Book Review: Approaching Oblivion, Harlan Ellison (1974)

(Leo and Diane Dillon’s cover for the 1974 edition)

4.25/5 (collated rating: Good)

Ellison’s stories punch where it hurts.  Approaching Oblivion (1974) is filled with transfixing tales about violent future racism (“Knox”), humanity’s last moments (“Kiss of Fire”), the desperate desire to change one’s own past (“One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty”), a last rebel against the militarizing system (“Silent in Gehanna”), and familial rivalry within a vast arcology (“Catman”), etc…

They are terrifying and vicious, immersive and gut-wrenching, and span from baroque far future speculations to near future warnings.  Above all, they are well-written and intelligent.  Many are infused with (pseudo) autobiographical content and lament the societal ills that Ellison sees as most pervasive and dangerous and most of the time he believes it’s futile to do anything about it.

Warning: I suspect some readers will find the nihilistic and caustic tone of the volume tedious.  Ellison proclaims at the end of his introduction: “This is what tomorrow looks like, dummy” (16).  And he can’t resist taking a swipe at the reader (and the American public in general), “if you hear me sobbing once in a while, it’s only because you’ve killed me, too, you fuckers” (16).

But the sobs are beautiful…

…and I need more of his collections.

For fans of New Wave SF and vitriolic social SF.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“Knox” (1974) 5/5 (Very Good):  The collection starts off with a mordant and literary story of a dystopic future plagued by racism — a future (perhaps) where the Patriotism Party holds great allure.  The work is particularly hard-hitting due to the fact that similar white supremacist groups exist today.  Knox rises through the ranks of the Patriotism Party by engaging in hate crimes, memorizing long lists of racial epithets, and practicing at the shooting range.   Ellison masterfully pairs Knox’s growing hatred of minorities (and the events after his first kill) with the slow disintegration of his family (especially his love for his wife).  Although ‘Knox’ is a product of Ellison’s day, these issues have in no way disappeared.  A terrifying read…

“Cold Friend” (1973) 4.25/5 (Good):  A vaguely SF story (speculative might be the better term) of man who dies of cancer yet spontaneously resurrects (or so he thinks).  But when he awakes in the hospital he discovers the world has changed…. The people are gone, his town is the world, the food in the stores are always stocked and spoil, and strange effect that violate gravity occur at the edge of his world.   Soon he is beset by barbarians that rush down the deserted streets which he fights off with paperbacks — and he sees a girl in semi-translucent white dress who seems to have unusual power over the nature of his world.

“Kiss of Fire” (1973) 4.25/5 (Good): A fantastic vision of a decadent and baroque far future….  In a vast space vessel that gathers the memories of the inhabitants of recently destroyed planets, Redditch, who programs their deaths — wanders the halls in a veritable malaise.  This is a future where everyone has become bored with their near endless existence — the only thing that titillates and evokes emotion is death.  Ellison pulls an intriguing trick that might put off some readers — the language, despite its incredibly flowery nature (“He drank ice crystals laced with midnight and watched their world burn”), feels oddly empty…  Perhaps this references the vast array of stimuli the characters experience but remain unstimulated by.  Whether this was his intention or not — the language might simply be overkill — the effect combined with the plot is rather disturbing.

“Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman” (1962) 3/5 (Average) does not contain speculative elements…  Paulie played jazz and Ginny loved to listen night after night.  And when Ginny dies Paulie gets depressed and wants to play at her grave.  A simple tale told with some jazz-like verve…

“I’m Looking for Kadak” (1974) 4/5 (Good):  I suspect that if I were Jewish (as Ellison is) I would understand more of this highly original story.  Ten Jewish aliens remain on the planet Zsouchmuhn….  and one of them dies.  Unfortunately, ten are needed to perform a sacred death ceremony.  These aliens have many limbs and their souls speak long after they are dead…  The dead alien’s soul tells the remaining Jews that they need to track down Kadak in order to complete the ceremony.  One of the aliens sets out to find Kadak and discovers all the bizarre cults and religions Kadak once adhered to.

I would suggest that Ellison is commenting on the power of religious tradition — despite the far future setting and alien adherents, many of the Jewish traditions have remained intact.  The story is filled with fun observations on tradition and religion, unusual rituals, and strange societies but is not for the fainthearted — many of the key Jewish concepts are conveyed via Yiddish phrases and Ellison’s accompanying index is necessary to understand what is happening.

“Silent in Gehenna” (1971) 4.5/5 (Very Good):  Joe Bob Hickney is the last voice against the militarization of society: “You call this academic freedom, you bunch of earthworms!  You call electrified fences and armed guards in your classrooms the path to learning?” (76).  He’s the last rebel. Everyone else has succumbed. Joe demonstrates on a University campus but no one listens.  Soon he is kidnapped and awakes far from the University — those who tends his wounds are other outcasts but utterly apathetic to the problems of the world.  The apathy of everyone around him is devastating…

“Erotophobia” (1971) 3/5 (Average):  An incredibly comic story in which Ellison ridicules one of the most prevalent cliches of the SF and F genre — the irresistible male hero whom all the young women run after…  If Nate Kleisher ventures outside of his home he will literally be “loved to death.”  Everyone, male or female, finds him attractive and go to great extremes to get at him.  Afraid for his life Nate seeks out a renowned German shrink….  A fun satirical tale with a bizarre conclusion.

“One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” (1970) 4/5 (Good):  A profoundly moving story of Gus Rosenthal — a foil for Ellison — who travels back in time and befriends his younger self.  His younger self was ridiculed for being a Jew and ran away from home at a young age.  Filled with autobiographical tidbits from Ellison’s own life, the work is filled with interwoven strands of nostalgia and longing to improve one’s own past.

“Ecowareness” (1974) 3/5 (Average): “Now isn’t that a nice story. And fuck you, too” (124).  Ellison’s snarky “story” isn’t really a “story” but a swipe at his audience and the American public in general.  In short we are screwing the planet and not doing anything about it….  A “fairy tale” about Earth and how many people it had to kill before people realized the damage they had wrecked.

“Catman” (1974) 4.25/5 (Good):  The first half of the story is brilliant.  The second half loses some of the power and momentum, and the ending is all too abrupt. The son is a thief who transports himself across the vast arcology of London stealing drugs.  The father is a policeman, called the Catman, who hunts his son across the vast construct (with its waterfalls, oceans, gardens, habitation levels) with his mechanical animals — but only within his shift hours.  And then there’s a society of half-men who live below ground who have sex with a large machine which seems to slowly consume their bodies and intelligence…  And an unusual mother character who desperately wants her husband to catch the son so he gets his promotion….

“Catman” is a baffling yet transfixing experience.  The images of a son being chased by his father — and an assortment of mechanical animals  — across a vast future city is one of most memorable sequences of the collection.  I’d love to hear your interpretations!

“Hindsight: 480 Seconds” (1973) 3.75/5 (Good):  The only of Ellison’s works I’d previously read — in the collection Future City (1973) ed. Elwood…  I enjoyed it more this time so I’ve increased the rating but kept the gist of the original review: The world’s cities have lifted into space, à la Blish’s Cities in Flight, due to an approaching planetoid which will crash into Earth.  One man is selected, a poet, to stay on the planet (and die) so that he can send his impressions of the destruction of earth (to the flying cities) for all future generations of the displaced.  The story is deeply evocative:  How would we process the loss of our home world?  And of course, our poet is unable to do justice to the event (is it even possible?) and has more personal concerns.”

(Bob Layzell’s cover for the 1977 edition)

(Leo and Diane Dillon’s cover for the 1976 edition)

For more reviews consult the INDEX

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55 thoughts on “Book Review: Approaching Oblivion, Harlan Ellison (1974)”

  1. Ellison is a good writer -for example, I really enjoyed the original story, “A Boy and his Dog,” – but I don’t read much of him, as I don’t like being preached at or yelled at, and a lot of that anti-racism, environmentalism, anti-religion stuff is now the banal conventional wisdom you get in any newspaper and in every college class. And Ellison often comes across as a self-important jerk. I should probably read more of his work than I have, he being so famous, so important and all that, but I tend to shy away from him.

    1. Not all the stories in here are “preachy.” And, from what I’ve read, I wouldn’t call him anti-religious (perhaps he is in other works) — he is Jewish and talks a lot about his Jewish roots (and in the autobiographical stories it’s not negatively portrayed). I didn’t find “I’m Looking for Kadak” — the only story explicitly about religion in the collection — as dismissive towards religious traditions as its made out to be in some reviews I’ve read…

      Perhaps you should skip the intros — ’tis where he does most of his yelling… hah.

      But yes, he seems to be a rather caustic individual. Which isn’t always a bad thing.

      1. I actually have a personal anecdote about Ellison that I will burden the readership here with.

        After graduating from Rutgers University with High Honors in History I put my degree to use working at a bookstore for minimum wage. One of Harlan Ellison’s cronies, I think Clifford Meth, called up to ask when the new Ellison collection, I think “Mindfields” or something like that, was coming out. One of the other clerks at the store gave him the wrong date, I think because the publisher had given her the wrong date. So Meth tells this to Ellison, and it is not long before Ellison himself called the store to yell at this poor woman.

        Thank heavens Jack Vance or Gene Wolfe never called up to yell at anybody.

  2. Speaking as a Jew, I would call “I’m Look For Kadak” an anti-religious story–in my opinion it’s a deliberate (if subtle) mockery of Orthodox Judaism. However, I may be reading into it what I know of his beliefs from interviews and such.

    I also see much of his work as preachy, and stridently so. I have found that my opinion of his body of work has changed rather drastically as my own beliefs have changed–when I agreed with his message, I thought he was brilliant, now that I disagree with the majority of his polemic I find him tiresome.

    In the stories where he lets himself just tell a story (“The Paladin Of The Lost Hour”, “A to Z in The Chocolate Alphabet”, “In Fear Of K”, “Shattered Like A Glass Goblin”, “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” come to mind) he’s an excellent stylist, but I personally believe that he ruins a lot of what are otherwise good stories by interjecting politics.

    Just my thoughts.

    1. Thanks for your comment! (and insight on the story).

      I find the politics completely normal considering the era in which he wrote so much of his work (60s/70s) — but yes, I understand how the political nature of his work might be off-putting considering how caustic it tends to be (as I point out in the review).

      However, most in this collection “just tell a story.” I found only three out of the eleven contained forcefully conveyed agendas — “Knox” is fervently anti-racism/anti Neo-Nazi etc — which is probably a preachy topic everyone can agree on and considering the immaculate delivery of the story it does not come off as propagandistic/forced in the least.
      “I’m Looking For Kadak” — as you point out is most likely anti-Orthodox (but again, to use your words, the critique is “subtle”), “Ecowareness” is anti-pollution (very common for that era), and “Silent in Gehanna” is anti-military/government control of academia. The last two are definitely polemical. “Ecowareness” is hard to take seriously. But “Silent in Gehanna” contains a message the reverberates to this day considering how much governments attempt to control what is taught at the university level — there’s a wonderful scene where a professor who didn’t teach exactly what he said he would teach that day is hauled from the classroom. I thought it was a terrifying dystopic vision.

      This is the first of his collections I’ve read so perhaps the general tenor is different in others. The strident preachiness was definitely present in his introduction…

    2. I think many people, including me, feel similarly about Ellison, MishaBurnett.

      Thanks for the list. I also liked “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” and will see if I can find the other stories you mention. I know I have a collection with “Paladin of the Lost Hour” on my shelf; I will probably read that story when I finish the novel I am currently reading, Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King.

    3. I would recommend both of the collections “Strange Wine” and “Shatterday” for readers wanting to check out more of Ellison’s work. As I say, he is an amazing stylist, and justly considered one of the masters of the short story format.

  3. “Road signs on the treadmill toward tomorrow” has to be about the worst blurb ever. The imagery is hilarious. Treadmills don’t go anywhere, which is kind of the whole point of their design. And road signs coming around on the belt would only serve to knock your butt right off the treadmill, again getting you nowhere. I suspect this awfulness was deliberate – perhaps the editor’s way of revenging herself or himself on Ellison after hearing the author’s demands: “All my covers have to be by the Dillons, because Carr made them the leading edge in SF art, and I cannot be associated with anything but the edgiest edges!” (Don’t get me wrong, Joachim. I love most of the Dillons’ work.)

      1. I haven’t read any of his stories since the early ’70s, and none of those have stuck in my mind, so I can’t say if I like them or not. Perhaps that’s because my response back then, as best I can recall, was basically “meh.” But he’s an important figure in the history of American SF, no denying that. Funny, I almost did pick up the hardcover edition of Approaching Oblivion at an out-of-town used bookstore yesterday, because it crossed my mind to give Ellison another try after all these decades. But I’d already filled my basket with so much stuff from my want list, plus a few things I thought I’d never find, that I was already busting my budget. Maybe next time.

  4. Thanks for this post. I am an unabashed Harlan Ellison fan. Loathe or love him I believe he is among the very best ever in all that he has done. Unlike authors who never reveal their personal views beyond what is contained within the fiction they create, Ellison has seemingly never hidden anything in his life from his audience. In addition to his many essays and non-fiction work the introductions he writes for his stories and the work of others (his introduction for Richard A. Lupoff’s ‘Space War Blues’ is 18 pages long) are legendary. I’ve sometimes thought in his short story collections the fiction pieces were just afterthoughts and the real core were his introductions.

    1. Yeah, I thought his intro to this volume was funny…. He reproduced an entire letter sent to him saying that he was wrong to dedicate his earlier collection to the victims of the Kent State Massacre because they were evil Communists who deserved to be killed.

  5. Ah, The Legend That Is Harlan Ellison(TM): genius writer, luminant visionary, caustic asshole, and the only writer I can think of who trademarked his own name. Which tells you a lot about the guy.

    I haven’t read as much of his writing, some pieces from Deathbird Stories which are brilliant but could be kinda preachy, and “I Have No Eyes And I Must Scream,” which is a SF requirement. As part of my SF magazines undertaking I’ve actually read more of his articles and letters than his fiction. He had the habit of writing a response to anyone publishing a negative review of anything he wrote (or said), and would get into letters-column arguments with readers, writers, book critics, and editors. (No pressure!)

    He’s the kind of iconoclast who rattles cages and creates controversy, and that leads to some interesting discussions and divisive opinions of the man. (Something I think your comments section can attest to.) I think he thrives on that.

    I also think he goes too far to prove a simple point, like the time he groped Connie Willis at the 2006 Hugos to criticize George Bush massaging German chancellor Merkel, and then threw a fit when nobody understood his point was that sexual harassment is wrong.

    1. I really don’t find him any more preachy than some of the other authors of the day… One of Brunner’s classics, The Sheep Look Up (I’m reminded of it because there’s an overpollution story in here as well), written at the same time as some of these stories is preachy but utterly worth reading

      1. Okay, I did look it up and I found the post where he mentions Bush groping Merkel . . . and that’s all it is, a mention. I don’t know how anyone could read it and think that Ellison groping Willis was some kind of meta-commentary on sexual harassment.

  6. I’ve collected Ellison books for years and think I have every collection he has written. The few times I’ve met him he was very courteous, but he can definitely be cantankerous.

    That’s not a trait that has apparently mellowed with age, and some of the doyens of the 1970s New Wave, who were predominantly politically liberal (with some exceptions like Gene Wolfe and R.A. Lafferty) to an extreme, can be discomfited to find that the rules of political discourse on the left have changed for a new generation of identity-based activists, and that behavior and expressions that were considered humorous, mocking, or ironic by an earlier generation no longer are (as Malzberg also recently learned). Yesterday’s young revolutionaries on the barricades are today’s aging establishment, which is never a pleasant thing for old revolutionaries to learn. Works that were once regarded as exemplars of anti-establishment thought in science fiction, like “A Boy and His Dog,” are now often critiqued as anti-woman by feminist critics, and he is being judged for views of women, gays, etc., that were considered enlightened in their time (a time when Playboy magazine’s editorial stance was considered “progressive”) no longer are. This is probably unfair, as Ellison’s personal beliefs have presumably changed with the times, but stories remain unchanged as an artifact of the times, and values, that produced them.

    As I’ve aged, and my own views have changed, I am less in sympathy with some of his political and religious (or anti-religious) beliefs, but this collection is very much a product of the early 1970s, and should be viewed that way. A lot of his later work I think is superior. He is aggressively anti-religion, but Ellison is anti-theist, I think, rather than atheist, in much the same way Christopher Hitchens or Mark Twain were – the problem of pain and suffering, and how God would permit it, is a recurring theme in his fiction, but he seems determined to engage with the concept of God (rather obsessively) rather than simply dismissing the concept of belief, as Dawkins does. His stories that engage with religious belief – “Paingod,” “The Deathbird,” “Strange Wine,” “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” – are still well worth reading, and recommended for those interested in theological themes in science fiction.

    If I had to name the top Ellison stories for a new reader, they would be “Grail,” “Soldier,” “Jeffty is Five,” “One Life Furnished in Early Poverty,” “‘Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman,” “The Deathbird,” “A Boy and His Dog,” “From A to Z in the Chocolate Alpahbet,” and “All the Lies That Are My Life.”

    That being said, Ellison has been lucky to have a long-term partnership with Leo and Diane Dillon, whom I think are among the most talented and distinctive commercial artists in America.

    There is a recent documentary (“Dreams with Sharp Teeth”) about him that is worth watching. His wife, Susan, seems to have been a great blessing to his life, and I hope he will continue to write for many years to come.

    1. Well, I think the lesson is simple — the reader needs to contextualize what they are reading (seems so simple but readers often have no clue)… They are not stories conceived in some timeless ether that swirls around the writer’s brain — they are tied to a time and place.

      But yes, I really enjoy Leo and Diane Dillon’s work — and was quite sad when I heard that Leo Dillon died last year.

      Cool, if I have time I’ll check out the documentary.

  7. This is “cantankerous” Harlan Ellison responding to your gracious review of APPROACHING OBLIVION, and to the (at this point) 19 comments.

    You will have to take my word–chancy, at best, in this cultural paradigm-shift of times when every twit with a tweet has a global soapbox for deception and tomfoolery–that it is indeed I, Ellison, responding, as a sort of what we used to call “bread’n’butter” thankyou note.

    I’m pleased as punch for the three (or possibly four, depending on your scale of values) star review of one of my older books. While it dismays me to have the word “preachy” bruited so freely, I chalk it up to the lack of understanding of cultural context brought to my work by readers who did not live through that inclement era of American culture. Callow, one might call such detractors; I would never do that. For it might further convince them that such misperceptions as that spouted by one of your communicants, re: the Connie Willis myth, bears a tinge of ratiocination and reality.

    When I wrote APPROACHING OBLIVION’s stories, it was a different time. As different a time now as it has been from the era in which Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote UNCLE TOM’S CABIN to the days when ferocious purblind zealots demanded her book be banned. I reap now, mildly and acceptably in your review, but mostly in the comments of total strangers who are entitled to their INFORMED opinions, a harvest of negative criticisms whose weight is slight in my long and honorable life.

    I hope this thankyou for your attention and kudos is condign. Responding to reviews and/or criticism is actually a no-win proposition. If a creator chooses simply to ignore it all, just to motor on doing the job, then s/he is “reclusive,” “standoffish,” “elitist,” and ultimately, to the perception of the love/hate relationship critic, an “asshole” considered dismissive of the readership–some members of which never “get it” that all a reader is TRULY entitled to only this: THE BOOK SHE OR HE BOUGHT. not a smile from the Author, nor elaborately-demanded signatures and dedications on a horde of old Book Club, nor even a courteous hello. A book, that’s it. The word, that’s all. So if a creator chooses to honor his/her readership and their attentions, good or bad, and elects to reply (as I do here, with a smile), the risk is run of having the anonymous, distanced, love/hate communicant take umbrage and flame the more.

    For the nonce, I’ll chance that.

    Just wanted to say, as always, I’m watching.

    Yr. Pal, Harlan

  8. I always wondered why the SF world needed a feminist sub-genre. After reading, lately, about Malzberg, Resnick, Asimov, and Ellison (it’s all been news to me), I guess I have my answer.

      1. As I searched for information about the Ellison-Willis affair, and the Malzberg-Resnick controversy, I kept running across references to Asimov’s rather free use of his hands at conventions, college appearances, etc. Including one first-hand testimony, found here (seventh comment): http://scendan.livejournal.com/586135.html

        I suppose this could be a case of “a lie oft-repeated becomes the truth.” But I suspect not. (No one should be shocked that intelligent men of good will and great accomplishment can, in some ways, be total assholes. We’re all capable of being assholes in one way or another. Yes?)

  9. In the case of Asimov, SF and Fantasy author Piers Anthony, in his autobiography, also notes that Asimov was much too free with his hands and groped women. As for Ellison, there is no question he is a brilliant writer. I, too, plan on getting more of his books (Lost some in a move.) But I also share some of the reservations expressed here about his preachiness. Yet several of his stories such as “Paladin,” are simply remarkable and stunning in their beauty. Also liked “Shatterday,” which is not usually mentioned as among his best.

  10. I really enjoyed reading Deathbird Stories when I was an adolescent. I’ve got it on my book shelf for a re-read and it’ll be interesting to see how I feel about it now.

  11. Joachim, It would take me a long, long time to write a short summary of my feelings and opinions of Ellison and his work. I think his body of work shows a man engaged with the real world. He seems to offend people for daring to think his opinion is worth reading, and for not giving a damn about what seems to concern most sf readers [namely, using sf to escape, rather than engage].After discovering Ellison I went looking for other writers–sf, fantasy, mainstream–whose work spoke to truly important things using points of view beyond the P.C. standard responses. I didn`t find many, and none were as excited, angry or agitated as Ellison was over things that DESERVED such responses. I guess liking Ellison [whose politics aren`t mine but whose concerns are] spoiled me for most writers, who just aren`t as engaged. His writing ability and his obsession with justice fed my own life interests. I just think for his supposed flaws, he`s simply a great writer because his INTERESTS are as great as his ability.

  12. Joachim, I can recommend pretty much any Ellison collection, with only a few exceptions. I would STRONGLY recommend GENTLEMAN JUNKY, WEB OF THE CITY, ANGRY CANDY, PAINGOD, STRANGE WINE, SHATTERDAY, SLIPPAGE, LOVE AIN`T NOTHING BUT SEX MISSPELLED and the novel SPIDER KISS. The career overview THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON is also recommended. But really, his books are all rewarding. The Ellison-edited DANGEROUS VISIONS and AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS are great collections of `New Wave` shorts that introduced me to some great writers including James Tiptree, Jr. and the great, largely forgotten Bernard Wolfe.

      1. I’ve found I like just about any writer with the last name of Wolfe – Gene, Thomas, or Tom – so I should check out Bernard.

  13. An interesting take on why the New Wave, or literary SF, didn’t last can be found at the following link. It’s an article from 1976, the tail end of the period in question:

    http://richardhartersworld.com/cri/1998/trash.html

    Some of the author’s other essays are worth a read, too. I buy his theory that SF has declined in popularity because its wild imaginings are now commonplace. (We’ve gone to the Moon, computers are everywhere, climate disasters are a regular occurrence, etc. Therefore, fantasy books now outsell SF books four-to-one.) I also buy his prediction that by the end of this century, no one will be reading our beloved SF authors anymore ( http://richardhartersworld.com/cri/2001/sfdeath.html ).

    Well, interesting SF / historical food for thought, anyways.

    1. I would tentatively posit that literary SF did last — as a mode in non-genre Literature (Murakami, etc). Look at all the well known (“literary”) figures who have taken on various dystopic topics — Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, etc…

      1. But speculative fiction was common before SF existed as a genre (see The Pattern of Expectation by I.F. Clarke). And it was practiced by literary figures before the genre’s New Wave came along – Huxley, Orwell, Robert Graves, Jack London, etc. So I don’t think it can be argued that the roots of mainstream speculative fiction are in the SF genre’s New Wave. Because the New Wave writers came late to the game. On the other hand, I wouldn’t deny that some ’60s / ’70s genre works have had an influence on some of today’s mainstream writers.

      2. Hmm, I didn’t really mean to suggest that it has its roots in the New Wave. I meant that it is still popular to write “literary” SF — especially recently. For whatever reason…

    1. No problem — I do it all the time…

      I think it’s an utterly valid point to suggest that an explicit attempt at “being literary” in genre SF is something of the past…. That does not mean that some authors are not literary….

      1. I’d agree that some pretty bright lights in the literary firmament have borrowed regularly from SF tropes – you don’t normally find works like Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange,” or Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaiden’s Tale,” or Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow” in the SF section of your local bookstore (that’s assuming your local bookstore even exists, anymore…*) But I don’t think those authors consider(ed) themselves “SF” authors, or were even aware of the New Wave movement. (And there was some cross-pollinization back and forth between the camps, with writers like William Burroughs who strongly influenced the New Wave while playing with tropes borrowed from 1940s SF pulp fiction.) The end-result of the New Wave movement seems to have resulted in greater freedom to use experimental modes in writers who probably do consider themselves “SF” writers or who at least wouldn’t mind being tagged with that title – like Neal Stephenson or Charles Yu.

        * While writing that, the thought just occurred to me – do traditional categories of genre fiction have less meaning as bricks-and-mortar bookstores become increasingly rare? If there are no shelves bearing the label “Science Fiction,” does the category assigned to a literary work begin to have less meaning?

  14. Joachim, While the `End of SF` piece is certainly audacious, it is a little perplexing, as the well-informed writer starts with the idea that the science will be out of date. I`ve yet to meet anyone above the age of fifteen who reads sf for its predictive value. Just as the manners of the time don`t invalidate Jane Austen, Henry James, Shakespeare, etc., I don`t see how changes in accepted science will make sf as a category vanish. The whole premise of the piece reminds me of the head of the patent office who wanted to close the place down because everything had been invented–this was around 1890, I think. Just as E.E. `Doc` Smith is a relic, and Edgar Rice Burroughs is still read, I think the survival of the field will be built on individual writers` successes, not The Field. What is called SF today is nothing like the SF of the 80s, was nothing like the SF of the 60s, etc., and I suspect what we know as SF will survive if there are still readers who see the LITERARY–not predictive–worth in the works.

  15. Just caught up with this finally. A nice review, but then Ellison is such a good writer, and I don’t know if this is true for you but I tend to find it easier to review the good books. It’s the mediocre ones that are hard.

    Ellison in his comment says one thing that’s absolutely true (probably more than one, but one I care about). As a reader our entitlement is to the text we paid for, no more and no less. I think that’s actually very important, and underappreciated.

    The author’s job is not to be our friend, is not to explain, is not to do anything really. From the reader’s perspective if the author spontaneously combusted the moment the author’s book is published then the author has still done their bit. That’s the bargain, an artist produces a work which one pays for and takes as one does.

    It sounds incredibly obvious, but it’s surprising how many seem to feel otherwise. Everything Ellison ever owed me he paid with each book I bought. Since I paid for every book I read by him (or paid lending rights), we’re square. He can cantank, or not, as much as he likes, and it’s nothing to do with me.

    1. No one here asked Mr. Ellison for anything. So honestly, I don’t get the point of the last paragraph in his response.

      Critiquing either the man or his works is most certainly not asking him for anything. It’s actually giving him something – whether he likes it or not.

      1. I took it as him broadening out to a wider point on author engagement, rather than a specific criticism of anyone here. If it’s the wider point then I agree with it, if he was criticising anyone here i part company with him because as you say nobody did ask him for anything.

      2. I read it as jswriter65 did, but you may well be right Tom. In any case, I agree with the wider point, but I don’t think it applies here.

        The reader also of course doesn’t owe the writer anything other than the price of their book. Critics, reviewers, commenters, owe nothing beyond perhaps a general moral obligation to be honest in their reactions and analysis. Honesty may not always be kind if the book is bad, but that wasn’t an issue here.

        Authors can too of course act as if entitled, but once we pay them our dime we’re done, again we’re square. I agree incidentally that to criticise a work is generally to pay it a compliment, in a way the biggest compliment – attention. The great problem for most literature is not bad reviews (not that this got a bad review) but not being noticed at all. A bad review may make it less likely your book gets read, but if nobody reviews it at all then those people who might read it may not even know that it exists.

  16. @ Max Cairnduff, you may be right that Mr. Ellison was simply tossing in a broader point. But it didn’t strike me that way at the time, or later. In fact, reading it again now, I have to actually try and understand it as “not specific to the comments here” in order to see it as “not specific to the comments here.” In other words, I have to force an unnatural reading. The natural reading is that he was heading off negative responses to his response by suggesting we might be the sort of fans who are demanding dicks. Which is funny, at least to me, as I’m not a fan of any kind. 😀

  17. Ellison has frequently made the point about the author not `owing` any reader more than the work. It seems he made it in response to the comments about his personality or anything beyond the individual stories. It`s kind of a line in the sand from someone who lets readers into his world far more than almost any fiction writer I can think of–he decides how much we can see beyond what`s on the page…The comments about sexism don`t seem to apply to Ellison. He writes female characters who, like his male characters, are good, bad, flawed, evil, heroic–and he`s criticized for not writing like everyone else. More `sensitive` sorts give a lot of lip service to how liberal they are, while treating women and minorities poorly, or supporting angelic, inhuman caricatures. Meanwhile, Ellison has helped the careers or women like Octavia Butler and supported feminist causes with actual work, time and money [the equal rights ammendment, for example].

    1. That’s just it. A man as active and outspoken and ubiquitous as Mr. Ellison – a man who’s hardly shied away from being a public figure (and hardly shied away from stage and studio appearances) – really can’t complain when opinions of him arise in discussions of his work, or the curiosity of his fans and others is aroused. I suppose an actor could make an equally good case that they don’t owe their audience anything but a performance. Well, true enough. But good luck with that.

  18. Before I ended it because of Lucius Shepard’s asinine comments on people who read comic books, and because of the weak fiction, I had a thirty-five year subscription to F&SF and the first issue that got on that subscription was the March issue with Ellison’s ‘The Deathbird’ and its awesome Dillon wrap-around cover. On my birthday that year my dad took to a used bookstore in Detroit where I picked up my first batch of old digests, including a “Fantastic Universe” with Ellison’s oft reprinted ‘Blind Lightning’, and a copy of “Amazing Stories” with his never reprinted cover story ‘The Steel Napoleon”. My introduction to Ellison.

    Any chance of you ever doing a review of either of the Dangerous Visions anthologies? Meself: Liked the first, not the second.

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