Let’s just say it, Harlan Ellison is not the finest specimen the human race has produced. He probably wouldn’t be in the top 10, either. Ordinarily I’d just ignore his personality and read his stories, like I try to do with everyone else. Three rules for happiness and inner peace: don’t research the personal life of your favourite author, don’t research the meaning of your favourite song, and don’t read the ingredients on your favourite prepackaged snack.
But Ellison makes it difficult, because his egomaniac personality intrudes into the books. You get the impression that he doesn’t enjoy telling stories so much as he enjoys being a man who tells stories. He opens the book with two introductions, and then a foreword for each of the eight stories. Ellison interrupts your reading experience to talk about himself ten times. Nobody give this man a Broadway show, or he’ll spend three hours taking bows under the stage lights.
The quality of the stories is a bit up and down, although mostly up. “Paingod” is not a great story, but it is an interesting one. It’s about a godlike being called Trente whose sole purpose is to apportion and distribute suffering throughout the universe. Spending your life making people unhappy is not good for one’s self esteem, and there’s a lot of navel-gazing philosophy, and rumination on things like duty and obedience.
“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” is an industrious packmule of a story, carrying a lot of ideas and themes despite its short length. It sports one of fiction’s odder revolutionaries: a perpetual slacker in a world where the greatest crime is to be late. Ellison writes the hell out of this one. I was sad when it was over.
“Sleeping Dogs” is about a government intermediary having to work with a shoot-first-ask-questions-never general who has just committed genocide on an alien world. Ellison lays on the melodrama pretty thick, and the effect is over the top. Ellison seems concerned that we don’t get the point, and he repeats it so many times that soon we don’t want to get the point.
“Deeper than Darkness” is King’s Firestarter written 15 years before. A lonely drifter can create fires with his mind, and earns the interest of government spooks looking to use him as a weapon. Another story with sad violins playing throughout, but I like it more than “Sleeping Dogs.”
Ellison’s short stories are consistently better than his longer works, and his short short stories are better than his longer short stories. I come to this impression from this volume and the few others I’ve read: that he’s at his best when he keeps things brief. Sometimes the longer he goes, the less he says.
But it seems to be quite rare for Ellison to write something that’s a complete waste of time. Even his worst works seem like good ideas marred by horrible writing or stupid decisions, not irredeemable trash. I don’t really get an inner “why does this exist?” reaction from many of Ellison’s stories, and that’s certainly impressive.