Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sound the shofar! L'shana Tova!

I wish family and friends mazel and hazlocha today on the last night of Rosh Hashanah, highest of the Yamim Noraim. I wish everyone a happy 5769, full of mitzvahs.

If you like apples and honey, boy, is today ever your day. (Technically, the last day of Rosh Hashanah starts at sundown tonight, which is why I'm blogging here tonight. But you know what I mean.)

According to the Midrash, Rosh Hashanah is a day of atonement and rememberance for all the bad things we've done, as we go in judgment before God. My list is especially longer than most. I take some comfort in the fact God, being omnipotent, probably knows that guy at Macy's had it coming to him.

It's times like today I reflect on all the great Jewish men (Moses, Jesus, Einstein, Oscar Schindler), and one stands above the rest: Harlan Ellison. Neil Gaiman wrote the best description of Ellison I ever heard: "Some people live in castles, but Ellison lives in angry old Jew man world."

Everyone even remotely connected to science fiction knows who the guy is, and has a favorite Ellison story. My favorite is definitely that one where the sound effects guy in charge of "sweetening" the laugh track on a sitcom uses the communication reel to have a conversation with a long dead woman whose voice was recorded for the tracks. In the end, instead of laughing at the sitcom, the track boos and hisses their unfunny gaffes.

It's not the most popular story, but it's the most utterly Ellisonesque one. It combines sweetness and sentimentality with humor and bitter, opinionated cynicism, along with its glorification of average people.

Any story of Ellison's that glorified the average man was that one he did about a bitter nebbish that was revealed, by visitors from the future, to actually father children that would start a nuclear war that destroys the world. The office worker agrees to kill himself to save the world - because it was the first and only time in his life he was ever important. A very bittersweet ending.

Discovering Ellison's science fiction was something of a revelation for me. I started off as a science fiction fan reading Heinlein's juveniles, which I still love (especially HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL and STARSHIP TROOPERS, which I read to the point of memorization). I read a few of the Poul Anderson FLANDRY OF TERRA books, and I thought he was one of the best heroes in science fiction. I had read Phillip Jose Farmer's VENUS ON THE HALF-SHELL, which to this day, I insist is his best book even over RIVERWORLD, and I was just getting into Andre Norton, Leigh Brackett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and A.E. van Vogt.

I found the "New Wave" writers all around the same time, around fifteen: Ellison, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and the rest. I got into them after I read 1984 - which was a shocking book to someone that thinks of science fiction in terms of Heinlein and Burroughs. I was astonished there was no space patrol to come around and save the day at the end. It was a totally different kind of science fiction that I looked for ever after, and that's how I discovered Ellison and the rest of his contemporaries.

This was science fiction that wasn't formulaic, or adventure stories (though with his astonishing gift for flexibility Ellison could write both of those). Ellison's canon of work is legendary: "Repent, Harlequin!" and "A Boy and his Dog" among them.

To this day, I dislike admitting that I'm a Heinlein fan, because on the off-chance the other person is also a Heinlein fan, they'll start falsely thinking we have something in common. Heinlein fans, by and large, are a creepy bunch that close ranks around their hero with cultlike defensiveness.

They read Heinlein not for the spirit of adventure, but for a search for competent white male father figures they can project themselves into to forget their own very real human weaknesses and insecurities. Come to think of it, they remind me a little of the more loathesome fans of Hal Jordan or "Classic" Superman, who perpetually demand his immortality and guaranteed, constant victory with such loudness that it's psychologically intriguing.

Me, I already have a father figure: he's called my Father. And even he's a mortal, fallible human being.

And Edgar Rice Burroughs? Forget it. Every single fan of his, except Genevieve back in High School, was a giant tool. True story: I went to an ERB convention hosted on Miami Beach. The first sign I noticed something was up was that every other car in the hotel parking lot was a bright racing-red "Midlife Crisis" douchecar. When I finally got there, I was the only person in the convention to be under 30 that wasn't a trophy wife. It was like you got one as a door prize, available in your choice of Blonde or Asian.

The two kinds of fans I'm most comfortable around are Ellison fans, mostly because you can't appreciate Ellison without a sense of humor. Also, I have a passionate distaste for moralists, godbotherers, hypocrites, nosy people, busybodies, preachers, and the smug in general, prudes who dislike curse words and nudity on television, or who object to wholesome, All-American bloodthirsty violence.

Oscar Wilde once said that patriotism is the virtue of the vicious. If so, courtesy is the virtue of the hypocrite. Ellison's work tends to repel these people like crosses repel vampires.

Anyway, Ellison as a person is just plain cool. Admit it: it was one of the coolest moments in science fiction when Ellison backed Raymond Palmer in a corner and got that midget to admit that the Shaver Mystery was all a hoax he invented to sell magazines. Or remember when Christopher Priest (author of THE PRESTIGE) turned his Richard Dawson-like smarmy, sarcastic British wit on one of Ellison's dead friends? When Ellison tacked Christopher Priest, Priest's words were "You wouldn't dare hit me in front of all these people."

Big mistake!

Ellison has an acid wit and doesn't suffer fools gladly, but he's likeable because he only goes after the big guys, the same way Don Rickles only insults guys like Frank Sinatra. Ellison called Shatner an exhibitionist that would have sex with a moose in a store window for attention. He pulled his entire "Star Trek" scripted movie (that by the sound of things was absolutely mindblowing - the Enterprise journeying to the dawn of time) because the idiot executive said something like, "And could we have Mayans at the dawn of time? I like Mayans." Ellison's reaction was as hilarious as it was predictable.

I guess that's the lesson we can take away this Rosh Hashanah from Ellison is this: there's a little Harlan Ellison in all of us. Now that's something I can dip my apple to!

Ketiva ve-chatima tova!


Anonymous said...

"It was like you got one as a door prize, available in your choice of Blonde or Asian."

Dammit. And here I was hoping for a Russian Brunette.

Anonymous said...

>when Christopher Priest (author of THE PRESTIGE) turned his Richard Dawson-like smarmy, sarcastic British wit on one of Ellison's dead friends? When Ellison tacked Christopher Priest, Priest's words were "You wouldn't dare hit me in front of all these people."

Dear Mr Perez -

I think you should be very careful what you print about people you don't know, and alleged events where you weren't present. You have no doubt picked up this comment by hearsay, probably stemming from Mr Ellison himself.

All you need to know is that I have never met Mr Ellison, so cannot have had the exchange with him you describe. In fact I haven't the faintest idea what you or Mr Ellison are on about. But I do consider what you say to be spiteful and personally hurtful and I look forward to reading your apology as soon as possible.

Otherwise, best wishes ...

Christopher Priest

David said...

Fun entry, and even more fun response from Mr Priest. :-)

Julian, I can honestly say that while there may indeed be "a little Harlan Ellison in all of us," there is most certainly more of him in you.

Wow, it's nice to finally find something to say that will please both of us, albeit for exactly opposite reasons.

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