The passing last week of the American author Harlan Ellison deserves a belated mention. I neglect to describe him here as a science-fiction author as a mark of respect because he didn’t consider himself as such, although he always seemed to be, to me. That being said, I wouldn’t exactly consider myself a fan of his work. I’ve read some of his stories and of course seen the 1975 film A Boy and His Dog (based on one of his stories) and the much-celebrated (and much-maligned by him) Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever, and the Outer Limits episode Demon With A Glass Hand. I have a hardback book, a huge tome titled The Essential Ellison: A Fifty-Year Retrospective, that I bought back in 2001 and have only dipped into occasionally since. I do well recall a review of Star Trek: The Motion Picture that he wrote for Starlog back in 1980 that was pretty blistering and which I didn’t really agree with… but I remember it so well it clearly left some impression. In hindsight, I think Ellison was right in what he wrote about the film, but back then I wasn’t ready to admit it.
Ellison was loud. He always seemed to have a rough and aggravating character, a reputation that always turned me off him. In truth it was probably narrow-minded and foolish of me, but there was always plenty of other authors’ work to read that didn’t carry all the background noise and politics of Ellison’s stuff. We were like chalk and cheese I guess, although as I have grown older maybe I find myself agreeing with more of his views than I once did.
Regular readers will know that I am forever loathe to neglect a Blade Runner reference when it slides into view. Did you know that when Ridley Scott was attached to the Dino De Laurentiis’ Dune project (eventually helmed by David Lynch), Scott approached Harlan Ellison to write the screenplay? I mean, just imagine that- a Dune film directed by Ridley Scoot based on a screenplay by Harlan Ellison: the mind boggles, and I dizzyingly think of Ray Bradbury and John Huston conjuring the 1956 Moby Dick (but hey, we got Blade Runner instead so its all good). In an essay in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Ellison recalled that he met Scott for breakfast in September 1979, and instantly declined the job. The book was too vast, too complex, to ever be made into a satisfactory movie, and “…besides, who needs to see Dune when David Lean has already made Lawrence of Arabia? Its just King of Kings with Sandworms… No.. there isn’t a writer living or dead who could beat this project,” he told Scott. Whether Scott came to agree is unclear, but he later left the project in order to make Blade Runner instead. Oddly enough, the new Dune project is being directed by Denis Villeneuve, director of the Blade Runner sequel- its weird how these connections come around.
One interesting note- this meeting between Ellison and Scott is when Scott remarked that he wanted to be known as the “John Ford of science fiction films,” a quote that was bandied around often back when Blade Runner first got released. With Alien and Blade Runner to his name I remember it seemed an admirable and exciting intention, but I guess the box office of Blade Runner nixed that intent.
One more Blade Runner note: while Ellison was apparently somewhat sour about the film in 1982 (feeling it inferior to the original Philip K Dick novel) he later warmed to it: “[Blade Runner] has come to look to me, after repeated re-viewings, as a significant achievement, deeper in human values than I’d supposed, far more than a glitzy melodrama of sci-fi machinery and thespic posturing. Over time, my respect and admiration for Scott’s vision has grown substantially.”
Withdrawing from the Blade Runner talk, the reason why I’m writing this is simply the obvious observation implied by this post’s title- another one gone. I have been lucky, more lucky than I ever appreciated at the time really, to have grown up in a world in which some quite remarkable people lived and worked. The names are quite extraordinary, when I think of them:
While I lived, these people walked the same Earth as I: Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Frank Herbert, Frank Frazetta, John Buscema, James Blish, Jeffery Jones, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Philip K Dick, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, John Barry, Basil Poledouris, Jack Lemmon, Christopher Reeve, Stanley Kubrick, Chris Whitley, Eric Woolfson, Prince, Steve Dillon, Gil Kane… some of these names will be familiar to you, I have no doubt, some may have you curious enough to reach for the google search tool (please do, you should know these people’s work) and there are many, many others that I have not listed but should have.
What I am getting at is that, as I have gotten older, so many people that I grew up reading about or watching or listening to, are simply not around anymore. And the world is so much lesser for the loss. I honestly can’t see how many of the names I have cited above are ever going to be replaced by a successive generation because the world isn’t the same. Fame now is hardly earned, its almost stumbled upon for a few fleeting fifteen minutes in an entertainment arena which measures careers in months/years rather than the decades/lifetimes they used to be. The talent honed over years and decades seems to be lost to us when careers are so much louder and shorter. I’m no fan of the Rolling Stones, but its clear to me that when they are finally gone, they will be gone, and we won’t see the like again (good riddance, many of us may say, or hardly blink a notice, but we all should get the point that rock bands like that just don’t happen anymore and the world is missing something for it).
So anyway, Harlan Ellison is gone. Another name that featured in the culture-scape of my existence has been extinguished at last, joining an ever-increasing list.
Meanwhile, I think I shall go to bed tonight and dream about what that Dune film might have been like, with visuals by Ridley Scott in his prime and words crafted by enfante-terrible Harlan Ellison… I shall dream in 70mm, and Dolby Stereo…