back to article Science fiction legend Harlan Ellison ends his short time on Earth

Harlan Ellison, the legendary science fiction author who kickstarted the 1970s "New Wave" of science fiction has died in his sleep at the age of 84 at his home in Los Angeles. Ellison was one of the giants of the genre, the winner of eight Hugo awards (including an unbeaten record of three short story prizes), four Nebula …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Isn’t that pretty much Star Trek 5?

    1. Jason Hindle

      Re: V

      Dire film (and false god).

      1. BillG Silver badge

        All Roads Lead To Amber

        I enjoyed Harlan Ellison's writings.

        But not as much as Roger Zelazny.

    2. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: V

      I don't see what V has to do with Ellison.

      V is an adaption of Sinclair Lewis 1935 book "It can't happen here" - about the way fascism would arise in America. The baddies were turned into flesh eating lizard aliens because hollywood producers felt this would be more acceptable to audiences than having ordinary americans being fascists.

      1. DeVino

        Re: V

        I presume...

        V = Roman 5

        Star Trek V = Finding God

        Ellison wrote sci-fi about finding God.

        Sorry Nothing to do with lizards.

        BTW: Napolean was quite tall. I think the phrase we look for is Small Man Syndrome

  2. jake Silver badge

    "He didn't always achieve that, but who does?"

    Nobody does.

    The truly great die trying, though.

    Strangely enough, I re-read “I have no mouth but I must scream” a couple days ago after being reminded of it by this post here on ElReg. Thank you, W.S.Gosset. I'll get in this round.

    RIP, Harlan.

  3. Denarius Silver badge

    so am I one of the few who thought his writing is rubbish ?

    1. jake Silver badge

      Probably not, Denarius.

      But then, does one expect broad comprehension from someone who apparently doesn't know what a wake is for?

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. tiggity Silver badge



      .. not that his writing style was particularly special, it was the ideas / plots that made him an author worth reading, not the prose style. Which is why short stories were ideal area for him to excel at.

      1. Davegoody

        Mostly agree....

        I have to agree....... did not particularly enjoy his writing style, it's 100% about the ideas and plots.

        In a similar vein, the writing style of Philip K Dick is (in my opinion) hard to follow, not particular well written, but the ideas and plots are peerless - Man in the High Castle is a perfect example of this, as is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

        I think my point here is that there is more to writing than the actual writing........

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Mostly agree....

          I agree - Philip K. Dick's short stories were much better than the novels which seemed to be so drawn out.

          Also, not helped once Hollywood gets their mitts on it. Compare the "Total Recall" films to the short story "We can remember for you wholesale"

      2. Ian Johnston Silver badge

        That goes for almost all science fiction writers, though. They get an idea but run out of plot very quickly so they write short stories. Very occasionally, if they are feeling exceptionally bold, a "novella" (Spanish for "padded-out short story") which is almost unknown as a form in any other sphere of writing.

        But then, they know their audience. Who wants plot or characterisation when you can get the hang of an idea in a few pages?

    3. Spoonsinger

      Re: so am I one of the few who thought his writing is rubbish ?

      “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.” - Harlan Ellison

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

  4. Chris Miller

    Also notable was Ellison’s 1969 novella A Boy and his Dog, about a mind-reading hound and his human buddy in an post-apocalyptic cannibal future after World War 4. In 1975 it was made into a film with Don Johnson playing the lead role - worth watching if you’re entertained watching an actor trying to emote.

    It's an unmemorable film, but I thought the point of the novella is the emotionless 'boy', who [spoiler alert] asked to choose between his dog and his new girlfriend chooses the dog (it doesn't end well for the girlfriend).

    1. Andrew Moore Silver badge

      "worth watching if you’re entertained watching an actor trying to emote."

      I'm not, that's why I've given up on The Handmaids Tale.

      1. HandleAlreadyTaken

        >watching an actor trying to emote

        Seems to have worked for Clint Eastwood who, according to Sergio Leone, managed just two expressions: one with a hat and one without a hat.

  5. Dr Stephen Jones

    "But eventually he came around to the idea, although continued to defend what he saw as his intellectual property."

    An author's work is by law very much his own IP, and it's recognised as such as a human right. What Harlan saw or imagined has nothing to do with it. Harlan defended his author's rights like a bulldog.

    Sorry to see The Register's prejudices spoil an otherwise well written and affectionate obituary.

    1. jake Silver badge

      Not sure you're parsing that right.

      "he came around to the idea of the Internet" and "defending his intellectual property" are two different thoughts. That's how I took it, anyway.

    2. dcline1701

      I saw Mr. Ellison at a con in Columbus. He threatened to tell the sickest joke he'd ever heard if we (the panel attendees) petered out during the Q & A. Then he made good on the threat.

      He signed my Babylon 5 TCG card, "Reprogrammer", in fountain pen. Apparently that's all he brought to a signing.

      Before he signed my Again, Dangerous Visions he called back to his wife to ask if he'd received his royalties on ADV. She said yes. Perhaps the original poster would like to expound on how telling a fan you won't sign his or her book at a convention relates to protecting ones IP.

      Aside from B5, this is the work that sticks with me:

      1. Robert Sneddon

        Harlan and Book Signings

        Harlan was a writer for hire for a lot of his early career and he wrote some stinkers to pay the rent. He had a standing offer to buy back copies of some of those books if you brought them to somewhere he was appearing, like a book signing or a convention. After handing over some money (five bucks in my case, about thirty years ago) he would then gleefully destroy the book there and then.

        1. jelabarre59 Silver badge

          Re: Harlan and Book Signings

          Harlan was a writer for hire for a lot of his early career and he wrote some stinkers to pay the rent. He had a standing offer to buy back copies of some of those books if you brought them to somewhere he was appearing, like a book signing or a convention. After handing over some money (five bucks in my case, about thirty years ago) he would then gleefully destroy the book there and then.

          That would be "Doomsman". Had a friend in NY fandom who was a close friend of his, and has one of the only signed copies of it (and even he had to sneak it into the middle of a pile of other Ellison books).

          It was an (admittedly twisted) honor in fandom to have been insulted by Harlan Ellison. Gave you bragging rights that you *must* have been prominent enough to have warranted his attention. I don't mean that to sound like Ellison was arrogant though. Never got to meet him personally (he never attended any of the Lunacons I went to) so I only go on the comments from friends that had.

    3. Oldish Git

      It's all very well treating the internet as some sort of twisted collective consciousness, until the time arrives when something you worked on rather hard (for rather a long time) is simply pinched and "put into the public domain" by nameless oiks you cannot track down.

      Our society is built on individuals being able to profit from creativity. Whilst I despise software patents (and those who seek them), copyright and defence of same is vital to an intellectually healthy world.

      I'd like to hope the paragraph was "got at" by a sub-editor with an agenda, but I fear it simply reflects a worrying generational divide. When my kids were teenagers, I was shocked that they were so casual about IP, especially entertainment.

      Asimov was fond of the expression "enlightened self interest". One can only hope the millennials start to "get it" fairly soon, before YouTube and its clones become a terrible warning from history.

  6. Jedit

    Minor pedant

    It's "And I Must Scream", not "But".

    Also, no mention of Babylon 5? For shame. In addition to writing an episode, Comes The Inquisitor is directly based on an Ellison story ("The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World") and Ellison even appeared in the show twice.

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Minor pedant

      Oops! Good catch ... but to be even more pedantic, it's "&".

      As for the other, re-read TFA ...

      "He wrote what is widely considered to be the best episode of the original Star Trek, The City on the Edge of Forever, was a consultant on Babylon 5 and was credited for James Cameron’s The Terminator"

      1. Mike 125

        Re: Minor pedant


        >>but to be even more pedantic, it's "&".

        No, it's really not.

    2. Mycho Silver badge

      Re: Minor pedant

      Ellison's main involvement in B5 was in the role of the person Straczynski trusted to tell him if he thought something was shit.

      Literally their first conversation years before ended with Ellison telling him to stop writing shit, which JMS credits with saving his career.


      1. JDX Gold badge

        Re: Minor pedant

        >Ellison's main involvement in B5 was in the role of the person Straczynski trusted to tell him if he thought something was shit.

        Was he not on set often then?

        1. Mycho Silver badge


          Not a bad first try at a Harlan impression, but you're still holding back.

    3. Zog_but_not_the_first Silver badge

      Re: Minor pedant

      Wasn't he credited as "a roaming agent of chaos" for his B5 stint?

      1. Mycho Silver badge

        Re: Minor pedant

        That was one of the descriptions JMS sometimes used when people asked what Conceptual Consultant actually meant.

    4. salamamba too

      Re: Minor pedant

      If I remember correctly, he also came up with the sound for the spiderships in B5, which comes to define them more than their appearance (in my view).

  7. Ironclad

    Deathbird Stories

    I recently read Deathbird Stories after Neil Gaiman cited Ellison as an influence.

    His more abstract concepts in Paingod and Deathbird are disturbingly relevant and in those stories you can see why Gaiman counts him as a significant influence.

    I didn't realise he wrote so many scripts but it makes sense when you read something like Along the Scenic Route which comes across like a an everyday Mad Max/Deathrace experiment where armed and armoured vehicles are allowed to duel each other to the death over minor road rage incidents. Still reckon there's a movie in it (Netflix are you reading?).

    It's a mixed bag but I'd recommended it if you like your sci-fi dark and pessimistic.

    1. Mike Moyle Silver badge

      Re: Deathbird Stories

      I think I prefer the original title for "Along the Scenic Route": "Dogfight on 101". I remember when it came out in the late '60s. Great story, although I have to admit that -- being an illustrator -- I bought the mag more for the beautiful techno title page illustration by Jim Steranko than for the Ellison story.

      I agree that his prose and his personality could be off-putting at times, but he spun off concepts like an ideating Catherine Wheel. He will be missed.

    2. Pedigree-Pete

      Re: Deathbird Stories

      Ironclad. Something like Death Race 3 then? PP

  8. JLV Silver badge


    "Along the Scenic Route".

    Powerful, 30 yrs after my first and only read.

    and a short about a manipulative guy who picks up a woman by gifting a "family heirloom" nickel. Turns out he has a cupfull ready for next mark. Him, right?

  9. Trollslayer Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    This article

    is what take El Reg from extremely good to great.

  10. Andrew Moore Silver badge

    RIP Harlan

    One of the last great SF voices of the golden age.

    However it does mean I can release my homage "I Have No Arse And I Must Fart" now without fear of being sued.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: RIP Harlan

      You think mere physical death would stop Harlan suing someone over copying his work ?

  11. Rich 11 Silver badge

    Probably a coincidence, unless it turns out Ellison tried to sue them

    Finally Ellison suggested the Enterprise would warp out to the edge of the universe only to find a solid wall. After rerouting all power to the weapons system the spaceship would blast though the wall and gaze at the face of God.

    That seems vaguely similar to the first New Generation episode, where the Enterprise heads out into deep space and runs into a giant unavoidable chainlink fence, placed there by the omnipotent Q to limit the Federation's exploration.

  12. Stevie Silver badge

    Ah ...

    When I was commenting on HE's irrascible behavoir at a con to author Jack McDevitt, he responded: "The thing you have to remember about Harlan is he was there with the Freedom Marchers."

    You have to admire someone who is willing to be cracked in the head with a nightstick for other people's human rights.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Ah ...

      In an example of "Everything that's Wrong with the Modern World" another obit piece (probably in the Garudian) said something like "in the light of this behavior we must reconsider the value of his work"

      NO, if the work is good it doesn't matter if he fed puppies into wood chippers or used emacs. The value of the work is unchanged. Blackadder II doesn't become bad when Ben Elton becomes a Tory peer.

      1. Stevie Silver badge

        Re: Ah ...

        And The Usual Suspects is still a great movie because of Kevin Spacey, not in spite of him.

        Yes there's a difference, and no there isn't.

        But Harlan Ellison was a major factor in my reading habits when I was in my teens and Again Dangerous Visions was published by Pan in the UK.

        Now I have signed editions of much of his work because he used to come across to New York every two years for I-Con and he was the most shameless shill to ever lift a pen. His desk o' books was the sole reason for my late-developed habit of looking for books at author signing tables rather than at bookstore before the con.

        When on a late-night signing line after a full day of intensive idiot rescuing I was asked by Ellison what my favorite work of his was. I answered "Jefty is Five" without even thinking. He then quizzed me for about a minute looking intently in my face for some sort of indication I had spotted something he hid in the story. I think he thought I failed the test, but I was just exhausted, which gives me a gormless expression at the best of times.

        And I witnessed something marvelous in that same signing line: Harlan Ellison struck speechless at the generosity of a fan. I've *never* seen him at a loss for words, even in the most sudden ambush situation. I've seen him speechless with indignation, speechless with rage, but never with unlooked for kindness. It made for a memory I will treasure as long as I can ... what do you call it ... remember!

      2. jelabarre59 Silver badge

        Re: Ah ...

        NO, if the work is good it doesn't matter if he fed puppies into wood chippers or used emacs. The value of the work is unchanged. Blackadder II doesn't become bad when Ben Elton becomes a Tory peer.

        To an extent. It *is* harder to appreciate Marion Zimmer Bradley's work in light of what we've learned about her and her husband Walter Breen in the years after her death. It certainly is harder to sympathize with her fanfiction disputes, regardless of the validity thereof.

        Harlan may have been an asshole on many occasions (sometimes for good reason), but rarely was he a sleasebag.

  13. Mike 125

    Class act.

    "Harlan Ellison, the legendary science fiction author who kickstarted the 1970s "New Wave" of science fiction has died in his sleep.."

    Somewhere in all his horrific dystopias, he found the perfect way to die.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Class act.

      Somewhere in all his horrific dystopias, he found the perfect way to die.

      Philip K Dick died in someone else's sleep

  14. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    At a penny (cent ?) a word you'd have to be prolific to earn a living.

    Something that's not so much in evidence today in literary matters.

    The concept "Write a lot. Sure many will be filler, but some will be killers."

    RIP Harlan.

  15. BinkyTheMagicPaperclip Silver badge

    He also spawned a computer game

    There's an adventure game based on I Have No Mouse and I Must Scream. Not tried it, though.

  16. Stevie Silver badge


    Cordwainer Bird was Ellison's version of Allan Smithee, not a pen-name of choice. It told the world he was disavowing the quality of the final product.

  17. Arthur the cat Silver badge


    Paul Linebarger who wrote under the name Cordwainer Smith to avoid hurting his diplomatic career

    Linebarger was a spook, specialising in psyops.

    1. graeme leggett

      Re: Diplomat?

      "specialising in psyops" which he conveniently published in book form so other people could learn about them.

      Perhaps 'diplomatic' refers to being a member of the Foreign Policy Association, or being confidant of Chiang Kai Sek

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In this hack’s experience it’s a book you will never forget....

    Oh, crap - like I don't already have a stack of books to catch up on. Oh, well - guess I'm off to place an ordeer.

  19. Nolveys Silver badge

    Prisoners of Gravity

    You can find some Ellison interviews on the "Prisoners of Gravity" episodes that can be found on Youtube. The show was low-budget and the premise was goofy, but they somehow managed to interview the likes of Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury, David Brin, Charles de Lint, Harlan Ellison, William Gibson, Frederik Pohl, Terry Pratchett, Anne Rice, Spider Robinson, Robert J. Sawyer, Chris Claremont, Will Eisner, Neil Gaiman, Bob Kane, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Daniel Clowes, Scott McCloud, Frank Miller, Alan Moore and many more.

    Well worth a look, in my opinion.

  20. Unicornpiss Silver badge

    Have not read much of his work

    At the risk of speaking ill of the dead, I did read "City on the Edge of Forever", the story the classic, award-winning Star Trek episode was adapted from. I found the story to be very unpolished and the first half of the (Amazon Kindle) book was an angry forward (rant) from Ellison dropping names and whining about how he was wronged by Roddenberry and others. It was nearly unreadable IMHO, and while imaginative, was more fitting for a pulp novel than a serious SF story. Roddenberry took this diamond in the rough and turned it into an intelligent, accessible, coherent, emotionally involving teleplay that fit into the 40-some minutes of the episode, with nothing salient left out. The book was one of only two I have ever deleted from my fairly massive ebook collection.

    I will say that this turned me off reading anything else of Ellison's work, but based on the Reg elegy of the man, it looks like there's a lot more to explore and I'll probably take another look. I didn't realize the man was so prolific. I hope he has found some peace.

    1. Stevie Silver badge

      Re: Have not read much of his work

      Yes, I have that book. Ellison was enraged at the time (which was if I recall back in the 80s) because Gene Roddenberry had been trotting around Star Trek cons for years bad-mouthing Ellison from the stage, and had just done so in Starlog after promising to stop it. Roddenberry had died and Ellison, who claims he had kept his argument with Roddenberry private until then, decided that it was about time *his* version got to the ST fans.

      At least, that was what I remember him writing. As to the row, I dunno. Ellison never seemed to back away from a fight, and Roddenberry was legendarily vainglorious. I think you have to be to survive in the toxic world of Hollywood and TV.

  21. Faceless Man

    Writing for Star Trek

    Every obit I've seen have mentioned his writing for Star Trek ahead of his work on Babylon 5, which seems odd.

    He wrote one episode of Star Trek, The City on the Edge of Forever, which had to be heavily re-written to create something that was actually filmable on the budget available. When he found out, he became so annoyed, he submitted his original screenplay for the Hugo award, and that's what won. (There's a recent comic that is based more closely on Ellison's version, showing the substantial difference between what he wrote and what was broadcast.)

    Meanwhile, as noted above, he was basically on staff at Babylon 5. In one interview I saw, he said he was essentially an enforcer. If JMS wanted someone brought into line, Ellison would do it. JMS in the same article said he was a Creative Consultant, but in a more literal sense, rather than in the Writer's Guild sense, which is why they created the term "Conceptual Consultant" for him.

    My favourite pop cultural reference to him, though, is in The Dark Knight Returns, where he's a guest on a TV panel in the background.

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