27 June 2018 — Harlan Ellison was reported to have died in his sleep at age 84. He was a man of two legacies.
I won’t rehash the accounts of Ellison’s abrasiveness, his argumentativeness, or his tendency toward insult, though he described himself as “possibly the most contentious person on Earth.” I never met him, though I have gotten to know quite a few writers in his generation, people who knew him well enough. I know a couple for whom Ellison was a mentor. I know at least one for whom he was a terror. I know far more who encountered him once or twice, in one way or other, throughout the last decades.
I have crossed paths with many who described Ellison in glowing personal terms. He was also, by some accounts, an asshole.
Being an asshole is not a legacy. I don’t endorse it as a lifelong pursuit, but assholishness is by itself worthy neither of infamy nor accolades. Ellison, however, sometimes crossed the line from asshole to behavior best described as antisocial, perhaps criminal.
His first legacy is, of course, his writing. Four Nebulas, five Bram Stoker Awards, two Edgar Awards, two World Fantasy Awards, and nine Hugo Awards speak for themselves. My introduction to his work, and one of my earliest exposures to science fiction, was “The City on the Edge of Forever”, one of the best episodes of the original Star Trek, but of course Ellison’s impact on science fiction spread so much further than Star Trek. For many writers, a dose of Ellison is in everything we create, whether we know it or not. His presence looms large.
Part of who I am today I owe to him. It could not be otherwise.
His second legacy, sadly, is his history of intimidation and violence.
This was a man who once sent a hitman and a dead gopher to an unruly publisher.1 His alleged assault on Charles Platt in 1985, though it never went to court, was most certainly an actual assault. His groping of Connie Willis at the 2006 Hugos passes beyond the pale—he added insult to injury by complaining that she’d refused his apology. Stories of his unpleasantness abound.
I leave it to others, far better acquainted with the man, to say more-comprehensive things about his life, his work, and his flaws. All humans are complex and none of us are perfect, but Harlan’s imperfections cast a long shadow on his creative genius. His infamy, to some extent, stains his work.
Today, Stephen King wrote, “There was no one quite like [Ellison] in American letters, and never will be.” I hope King is right. We don’t need any more Harlan Ellisons, though I am also glad that he was in the world. From here on out, I hope we can do better, for science fiction and for each other.
I will march forward with both of his legacies in my mind. I will nurture the spirit of the first, and I will take the second as a cautionary tale.