They Were Here First

In Peter David’s Star Trek Novel Q-Squared (which is a damn good book that stands well on its own merits), Picard gets pretty damn huffy at Q for being arrogant, as Picard is wont to do. Q replies:

“Picard, I could blast this ship out of existence if I felt like it. I could grow hair on your head. Turn your crew into embryos, force Worf to recite doggerel. I could turn your ship inside out, your reality outside in. I am not being condescending, Picard… not that I’m incapable of it, you understand, but this simply isn’t one of the times. Now, what I most definitely am, Picard, is arrogant. Why? Because I have a reason to be. I have a right to be. So… mortal… what’s your excuse?”

Harlan Ellison is arguably the least popular author in science fiction, because his personal reputation (some of which, he’s the first to admit, he worked hard to earn) paints him as something in between Q and the unholy hybrid of Ross Perot and a pissed off garden gnome. He’s also one of the greatest living authors in the world; the quality of his stories, and their diversity, is such that he’s never been out of work since he started selling consistently in the 1950s and 60s.

He edited the two greatest anthologies in the history of the genre, he penned the Star Trek episode that showed the possibilities inherent in Gene Roddenberry’s lovably hokey show, his influence on and friendship with J. Michael Straczynski were instrumental in bringing Babylon 5 to market (thus giving Ellison an instrumental hand in two of the most historically important Science Fiction dramas, as measured by their effect on culture–in Star Trek’s case–and on the nature of televised drama in the case of Babylon 5). He’s the author of two of the most reprinted stories in history. He nursed the New Wave movement of the 60s and 70s to something artistically and culturally important, with ramifications far beyond Science Fiction.

A lot of my friends (as in, almost all of them) can’t stand him. Some will go into fits of huffing and profanity when he come sup in conversation (as will a much greater number of my casual acquaintances). He’s an irascible bastard, with very little patience for those who (in his opinion) don’t get it. He’s scrappy, picks fights whenever he can, and is a master of scandalizing the easily scandalized. And arrogance? Yeah, he’s got a lot of that.

And you know what? I don’t care. Normally I’d smile and nod, but it’s time to go on record saying I don’t give a good goddamn if Harlan Ellison is an asshole. Although I enjoy being kind to people whenever possible and dislike cruelty, I always have and always will admire Harlan’s work ethic, his devotion to excellence, his impatience with half-assedness, his integrity, and the amazing quality of his work over a more-than-fifty year writing career.

So, like Peter David’s Q said, yeah, he’s arrogant. And if you have a problem with that, I gotta ask: What’s your excuse, mortal? I certainly don’t have one. I haven’t earned that right. If I live long enough and write well enough, I might have a ghost of a chance of earning it, but that day is decades off (at best).

I think it’s an important thing to say, and to say now. Because, you see, Harlan is dying. Today, he is appearing at MadCon in Madison, Wisconson, and it will be his last public appearance. Ever.

You can read Harlan’s announcement here.

There are only a very few people left who have been around our field since the beginning, or nearly so. Harlan Ellison, Frederick Pohl, Robert Silverberg, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, Jack Vance, Anne McCaffrey, Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, James Gunn, Michael Moorcock. I might have missed one or two, but the fact remains: I can now count our living history in names that don’t even take up all my fingers and toes.

These are the people we owe our field to. Their stories, and the tales of those who came before them starting in the 1920s, have helped shape our civilization, because they inspired the scientists that entered the space program, that powered the computer revolution, who pioneered the internet, and who are now powering the biotech revolution. They are the visionaries whose dreams our stuff is made of.

If you are fortunate enough to be in the room with any of these people, treasure the chance. Listen to their stories. Remember the history. They’re going fast, and I suspect that most of us in the under fifty category won’t realize how precious they are until it’s far too late.

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3 Comments

  1. Hear! Hear!

  2. What is most remarkable is how some of these writer have managed to grow with the medium – look at the increase of skill and quality on the continuum between McCaffery’s DragonFlight and Pegasus in Space.
    I’ve not felt much wish to go back to my days of reading old sci-fi – there’s so much in the trappings of women’s roles and outdated theories that I am not sure I can forgive as a product of time and society, especially in such visionaries. I can give respect for what they’ve done, but when I hear continued stories of mistreatment at conventions I find it even harder to respect what Mr Ellison is. I’ll cherish my copy of his original script for Star Trek, but I fear I’ll remain disappointed at his uncharitable comments.

  3. Well. I never heard of this man before. I never knew of his strengths or weaknesses as a human being.
    But
    When I have a vision of a great writer. Not just successful in a career but a man or woman who shapes the way people think and influences the world we live in. I do not imagine a mild mannered individual whom is full of virtue and his a true paragon of everything man kind is.
    Great men and women are not perfect. Maybe they lack in social graces, maybe they excess to much in their vices. However, the same could be said about anyone of us.
    Great people are just that. People whom do great things.
    And people are not perfect to quote Men in Black (i feel kinda bad using this as a quote) “People are dumb panicy animals.”
    In my view, you should judge a person on their actions, words, and intentions. Judge one and you miss who the person is.

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