All the Harlan Ellison Stories

Harlan Ellison died last week, short of stature, large of ego, and a man of unquestionable impact in the field. I knew Harlan. I liked Harlan, although many considered him an ogre—and he could be. But he did a lot for me, whether or not he realized how important it was to a newer author trying to find his way in the field.

I’ve posted many stories on my social media. Here they are, all together, in case you missed any of them.

My first contact with Harlan Ellison was when he called me out of the blue one afternoon. I don’t even know how he got my phone number. I was a relatively new author, a handful of stories published and a novel or two. I picked up the phone and heard, “This is Harlan Ellison.” Harlan was a LEGEND, and notorious for his ego and his temper and his capricious behavior…and he was calling ME? I stammered something.

The anthology THE ULTIMATE WEREWOLF (Dell Books) had just come out, and both Harlan and I had stories in it. Harlan said, “Kev, did you see the review the LA Times just ran for the Ultimate Werewolf? They say basically that the book is terrible and that the only two good stories are yours and mine, and they picked mine as the best.” I hadn’t heard anything about the review and I was thrilled. “Really? They said our two stories were the best in the book?”

“No, they said yours and mine were the two good ones, but that mine was the best.”

I had never spoken to this man before, only knew him by reputation. He was known to be a litigious ogre.  I don’t know what I was thinking, but I immediately responded, “Yeah, but I’m taller than you are.”

Sudden silence. I instantly realized my peril, and followed up with “But I guess you have more hair than I do.”  And he went on at length about how great his hair was.

It turns out that my sarcastic response was perfect, and he loved it. He treated me as a friend and equal from that point forward. I asked him to read me the review. He hesitated and said, “Well, Kev, I’m sitting in one of those rooms that doesn’t usually have a telephone in it, but mine does. I don’t have the clipping with me right now. I’ll mail it to you.”

So that was my first encounter with Harlan, him sitting on the toilet and calling a complete stranger to gloat about a review. You can’t make this stuff up.  I had many interactions with him over the years. I was in awe of him, naturally, but he genuinely treated me as an equal and a colleague. I will savor all the memories and share some of them here.

With Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg (also one of my mentors) at the Nebula Awards in Seattle.

***

I sat next to Harlan on a panel at DragonCon about ebooks and piracy. It was an energetic discussion with the panelists and the audience, and Harlan was incensed about all the people who had been stealing his stories and sharing them around the internet. Indignant, he exclaimed, “That is my property, my imagination, my work, and you don’t just get to take it without my permission!” One utter dweeb in the audience raised his hand toward the end of the panel and said “I disagree with Mr. Ellison. Information should be free, and everyone should have complete access. As a writer, you should be happy readers want to share your work. You shouldn’t want to be paid for it.”

I never use this word, but Harlan turned absolutely, dictionary-definition APOPLEPTIC. His face turned red, he clenched his fists, and all I could think of were the cartoon characters who look like a beet, with actual geysers of steam blasting out of their ears and the top of their head. I’ve never seen a person so enraged that he actually had veins pulsing on his forehad and his temples. He was speechless, spitting and squirming, and I honestly thought he would have an aneurism right there in front of me. I grabbed his arm, whispered to him, “It’s OK, Harlan. He’s an idiot.” Harlan spluttered and stormed off the stage and the panel moderator wisely realized it was time to call an end to the panel and dismissed us. I ran after Harlan, sure that he would collapse of a coronary (and he certainly had plenty of heart problems). I tried to calm him, but he was stewing, incensed, muttering, and he finally let off steam.

I learned something about Harlan then, because he had such a reputation of blowing up at fans, biting their heads off, venting at them, but honestly I only saw the warm and caring guy who would have given his kidney for me if I needed it.  Here’s the thing: Harlan HATED fools. Anybody who said stupid things or didn’t think through their position, those were the targets of his ire. On the other hand, he delighted in people who could hold their own in a debate.

***

Harlan Ellison wrote two episodes of the classic Outer Limits, “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand.” He successfully sued James Cameron for using the core idea of those episodes in The Terminator. (Oddly, another Outer Limits episode, “The Man Who Was Never Born,” is even more identical to Terminator, but the author of that episode, Anthony Lawrence, wasn’t so litigious.) In the mid-1990s I was contracted to write an Outer Limits fiction retrospective in which I novelized a few of my favorite episodes and then wrote novella-length sequels to two of them. I picked the ones I wanted to do, and I suggested to the publisher that I really wanted to do a sequel to “Soldier.”

The publisher was horrified. “Harlan Ellison controls those episodes! You can’t do that. He will never allow it.” I wasn’t quite so afraid of Harlan. “I’ll ask him.”  I called him up and pitched the idea of working in his “Soldier” universe.

He immediately turned me down. “No. I said everything I wanted to say in that teleplay. It’s finished. I’ve never allowed a sequel to any of my work. They’re pointless.”

Any sensible person would have stopped there, but I didn’t give up. “OK, Harlan, you created this brutal future war, a complex society where human soldiers are bred as killing machines, you created characters struggling with what they are, you have camps, you have the enemy, you have fantastic weaponry…and are YOU telling ME that given so much material to work with, there’s only ONE story to be told in that entire universe? That no author can come up with a story worth writing? At all?”

He chewed on that for a minute, then said, “All right, you can do it. But make sure it’s damn good.”

So to the best of my knowledge, I am the only person ever to have written a sequel to a Harlan Ellison story with his authorization. Coincidentally, I just published it as a standalone eBook novella only two weeks ago, “Prisoner of War.” I never even had a chance to send a copy to Harlan, although since the man still used a typewriter, I’m not sure he used an e-reader.

***

Rebecca and I visited Harlan’s famous house, Ellison Wonderland, in Sherman Oaks, and he was delighted to show us around, like a little kid showing us his gargoyles, his secret room, his huge collection of books. He enjoyed sparring with me, but was always sweet and deferential to Rebecca (she’s prettier than I am). After the tour, we sat at his kitchen table and had coffee and snacks, and Harlan was sad and grew agitated.

Harlan’s own mentor in the early days was SF Golden Age legend A.E. van Vogt, who had suffered a long debilitating decline with Alzheimers and had recently died, leaving his elderly widow Lydia with the literary estate. Harlan was extremely worried about Lydia. “Who’s going to take care of her? Who’s going to manage Van’s legacy? Who’s going to make sure somebody doesn’t rip off all those books?” Harlan, it turned out, spent many thousands of dollars of his own money to help clean up and organize all those works and to ensure they remained safe.

Some time later, when I was asked to complete the partially finished manuscript of van Vogt’s final novel, a sequel to his classic SLAN, I talked with Harlan and he offered a great deal of encouragement, and even insisted on writing an introduction, explaining the importance of SLAN, of van Vogt as a writer, and how I was the natural choice to step into his shoes to complete the final novel. He was very enthusiastic, and it was something he genuinely wanted to do.  But, unfortunately, there was a lot of bad blood between Harlan and the book’s editor, David Hartwell at Tor Books. Hartwell absolutely refused to include an introduction by Harlan–I was baffled, because I thought it was important, but he wouldn’t budge.  In the end, we had to settle for a SLAN HUNTER cover quote from Harlan, in tiny print, “Van was a grand master. SLAN was his masterpiece. Now, like a dream come true, Kevin returns us to that singular world, the world of Jommy Cross.”

***

This is the last Harlan story I will share, and it had the most impact on me. Let me tell you about the only time Harlan ever got mad at me.

It was just a brief conversation at a DragonCon, and I never expected it to become intense. Harlan was talking with me about some of the authors currently working in the field, people that he thought we particularly good. He rattled off some names, then said, “And you, Kev. I think you’re really good.”

I laughed. “That’s nice, Harlan, but come on. I’m just a guy best known for his media tie-in novels, and I’m really prolific. That gets me labeled a hack.”

Now, that wasn’t just polite modesty coming from me. Understand that in the late 1990s, any author who wrote Star Wars, Star Trek, movie novelizations, any other media tie-in work was frowned upon by other authors. We were practically second-class citizens who had “sold out” to write for franchised universes, and “real writers” didn’t take us seriously. Even though the very same month my first Star Wars novel came out, another novel of mine made the Nebula Awards ballot, the editor of the field’s largest news magazine told me they would no longer review my novels because I wasn’t “a serious writer any more.” In Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Norman Spinrad wrote a screed against media tie-in novels, in which he named me specifically, saying that the field had lost many promising writers because of media tie-in novels, like Kevin J. Anderson, who hasn’t written anything original since he started publishing Star Wars novels. (Not true, I have ALWAYS published at least one new original novel each year in addition to my tie-in work. Incensed, I boxed up copies of all eight original novels I had published since the release of JEDI SEARCH and mailed them off to Norman as proof. In return I requested that he send me copies of all the original novels HE had written in the same amount of time (one novel). He didn’t respond.)  Norman even proposed a resolution to the Science Fiction Writers of America that media tie-in writers be denied membership in the organization, which fortunately got no support whatsoever.

This was the background, then, when Harlan Ellison—let me repeat that, HARLAN ELLISON—named me as one of the notable writers working in the field. When I brushed off the comment and countered that I was only a media tie-in writer, he rounded on me and gave me a look and a lecture I will never forget.

“Don’t you EVER sell yourself short! You are a writer and you tell stories that people love to read. Look at the damned bestseller lists you’re on! You work hard, you turn in your books, you write the next one, you keep the audience happy. I wrote City on the Edge of Forever for Star Trek — was that hack work? I wrote Demon with a Glass Hand for Outer Limits — was that hack work? You write your best stories, you work your butt off, and you’re a real writer. Don’t ever think otherwise.”

His voice rose as he talked, and when he was done he reached into his satchel and pulled out a copy of my X-Files novel Ground Zero and asked me to sign it.

This had a profound effect on me. I can’t even describe how much it meant, after years of slaving away on books I loved, only to have my accomplishments belittled by my peers. Harlan was right, of course, and fortunately times and attitudes have changed. But at the time, it was the most important thing for me to hear. Thank you, Harlan.