Gary K. Wolfe reviews A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan El­lison by Nat Segaloff

A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan El­lison, Nat Segaloff (NESFA Press 978-1610373234, $35.00, 416pp, hc) July 2017.

Locus Magazine, Science Fiction FantasyFor decades, people (myself included) have asked Harlan Ellison when he might get around to writing an autobiography, bringing together in one volume those voluminous anecdotes and memoirs that have peppered his speeches, introductions, and essays almost since his first story collections and conven­tion appearances. His response, at least when I asked him, was that it was all out there already, in all those short pieces. Terry Dowling did an admi­rable job of assembling a mosaic portrait through fiction and nonfiction in the massive The Essential Ellison (revised edition 2001), but it was just that: a mosaic of his writing career (even including some juvenilia), but not a biography. Nat Segaloff’s lively and entertaining A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison isn’t really a biography either, as Segaloff cheerfully admits in his preface: “Rather, it is intended as a portrait of the man, his creative process, the world in which he lives, and the world he would prefer it to be.” It succeeds in some of those ambitions more than in others, and is more likely to satisfy fans who have long wondered about the Ellison of oral tradition than readers seeking to discover where that vast body of often brilliant fiction and journalism comes from. Quoting heavily from Ellison’s own published accounts and comments and from “dozens of hours of interviews over five years,” as well as interviews with Ellison’s colleagues and family members, it’s as close as we’re likely to come to that autobiography – or at least to some aspects of that autobiography.

Segaloff begins traditionally enough: Ellison’s father establishing his dental practice in Cleveland Heights OH during the Depression, with his beloved mother Serita, and the birth of their children Beverly and her younger brother (by some eight years) Har­lan, but it’s not long before we encounter the first and perhaps longest-lasting of Ellison’s contentious relationships, with his sister, who died in 2010. We learn a few scraps about Ellison’s early reading – a cat book, Dr. Seuss, Lorna Doone – but mostly the chapter recounts Ellison’s memories of having been bullied in school after the family moved to Painesville, and how some of these experiences later made their way into some lesser-known stories like “Free with This Box!” He discovered science fiction through a Jack Williamson story in 1946, and by the early 1950s was involved in fandom with his own fanzine, and made plans to meet Robert Silverberg at the 1953 Philadelphia Worldcon. Scarcely a year later, after three disastrous semesters at Ohio State, Ellison was living in New York, selling stories to the digest magazines and trying his hand at the then-popular “juvenile delinquent” market, includ­ing spending some time with a Brooklyn gang. By now we’re clearly into territory that Ellison has written about repeatedly – his involvement with the men’s magazine Rogue, his early failed marriages, his discovery of the community of SF writers, his thrill at being treated as a serious writer by Dorothy Parker’s review of his collection Gentleman Junkie, his eventual move to California and involvement with the screenplay of the admittedly awful 1966 film The Oscar.

Segaloff does an efficient and very readable job of linking this narrative to Ellison’s own later commentaries and interviews (and much of the bio­graphical material necessarily depends on Ellison’s own impressively detailed but sometimes enhanced memory), but he’s clearly more comfortable once the story moves into the far more public arena of TV and film. Most of Segaloff’s earlier work involves film and media (studies of Arthur Penn and William Friedkin, books of Hollywood trivia), and he pro­vides knowledgeable context for Ellison’s film and TV criticism, as well as his later involvement with programs like The Outer Limits and Star Trek, the famous Terminator litigation, L.Q. Jones’s film of A Boy and His Dog, and various unrealized projects such as films of “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” or Ellison’s screenplay for I, Robot. This also leads to a bit of celebrity-mongering, as Segaloff spends more time discussing Ellison’s friendships with Steve McQueen, Robert Blake, Robert Culp, or Bruce Lee than he spends discussing Ellison’s literary relationships with writers from Silverberg to Moorcock to Octavia Butler (arguably Ellison’s most important discovery as an editor).

It’s evident that Segaloff is far less familiar with the SF world than with Hollywood, and the few short stories he discusses in detail, such as “Paladin of the Lost Hour” or “A Boy and His Dog” earn attention because of the film projects attached to them, while some of Ellison’s most accomplished and revealing later stories, such as “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” and “Adrift Just off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38˚ 54′ N, Longitude 77˚ 00′ 13″ W”, barely earn passing mentions. Segaloff’s discussion of Ellison’s work as an editor provides only a vague sketch of the literary climate into which the Dangerous Visions anthologies appeared, and his account of the long-unrealized The Last Dangerous Visions, rather than straining to make excuses on Ellison’s behalf, more or less retells the story as meticulously chronicled by Christopher Priest. On the other hand, he devotes far more space than necessary to what amounts to a forensic analysis of a fan videotape of the notorious Connie Willis incident at the 2006 Hugo Awards. But by now that shouldn’t be surprising: this isn’t, as I said at the outset, a full biography, and it’s certainly not a literary biography, but rather a good-humored celebration, with testimonials quoted from a variety of sources, of a friend whose kindness, generosity, and absolute talent often seems overshadowed by public antics, urban legends, and inflated contro­versies. Segaloff goes a long way toward explain­ing the public Ellison and sorting out all those rumors and often apocryphal tales, but the fiction still has to explain itself.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the October 2017 issue of Locus.

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