Harlan Ellison, 1934–2018
The combative writer who became a sci-fi master
Harlan Ellison was as a pugnacious as he was prolific. Over a six-decade career, he authored more than 1,700 short stories and articles, at least 100 books, and dozens of screenplays and TV scripts. Ellison wrote everything from crime fiction to newspaper columns, but was best known for his science fiction. There was the 1969 novella A Boy and His Dog, in which a rebellious young man hunts for food and sex in a post-apocalyptic America; I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, a 1967 short story about a computer that torments the last five humans on Earth; and the same year’s “The City on the Edge of Forever,” a beloved back-in-time Star Trek episode. Yet Ellison loathed being associated with sci-fi, insisting he simply wrote fiction. “Call me a science fiction writer,” he once said, “I’ll hit you so hard your ancestors will die.”
Born in Cleveland, Ellison was bullied at school for his Jewish heritage and short stature, an experience that “made him feel like an outsider and fueled his anger,” said The New York Times. Expelled from Ohio State University for punching an English professor who belittled his writing talent, Ellison moved to New York City, where he began selling stories to publications like Galaxy and Fantastic Science Fiction and pumping out novels and novellas. “For the next 20 years,” said The Washington Post, “he sent the professor a copy of everything he published.” Eager to break into the lucrative screenwriting trade, Ellison relocated to Los Angeles in 1962 and wrote for shows including The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Over time, he became known as much for his “indignant and ingenious fury” as for his writing, said The Economist. He sued the producers of the movie The Terminator, accusing them of plagiarizing “Soldier,” his 1964 script for TV’s The Outer Limits. During a contract dispute, “he mailed 213 bricks to a publisher, postage to be paid by the recipient.” He once accused a studio executive “of having the intellectual capacity of an artichoke.” For Ellison, who saw himself as a champion of the underdog, that rage was essential to his art. “You can’t allow yourself to be frightened,” he said in 2004, “not if you want the writing to have heat and reason and passion.”