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Monday
Sep232013

The Chief End: Three from Harlan 

I’ve been reading Harlan Ellison lately, a pioneer of science fiction and fantasy in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  His work was edgy for the time, infused with left-leaning political themes and heavy with the promise and cynicism of the youth counterculture.

Truth be told, I’ve had a hard time with his high writing style: big lofty words, obtuse visual imagery, double-stacked metaphors. It is not reflective of other sci-fi authors of the era.  It’s not the pulp of Isaac Asimov, or the hard clinical science of Larry Niven, or even the detailed world-building of Robert Silverberg.

But the titles are way cool.  Just glance at his bibliography, and they demand to be read:

I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream
Repent, Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman.
The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World
The Whimper of Whipped Dogs
The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore

Ellison’s public persona is cantankerous and volatile. I suspect it may be partially an act, since he generates as much publicity for his personal antics as his written work.  Over the decades, he feuded with his publishers.  He feuded with Gene Rodenberry, who altered his award-winning Star Trek script.  He sued the producers of The Terminator claiming they stole their ideas from him. He once famously grabbed Connie Willis’ breast during an awards ceremony, then denied it ever happened. 

For all foibles, Ellison showcases a multifaceted and varied imagination which is why I keep going back to him. He has remarkable depth and range, if not always stellar execution.

His health is fading now.  At age 79 he no longer writes, he has quit traveling and driving, but he hasn't quit quarreling.  He recently lost a lawsuit against the producers of the movie In Time.  Much of his backlog of work is now available for under $10 on Kindle.  It's worth a look.  

Here are three reviews of books that captured my imagination. 

Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled
This is Ellison's only collection of mainstream non-speculative fiction. 

Tonight’s novella was “The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie.”  Based loosely on Veronica Lake's failed Hollywood comeback attempt in 1966, this tale explores the fickle, ephemeral nature of Hollywood.  It lays out a complex social strata starting with the Golden Ones, the Immortals, the A- movie stars at the top of the food chain.  They are supported by the movers and shakers of tinsel town, the producers and directors.  Below them are the professional hacks who struggle to live from paycheck to paycheck: the publicists, screenwriters, art crews and such.  There are hordes of nameless starlets willing to use the casting couch to land bit parts and walk-on scenes.  And, of course, at the bottom rung of this culture are the leeches lurking quietly by, seducing rich widows and running confidence scams to make a quick buck.

Beneath them all, lurk the has-beens and the forgotten, faded stars of years gone by, who like junkies hang on to the periphery of the business, unwilling to accept that time has passed them by, and willing to do anything to get back in the action. 

Ellison weaves these elements together for 92 pages like an artist doing a quick charcoal sketch. For me, the truth of his theme is doubly highlighted since the story was written 51 years ago.  Ellison juxtaposes the glitzy now of the movie industry (circa 1962) against the jaded then of yesteryear (circa 1937). 

Today, in 2012, I completely missed Harlan’s name-drops from the Thirties, all except Frank Capra.  I managed to catch some of the references to stars of the Sixties.  I at least knew Robert Mitchum, one of the Immortals who factors prominently, because I saw both the original Cape Fear (young Bob) and the remake (old Bob).

But even with some age on it, the story is still a captivating emotional tale about tarnished glory, the addictions of fame, and trying to recapture one’s youth.

It is sad that sometime in the next 50 years, this story will be lost to future generations.  There won’t be anybody left to understand it.  Not only will the actors, restaurants, movie names, and studios have been forgotten; who will understand sound stages or 35mm film cameras or telephones with cords?  Pop culture and technology will have moved so far onwards, the story won’t even make sense anymore.

Which, ironically, is the entire point of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie. 

I love the following passage and wanted to share it.  When you plow through Harlan Ellison, warts and all, you unearth gems like this.  Here’s how he describes the meeting between a movie director and his leading lady:

They stared at each other with the kind of intimacy known only to a man who sees reality as an image on celluloid, by a woman confronting a man who can make her look seventeen or seventy.  Trust and fear and compassion and a mutual cessation of hostilities between the sexes. It was always like this, as if to say: what does he see? What does she want? What will we settle for? I love you. 

The City on the Edge of Forever
This book includes (among other things) Harlan Ellison's lost original script for the most famous episode of Star Trek. If you've ever seen the episode, then you know this is as close to real acting that William Shatner ever got.

It's hard for me to say which is better--Ellison's script which won a Writer's Guild Award, or the altered/rewritten shooting script that actually aired on television and won a Hugo Award. 

These rewrites were very contentious, and Ellison feuded with the show's creator Gene Rodenberry for 30 years. After the episode became a cult phenomenon, both parties waged a war of public opinion in the press and at conventions for years. Ellison here provides a 30,000 word essay defending his version and detailing every slight, every lie, every deception from Rodenberry. Ellison comes across as vain and petty. Rodenberry comes across as self-aggrandizing and willing to take credit for others' work. It's all very silly, in the end, considering how similar the two scripts ended up.

But which is better?

In both scripts, someone goes back in time and royally screws up the timeline of future events. Unfortunately, several of the best concepts from Ellison's Prologue and First Act were excised due to time, cost, or political correctness including: crew members doing drugs aboard the USS Enterprise; a murder; and the ancient cryptic alien race, the Guardians of Forever. 

Round 1: Prologue & First Act:  Advantage Ellison. 

The next two acts were similar in both versions. Kirk and Spock travel back to 1930's America to restore the past to its original timeline; Kirk falls in love with a woman but then learns she was supposed to die in order for history to be corrected.

The aired version shored up several weak points in Ellison's script: (1) a temporarily deranged Dr. McCoy replaces the unknown drug-dealing murderer Beckwith, (2) Kirk meets Edith Wheeler earlier, and the audience watches him fall in love before they learn of her importance to the timeline, (3) Spock's shows more ingenuity in investigating the alternate timeline and figuring out how to resolve the future, (4) Several cheesy flashbacks to a alternate "pirate ship Enterprise" are dropped.

Round 2: Second & Third Acts: Advantage Roddenberry. 

The ending is where the two scripts diverge the most. As aired, the ending turned Kirk into a Tragic Hero. He allows Edith, the love of his life, to die in order to save the Enterprise and the universe. It was poignant but predictable.

Ellison's intended ending was richer, more nuanced, and probably also harder to convey on television. Ellison had Kirk freeze at the last second, unable to act, unwilling to sacrifice this woman to save the future. On the other hand, the evil Beckwith acting on split-second instinct actually tries to save her--to do something good for a change--not realizing how it will impact the future. Emotionless Spock steps in to restrain to Beckwith and allow Edith to die.

Final Verdict:  Slight edge to Ellison's original ending and thus to his script overall.

I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay
I, Robot was a seminal early science fiction work.  Published in 1950 by then-unknown author Isaac Asimov, it was a collection of nine interrelated short stories that showed the evolution of robots in an imagined future and how such changes would drastically alter the course of human history.  I first read in it college, and I remember being slightly disappointed that the stories were cerebral locked-room mysteries.  They weren't as character-focused and emotion-rich as later stories like "Bicentennial Man" and "The Last Question". 

Recently, however, I had occasion to listen to the unabridged audio version, and I've changed my assessment.  Maybe it was Scott Brick's narration, or maybe I'm just 20 years older, but these stories seemed more vibrant and imaginative.  It is easy to see why the book-buying public clamored for several sequel volumes; Asimov continued to write robot novels and stories until his death, eventually linking them into his Foundation series.  As a whole, this series maps out the future of human achievement for the next thousand years.

I enjoyed revisiting this world so much that I immediately picked up another related book:  I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay by Harlan Ellison.

In 1977 Harlan Ellison tried to this groundbreaking collection of robot stories for the silver screen.  In the wake of Star Wars, science fiction was hot and studios wanted to capitalize. Unfortunately, his screenplay was never produced due to budget concerns and "creative differences".  According to Harlan, though, the differences weren't so much creative as personal.  By his own account, Harlan told the head of CBS Studios he had the "brains of an artichoke", and the executive swore he'd never work with him again. 

To make the screenplay work, Harlan did two things that (in hindsight) were pretty darn smart--and I don't know any other author who would have thought of them. 

First, he invented a framing device based on Citizen Kane.  The outer story follows a reporter trying to track down details about Susan Calvin, the pioneer of robot psychology.  He can't gain access to her directly, so he travels the solar system to conduct interviews with people who worked with her over the past 50 years.  We (the audience) get to see this future universe created by Susan and her enigmatic robots.  Each interview is then relayed as a flashback; each corresponding to a different Isaac Asimov short story, so we get to watch how society evolved over time, just as in the book. 

Second, Harlan inserts Susan Calvin into each of the flashbacks making her the focus of the story.  Whereas Calvin was a bit-player or bystander in most of Asimov's stories, now she takes center stage.  She becomes even more important than the robots.  This turns a series of cerebral locked-room puzzles into a human story of struggle, sacrifice, and vision.

Harlan doesn't always choose the best stories from the book, but instead he chose the ones that would translate best to celluloid.  "Reason" was clearly the most thought-provoking of the Powell-and-Donovan stories, but it was eschewed for "Runaround" which is more visual and action-oriented.  "Little Lost Robot" was a chilling look at the moral consequences of using robots as sentient slaves, but it was omitted in favor of "Liar" and "Lenny" which accentuated the emotional scars and moral choices Susan endured.

Asimov loved the screenplay and was quoted as saying it would have been "the first really adult, complex, worthwhile science fiction movie ever made."  He serialized it for his magazine in 1987. It later appeared in book form with illustrations by Mark Zug in 1994. 

The screenplay was not perfect, and a few things I disliked intensely.  Ellison included aliens and teleportation in his future world; neither were consistent with Asimov's vision and they smacked a little too strongly of Star Trek.  Also, Ellison's final act included a robot-saves-mankind-from-evil-computer flashback.  It was too Tron-like. I wish he had stuck to the facts of Asimov's short stories "Evidence" and "The Evitable Conflicts", which showed how a robot manipulated mankind to save it from itself. 

But in the end, these are just quibbles.  Ellison's script ran circles around the  I, Robot move that did eventually get made.  That 2004 action vehicle for Will Smith bore little resemblance to Isaac Asimov's original vision.

Ellison's movie is truly the best science fiction movie that we never got to see.