Harlan Ellison Is Sci-Fi’s Most Controversial Figure

Harlan Ellison Is Sci-Fi's Most Controversial Figure

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Harlan Ellison is the enormously talented author of many classic stories, essays, and scripts that helped transform science fiction, but his long history of inappropriate behavior has also made him one of the field’s most controversial figures. Author Nat Segaloff tried to capture both sides of Ellison in his new biography A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison.

“Let’s face it, a lot of people don’t like Harlan,” Segaloff says in Episode 278 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, “and I wanted to try to get to as many of those people as possible to make a rounded interview.”

Ellison’s rancorous dealings with so many people in publishing made pitching a book about him a challenge. “We had one or two turn-downs from prospective publishers before NESFA Press pulled it in,” Segaloff says, “where people said, ‘I don’t want to work with Harlan. I’ve done it in the past.’”

Another challenge is that mainstream publishers often look down on science fiction. Segaloff relates an incident where the book review editor at The New York Times rejected Ellison’s work out of hand when he saw that it was labeled science fiction. “I mean at this point he’s done over 120 books,” Segaloff says. “You’d think the Times would have reviewed one of them.”

Still, Segaloff has been pleased with the response to A Lit Fuse. He says that sales and reviews have both been strong, and that so far he only has one detractor.

“Everybody has to have one troll,” he says. “If I didn’t I’d think I was doing something wrong. Harlan of course collects them like a magnet and iron filings. But maybe someday if I’m really good I’ll have two trolls.”

Listen to the complete interview with Nat Segaloff in Episode 278 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Nat Segaloff on the dead gopher story:

“It’s so elaborate that only Harlan can tell it, but it involves a problem he had getting a straight answer from one of his publishers. It turns out the comptroller of this publishing house had not given him a complete statement of accounts or something like that, and very simply didn’t return his phone calls. Harlan was polite—he did phone calls, he sent letters—and when nothing happened he said, ‘All right, I’ll make you answer.’ … Harlan managed to get a dead gopher, and he wrapped it up in a box, and he sent it by slow mail to the comptroller at the publishing house. And he sent it over a long weekend in August, to New York. When they opened it, the gopher had ripened to a considerable degree, and they had to fumigate the entire office. Some stories say they even had to repaint it.”

Nat Segaloff on science fiction fans:

“Everybody gives science fiction a hard time, and they give science fiction fans an even harder time—you know, living in their parents’ basements, and not getting out much, and wearing pocket protectors. … But I’ve found that science fiction fans are probably the best-read, most intelligent, most diligent, and most compassionate, because they’ve been downtrodden for a long time too in establishing their credibility. But I’ve had this wonderful feedback from people—even those who point out errors in the book, typos and things like that—that I wouldn’t trade for anything, and I never encountered that when writing about regular film people or other people that I’ve written about. The science fiction community is wonderfully cohesive and enormously supportive, I find.”

Nat Segaloff on TV history:

“Once the television shows started catching on, and affiliates began opening up in the smaller cities around America, they realized that those audiences were not as sophisticated as the audiences living in the urban areas, and so the programming had to be—I hate the term ‘dumbed down,’ let’s just say ‘made more general.’ … That has changed with cable, when people who have the money to buy Showtime and HBO and Netflix—along with the money in many cases comes the educational level, and that’s why the new premium stations are able to offer premium shows that are certainly more interesting than most of the feature movies being made today. And that’s why we have Game of Thrones and things like that.”

Nat Segaloff on The Last Dangerous Visions:

The Last Dangerous Visions is a sequel to Again, Dangerous Visions, which was a sequel to Dangerous Visions, which was an anthology of science fiction stories by young writers who blew the doors off of science fiction. They were able to use sex, profanity, provocative ideas, the sort of things that editors didn’t like, and Harlan said, ‘No, go ahead and do it. Write what you want.’ It literally changed the direction of written science fiction, and every single person you ask about it who writes science fiction today agrees. Well, The Last Dangerous Visions took an awful long time to come out, partly because Harlan was clearing the rights to all the works, partly because he was so interested in the new writing that was being done that he was acquiring more than he could ever publish. … Then other stuff happened. There were divorces, there were lawsuits—about other things—there was simply meeting deadlines, and it slipped from his grasp.”

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