Mr. Ellison that he has felt it necessary to post a rather disconnected (one might say rambling) video on YouTube calling out the film as “bullshit.”

Saving Mr. Banks stars Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers, the author of the book Mary Poppins, which was first published in 1934. The film concerns Disney’s attempts to convince Travers to allow him to film her famous novel. It took Disney over 20 years to achieve this, and eventually his company filmed Mary Poppins, with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, in 1964.

Ellison has great praise for Hanks and Thompson in the film, but his main beef with Saving Mr. Banks is not the acting but a pivotal scene at the end of the movie, which he claims is bogus and bullshit. One can surmise what this scene may entail, as Ellison declares how Travers hated the movie, and went to her grave regretting her decision to ever allow Disney near her work.

Ellison gets all fired up about this, which (I suppose) is understandable as Ellison is a writer who is deeply proud of his own work, and sees anything he writes as sacrosanct. However, I (like no doubt millions of others) have known for decades that P.L. Travers hated Disney’s Mary Poppins. It’s not new news.

When musical impresario, Cameron Mackintosh asked Travers, who was then in her nineties, if he could produce a musical version of Mary Poppins, Travers stipulated (confirmed in her will) that this musical must be adapted by English writers and no Americans, or anyone involved with the film or the Disney empire were to be directly involved with the creative process of the musical. Mackintosh adhered to Travers’ wishes, and the musical opened in London’s West End in 2004, where it ran for four years.

Okay, so it’s not news, but what Ellison is really getting at is his disdain for the…

“...refurbishing of Disney’s god-like image, which he spent his entire life creating, and it is so fucking manipulative…”

Particularly when this involves the misuse of a writer’s work, especially when that work is exploited and bastardized for commercial reward, and in this case, to create propaganda to “burnish” the image of Walt Disney.  Which probably is something to be pissed-off about.
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher
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12.19.2013
11:03 am
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Harlan Ellison and the ‘Last Dangerous Visions’ Saga

Christopher Priest, The Book on the Edge of Forever
 
Have you ever received a letter from a friend you haven’t heard from for a while, or even an email? And then you wanted to respond right away but you wanted to do it right, not just dash something off, so you put it off a day, and the next time you thought of it, eight days had passed, and it became a thing where too much time had passed for you to write the reply straight, and you felt awkward about it, so you put it off some more, and then every day that passed made it harder to respond forthrightly? And then it turned into this odd kind of guilt, and you found yourself actually harboring hostile feelings towards your friend for having put you in that position in the first place?

Has anything like that ever happened to you? Because something quite like that happened to Harlan Ellison on the most colossal scale imaginable. The nightmare was primarily of his own making, and he didn’t handle it at all well.

Before we get into this, Ellison is a tremendously talented and accomplished guy, and nothing I write here is intended to gainsay that premise. He’s also known for being kind of a difficult guy, and well, this story has a bunch of that.

Strangely, this story revolves around a set of books that can be thought of as a kind of precursor to Dangerous Minds—the title of the project was almost identical. In addition to all of the tremendous short stories Ellison penned, one of the most impressive accomplishments on his C.V. was his involvement in publishing two highly influential and successful sci-fi anthologies. The first one was called Dangerous Visions (1967) and the second one was called Again, Dangerous Visions (1972). The debacle came when Ellison attempted to publish the third volume, which was to be called The Last Dangerous Visions. It was supposed to be published by about 1974 or so. At least 100 and maybe as many as 150 prominent and not-so-prominent sci-fi authors submitted stories with the expectation that something like that would happen.

They’re still waiting—the ones who are still alive, anyway. Actually, truth be told, they’re probably not expecting anything to happen. In short, The Last Dangerous Visions became something like the Moby-Dick of science-fiction circles for a decade or two at least.

In the 1960s something special was brewing in the world of sci-fi. After having been a ghetto for dime-store practitioners for a generation or so (with a few exceptions), science fiction was on the verge of crossing over, breaking through, becoming real literature with a grown-up audience to match. The first Dangerous Visions featured talents as notable as Carol Emshwiller and J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany and, of course, Ellison himself. It was a massive critical and commercial success, a true turning point for the genre. Five years later, Again, Dangerous Visions was also a hit, featuring Ursula K. Le Guin and Kurt Vonnegut and Piers Anthony and Ray Bradbury and Andrew J. Offutt and James Sallis and so on. By this time the Dangerous Visions books had entered the culture—they had an authentic audience who was eager to hear the details of the third volume. The literary brouhaha that would ensue wasn’t something that took place among a mere coterie, which gives the whole affair that much more bite.
 
Harlan Ellison, Dangerous Visions
Dangerous Visions, 1967
 
The events surrounding the massive and ever-delayed third volume, to be called The Last Dangerous Visions, were described with great vitriol by Christopher Priest, a British sci-fi writer who was just starting his career around the time The Last Dangerous Visions started to be a thing, in a 1987 pamphlet called The Last Deadloss Visions (it was later published by Fantagraphics under the title The Book on the Edge of Forever, an allusion to Ellison’s Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”). Priest submitted a story, and then at some point withdrew it from the anthology. For writers whose pay depended on the royalties from anthologies, one of the main undercurrents of the The Last Dangerous Visions affair is that the many stories Ellison collected for it were essentially trapped as long as he had them—the writers couldn’t really shop them around anywhere else, as they grew more dated and less relevant with every passing year.

The Last Deadloss Visions has existed in a couple different forms, but suffice to say that it’s very long and impassioned and well argued (you can read it on the Internet Archive).
 
Harlan Ellison, Again, Dangerous Visions
Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972
 
I’ll leave you to read it yourself—it takes an hour or so, and is well worth it—but I’ll divulge a few basic facts about it for those who don’t want to delve. What makes the situation surrounding The Last Dangerous Visions so jaw-dropping was the sheer scale of it—as many as 150 writers submitted stories, and by some calculations the number of words that the third book would have featured swelled as high as 1.3 million—this is twice as many as in War and Peace, or the same as perhaps an armful of regular-sized novels. According to Priest (his documentation is meticulous), Ellison on many occasions released statements to the effect that publication was just around the corner, he had “just dropped it off to the publisher” and so forth—none of which appears to have been true, and all of which had the effect of stringing the contributors along for another agonizing year or two. Ellison seems not to have behaved well in the affair, bullying, haranguing, and generally manipulating people, and even by 1975 or so—just three years—The Last Dangerous Visions had become something of a joke or an object of fascination in the sci-fi community. It’s the science fiction equivalent of Elastica’s second album, if you remember that length of that wait, although at least that album eventually was released. Lastly, I mentioned the death toll—which quickly became an index for the incredible time The Last Dangerous Visions was taking—by now the project is in its fourth decade, and the number of writers involved who have passed on to a different plane (according to Wikipedia) is forty-three.

Remarkably, Ellison, who today is 79 years old, has stated as recently as 2007 that he intends to publish the book.

It still hasn’t happened.

Below, Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison and Gene Wolfe discuss science-fiction writing with Studs Terkel and Calvin Trillin on a program called Nightcap: Conversations on the Arts and Letters in 1982:

Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Harlan Ellison: Don’t Fuck With the Quote

Posted by Martin Schneider
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10.29.2013
01:18 pm
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For Your Consideration: Mr. Rod Serling

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Years ago a friend wrote me a story about how we all started talking but in doing so, stopped listening to each other. It was a short and simple story, adapted I believe from its Aboriginal origins, that also explained how our ears developed their peculiar, conch-like shape.

Like all the best tales, it began: Once upon a time, in a land not-so-very-far-away, we were all connected to each other by a long umbilical loop that went ear-to-ear-to-ear-to-ear. This connection meant we could hear what each of us was thinking, and we could share our secrets, hopes and fears together at once

Then one day and for a whole lot of different reasons, these connections were broken, and the long umbilical loops dropped away, withered back, and creased into the folds of our ears. That’s how our ears got their shape. They are the one reminder of how we were once all connected to each other.

It was the idea of connection - only connect, said playwright Dennis Potter, by way of E. M. Forster, when explaining the function of all good television. A difficult enough thing, but we try. It’s what the best art does - tells a story, says something.

It’s what Rod Serling did. He made TV shows that have lived and grown with generations of viewers. Few can not have been moved to a sense of thrilling by the tinkling opening notes of The Twilight Zone. The music still fills me with that excitement I felt as a child, hopeful for thrills, entertainment and something a little stronger to mull upon, long after the credits rolled.

Serling was exceptional, and his writing brought a whole new approach to telling tales on television that connected the audience one-to-the-other. This documentary on Serling, starts like an episode of The Twilight Zone, and goes on to examine Serling’s life through the many series and dramas he wrote for TV and radio, revealing how much of his subject matter came from his own personal experience, views and politics. As Serling once remarked he was able to discuss controversial issues through science-fiction:

“I found that it was all right to have Martians saying things Democrats and Republicans could never say.”

His work influenced other shows (notably Star Trek), and although there were problems, due to the demands of advertisers, Serling kept faith with TV in the hope it could connect with its audience - educate, entertain and help improve the quality of life, through a shared ideals.

As writer Serling slowly “succumbed” to his art:

‘Writing is a demanding profession and a selfish one. And because it is selfish and demanding, because it is compulsive and exacting, I didn’t embrace it, I succumbed to it. In the beginning, there was a period of about 8 months when nothing happened. My diet consisted chiefly of black coffee and fingernails. I collected forty rejection slips in a row. On a writer’s way up, he meets a lot of people and in some rare cases there’s a person along the way, who happens to be around just when they’re needed. Perhaps just a moment of professional advice, or a boost to the ego when it’s been bent, cracked and pushed into the ground. Blanche Gaines was that person for me. I signed with her agency in 1950. Blanche kept me on a year, before I made my first sale. The sale came with trumpets and cheers. I don’t think that feeling will ever come again. The first sale - that’s the one that comes with magic.’

Like Richard Matheson, Philip K Dick, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Serling is a hero who offered up the possible, for our consideration.
 

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher
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09.19.2012
08:27 pm
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Harlan Ellison live webcast this Thursday
01.16.2012
05:26 pm
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Above, Harlan Ellison in 1977

Last November, Cinefamily held an event called “The Glass Teat” with writer/raconteur Harlan Ellison. The evening was such a success that they’re doing a second installment this Thursday:

One of America’s most prolific and dangerous writers, Harlan Ellison radicalized science fiction from the 1960s onwards with swirling, shouting, freaky, psychedelic and sexual visions realized across over 1,700 short stories, novellas, screenplays and essays. That would be enough for most — but Ellison is also one of the great TV writers, responsible for iconic episodes of The Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to penning the most popular episode of the original Star Trek, and much, much more. And, somewhere in there, he even found the time to write “The Glass Teat”, a seminal work still considered one of the most important and scathing books ever written on the nature of television. Join guest moderator Josh Olson (Oscar-nominated screenwriter of A History of Violence) for a very special evening, as Harlan makes a very rare and highly spirited personal appearance at Cinefamily to discuss his love/hate relationship with TV, followed by a screening of several of his best episodes!

Get tickets here.

Cinefamily, 611 N Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles, 90036

If you aren’t in Los Angeles, fret not, for you can tune it to a live webscast of the entire event on the Cinefamily blog at 8PM (PST) on Thursday, January 19th.

Below, Harlan Ellison talks revolution, reality and “speculative fiction” in the late 60s/early 70s:
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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01.16.2012
05:26 pm
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