If you’ve been reading SF/F for more than ten years, you know who Harlan Ellison was (sadly, for our field, Harlan died last month). He was a multiple award-winning writer, editor, and gadfly (he kept most people, including those of science fiction, on their toes, never knowing for sure how to approach him or how he would behave.)
I’m guessing that anyone who knew Harlan Ellison in person—and most SF readers knew his writing at least—has a “Harlan” story. Long before I met him, I and my friends Dan Mullen and the late Jon Gustafson spent an evening with Harry Harrison, who had given a speech at a sorority (!) at the University of Idaho. After the speech, we took Harry out for pizza and beer and quizzed him about various famous SF writers:
“Do you know so-and-so?”
“Yeah, I know him. He’s an asshole.” (This went on through several well-known writers we’d never met. They were mostly assholes, according to Harry—one exception was his good friend, possibly BFF—Brian Aldiss).
“Do you know Harlan Ellison?”
“Yeah, I threw him down an elevator shaft once.”
“TELL US ABOUT IT!”
I can’t remember the whole story, but this was in New York—I’m not sure whether Harry was working in comics at that time—and Harlan was, if memory serves, a teenager. Basically, he got on Harry’s nerves and Harry tossed him into an open elevator shaft—but fortunately for Harlan, the elevator was there. I’ve lost touch with Dan, but if I ever find him he can confirm this story.
But that’s Harry’s Harlan story; this one of mine’s a bit different (I have a couple). Jon and I—who used to go to all conventions together—had produced a fanzine (New Venture, Figure 2), and the fifth issue was a large (pages-wise), plastic-bound (so it would lie flat), offset-printed on heavy paper, about science fiction art. NV #5 featured something like thirty different SF artists (both fan and pro), a full-colour cover by Kelly Freas; and we were very proud of it.
So proud, in fact, that when we found out that Seattle’s Star Trek group was producing a con (PSST-Con II, I believe) at which several SF luminaries—Robert and Virginia Heinlein, Kelly Freas, Harlan Ellison, George Takei (and I forget who else)—would be there, we decided to go, and take a few copies of the fanzine with us. We did so, distributing a free copy (the cover price was two dollars, but we weren’t taking any chances) to any pro we met. Including Harlan.
I barely remember the con after all this time; what I do remember is that because we (Jon and I) were good friends by mail with Kelly Freas, he took us under his wing, introduced us around, and we spent a couple of hours listening to the Heinleins expound on various subjects in the Green Room.
And when we were leaving, I dropped by the Green Room to see who was there, and saw a pair of lizardskin cowboy boots up on a table between two humongous speakers; peeking around the speakers, I saw Harlan, who was perusing NV #5. I started to speak, and Harlan beat me to it. “Why, it’s Mister Fahnestalk and Mister Gustafson!” (In common with many people, he mispronounced Jon’s last name, which was “GUS-tuf-son,” accent on the gus. Harlan had said “Gus-TAFF-son”) I made my usual joke, which was an old Navy joke: “You don’t have to call me ‘mister’; I work for a living.”
The secret of that joke is that enlisted men (which I was one of in my Navy days) must call officers “mister” when addressing them by name. The other part is that we enlisted felt we did all the work on the ship, and officers, by and large, were only a hindrance to that work.
“Anyone who puts out a magazine like this,” Harlan said, “deserves to be called ‘mister’.” I preened all the way back to my home in Pullman (a distance of three hundred or so miles). So there’s one of my Harlan stories.
Back in the long-ago (1969 or so), Harlan wrote a story about a post-apocalyptic wasteland (America) populated by the remnants of humanity, and titled it “A Boy and his Dog.” It’s been too many years since I read the actual story*, so I will only be commenting on the film, which was produced, co-written, and directed by L.Q. Jones—mostly known as a Western character actor (his films include The Wild Bunch, for example).
*The original short story, published in the British magazine New Worlds, was expanded into a novella in Ellison’s collection The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World. I’m sure I read both, but it’s been too long.
The film begins with a series of mushroom clouds, colourized in the manner of the “flying” sequence in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (see Figure 3), followed by a black screen and the words “World War IV lasted five days. Politicians had finally solved the problem of urban blight.” That was followed by another black screen with the word “2024 A.D.,” then a shot of a rubble-strewn wasteland with a range of mountains in the background and something orange and unidentifiable in the midground. Then we hear Don Johnson’s voice, “Uh, World War III, hot and cold, lasted…” And another voice breaks in: “Hold.”
The other voice is Vic’s dog, Blood (Tim McIntire), who is telepathically able to not only communicate with Vic (real name Albert), but can also scan within a limited range for human females. For whatever reason (explained in the novelette, but not in the movie), most women perished in the nuclear bombardment that covered the Southwestern U.S. in debris to a depth of several feet. Vic is young, possibly 20-ish (the actor was 26 at the time the movie was released); obviously only medium intelligent, and fairly uneducated, though as the movie goes on we can tell that Blood is trying to rectify that.
Blood is a medium-sized shaggy dog-type (think the Disney movie The Shaggy Dog—either version, 1959 or 2006). To me, the name “Blood” conjures up something like a German Shepherd (Alsatian), or maybe a Rottweiler; which is probably why the filmmakers chose this smallish, non-threatening type. His voice is dry and often either condescending or sarcastic towards his young charge, but the pair obviously cares for each other and each protects the other. The voice is more a match for the name than the appearance.
I can’t describe the whole movie, as you know how I feel about major spoilers; but I will tell you that—assuming you haven’t seen the film or read the stories—the wasteland that was the U.S. is populated mostly by gangs (“roverpacks”), single scavengers (“loners”), and horribly mutated survivors of the atomic barrage (“screamers”), whose touch is death. The females are usually raped and killed (at least the first one we see). The film follows Vic and Blood as Vic—whose sole ambition in life seems to be to get laid—discovers that there is an underground civilization (“Downunder”), where there are both men and women… and the men are sterile from having lived underground so long. Vic is kidnapped and—a young man’s dream, perhaps?—forced into stud duty (though the reality is far from the fantasy).
The movie also has Jason Robards as one of the leaders of Downunder, though I fear he’s kind of wasted in the role. The movie has been attacked as a misogynist fantasy of sorts, though in my opinion these sorts of stories/movies are, while not particularly appealing, appropriate for SF/F writers to explore. And we must remember that the story came out in 1969 and the film in 1975, so misogyny was scarcely a surprise in film or fiction. My main complaint isn’t the movie itself (nor the highly illogical and unlikely—even back in 1975—setup). It’s the “surprise” ending.
Back in the ‘70s, when I, Jon, Dean Wesley Smith, Vicki Mitchell, Amy Thomson, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and a number of others belonged to a self-help writing group (Writers’ Bloc) we’d created in Moscow, Idaho, we had a number of short-form descriptions for several types of bad story.
One of these was the “tomato surprise” story, which would usually be intended by the author to be a Rod Serling/Twilight Zone-y tale with a twist; but the problem was that the ending of a “tomato surprise” was a) hackneyed, and/or b) telegraphed so far in advance that there was actually no surprise at all. And for me, this movie falls into that category. The setup is unlikely, the writing and acting are both hackneyed and lacking in conviction, and the ending is no surprise. I’d give this one an “E” for effort, and two flibbets ¤¤ mainly for the screen presence of Robards and the early appearance of Don Johnson. Only recommended for completists of either Ellison, Robards, or Johnson.
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Maybe someone misremembered Harry’s story and parlayed it into a story where Harlan was the thrower, and a fan was the victim! 😀
What is it with Harlan and elevator shafts? There’s a long-standing tall tale about Harlan throwing a fan down an elevator shaft, which he always denied. I much doubt both stories.
I have no reason to doubt Harry. *Ahem!* 🙂