For the longest time in my life I was afraid of Harlan Ellison.
I guess that might need some explanation so I’ll go back to the start. Imagine a time in the 80’s when a kid just figuring his way out of social awkwardness decides to take a unique class. This class was different in several ways: one it was a split class – The first half of the semester was creative writing. The second half was Science Fiction. The other reason being that I didn’t like the teacher. Having been a shy and awkward youth but with a vivid imagination I was already deep into SF literature so this class was interesting enough to pull me in despite my opinion of the teacher.
I’m glad I did for several reasons but first and foremost was my introduction to Harlan Ellison’s writing. “Soldier” was the story that was in the collection we were reading. I was breathless whIle reading it. The initial action scene when Quarlo appears in present time and obliterates a locomotive gave me a thrill like I had never read before; I saw the scene so vividly in my head. Harlan’s brilliant prose just absolutely clicked with my mind’s eye. I decided right then and there I wanted to write as an essential part of my life. Naturally the rest of the story dug even deeper into my mind. Holy crap, THE IDEAS! Iset out to find as much material as I could from Ellison. Something that was no easily achievable in a time where Amazon was only a mythical female warrior and my public library was painfully thin in the science fiction section.
What I did find a decent amount of were the stories. Not his written work but stories of HIM. A lot were second, third, fourth hand. The biggest one being his confrontation with Gene Roddenberry over “City on the edge of forever”, which we all know a least in legend. I had also heard of his clash with Paramount executives when he was asked to pitch an idea for the first Star Trek movie (vaguely I recall him pitching an alternate universe story, an executive interjecting some idiocy about the Mayan calendar, Harlan telling them they were idiots and leaving). There was also the lawsuit with James Cameron over his plagiarism of Soldier for Terminator and several other instances of him being prickly at best, combative and yelly at worst.
Harlan had become a heady, daunting, near mythical character for a teenage geek with aspirations toward being a SF writer. Harlan was the standard I was comparing myself to. The level I was striving for. Having the typical traits that an up and coming geek writer had, namely insecurity, self doubt and overthinking to a fault; the picture I painted of him in my head was as vivid as that scene in Soldier and twice as harrowing. In short; I imagined if I ever met my hero he’d hate me a call me a loser.
Fast forward years…Shatterday, Angry Candy, for a film school assignment I did an adaptation of Harlan’s “Whimper of whipped dogs”. My discovery of other influential writers like Warren Ellis, William Gibson, Clive Barker. My own mutated writing aspiration from screenplays to comic books… “Would Harlan like this?” was usually the first question I would ask. The answer was always initially “No” so I pushed myself to get the writing to a point where, at least, I felt he would say “Meh, you suck but not as much as others. Don’t give up your day job, pal.”
My day job. My day job had become a set lighting electrician for the motion picture business. Which essentially meant I carried heavy stuff and worked strange long hours. I lived and worked in the Los Angeles area and kept my head above water and my dreams cultivated even when they seemed all over the place. I attained a dream job in the mid 90’s when I was invited to be a regular “juicer” (as we are known in slang terms) for Babylon 5 mid season 4. This was currently my favorite TV show and I was thrilled to be working on it. Also it was an easy fifteen minute commute from my Burbank apartment but that was just gravy. I had become a fan because even early in season one I sensed the tapistry JMS was weaving and there was really nothing like a serialized SF TV show out there ever. Then I saw that Harlan Ellison was a creative consultant on it and B5 was cemented in my sparse TV viewing routine.
Now I was working on the show and that put me several hitherto before only dreamed of/dreaded steps closer to meeting Harlan Ellison. Occasionally the scene of my bumping into him and him verbally tearing me a new asshole played out in my head. At the time I had no idea that being a “creative consultant” didn’t necessitate Harlan being there in person really at all. The fear lingered nonetheless.
Finally, it happened.
Harlan had come to set. He was doing a cameo for an episode playing a PSIcorp member in a flashback. Holy crap I was wound up. I kept my distance because I had forged many friendships and one or two crushes in my time on the crew and I had no desire to be called a “unparalleled idiot and the biggest loser I’ve even met!” by the guy sitting in the directors chair chatting to the on set make-up girls.
“But what would Harlan do?” I goaded myself. “He’d probably think I was a loser for not approaching him.” I responded developing a no win scenario in my head. I figured that even if this brilliant writer peered into my soul at the moment of meeting and stripped me to my very core it would be far worse if I had the chance to meet him and threw it away.
Fighting off a solid decade plus of dread I had developed in my fevered imagination, I braved it.
“Excuse me, Mr Ellison. Hi my name is Michael and I just wanted to say that you’re one of my absolute favorite writers.” I stammered (or thought I stammered but probably didn’t …but I was so nervous because I… you get it). “”I’ve tried to read everything I can get of yours.”
Harlan regarded my with those sharp intelligent eyes. “Everything, huh. Ya’know during the Northridge earthquake I was in my house. When everything shook I fell to the floor by my book case. Everything I’ve ever wrote tumbled out of that bookcase and onto ME… Good thing I’m a short story writer or I’d be dead now.”
The girls laughed. It took me a moment for this to sink in and then I laughed too. Harlan Ellison, the man I had most feared meeting in my entire life, not only DIDN’t verbally destroy me when I met him, he told a self-depreciating story! We chatted for a few more minutes and then I had to throw myself back into work… or maybe I was no good at small talk and I wanted to quit while I was ahead. Either way as I thanked him and walked away I heard him comment to my friends in the glamour squad “He seems like a nice guy.”
I can’t even begin to explain the profound and strange relief I felt after that encounter. One of the oddest and, with a small amount of reflection, baseless fears of my life evaporated. At the risk of getting all “after school special” on you, kind reader, it is a moment I look back on, especially when I am hesitant (fearful?) to take a step, and realize that most of the fear is in my head.
Thank you Harlan for that, even if you did it without ever knowing.
As my career has progressed I’ve indirectly been associated with Harlan; my friend Editor and writer Lou Anders had a funny and ongoing relationship with him giving me plenty of funny stories to augment those old creaky negative ones. My friend J.K. Woodward illustrated the IDW adaptation of Harland’s original script for “City on the edge of forever”. Several occasions when visiting JK I got the privilege of previewing his gorgeous rendering of the infamous SF classic.
As an added bonus there were two other times I personally crossed paths with the man who terrified me and my dreams. At a wrap party for Babylon 5. For some inexplicable reason I decided to rent a zoot suit for the shindig (I think it was when that look was back for about thirty seconds in the mid to late 90’s). A drunk Harlan told me that I didn’t get laid from wearing that i had a serious problem. I didn’t btw he was onto something. Second time was about three years ago. I was in my local comic book store in Northridge and Harlan was in there buying some stuff and being Harlan. No longer slave to my baseless narrative but figuring he’s never recall me I left him to his talking. Till he looked straight at me and said “I know you.”
“Yeah, I worked on Babylon Five, you told me the story of the earthquake and your bookshelf. I’m Michael”
“Oh, yeah, good to see ya!”
“You too Harlan. Thanks for everything, I’m a big fan.”
That was the last time and I’m luckier than most fans to have met him at all. The thing is even if you haven’t read any of his stories you HAVE enjoyed somebody’s work that was influenced by him. Harlan casts a long shadow over the entire genre of SF and a good deal of the rest of the literary world too. Now that he’s gone there will be the homages and tributes and all will talk about how he was such a firebrand, a fierce defender of writer’s rights, someone who held his ground with a withering put down and a gleam in his eye. All of that is true too.
But there was a lot more to the trickster god of speculative fiction. I’m honored to have seen it.
As a bonus J.K. Woodward provided some thoughts on Harlan and his experiences with him…