Harlan Ellison wears his heart on his sleeve; that’s no bad thing: he has a good heart, even at eighty-one. He admits to possessing an abrasive personality, but that has no bearing here; it is his work that matters.
Not alone among authors, he believes that writers can make a difference: ‘The creative intellect struggles against this sorry reality… It would seem only the mind of the madman is free… And even so the artist persists… in hopes that cautions may be flung on the wind and somehow still be heard.’ He states that this collection of stories, written over a decade or so, is dominated by the theme of alienation. However, he is a romantic at heart, and still believes ‘we find hope within ourselves.’
Perhaps one of the most anthologised of his stories is the first here, ‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’ (1967), which won a Hugo Award. It’s the future and the supercomputer AM feels trapped because though he had sentience, he couldn’t do anything except simply be. In a rage, he had destroyed humankind, save for five who he would torment for all eternity. ‘He was Earth and we were the fruit of that Earth and though he had eaten us, he would never digest us.’ They couldn’t attempt suicide, either; they were to all intents immortal, and damned.
‘The Discarded’ (1959) is from the viewpoint of Bedzyk, one of many incarcerated in a space vessel, ‘a raft adrift in the sea of night’. Everyone on-board was a mutant of some description – not X-Men with superhuman powers, simply possessors of additional limbs, eyes, heads, and therefore outcast. All as a result of a terrible contagion on Earth. Once normality had resumed, those who looked different were outcast, set adrift in space, unwelcome on no inhabited station or planet.
‘Deeper than the Darkness’ (1957) concerns Alf Gunnderson who is released from prison for a special task. He was imprisoned because he accidentally started a forest fire with his mind. Now, however, the authorities wanted to put his ‘gift’ to use, to end a war. Alf was in a quandary: ‘What of the people who hated war, and the people who served because they had been told to serve, and the people who wanted to be left alone? What of the men who went into the fields, while their fellow troops dutifully sharpened their war knives, and cried?‘Was this war one of salvation or liberation or duty as they parroted the phrases of patriotism? Or was this still another of the unending wars for domination, larger holdings, richer worlds. Was this another vast joke of the Universe, where men were sent to their deaths so one type of government, no better than another, could rule?’ A novella about conscience and power.
‘Blind Lightning’ (1956) finds us with old spaceman Kettridge stranded on an inhospitable planet with an enormous ravenous beast that happens to speak telepathically in his language... Quite a moving little parable, about redemption and ‘first contact’.
‘All the Sounds of Fear’ (1962) is an interesting story, first featured in The Saint Detective Magazine. Richard Becker is an extraordinary actor – he seems to not only live the stage part, but to become the character he portrays in every way, no matter what the source, historical or contemporary. Until that dark day when he emulated a character to a murderous degree and was sectioned to be studied by doctors. While in the sanatorium Becker transgresses, becoming each part again, from the most recent to the earliest. A stunning end awaits.
‘The Silver Corridor’ (1956) is about egomania, where two powerful men vie to be proved ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’ regarding the latest theory. They are thrust into a special corridor that stretches reality to the limits, where they contest in many varied duels to better each other. Of all these stories, this is the weakest, though it has plenty of colour, time-shifts, action and excitement.
‘“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman’ (1965) won Ellison several awards and is believed to be one of the most reprinted short stories in the English language. It is a tongue-in-cheek critique of a dystopian system and in particular of lives being ruled by the clock. In the dystopia depicted, everybody had a schedule to keep; lateness was punishable, ultimately by being switched off – everybody was fitted with a cardioplate that the Timekeeper could make inactive. Unfortunately for the system, Everett C Marm wasn’t punctual and revelled in disturbing the smooth running of the day, causing schedule mayhem while disguised as a harlequin. The mysterious Harlequin became ‘an emotionally disturbed segment of the populace’.
Ellison’s distinctive style is evidenced here, for example: ‘And so it goes. And so it goes. And so it goes. And so it goes goes goes goes goes tick tock tick tock tick tock and one day we no longer let time serve us, we serve time and we are slaves of the schedule, worshippers of the sun’s passing, bound into a life predicated on restrictions because the system will not function if we don’t keep the schedule tight… Until it becomes more than a minor inconvenience to be late. It becomes a sin. Then a crime. Then a crime punishable by (death).’ In essence, if a person was ten minutes late, then those minutes were deducted from that person’s life-span.
The book ends with ‘Bright Eyes’ which is anything but bright, for it is the end of the world. The last survivor – who came before Man – witnesses the utter waste of resources and life. An apocalyptic tale, with bruising and impressive imagery, and no hope.
And of course Ellison ends this collection with ‘no hope’ in the belief stated in his Introduction that his ‘cautions may be flung on the wind and somehow still be heard.’