I just heard that Harlan Ellison died, in his sleep, at the age of 84. To my mind, he wasn’t one of the grand old ones (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein), but he was of the very next generation, the very next tier.
In science fictional circles, he was known for writing kick-ass short fiction (such as “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” and “A Boy and His Dog”), as well as television episodes (Star Trek’s “City on the Edge of Forever”). He also worked in other genres, both in print and for television and film. And he was a ground-breaking editor, putting together the iconic anthology Dangerous Visions. But within the science fiction community, at least by the time I was working in the field, he was known more for his larger-than-life personality. He could be abrasive, obnoxious, and egotistical, but he was an incredible presence.
My relationship with him was atypical, because I never saw that harsh personality (although I was one of those at the magazine who proofread his “Xenogenesis”). With me, he was always polite, professional, and friendly. And I know that’s because of the way we met: I was the editorial assistant as Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, and he was a writer who always showed great respect for my boss, Managing Editor Sheila Williams, and he was great friends with Isaac Asimov, for whom the magazine was named. So when Sheila introduced us, that set the tone for our relationship.
One encounter I always think of when I think of Harlan took place at I-Con (a science fiction convention at SUNY Stony Brook) soon after I met him. I was sitting with a friend in the loud, crowded Meet The Pros party, when my friend looked up and said, “It just got a lot more crowded: Harlan and his ego just walked in.” Moments later, Harlan walked up to me and said, “Hi, Ian. Are you having a good time?” We chatted for a moment, and then he moved off. I looked back at my friend, and said, “You thought Harlan’s ego filled the room? He just came over to say hello to me. How big do you think my ego is right now?”
I rarely attend panels at science fiction conventions if I’m not one of the panelists, for a variety of reasons. But those early years at I-Con, Harlan would do panels that I simply had to attend. And I never could figure out why they were set up as panels. A typical panel is three to six people, theoretically experts on the topic, who are gathered to discuss a specific topic for the amusement and edification of the audience. But the panels Harlan was on, though designed the same way, inevitably turned into hour-long Harlan monologues, frequently with references to his co-panelists and their shared histories. Harlan was a wonderful story-teller, and his co-panelists would usually sit there, mute, with bemused expressions on their faces, letting him run. He was an incredible showman.
And now he’s gone.