Goodbye To Harlan Ellison, 'America's Weird Uncle' Our critic Jason Sheehan says he's a little surprised that the legendary sci-fi writer passed away peacefully at home. It should have been an attack by alien space bears, or an argument with gravity.
NPR logo Goodbye To Harlan Ellison, 'America's Weird Uncle'

Goodbye To Harlan Ellison, 'America's Weird Uncle'

Ellison in 1977, with his beloved typewriter. Barbara Alper/Getty Images hide caption

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Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Ellison in 1977, with his beloved typewriter.

Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Editor's note: This piece uses some strong language; we think Harlan Ellison would have approved.

Harlan Ellison is dead. He was 375 years old. He died fighting alien space bears.

Harlan is dead. He exploded in his living room, in his favorite chair, apoplectic over the absolute garbage fire this world has become. He's dead, gone missing under mysterious circumstances, leaving behind many suspects. He went down arguing over the law of gravity with a small plane in which he was flying. Harlan took the contrary position. He won.

Harlan Ellison, science fiction writer and legendarily angry man, died Thursday. He exited peacefully (as far as such things go) at home and in his sleep. He was 84 years old.

Any one of those first lies seems to me more likely than the truth of the last one. Hard enough to believe that Ellison is gone — that something out there finally stilled that great and furious spirit and pried those pecking fingers from the keyboard of his Olympia typewriter (without, apparently, the aid of explosives). But a quiet farewell to this life that he loved so largely and this world that he excoriated so beautifully? If someone had asked me, I would've bet on the space bears.

Harlan Ellison was, after all, one of the most interesting humans on Earth. He was one of the greatest and most influential science fiction writers alive (until yesterday), and now is one of the best dead ones. He was a complete jerk, mostly unapologetically, and a purely American creation — short, loud, furious, outnumbered but never outmatched — who came up in Cleveland, went to LA and lived like some kind of darkside Forrest Gump; a man who, however improbably, however weirdly, inserted himself into history simply by dint of being out in it, brass knuckles in his pocket, and always looking for trouble.

In his youth, he claims to have been, among other things, "a 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." He was the kid who ran off and joined the circus. Bought the circus. Burned the whole circus down one night just to see the pretty lights.

Stone fact: He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, lectured to college kids, visited with death row inmates, and once mailed a dead gopher to a publisher. He got into it with Frank Sinatra one night in Beverly Hills. Omar Sharif and Peter Falk were there. Ellison was shooting pool, and in walks Sinatra, who laid into Ellison because he didn't like the kid's boots.

And look, this is Sinatra in '65. Sinatra at the height of his power and glory. A Sinatra who could wreck anyone he felt like. But Ellison simply did not care. He went nose-to-nose with Sinatra, shouting, ready to scrap. Gay Talese was there, working on a story, so Ellison became a tiny part of what, among magazine geeks, stands as the single greatest magazine profile of all time: "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold." "Sinatra probably forgot about it at once," Talese wrote, "but Ellison will remember it all his life."

And that was absolutely true.

But that moment? It encapsulated Ellison. His luck, his deviltry, his style and violence. He lived like he had nothing to lose, and he wrote the same way. Twenty hours a day sometimes, hunched over a typewriter, just pounding. He published something like 1,800 stories in his life and some of them (not just one of them or two of them, but a lot of them) are among the best, most important things ever put down on paper.

Ellison brought a literary sensibility to sci-fi at a time when the entire establishment was allergic to any notion of art, won awards for it, and held those who'd doubted him early in a state of perpetual contempt. He wrote "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" and "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." But everyone knows that, right? He wrote "A Boy and His Dog," which became the movie of the same name and still stands as one of the darkest, most disturbing, most gorgeously weird examples of post-apocalyptica on the shelves.

His anthology, Dangerous Visions, gave weight and seriousness to the New Wave movement that revitalized sci-fi in the '70s. That kicked open the door for everyone who came after and the scene we have today. He wrote a flamethrower essay about hating Christmas and the script for "City on the Edge of Forever," the Star Trek episode that most nerds who lean in that direction will tell you was the best of the series. He wrote for comics, for videogames, for Hollywood, got fired from Disney on his first day for making jokes about Disney porn.

"My work is foursquare for chaos," he once told Stephen King. "I spend my life personally, and my work professionally, keeping the soup boiling. Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous; I much prefer troublemaker, malcontent, desperado. I see myself as a combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket. My stories go out from here and raise hell."

And he followed those stories right out the door. Did he get in fights? He did. And bragged about every one of them. Filed lawsuits like they were greeting cards. He assaulted book people with frightening regularity, went to story meetings with a baseball bat back in the day. He groped the author Connie Willis on stage during a Hugo Award ceremony, for which some people never forgave him.

And there's nothing to say to normalize that. He wasn't just some curmudgeon or crank to wave off. I once called him "America's weird uncle," but that almost seems too gentle because he was more than that. He was an all-American a**hole, born and bred. Science fiction's Hemingway. Its Picasso. Talented and conflicted, both, and with a fire in him that sometimes came out as genius and sometimes as violence and no one ever knew which one they'd get.

But all of this? None of it really matters today. Because the man is dead and these are the Legends of Ol' Harlan now. The tales he left behind — on paper and in the heads of those fortunate enough to read him when he was at his acetylene brightest — and the stories that followed in his stories' wake. To say he was one-of-a-kind would be trite, and he would likely hate that. What he was, was a legend. Singular. Absolutely deserving of all the love and all the anger he earned in his time. With his work, he has purchased immortality at bulk rates. With his life, he stayed on till dawn and cursed the sun for rising. If ever there was a man who lived more than he was due, it was Harlan Ellison.

He's earned his rest.

And the respect of the space bears.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.