Born and raised in Ohio, Harlan Ellison was a larger than life character with a quick temper and outspoken manner. Ellison was asked to leave Ohio State University after an argument with his Creative Writing professor who told him he had no talent. However, after moving to New York he became a prolific writer of short stories for science fiction magazines. He also wrote in other genres including crime, using a variety of pseudonyms whatever genre he was writing in. (including Cordwainer Bird, literally meaning ‘one who makes shoes for the birds’, which he used as a disclaimer against TV producers whose interpretations of his work he did not fully approve of).
Ellison’s sense of frustration and disillusion with TV scripting is understandable when you consider that a story that won a Writers’ Guild of America award for ‘Best Drama Episode Script’ turned into “something of a fiasco” as “so many changes were made to the original concept that he (Ellison) disowned the programme, signing the pilot episode with his derisory pseudonym, Cordwainer Bird”. The aforementioned is according to the Peter Nicholls edited book The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction described by Isaac Asimov as ‘the bible for all science fiction fans. The series referred to was Canadian-made, lasting only one season called ‘The Starlost’, in 1973. It was eventually novelised as Phoenix without Ashes (1975). By the way, Cordwainer Bird is also a reference to Cordwainer Smith, the science fiction writer who became an expert on psychological warfare and a special adviser to President J.F. Kennedy.
Ellison joined a Brooklyn street gang called the Barons for 10 weeks to research material for his first novel, Rumble AKA Web of the City (1958). City life was also depicted in his collection of stories The Deadly Streets (also 1958). Memos from Purgatory: Two Journeys of Our Times (1961) was a street gang study based on his own experience.
Ellison personally disavowed genre classifications although, like it or not, he won many awards specifically for sci-fi, more of which later. After discharge from national service in the army in 1959 he moved to Chicago, but by 1962 he was living in Los Angeles. His first sci-fi novel was The Man with Nine Lives (1959). He also wrote a series of stories set during a future war between Earth and the Kyben. The most well-known of these was Demon with a Glass Hand (1964) which became an episode for the popular’ The Outer Limits’ TV show. Another Ellison story was also adapted for TV as Soldier in ‘The Outer Limits’. It’s a harrowing tale of a purpose bred human of the future who has never known direct human contact and finds himself propelled into the past where he struggles to contain his aggressive instincts and adapt to the friendship shown to him by a linguist employed to translate his utterings. This won a Writers’ Guild of America award for ‘outstanding script’.
By 1963 he had established himself as a successful writer for television, with scripts for shows like Burke’s Law, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Route 66, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, and The Untouchables. Perhaps his greatest achievement came in writing what is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, Star Trek episode of all time The City on the Edge of Forever (1967). But this achievement was sullied, in Ellison’s eyes, by a heavy re-write by Gene Roddenberry to incorporate utopian ideas of the future. Ellison’s feud with Roddenberry went as far as Ellison insisting his Cordwainer Bird pseudonym be put on the credits, a suggestion which Roddenberry predictably declined. Despite all the arguments, the episode won a prestigious Hugo Award and another Writer’s Guild Award for Ellison. Ellison even said a set designer mistook the word ‘runes’ for ‘ruins’, hence the background in which the Star Trek crew jumped through the time portal.
A Hugo and Nebula short story award came for Repent, Harlequin! part of his 1965 collection Paingod and other Delusions; a
Hugo for short story I Have No Mouth and I must Scream (1967); another Hugo for The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World (1968); a Hugo for best novelette, A Boy and his Dog (1969), which was made into a film, receiving a Hugo for best dramatic presentation in 1976. More awards would follow and a 1976 poll in Locus magazine placed Ellison at #7 in the all-time best sci-fi authors.
Ellison was also an outspoken advocate for gun control, writing to the publisher of DC Comics to object to advertisements for gun ads appearing in the comics. (The ads stopped). He was also a vociferous advocate of human rights organisations. His persuasive (and irascible) nature is demonstrated by his successful lawsuit (settled out of court) to insist that his name be added to the credits of the 1984 movie ‘The Terminator’, claiming that James Cameron had ripped off some of his ideas about indestructible robots and time travel, although Cameron has always denied ever being influenced by Ellison’s work. He was also a great fan of Doctor Who considering
it to be the greatest science-fiction series of all time. The final word must go to Ellison himself who saw himself as “a fantasist” and not a sci-fi writer. And who would argue with him?
Next time: What Other Sci-Fi authors thought of Ellison and the SF Masterwork Dangerous Visions which Ellison edited.