Harlan Ellison passed away on June 27, 2018, five days ago. When I first heard on Twitter, I felt shattered. It is not like I personally knew him, but from the interviews and documentaries I have seen of him, I almost feel like I did. He was a man who lived a full life, doing what he loved, and was constantly fighting against the injustices of humankind. He fought for people to respect Science Fiction as a legitimate art form and he certainly helped contribute more than his fair share of great work to help prove he was correct.
My friend is gone. Without Harlan's words and his example, I would never have become a writer. He showed artists of all stripes how to protect the work and how to live with integrity and heart and fierce courage. The world is much smaller for his absence. https://t.co/8qrmKZpJkC
It took me a number of days to just absorb the news of his death before I could attempt to sit down to write about Harlan Ellison's life. He was an instrumental figure in my adolescence that helped inspire me to pursue my dreams to write Science Fiction and Fantasy. When I first learned about Harlan Ellison, it was because of his involvement with the remarkable science fiction epic for television Babylon 5 (1993-98).
The series creator J. Michael Straczysnki was a good friend of Harlan Ellison and from what I understand of their relationship, Ellison was instrumental as a creative consultant on the show. Ellison helped Straczynski to develop the show and keep it on track, while avoiding the pitfalls that beset most other science fiction on television. And partly as a result of their friendly conversations and collaboration, Babylon 5 achieved things no other science fiction TV series had dreamed of accomplishing before.
It took a little while to really discover the greatness for Babylon 5 for myself as a young man, but when I understood how thoroughly groundbreaking and intelligent the show was, I was a huge fan and practically lived in that story universe for years thereafter. I avidly read all the newsgroup posts of series creator Straczynski's open-ended Q&A with his fans. He was reditting with us before that was even a thing!
Well, studying Straczynski long enough ultimately helped point me to explore the work and career of his outspoken buddy Harlan Ellison. And these were two authors with whom I could finally feel at home. Their passion for science fiction was like mine. And their intelligent approach to the genre was pure inspiration to me. These were men who I felt comfortable looking up to as authorial role models and I devoured up as many of their words as I could get my hands on.
And then when YouTube grew into a virtual depository of nearly all media, I ate up as many videos, documentaries, and interviews with them as I could find. I laughed at Harlan's acerbic wit as he wrestled with his interlocutors and put them on notice that he was not going to be a pushover. He could get irritated with stupidity and mock it when he saw it.
From what everyone said about working with him, Harlan Ellison could be a real pain in the neck to deal with at times, but ultimately he was worth the trouble and did some incredible work. But when Gene Roddenberry rewrote parts of his teleplay for the beloved Star Trek (1966-69) episode "City on the Edge of Forever," he did not take it lying down and very publicly feuded with the series creator.
When a young James Cameron borrowed different plot elements and twists from Harlan Ellison's Star Trek and Outer Limits episodes, Ellison sued the production until he received a reasonable settlement and a screen credit for acting as the inspiration for the film's story. He was fierce and zealous in protecting his work and he helped show the way for other writers, too, so they would not be exploited and cheated.
And among the many admirable traits Harlan Ellison had was his completely unapologetic approach to living life by his own terms, and not according to what everyone else in the world thought he should do. His unflappable willpower to remain himself always, in spite of the consequences, was something I found particularly inspiring.
In fact, he bucked popular opinion at the time David Lynch's movie adaptation hit the screen of the classic Frank Herbert novel DUNE (1984). He saw through the film's flaws and recognized it as a glorious cinematic achievement. This was one of many sentiments I strongly shared with Harlan Ellison, which was comforting to hear for me when I had often encountered a lot hate for the film from many other science fiction readers.
One thing that consoles me right now is the fact that Harlan Ellison was a prolific writer and there are still many of his works fiction I have yet to read. We all have many opportunities to get to know him and appreciate him better through reading his large body of work. And for that, I am very grateful. And to some degree, these works of art he left behind for us help make him immortal.
Also, I love the fact that there are likely even more science fiction and literary roundtable debates with him and interviews and documentaries about him spread across the decades of his adult life that I have yet to discover on YouTube, so I can still find more him sharing his unique and fascinating point of view.
Let us end our thoughtful reverie on Harlan Ellison with his own words on the greater meaning of being a writer: "It is not merely enough to love literature if one wishes to spend one's life as a writer. It is a dangerous undertaking on the most primitive level. For, it seems to me, the act of writing with serious intent involves enormous personal risk. It entails the ongoing courage for self-discovery. It means one will walk forever on the tightrope, with each new step presenting the possibility of learning a truth about oneself that is too terrible to bear."
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