The word hit yesterday that Harlan Ellison had died in his sleep at age 84. Every time we lose someone in the field or an author I got to know in some way during my time writing and working with SFWA, it hurts. This one hurts more, because his fiction was very much part of my formative years and helped define to me what fiction could be and do. At the same time, he’s been in poor health for a while, and I have to think in some ways we should be happy his suffering is over, because sometimes, that’s what’s really for the best.
My Harlan story: I ran the Nebula Awards for a decade for SFWA. That means one of my jobs, one of my favorites, was calling people on the phone and telling them they made the final ballot. Maybe my favorite phone call ever was to a young kid, just breaking into the field, named Ted Chiang. You may have heard of him.
But twice (maybe three times?) I had the honor to call Harlan and tell him he made the ballot. Now Harlan had a long and complicated relationship with SFWA and awards and the Nebulas, and he had at one point pulled himself out of contention completely, and at other times publically declared how meaningless awards were. And I have good friends who are good friends with Harlan, so I know him pretty well by reputation — both Harlan’s, the good and the other.
So I ring up Harlan, and he’s one of the authors who’s writing I kind of revere, and so I’m also having a bit of a fanboy moment while trying not to have it where he’ll notice. And so I let Harlan know, and then Harlan thanked me for letting me know and then gave me a few minutes on how it really didn’t mean anything because awards didn’t mean anything. In other words, the positive scenario of how I hoped the call would go.
And then he pointed out a mistake in the publication date of another author’s work in the Nebula ballot info which affected their eligibility. Which he knew from memory and which is saw because he had the ballot info at hand, even though the award was meaningless. And then he noted another mistake, and then for the next 45 minutes, he was wandering his library pulling small press books off the shelves to confirm dates and help me correct problems in the data (because, honestly, authors are notoriously bad at getting it right or correcting their own works), all while going on to proclaim how he didn’t like awards. And then he called in his wife (susan at that point, I think) and she helped find volumes that he, from memory, knew had corrections I should have.
For an award he didn’t care about for an organization he’d publicly ripped more than once. It took me almost an hour to get him wound down so I stopped using his time.
And yeah, all the time he was telling me how the award didn’t matter to him, he sounded just pleased as punch that he had gotten the nomination, although he’d never admit it.
That is Harlan in all his complicated glory. He could be incredibly loyal to people, and he could be incredibly angry and mean and nasty, sometimes to the same people, but boy, don’t cross him. And he could take public stances and push to do what was right, even when it pissed off those around him. And sometimes he did it because it liked watching people react to his doing so.
He suffered a major heart attack in 1994 and ended with a quad bypass. In 2014 he suffered a stroke. I’ve heard from more than one person his personality shifted after the heart issue, and took a real negative after the stroke.
And that’s why sometimes I think it’s best to be glad their suffering is ended (and for those around them) because in reality, the memory we have for them was gone long before that.
Harlan the author was one of my favorites growing up, and his use of language inspired my own writing and I see tics in my own use of language today that I’ll blame him for with reverence. And yet I never tried to write like him (who could?) any more than I ever tried to write like Gene Wolfe. And as often as I talked to people with great loyalty and affection for him, I talked to people who pull up the shirt and show me the scars. And more than occasionally, the same person. Me? I respect him greatly. My interactions with him were very positive, but that sharp edge was always visible in the shadows. I think it ultimately hurt him as much as it did those around him, and towards the end it seemed to take over to some degree.
That’s Harlan. Look up “complicated” in the dictionary, and you’ll find his picture. It may be autographed.
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