Thursday, March 5, 2015

Me and Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison

Note: While I try to keep Humble Opinions family-friendly, the following story contains some harsh, adult language. It’s what actually happened, and I include it to make a point about the speaker. Please be warned. 

I’ve never much followed science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. His famous Star Trek episode, “City on the Edge of Forever,” was probably the best overall episode of the Original Series (it was also heavily rewritten by ST creator Gene Roddenberry, to Ellison’s eternal chagrin). I’ve read a smattering of his spotty comic book work, and the stories struck me as mediocre at best. I haven’t read much—if any—of his prose, so I have no opinion on his books or stories. I realize he does have his fans, and has had a long, generally successful career. 

I also know Ellison has a reputation for curmudgeonly behavior. He’s brash, opinionated and sometimes violent. He’s the only personality I know that has actually had a hate club formed in his honor, “Enemies of Ellison” (later changed to “Victims of Ellison”). That was what I knew about him when I went to see a speech by Ellison at the Mid-Ohio Con in Columbus, Ohio when Ellison was Guest of Honor in the fall of 1999. 

Ellison gave his talk on stage in a large banquet room. The room was packed, the crowd was standing room only. For some reason, he had his younger, attractive wife sitting in the middle of the stage on a chair. She didn’t say anything, but just sat in her chair and smiled while he walked around the stage and spoke. It was odd. 

Ellison began the presentation by calling out the event managers’ typos in the show program. This seemed a bit ungracious to me; they had paid Ellison a lot of money to be there and he was angry about a few typos in a program. After belittling his employers, he started one of the most unusual presentations I’ve ever seen. 

Ellison is a natural storyteller. He did something amazing; he would start telling an interesting story or anecdote; get interrupted or lose his train of thought, then start telling another, unrelated story. He was on the stage a good 90 minutes or more, and never lost track of his stories. Eventually, he would backtrack, not necessarily in order, and finish every story he started with a grand payoff. It was like a giant puzzle box opening slowly, then closing back into a perfect package. What was so unpleasant was what was inside that package. 

Again, I didn’t know much about Harlan Ellison when I attended this presentation. I have no ax to grind. I just want to report as accurately as possible what happened and how I feel about it. 

Ellison is ruled by his ego. I know some consider him a good writer. In his own mind, he is a monster talent, sex god and judge of all humanity. I’ve rarely experienced someone so full of anger and their own hubris. Ellison is obsessed with his sexual exploits and prowess, and insists on sharing his experiences. With his wife on the stage beside him, he bragged endlessly of his sexual exploits, of how many women he had “in his bed,” as he put it, and most of his stories consisted of at least some aspect of his sex life. That was bad form, especially with his wife there. He bragged of his intelligence, his talent, his putting others in their rightful place, his toughness and ability to intimidate others to do his will. He is a protector and defender of women (whether or not they share his bed—what a stand-up guy). 

If someone walked down the aisle to leave the auditorium, Ellison would stop his talk and belligerently ask where they were going or why they were leaving. One unfortunate, probably fed up with the tidal wave of narcissism, gave Ellison the finger. Ellison roared with indignation, shouting obscenities and insults at the man all the way out of the room and into the hallway. For those who didn’t learn their lesson and stay put for the great man, a line of abuse was ready for anyone who had the gall to leave. Small bladders were no excuse, even if the person planned to return. 

I was somewhat amused by this man proving to be an insecure, puffed-up clown, until his attention turned to the mass murders in Columbine, Colorado in April of 1999. Ellison was addressing fan culture and how nerds and kids who are into sci fi, fantasy and other “geek” things are picked on and ostracized from normal society, especially in high school. Through some tortured logic, Ellison positioned murderers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris as fatalities of said culture. Referring to the Columbine victims, Ellison shouted into the microphone, “Motherfuckers had it COMIN’!” The crowd froze. The air seemed to be sucked out of the room. Famous and popular writer Harlan Ellison, until now to me a harmless crank who made a living by being in a bad mood, had just said that children mowed down in a hail of gunfire by sociopaths ... deserved it? I couldn’t believe my ears. I think my mouth actually dropped open. Did he truly believe that? I listened to make sure I had heard him right. I had. Ellison made the case that this was some kind of mass nerd payback for years of being marginalized, picked on by jocks and ignored by civilization. Children’s deaths were justified payback for other kids being picked on. Children’s DEATHS were justified PAYBACK for other kids being PICKED ON! What a crock of crap. I wracked my mind for what may have happened to this man as a child to make him think this way. Was he beaten by bullies? Abused by his parents? Denied going to the prom with the most popular girl in school? That could be it ... if he had a hot prom date, we most assuredly would have heard about it by now. “Motherfuckers had it comin’!” That still rings in my ears today, as one of the most asinine, hateful sentences I’ve ever heard. If Harlan Ellison had been the parent of a murdered child, would he say they “had it coming,” no matter what the cause? 

At this point, more people started to leave, each subjected to further Ellison abuse. Ellison began to close the loops on all of his stories, each one making him look like a superhero. What to make of this man? Small, petty, seething with self-loathing ... no description or adjective can capture the revulsion of what I felt and heard that day. I wasn’t a Harlan Ellison fan before that performance. I’m definitely not one now. Motherfuckers had it comin’. Wow. 


  1. He used to do commentary on a show on the Sci Fi channel called The Buzz. Loved the commentary - but he was his own worst enemy.

  2. I remember that commentary! Even now I can remember Ellison becoming so upset about the pronounciation of Dr. Jekyll (as in "and Mr. Hyde"). Apparently it's supposed to be pronounced like the animal, Jackel. Who knew? And who cares? And he got so upset about the saying "Have your cake and eat it too." According to Ellison it should be "Eat your cake and have it too." He was so incredibly upset over these things, as if lives depended on getting them right. I want my grammar to be correct, but jeez ...

  3. He did a episode after an earthquake in CA had tossed all the books in his office onto the floor. I felt for the guy. Just a little. Somewhere there is a short book about his work on that Star Trek episode and how The Great Bird changed the script. Harlan's script was edgy but not right for what Star Trek was supposed to be. I kept reading the book with Harlan's voice in my head - which was the idea after all.