For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered. – Harlan Ellison
This feature has already commented on the unusually high number of luminaries in astronomy and space who have passed away within the relatively recent past.
In addition to scientists, engineers, and astronauts, in this context luminaries should perhaps be extended to include those artists and writers who have helped show us the way and prepare us for whatever we might meet, and in that sense another luminary has recently left us, with the passing of author Harlan Ellison June 28.
Ellison was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1934, and he spent most of his childhood in Ohio. As a physically small child and a member of a Jewish family living in an era when anti-Semitism was still quite common, he was often bullied during his childhood, and this ended up being partially channeled into an abrasive and acerbic personality which was one of his best-known personal characteristics.
He ran away from home numerous times, working several odd jobs including, in his own words, “tuna fisherman off the coast of Galveston, itinerant crop-picker down in New Orleans, hired gun for a wealthy neurotic, nitroglycerine truck driver in North Carolina, short-order cook, cab driver, lithographer, book salesman, floorwalker in a department store, door-to-door brush salesman, and as a youngster, an actor in several productions at the Cleveland Play House.”
Ellison attended Ohio State University during the early 1950s, but was expelled after 18 months for hitting a professor. Later he served two years in the U.S. Army, and moved to New York City. By this time, he had already shown a dramatic flair for writing ability, and in a rather unusual, and dangerous, experiment he spent two years running with the street gangs in New York, then writing about his experiences.
In the early 1960s Ellison moved to Los Angeles, and began an especially productive career writing screenplays for various television programs, and also writing numerous fiction stories – many of which could be considered science fiction, although a more encompassing term, speculative fiction, would probably be more appropriate. He also wrote profusely in matters of social commentary, and – perhaps ironically, given that much of his career success was due to television – he wrote several severe criticisms of television as a whole.
Ellison wrote only a handful of novels; most of his fiction writing took the form of short stories and the somewhat longer novellas and novelettes – overall, he wrote over 1,700 such works. Much of his work, written in a vivid and intense style, dealt with pain, both physical pain and emotional pain, considered within the overall theme of humanity’s dealing with a harsh and uncaring universe.
Among the many screenplays that he wrote were two episodes of the science fiction anthology series The Outer Limits. His best-known screenplay was for the (original series) Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” – widely considered as one of the best episodes in the entire Star Trek franchise although Ellison was reportedly unhappy with the changes that were made to his original script.
Many of Ellison’s stories won awards, including the Hugo Award, presented annually by the World Science Fiction Society, one of the highest awards given for science fiction. Three of Ellison’s short stories won Hugo Awards during the 1960s: “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman” in 1966 (which concerned massive governmental regulation of personal lives); “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” in 1968 (a shockingly brutal story about a god-like computer that controls what’s left of humanity after a major World War); and “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World” in 1969.
“The City on the Edge of Forever” won the Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation in 1968. The movie based on Ellison’s 1969 story “A Boy and His Dog” (which starred a young Don Johnson) won the Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation Award in 1976, and Ellison was eventually awarded a “Half-Hugo” for this effort.
Even though his production did eventually start to drop off, Ellison continued writing well into his later years. “Jeffty Is Five” (a bittersweet tale about the loss of childhood innocence, with the title character based upon the son of Star Trek actor Walter Koenig) won the Hugo Award in 1978, and “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” a story about our ultimate responsibilities towards each other, and towards humanity as a whole – and which happens to be my all-time favorite short story – won the same award in 1986.
Ellison continued his writing, and his work on social commentary and his activism, for many years, although he suffered some health issues that took away from his productivity. He has left us now, but the body of work that he leaves behind would suggest that he will continue to matter for some time yet to come.
Alan Hale is a professional astronomer who resides in Cloudcroft. Hale is involved in various space-related research and educational activities throughout New Mexico and elsewhere.
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