Follow TV Tropes


Creator / Harlan Ellison

Go To

"Darkness falls early. From the horizon comes the wail of creatures pretending to be human. The red tide has come in, and shapeless things float toward the shore. He stands before the altar of Art, naked and with fists raised, and he vows: I will not be lied to.
Hello. My name is Harlan Ellison and I am a writer."
Introductory paragraphs of Ellison's first An Edge In My Voice column

Harlan Jay Ellison® (yes, he made his own name a registered trademark) (May 27, 1934 — June 28, 2018) was a writernote , who was strongly associated with the New Wave Science Fiction movement of the 1960s. His work has won eight and a half Hugo Awards, three Nebula Awards (plus a lifetime achievement award), five Bram Stoker Awards (including a lifetime achievement award), two Edgar Awards, and four Writers Guild of America Awards for Most Outstanding Teleplay — more awards than almost any other writer. The majority of his work was one-off short stories published in magazines and digests, often with magical realism, science fiction, fantasy and even erotic themes, often told in a surrealistic manner.

Works by Harlan Ellison include:

  • "Soldier" and "Demon with a Glass Hand", episodes of The Outer Limits (1963). Harlan believed, because of the similarities, that James Cameron used them as the basis of creating The Terminator and they agreed on a cash settlement and an official acknowledgment in the credits.
  • ""Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman", Hugo- and Nebula-Award-winning 1965 short story. Which, he writes in an intro to the story in [not sure what anthology], that he wrote it all in one sitting, the night before he had to hand it in for a writing-workshop. This is now reported to be one of the most reprinted stories in the English language.
  • "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", Hugo-Award-winning 1967 short story and the 1995 computer game based on it, which he wrote and starred in as the voice of AM.
  • Editor of Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, ground-breaking sf anthologies published 1967 and 1972; The Last Dangerous Visions was announced in 1973, and he continued to insist that he'd get around to releasing it one of these days, but...
  • He wrote the script for "The City on the Edge of Forever", the Hugo-Award-winning 1967 episode of Star Trek: The Original Series; however, while his original script was praised from the start it was extensively rewritten by D.C. Fontana, Gene Coon, and Gene Roddenberry because of budget concerns and it had continuity issues with characterization and tone. Ellison wanted to change to a psuedonym (one he was known for using in disowning productions) which was contested by Roddenberry for that reason, if it wasn't for the legal issues Fontana might have gotten a co-writer credit.
  • "The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World", Hugo-Award-winning 1968 short story.
  • "A Boy and His Dog", Nebula-Award-winning 1969 short story made into Hugo-Award-winning 1974 film.
  • Phoenix Without Ashes, a screenplay written in 1972, which became the 1973 TV series The Starlost. The series suffered so badly from Executive Meddling that he insisted on being credited only under a derisive pseudonym. ("By Cordwainer Bird" means you know it's a turd!). With Edward Bryant, it was expanded into a novel shortly after; and in 2010, the original screenplay was adapted into a comic book miniseries.
  • Harlan Ellison's Watching, a movie review column for the Los Angeles Free Press and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
  • The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, a two-book collection of television and social criticism.
  • Was hired by Warner Bros. in the late 1970s to write a film adaptation of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot; the script is highly-regarded by those who have read it, but the project fell apart after Ellison accused a studio exec of having the intellectual capacity of an artichoke. Asimov loved the script, and it was most certainly Truer to the Text than the actual I, Robot film that was eventually produced. In The '90s, the screenplay was published as I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay, with concept art illustrations interspersed with the script. Ellison considered it nothing less than one of the great tragedies of his life that the film was never made, and his dear friend Isaac never got to see it.
  • Was also given a crack at the script for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. His take forced the Enterprise crew to choose whether to destroy an alternate universe in order to rescue their own, but (as usual) an executive wanted to toss in his own two cents - in this case, a good deal of space-Mayan mysticism. Ellison told him to go soak his head, and the script was eventually written by another writer. For the record, Ellison's only writing credit on a feature film is The Oscar.
  • Conceptual consultant on Babylon 5 (and made a couple of guest appearances). When asked what a Conceptual Consultant did, creator J. Michael Straczynski replied that "Harlan does what Harlan wants"
  • The Night of Thanks, But No Thanks!, a Batman story written by him for Detective Comics #567.
  • "Funny Money": Another Batman story written by Ellison. First printed in Batman: Gotham Knights #13 as a backup feature, later collected in Batman: Black and White Vol. 2.
  • Spider Kiss (aka Rockabilly), a 1961 novel about a sociopathic teen idol and the publicist who has to keep the singer's drunken rampages out of the scandal sheets. His only full-length novel, and also the only novel given a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
  • Two third season episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: "The Sort of Do-it-Yourself Dreadful Affair" (Season 03, Ep. 02) and "The Pieces of Fate Affair" (Season 03, Ep. 23). The latter was, for a long time, the series' "Missing Episode", as Ellison had unwisely parodied a number of his literary acquaintances, and used several friends' names for characters, resulting in a lawsuit against Ellison and the removal of the episode from syndication packages until 1985. (Ironically, the friends themselves didn't have a problem with it!)
  • A still unproduced and recently published TV pilot script The Dark Forces which Ellison describes as his version of Doctor Strange.
  • An unproduced script for the Batman '60s TV series, in which the villain would have been a psychedelic version of Two-Face. It was nearly produced, with Clint Eastwood as Two-Face, until ultimately the producers decided it was too dark for such an intentionally fun and campy series. The script ended up being adapted into an issue of the Batman '66 comic book that came out in 2014.

Ellison was grumpy. Famously grumpy. Things he was famously grumpy about include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • People who discount all science fiction as being no better than the worst of film and TV sci-fi ("that hunchbacked, gimlet-eyed, slobbering village idiot of a bastardized genre"). In fact, as of Dream Corridor, he hated the label "science fiction writer", which he saw as too limited, and really didn't like the label "sci-fi writer".
  • People who asked him about the jellybeans in "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman". Which were lampshaded in the story itself.
  • People who asked him when The Last Dangerous Visions is going to be published.
  • Similarities between his The Outer Limits (1963) episodes and the film The Terminator, which led to a lawsuit and a credit for him in subsequent releases of the movie.
  • The changes made to his script for "The City on the Edge of Forever" before it was filmed. It's worth remembering that his original version of the script won him one of his Writers Guild of America Awards — but on the other hand, it was the final broadcast version of the episode that won the Hugo. (It's also been suggested that his version of the episode, had it been filmed, would have murdered the budget and then been murdered in turn by Standards and Practices.)
    • William Shatner said he attempted to talk to Ellison during the ordeal to try and calm things down. According to Shatner, Ellison responded by yelling at him.
    • Apparently Paramount has taken the tactic of declaring most, if not all, elements of the story off-limits for the Expanded Universe after Ellison sued them (and the Writers Guild of America) for 25% of the royalties for every time they were used from 1967-2009. Paramount settled out of court.
    • Ellison's own book about the controversy includes both versions of the script. Comparing both, one is reminded of the words of J. Michael Straczynski, with whom Ellison would later work on Babylon 5; "You wait a week or two, then the writer comes in, and you expect to hear a great story about your characters... And what you get is a story about an outside character who comes in and has adventures, a story in which your regular characters are passive participants or downright irrelevant."
  • The Star Lost.
  • Penny Arcade.
  • Star Wars, because people consider it a good science fiction story but it doesn't really examine the effect of the setting on humanity as a whole. He also felt that the film has no humanity or soulnote , and believed it "keeps people stupid"note  and ruined the public cultural perception of science fiction. It's especially evident in his infamous rant "Luke Skywalker is a Nerd and Darth Vader sucks runny eggs", collected in his book "Watching". Which feeds back into the distinction between "science fiction" and "sci-fi". With that said however, Ellison did genuinely enjoy watching The Empire Strikes Back and considered it a solidly made movie (though this didn't stop him from writing a disparaging review of the Atari 2600 tie-in game later on).
  • His height.
  • Jesse Jubilee James, firefighting llama cowboy. Which was more than justified, considering that what this Janna person did was, for all intents and purposes, Mind Rape one of his friends. For nearly 2 years. Though it should be noted that Ellison never spoke publicly about this story or confirmed that he was personally involved. We only have Josh Olson's word for Ellison's participation, although, barring a few cynics on metafilter, there's no question that the incident itself was real. note 
  • Racism, as best illustrated in "From Alabamy, With Hate".
  • The longtime blackballing of A.E. van Vogt for the SFWA Grand Master Award.note 
  • Cultural illiteracy.
  • Snopes (possibly because they relayed the rumor about his being fired from Disney).
  • Mistreatment of writers by studios. Which is ironic, because he also was rather contemptuous of TV.
  • The mindset that ideas can be trivialized by the medium they're represented in.
  • Attempts to persuade him that he should do something for free that he felt entitled to be paid for, which he covered in a well-known Dreams With Sharp Teeth excerpt that has come to be known as Pay The Writer.note 
    "They wouldn't go for five seconds without being paid, and they'll bitch about how much they're paid, and want more. I should do a freebie for Warner Brothers?! What, is Warner Brothers out with, you know, an eye patch and a tin cup on the street? Fuck no!"
  • The Oscar.
  • Wikipedia. He terms it "dangerous and hurtful crap".
  • Pinocchio because not only was it a bastardized version of the book, but because, quote-unquote, "Walt Disney had the elephantized testicles to slap his name on it as if he was the person to think the whole thing up! Look at it! It's right there on the movie's poster! Disney's Pinocchio. No it's not! No it's fucking not! It's not Disney's Pinocchio! It's fucking Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio!" With that said, he absolutely loved the character of Jiminy Cricket, apparently considering him one of his personal role models.
  • The film Saving Mr. Banks, which hit rather close to home for him by falsely portraying PL Travers as approving of the film adaptation of Mary Poppins, since Harlan was one of Travers' friends. He was also furious that "they turned a warm, conscientious, emphatic woman and turned her into an Ice Queen".note 
  • He also wrote an episode of the Logan's Run TV series, but we don't talk about that.
  • Anything not on this list.

Harlan Ellison wasn't really grumpy all the time, and he did have friends, and there are also stories demonstrating that he was capable of being a wonderful human being. He also appeared as a grumpy caricature of himself in Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, giving a lecture that concluded "... and that's why nothing good has been written since the 1970s". The stories about Grumpy Harlan Ellison are a lot funnier, though (example: allegedly once mailing an executive roadkill — fourth class — along with a recipe for gopher stew).

Ellison was known for being a real-life Unreliable Narrator, with a love of stretching the truth and coloring stories to make them fit whatever message he wanted his listener to take from them. One is advised to take anything non-fictional he said or wrote with a grain of salt.

He had numerous health difficulties including a form of Epstein-Barr that severely affected his joint mobility, a heart attack in 1996, and a stroke in 2014. He had warned fans that he was dying as early as 2010.

For an in-depth look at the man's genius, madness, and general assholery, check out the documentary on his life and career: Dreams with Sharp Teeth. The film features commentary by Robin Williams, Neil Gaiman, Ronald D. Moore and others who have known, worked with, or have been influenced by Ellison and his writings.

Harlan Ellison died on June 28th, 2018. Friend and admirer George R. R. Martin eulogized him in a long blog post, and pointed out the Death by Irony (or aversion thereof) that for a man with such a turbulent life, Harlan peacefully passed away in his sleep and in his own bed (from a heart attack) at the old age of 84.

Trope Namer:

  • And I Must Scream:
    • The eventual fate of the last living human character in the titular work, reduced to a mobile protoplasmic blob.
    • The fate of the antagonist in "Broken Glass", as his mind is trapped in continuous torture inside the mind of the main character, leaving him in a vegetative state in the real world.
    • The fate of Kostner in Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes, who is tricked by the soul of a dead prostitute into transferring his soul into the slot machine that previously trapped the woman, leaving him a weary purgatory that will be burned into scrap metal.

Works by Harlan Ellison provide examples of:

  • Adam and Eve Plot: (parodied) "The Voice in the Garden": two humans who are sole survivors of some sort of mess meet each other and decide to do the rebuilding of humanity thing. The woman is of course named Eve, and the man... George.
  • The Anti-Nihilist: A Central Theme in many of his stories, especially "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore."
  • The Atoner: "With Virgil Oddum At The East Pole"
  • Black-and-White Morality: Intentionally avoided and openly disparaged by Harlan, who explained how childish and inapplicable to reality it is in his "Luke Skywalker is a Nerd" rant.
    "But that's the point! Is the single defense I get when I alienate myself at dinner parties by my negativity. It's supposed to be mindless, I'm told. And then those professional types who are safe in loving Star Wars where they might be attacked for reading the latest Robert Silverberg or Thomas Disch sf novel, explain to me as carefully as one would a retarded child, that Star Wars is a return to the worship of the Eternal Verities: honor, truth, fighting Evil. All black and white. Try black and white in a world of credit cards, punk rock, mastectomies, Watergate, the rise of homegrown Nazism, Anita Bryant, and the terrifying fact that more than half of all serious crimes in the United States are committed by people between the ages of ten and seventeen—-and that includes rape, murder, robbery, aggravated assault and burglary."
  • Blessed with Suck: "Seeing" revolves around a woman whose mutated eyes allow her to see in ways that normal eyes (and brains) can't begin to process. She hates her vision because it's made her life miserable.
  • Boldly Coming: "How's the Night Life on Cissalda?"
  • Breakout Villain: The Kyben, an invading alien race in one of his earliest stories, "Life Hatch", would appear in many of his works across his career, The Earth-Kyba War being an unfinished project at the time of his death.
  • Canine Companion: Ellison liked dogs. "A Boy And His Dog" was the most famous example. He wrote a real obituary for a favourite pet dog into a short story, "The Deathbird."
  • Clocks of Control: "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" is about a ruthless dystopian government led by a figure known as the Master Timekeeper or the "Ticktockman". Under the Ticktockman's rule, everyone is perpetually bound to an incredibly strict schedule every day, and failing to follow this schedule is punishable by death, which the Ticktockman carries out by stopping one's heart.
  • Dead Animal Warning: In the short story "Knox", a racist terrorist group nails their enemy's dog to his door.
  • Development Hell: The Last Dangerous Visions
  • Drugs Are Bad: "Shattered Like a Glass Goblin".
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: "Paladin of the Lost Hour."
  • Earth That Was/Mercy Kill: "The Deathbird".
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: "How Interesting: A Tiny Man".
  • Fantastic Plastic: He coined the term "plasteel", a fictional compound made up of polymer and steel, said to combine the elasticity of plastic, the heat resistance of metal, and the strength and durability of both.
  • Gainax Ending: "How Interesting: A Tiny Man" was published with two possible endings. One is more straight and tragic, the other makes your head hurt as it can almost understand it.
  • God Is Evil:
    • Probably the best way to explain "The Region Between."
    • He wrote a whole collection - Deathbird Stories- around this trope.
    • "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" qualifies, that is, if you consider AM to be a God.
  • Grand Theft Me: "Mefisto In Onyx". (But done by the protagonist.)
  • Hellistics: His short story "The Man Who Was Heavily Into Revenge" exaggerates this, as the Jerkass protagonist finds that the entire universe is apparently out to get him in the name of the man he wronged.
  • Humans Are Bastards/Humans Are Morons
  • Invisible Introvert: The protagonist of Are You Listening unwillingly finds himself the victim of this trope. A meek man beforehand, he can't get anyone to notice his presence even if he makes a loud noise or assaults someone. By the end of the story he discovers that he can briefly connect with people by whistling the once-popular song "Buckle Down, Winsocki."
  • Jewish Mother: Taken to a horrifying extreme in "Mom"—the titular mother comes back as a disembodied voice after she dies just so she can continue nagging her son.
  • Large Ham: His voice acting in I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. (TEEEEEEEEDDDD!)
  • Laugh Track: In-story in "Laugh Track". The ghosts of those whose laughter was recorded are now trapped in it, and one of them gets out and starts jeering at the awful comedies it's being used for. (An explicit comparison is made to the idea of a soul-stealing camera.)
  • Magical Negro: Explicitly averted in "Paladin of the Lost Hour" and "Mefisto In Onyx".
  • Mind Rape: Made very literal in "Broken Glass"—the antagonist is a telepathic voyeur/rapist who watches the main character's torrid fantasy and then assaults her fantasy version of herself.
  • Mind Screw: His short "How Interesting: A Tiny Man".
  • Missing Episode: The Last Dangerous Visions
  • New Media Are Evil: He initially had a very low opinion of video games, seeing them as brainless time wasters, if his review of the Atari 2600 Empire Strikes Back game is anything to go by (which he particularly disliked for the seemingly nihilistic message implied by the game being impossible to win). This didn't stop him from authorizing or doing voice work for game adaptations of his own stories, however (and in an act of irony, Ellison wanted the game adaptation of I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream to be unwinnable, but ultimately compromised by allowing the game to have a Good Ending option, albeit one that is frustratingly hard to achieve).
  • Odd Job Gods: Deathbird Stories has several.
  • Oh, Crap!: The ending of Sleeping Dogs.
  • Our Gods Are Different: "Deathbird Stories" is all about a supposed new pantheon of gods and how they affect the lives of people they encounter.
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: "Footsteps".
  • Religion of Evil: "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs".
  • Rock Monster: The title character of "Rock God".
  • Sacred Cow:invoked He considered it nothing less than his mission in life to go after these, heaping sneering contempt on Star Wars, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings and all those who enjoy them. He loved the Land of Oz books, however, and openly called Doctor Who "the greatest science fiction series of all time" at a lecture, writing glowing introductions to the American editions of ten Classic Series novelizationsnote . His full-length audiobook rendition of Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea is read in the vivid narrative style of a children's storyteller, and he's clearly loving the whole thing.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • Ellison had esoteric and obscure references coming out the wazoo, and oftener than not, even the really weird (for him, that's a special level of weird) ones are things you can look up. (In the intro to his "Harlan Ellison's Watching" column, he advised readers that "I will send you to the dictionary.")
    • In "Grail", the demon Surgat is a minor demon who specializes in opening locks. He has his own Wikipedia page.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman"
    Ticktockman: Repent, Harlequin!
    Harlequin: Get stuffed.
  • Southern Gothic Satan: In "Enter the Fanatic, Stage Center", a man with a beard comes to Prince, a town where nobody wears a beard. The stranger is an artist, and opens an art gallery where he shows his paintings in the shop window. These paintings reveal the dark secrets of the members of the community—this guy is an adulterer, that guy is biracial ("half-Negro,") these women are lesbians, the town beggar is secretly rich, that guy is impotent and leaves his wife unsatisfied, etc. These revelations lead to people losing their jobs, marriages collapsing, and violence, wrecking the previously orderly community. When somebody confronts the painter, the town wrecker says that he is the son of a German couple murdered by a mob during the war in a fit of anti-German hysteria. But then admits that is a lie. It is hinted that this bearded troublemaker is the Devil or a servant of Satan, but he also says "I am quite as human as you." The painter then murders his interlocutor, and then he leaves town, apparently to go destabilize some other town.
  • Space Jews: In "I'm Looking For Kadak".
  • Succubi and Incubi: A succubus delivers retribution to a Handsome Lech in "Lonely Women Are the Vessels of Time".
  • Why Fandom Can't Have Nice Things: The entire point of his essay "Xenogenesis". It is a long catalog of harassment, mistreatment, larcenous behavior, and in some cases downright assault inflicted upon not only Ellison himself but on scores of other science fiction writers by their fans. The essay is a bit of a horror story that culminates in a description of the day a disgruntled "fan" threw a cup of warm vomit in Alan Dean Foster's face at a science fiction convention.
  • Word Salad Title: He loved these. In his repertoire you'll find titles like "'Repent, Harlequin!'" Said the Ticktockman", "Demon With a Glass Hand", "The Wine Has Been Left Open Too Long and the Memory Has Gone Flat", and of course, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream".