Although he refuses to be labeled a science-fiction writer, Harlan Ellison has done as much for the form as any living scribe. The author of thousands of short stories, novels, screenplays, reviews and essays -- many of which concern themselves with beings and doings that differ from us just enough to win our attention -- he has long asserted the ability of fantasy to tell salient truths about the human condition.
But if you expect his guest speeches at this weekend's MegaCon 2000 convention (11:30 a.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, April 1 and 2) to include a glowing bill of health for the genre, think again.
"There is virtually nothing being published of any great consequence in these fields of imaginative literature," the 65-year-old master of so-called "speculative fiction" illustrates. "The really good writers -- those that are still alive -- have moved on to other fields. Kate Wilhelm is writing mysteries, Tom Disch barely writes anymore. The people who were producing the work that was of considerable consequence, that was the equivalent of Kafka or Borges, are silenced. There is no market for them."
The reason? Simple mass-media overload.
"We have always been a fiercely anti-intellectual nation," Ellison laments. "We're paying the price for 50 years of television, Internet, movies ... all of the mediums of communication that appeal to the lowest common denominator."
Ellison might have ended up a victim of that atrophy. His "‘Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktock-man" is among the most-read stories in the English language, but his recent literary endeavors have largely been comprised of reprintings and compilations of his previous output. He's remained in the public eye via his printed and televised critiques of all manner of social phenomena -- take-no-prisoners judgments that have earned him both respect and loathing.
His targets are legion: The N.R.A., voice mail, today's college students ("bone-stick-stone dumb") and even the myth of basic American decency. "The lynch mob is the common man," Ellison avers. "It is the uncommon man or woman who stops them if he or she can.
"I go to bed angry every night, and I get up angrier every fucking morning," he barks. "I think I am turning into a curmudgeonly old, mulligrub-infested person." ("Mulligrubs," he says, denote a "twisting of the stomach"; a talk with Ellison is a vocabulary-building exercise.)
As it usually does in his fiction, however, hope remains on the horizon. In April, Beyond 2000, a series of 26 dramatizations of classic fantasy stories, will begin to air on National Public Radio. Ellison helped to choose the works, and will also host the program, write its introductions and epilogues and provide voice characterizations.
An avid reader, he doesn't discount the idea that the present has its own rare gems to contribute. "'The Green Mile,' I think, is a contender for The Great American Novel," he appraises (the caps are his), "along with Gravity's Rainbow [by] Thom Pynchon and Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick. Those are the four contenders that I know of."
Staying abreast of his culture doesn't merely keep Ellison open to the occasional masterpiece. It's his job.
"I may not like the music that Britney Spears makes," he allows, "but at least when I hear her on the radio, I know it's Britney Spears and not Fiona Birdseed, you know? A writer needs to be able to resonate with what's going on in his or her time."