Saturday, January 9, 2016

Ellison returns

Can & Can'tankerous

By Harlan Ellison

Publisher: Subterranean 

Pub Date: December 31, 2015

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Harlan Ellison either made me weird or made me grow up. I still cant figure out which one it is.

I was a normal but nerdy kid in my teens. I played the clarinet in the high school band, read voraciously, and sneaked peeks at horror movies on TV and scary comics when my parents weren't watching. I also discovered science fiction when I was eleven years old . The school and community library mainly had books by Heinlein, Clarke, Norton and Asimov, the nerdy boy's sci-fi drugs of choice. At 16, I convinced my parents to let me join the Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club. When you joined, you got a bunch of books as an incentive, 9 for 99 cents or something like that. One of those books was the anthology Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison.

It was either a wake up call or an invite into the group mind for the perverse. These were science fiction stories but filled with topics, language, emotions and controversy not visited by the usual 60s schoolboy rather than the more technological but simplified social mindsets of Heinlein and Asimov. There were horror elements in some but most of all they made me think...a lot. Dangerous Visions introduced me to a number of authors that made an everlasting impact on me including Philip K. Dick, Fritz Leiber, J. G. Ballard,...and Harlan Ellison.

I started hunting down the books of Harlan Ellison in my often obsessive style .Ellison arguably did his best work in the 60s and 70s; "Repent, Repent Said the Ticktockman", "I Have No Mouth but I Must Scream", "A Boy and his Dog", and "Shatterday" are all important and now classic short fiction. The list is long. But it left me yearning not for the mainstream but for the unusual. The fiction that your father and mother wouldn't understand. The tales that seemed a little off from the polite society. The type of stories that sensed of chaos but smelled of relevancy. For the social concerns of Ellison's mind were never far away in any of his writings. If his stories sometimes felt rude and manic, it was rudeness that came with the anger of observing social injustice and wondering why the "Visigoths" in our society were so blind to it. For me, the stories of Ellison were just as much as an awakening and a foundation for my growth as a human being as the Civil Rights Movement, men on the moon, and the assassination of Kennedy and King.

So now we are in the 21th century. Harlan is in his 70s and recently has suffered a stroke, although he is recovering and from what I hear from people still in touch with him, he is "still Ellison" which I imagine evokes in some people a nostalgic feeling of pleasure, relief and dread. Can & Can'tankerous is his newest collection of stories featuring, as stated by the publisher, "ten previously uncollected tales from the fifth and sixth decades of Harlan Ellison’s professional writing career". A couple stories are 21th century rewrites of earlier fiction from the 50s. The others are not on the level of his classics like his work from the 70s. That would be asking too much from a writer who has already surpassed both quantity and quality of most writers his age. Yet the Ellison wit, style, and emotion are all there. Some stories like "How Interesting, a Tiny Man" shows the social mind of Ellison that often waivers between idealism and cynicism. "Never Send to Know For Whom the Lettuce Wilts" displays his quirky humor in a tale that starts with the search for a fortune cookie factory and ends with very weird aliens. "Incognita Inc". is a homage to the cartography of imaginary worlds and feels a bit Bradbury to me. "Goodbye to All That" at first reads like a single punchline story but says a lot in a few pages with an climatic wry reference that I guess some people didn't get.. "The Toad Prince or Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure Dome" is the longest, most fantastical and most intricate story of the lot. It display much of what makes Ellison so original. It is possibly the best of the ten but picking a best Ellison tale even among the ten in this collection is a very subjective matter.

Ellison includes introductions and sometimes afterwords to the stories giving insight in how they came about and how they were received. But the most intriguing bit of non-fiction throughout the book are brief italicized segments that describe his stroke in 2014. They add an extra dimension to the book and are consistent with the writer's habit of placing everything out there for you to see.

Rating this work, though, causes the reviewer to admit to some issues. The nature of uncollected stories throughseveral decades give the collection a haphazard feel. His best collections like Deathbird Stories and Shatterday have an intensity and mood through them like glue for the mind. These stories feel more like also-rans even if they would give Sea Biscuit a run for his money. Yet that running description of his stroke does manage to bring them together in a way unusual to a collection. He also gives some insight in the art of writing in his introductions. I am also happy to hear that through the decades he still has his beloved portable Olympic typewriter and kept up with his two fingered 120 words a minute, at least until his stroke and with Ellison...perhaps even now?

So in the fickled and unscientific art of reviewing , especially with established authors who tend to be judged by the bulk of their work., I would give this a 3.5 out of 5 stars. It is a splendid work but mainly for those already captured in Ellisonland. For the readers still to discover Ellison, I must direct to either Deathbird Stories or Shatterday then they can check out where the master has taken us.

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