The Essential Ellison - Harlan Ellison (1987)

Reviewing collections like this is akin to reviewing greatest hits albums - it's all stuff which is good, or it wouldn't make it to the anthology. Therefore, I will end the suspense - this is A rated, with the caveat that if you are already an Ellison fan you probably have most of these pieces somewhere already. With that out of the way ...

Harlan Ellison is a writer's writer. By that I mean that, when I read Ellison, it makes me want to go and write. Usually I end up reading more Ellison instead, though, which is no bad thing. This collection is a "35-Year Retrospective." What that means is that all the greatest hits are there, but also some early material, material that is weaker by most measures but which shows his development or is interesting for historical reasons - like "The Sword of Parmagon" published at the age of 15 in a kid's column in the local newspaper. Tracing the evolution of a writer as versatile as Ellison is fascinating.

What really sets Ellison apart from other, equally accomplished, writers of science-fiction is his out-of-genre work, especially his essays. While other writers, Isaac Asimov springs to mind, have tackled non-fiction or other genres, few have been such prolific essayists or so passionate in their execution. When Ellison rages, the rage flows from his soul to his pen to the page and, thence, to the soul of the reader. His columns on television (collected in The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, with a few included here) are scathing indictments of a society that seems to value crap above quality in most of its entertainment. His essay "Our Little Miss" prefigures the media circus around Jon-Benet Ramsay as he rails against the sickness that parades toddlers in swimsuits in front of adults and calls it a "beauty pageant."

Ellison does not suffer fools gladly, and will gladly explain why in terms of vitriolic splendour.

Ellison has also written, and written well, for a variety of media - included in this collection is an entire teleplay for an "Our Man Flint" tv series, sadly unproduced. His observations on the business of writing for film and tv are tinged, or sometimes rife, with the frustration of one who sees potential wasted.

His vision is his and is uncompromising. Somehow, I Don't Think We're in Kansas, Toto is the story of how he lost vast sums of money rather than have corrupted junk go out under his name. The story of his lawsuit over the film The Terminator makes interesting reading, as well.

Ellison has never fit comfortably in the box labelled "science-fiction writer," although he tends to pigeon-holed there since most of his most famous pieces ("Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman and A Boy and His Dog, for instance, both included) can be categorised as such. Indeed, most of his fiction has some element of fantasy or "speculative fiction" to it, but it is not typical sci-fi fare (and he dislikes that contraction, I understand.)

Ellison is a complicated writer, a writer of both breadth and depth. A writer whose pre-occupations can be tracked through his body of work, and whose passion for his work - his art - and his rage at injustice, whether perpetrated directly against him or against others, is a light which illuminates almost every page.

If you've never read Ellison, then go forth and do so, This collection is fine way to go, although if you've never read Ellison before, start with the section entitled "Classics" and then go back and start over. Other collections would be good, too. Just go read some Ellison if you haven't.

Overall Rating: A

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