DECEMBER 15, 2014
SINCE STARTING HIS professional career in the mid 1950s, Harlan Ellison has published hundreds of short stories, a handful of novels and novellas, scores of essays, comic book stories, and work for film and television—some produced, some not. Most of his work has been either science fiction and fantasy, but Ellison has correctly claimed that his oeuvre is more diverse than this. Even so, most of his other writing outside of science fiction and fantasy is of genre interest, usually horror or crime fiction.
It is thus unsurprising that, when Ellison’s stories have received awards, these have come almost without exception from groups affiliated with science fiction, fantasy, horror, and crime fiction. He has received eight Hugo Awards, a fan award given annually at the World Science Fiction Convention, better known as the Worldcon; five Bram Stoker Awards from the Horror Writers Association; four Nebula Awards from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; two World Fantasy Awards, chosen by a panel of judges; and two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America. Additionally, his story “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” was selected by Louise Erdrich for the volume of The Best American Short Stories she edited. Such a diverse array of awards says something about Ellison’s productivity as a writer of fiction, but also about the range of his work across a spectrum of genres. It also speaks to how he has appealed to both readers and to his fellow professionals.
Yet it should also be acknowledged that Ellison has made a name for himself not only with his work but also through his famously larger-than-life persona. He was active in science fiction fandom before his first professional sale, and even then was well known for his forceful personality and opinions. Although his early work covered a wide range of genres, he enjoyed his greatest popularity in science fiction and fantasy, and soon became equally famous (some would say notorious) in those fields as much for his convention appearances as for his fiction. His reputation for speaking his mind, along with a rapid-fire improvisational sense of humor, continued to grow as his appearances extended to college campuses and television talk shows. He has appeared as himself on The Simpsons and was the subject of a 2008 documentary called Dreams with Sharp Teeth, also the title of an omnibus volume published by the Book of the Month Club.
Nor is his voice limited to such venues. Not only has Ellison written introductions for dozens of books created by others, but he also in his role as editor added to the already-impressive length of the noteworthy science fiction anthologies Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972) with his ample introductions and afterwords for each story. For much of his career, he has done the same with his own collections, prefacing each story with background or commentary.
Ellison’s fame as a public figure in the world of science fiction and fantasy and his prominent presence on the page has sometimes threatened, as Ellen Weil and Gary K. Wolfe observed in their excellent study Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever, to overshadow his accomplishments as a writer. Although Ellison’s impressive productivity has meant that the quality of his work has not been consistently high, he has still produced several significant short stories and novellas, awards or no. Moreover, his best work covers a good deal of territory, both in terms of genre and of technique. Ellison’s fiction of the late 1950s and early 1960s hewed rather closely to the generic conventions of the period, but even then his stories were noted for their imagination and driving energy. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, he moved into modernist and postmodernist territory, as did the New Wave science fiction of the time, and he also attained the height of his fame in the field. Yet like Kurt Vonnegut before him, he attempted to distance himself from science fiction, preferring to call his fantastic work (like Margaret Atwood after him) “speculative fiction” or even magic realism, perhaps hoping to align himself with authors such as Gabriel García Márquez who enjoyed a greater degree of literary respectability. Even as his work after the mid 1970s became less experimental by comparison, it often became subtler and more sophisticated, with mature emotional considerations taking the place of the wilder elements of his earlier work.
Given Ellison’s status as a popular and frequently acclaimed author, it is surprising that, now in Ellison’s eightieth year, we have yet to see a “best of” collection, especially since such volumes are not uncommon in the genres for which he is best known. There have been similar books, including two editions of The Essential Ellison (1987, 2001) and Harlan 101: Encountering Ellison (2013), which includes seven essays by Ellison along with its twenty-four stories. And yet Harlan 101 is, as its title suggests, more of an introduction to Ellison than a compendium of his best work, and the selections offer a representative sample of his fiction rather than his greatest hits; although some are included, others are not. In contrast, The Essential Ellison is much more encyclopedic in scope. Not only are his greatest hits there, so is much else, making even the shorter 35-year retrospective volume weigh in at over one thousand pages. The 50-year volume is longer yet. Neither is exactly a “best of” book.
The Top of the Volcano: The Award-Winning Stories of Harlan Ellison is not promoted as such either, but it may be the closest thing to it we can expect. The premise of this collection is that it gathers, for the first time, all of the stories for which Ellison received recognition in the form of awards (or, in the case of “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore,” validation from a major organ of the mainstream literary establishment)—from “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965), which won both the Hugo and the Nebula, to “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” (2009), which gave Ellison his fourth Nebula and his third in the short story category. The twenty-three works gathered here include both short stories and novellas, and while nothing appears from Ellison’s first decade as a professional author, the work here spans the period from Ellison finding his distinctive voice in the mid 1960s to the twenty-first century.
The stories of the 1960s include the three that elevated Ellison from hard-working aspirant to one of the most celebrated authors in science fiction: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” about a trickster figure opposing an oppressive government; “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967), about a malevolent supercomputer; and the controversial post-apocalyptic novella “A Boy and His Dog” (1969), which was filmed in 1975. All three employ modernist techniques and are as striking stylistically as in content. Rounding out the 1960s stories are “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World” (1968) and “The Region Between” (1969). Both are highly experimental, employing narrative fragmentation and explorations of intense psychological states, and “The Region Between” also uses unconventional typography and graphics by Jack Gaughan.
If the stories of the 1960s represent Ellison’s modernist phase, those from the 1970s show Ellison working in a variety of modes and moods, from traditional science fiction in “The Human Operators” (1970), his collaboration with A. E. van Vogt (for some reason placed near the end of the book, disrupting its otherwise chronological organization), to “Croatoan” (1975), a mostly realistic story with a bizarre fantastic ending, to elegiac fantasies such as the heartbreaking “Jeffty Is Five” (1977) and “Count the Clock That Tells the Time” (1978). In between, his award-winning stories of the 1970s include several that combine generic elements and employ other postmodernist techniques. For instance, “Basilisk” (1972) combines fantasy and the war story, and “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” (1973) mixes fantasy with a tale of urban crime, which explains why it debuted in a science fiction anthology but won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Even more radical in its blurring of genres is “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38º 54′ N, Longitude 77º 00′ 13″ W” (1974), which merges science fiction, fantasy, and horror while also alluding liberally to literature and popular culture. More postmodern yet is the novella “The Deathbird” (1973), which not only mixes modes and genres but also employs metafictional techniques.
By the 1980s and 1990s, however, such self-consciously stylistic works had largely given way to the more measured mood and tones of stories like “Jeffty Is Five,” in fantasies such as “Paladin of the Lost Hour” (1985), “The Function of Dream Sleep” (1988), and “Chatting with Anubis” (1995). However, Ellison’s still showed great variety. “Djinn, No Chaser” (1982), for instance, is a comic fantasy; “With Virgil Oddum at the East Pole” (1984) is straightforward science fiction; and “Soft Monkey” (1987) is a realistic crime story with a mentally challenged homeless woman as its narrative focus. Nor had Ellison totally abandoned fictional experiments. Both “Eidolons” (1988) and “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” (1991), for example, use fragmented narratives in their respective fantasies. Similarly, his 1993 novella “Mefisto in Onyx” returns to his penchant for genre bending, in this case crime fiction, horror fiction, and science fiction.
Ellison’s prodigious output began to slow at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. In addition, with the various genre awards, there are only a handful of awards given each year and several worthy contenders. Many fine writers are thus seldom or never recognized in this fashion, making the number of majors awards Ellison has received all the more remarkable—including the Nebula Award he received for the final story in this collection, “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” (2009).
Considered as a “best of” volume, The Top of the Volcano does two things well. First, as one might assume from a collection gathering all the stories and novellas that have won major awards, the quality of these works is high. One could quibble that some stories are not as strong as others and that Ellison wrote better stories that just happened not to win any awards, but in general, like a traditional “best of” book, readers are presented with both the famous stories but also interesting, compelling work that has received less attention. Second, although this book is not as representative of Ellison’s oeuvre as The Essential Ellison or Harlan 101, it nonetheless gives readers a good sense of the sheer diversity of his career. The stories here prove his contention that he is not just a science fiction writer, but they also prove that, despite his public persona, he is capable of more than mere sound and fury. The variety of protagonists, narrative voices, stylistic choices, and emotional tones is considerable even in such a limited selection of stories, and through them readers are exposed not only to some of Ellison’s best work within a 44-year span but also to its wide-ranging richness.
Now at eighty, Ellison has seen his career go through an arc that includes his apprenticeship of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the acclaim that followed his distinctive stories from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, and a gradual diminishment of critical interest ever since. And yet, as The Top of the Volcano reveals, Ellison’s abilities did not diminish after “The Deathbird” and “Jeffty Is Five,” and one could even argue that his subsequent work continued to deepen and mature, especially as he returned repeatedly to themes such as love, responsibility, time and the past, memory, and death. Thus a collection like this is long overdue, reminding readers that there is more to the man than the image.
It is perhaps fitting, then, that the book contains none of the introductory apparatus common in many of his other books—no introduction from the author, no prefaces to individual stories. At this late stage of his career, Ellison might yet produce additional stories, but this is also a time to prepare for a future in which he is no longer with us to comment on his work, which will need to speak for itself. If any of his fiction is to stand the test of time—and much of the contents of this book make a decent argument for this—it will have to stand on its own. That said, given that this is a collection of award-winning stories, the book would have benefited from a description of the different awards these stories received and which won which, and for those who prefer to read chronologically, the misplacement of one of them is an annoyance. Nonetheless, The Top of the Volcano is a fitting tribute to a writer who has so impacted science fiction and fantasy and who has worked well in other areas besides, and it also serves as a fine introduction to someone whose achievements deserve to be better known by younger readers unfamiliar with this remarkable author.