• January 28, 2022
 Op-Ed: Harlan Ellison is Dead

Op-Ed: Harlan Ellison is Dead

Harlan Ellison is dead. He bit it a few days back. He was old. 84 to be exact. It was his time. He had lived quite a life, and for most of you, the name means probably zero.

To me however, as a teenager in the late 70’s and early 80’s who’s best friend David, regularly let me read Heavy Metal magazine, mostly because I liked the scantily clad imaginary women with enormous breasts who always seemed to be needing rescue from an equally scantily clad men with enormous, well, muscles, every once in a while there was an article that caught my eye.

Really. I sometimes read it for the articles.

Thank the gods David’s mom was German and had a completely different world view of what teenage boys should be allowed to read than what my Methodist parents thought.

In the March 1981 issue, there was an essay was by Ellison “Fear Not Your Enemies.”

In it, he spoke about how when Lennon was shot to death in front of “The Dakota” apartment building the world went crazy with grief.

That same day, several other noted Americans including an Olympic medalist was also shot to death and left, as Ellison wrote, to become worm food, and no one batted an eye.

No eulogies on national TV, no calls for gun control, no silent vigils in Central Park. Why was Lennon special? Was his death somehow more important than the others?

It wasn’t.

Turns out, Lennon was to become just another statistic, another number, more worm food in our nation’s never ending sacrifice to the gun gods living on Mount Enareh.

Ellison wrote with passion about how we shouldn’t fear our enemies but rather those that allow those enemies to live among us.

The title of the essay itself was taken from Yiddish poet Edward Yashinski who survived a Nazi concentration camp only to die in a Soviet gulag:

“Fear not your friends, for they can only betray you.

Fear not enemies, for they can only kill you.

Fear only the indifferent, who permit the killers and betrayers to walk safely on the earth.”

Ellison saw it and warned us about it in 1981, long before most and certainly long before I did. Lennon wasn’t an anomaly, he was the norm. A famous norm yes, but a norm non-the-less.

And Ellison’s essay, read by that teenage kid 37 years ago set me on a path that to this very day, established what my feelings about guns and gun control should be.

Before Facebook, before Twitter, when the only social networking was friends lending their slightly risqué magazines to each other. The power of that one essay lived longer than Harlan Ellison probably expected it to, and in my mind it unquestionably outlasted him. That one essay showed me the power of the written word, more so than any teacher I had had to that point.

My last donation to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence can be traced directly back to that essay, read secretly in my bedroom under the cover of night. The power of the pen over the power of the sword, or the gun.

Yeah, Harlan Ellison was a jerk. He was science fiction’s equivalent to your crazy Uncle Bob you have to invite to Thanksgiving dinner, even though you know he will start a fight about government UFO conspiracies, Hillary’s emails, and how Trump is the greatest leader since Robert E. Lee.

He was perpetually contrary, was chronically grumpy, and he never missed a chance to try to stick his finger in the eye of the science fiction establishment. But he also was a gifted author, having written Hugo award winning stories and screenplays and perhaps the greatest Star Trek episode: “City on the Edge of Forever.” He edited two anthologies of short stories (Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions) that changed the course of science fiction.

Like those gritty graphic novels or science fiction series that deal with actual human drama? Thank Harlan Ellison’s editing skills in the 1970’s and 80’s. Then go download a copy of “Again Dangerous Visions” and understand for yourself that good storytelling is transformative and doesn’t need pictures.

Words, well thought out, well organized, and well written can move the indifferent. And we need that now more than ever before, because we have a lot of indifferent out there, allowing the killers and betrayers to walk safely on the earth.

Ellison said “For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered.”

Indeed he did and indeed he does.


Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback.

Feel free to leave a comment.  Read his previous columns here.

Tim Holt


Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback.

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  • Too bad Ellison’s example of clear writing didn’t rub off on you. Makes me shudder to think that you were involved in the education system — as teacher? a janitor? what? — for even a week, much less “33 years”.

    Harlan was a nice guy. Period. Now and again, he had to deal with a schmuck (much like yourself), and he did so curtly and promptly. Didn’t waste time. Good for him. He was also one of the founding members of the SFWA, and when people in that organization screwed up, he pointed it out. He also pointed out that Gene Rodenberry was credit-grabbing, back-stabbing so and so (check out THE CITY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER by Ellison, both the original script and a long essay will explain it all). And he won a few lawsuits wherein parties committed provable plagiarism — James Cameron, and the producers of a TV show called “Future Cop” come to mind. On the other hand, he nutured the careers of many SF writers — Octavia Butler, for one — and, in 2016, allowed a Star Trek group to add his name to petition or somesuch that was critical of Donald Trump (your essay makes Harlan sound like a fan of the idiotic POTUS). That doesn’t seem like “sticking a finger in the eye” so much as standing up and speaking out against wrongs.

    Last but not least, during all of the rambling about yourself, you never once mentioned Ellison’s many other writing accomplishments: amazing short story collections like DEATHBIRD STORIES and ANGRY CANDY and even CAN & CAN’TANKEROUS (which included “How Interesting: A Tiny Man”, a short story that won Ellison an unprecedented third Nebula Award for short story excellence). Or short stories like “”Repent Harlequin! Said the Tick Tock Man” (one of the most reprinted stories in the English language), “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” (a 1993 selection for a Best American Short Stories anthology) or “I have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (which was included in an anthology published by the Library of America). It’s understandable that you didn’t include all of the info about his many awards for writing, because were so many — WGA awards, Edgar Awards, Nebula Awards, Hugo Awards, Bram Stoker Awards, a Prometheus Award, a Silver Pen from P.E.N. for excellence in journalism, and on and on. But perhaps you should have at least made note.

    Or that he made a difference by being actively involved in life — the March on Selma, his campaign to try to ratify the ERA, saving 200 acres of watershed land in his own neighbourhood, etc.

    The point of recognizing someone’s passing is to honor that person — not to join the bandwagon of no-nothings who insist on writing half-truths because they sound clever and hip.

    • Vint, you seemed to have missed this in the essay when you complained I did not mention some of his many accomplishments:
      “But he also was a gifted author, having written Hugo award winning stories and screenplays and perhaps the greatest Star Trek episode: “City on the Edge of Forever.” He edited two anthologies of short stories (Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions) that changed the course of science fiction.”

      Yes, he won many awards, too many to mention. That is what we have wikipedia for. This was not an essay about his accomplisments, but rather how writing can change lives.

      Thanks for reading.

    • Harlan Ellison was not beloved by everyone. Just check out this memorial:

      I think Tim Holt is correct here: Ellison was kind of an asshole if I recall from my years of reading Sci Fi or speculative fiction. A good, perhaps great author and editor. Many great artists are not nice people, like Picasso who was a great painter but a real asshole to the people around him. However, that is not what the piece is about anyways.

      The piece is essentially correct. I dont recall the exact essay that is referenced here, but I am sure it was good.

  • Hi Vint,
    Thank you for carefully reading this piece. I don’t think that the point of writing about someone’s passing is necessarily to “honor them,” although I think that I did in this piece; he clearly change my mind about gun control.
    While Ellison was indeed gifted, as I mentioned in the piece, he also was purposely contrarian and in some cases downright irritiating, as when he grabbed Connie Willis’ breasts , at the 2006 Hugo Awards. (https://youtu.be/Zxd1jFDXzsU)

    It is easy, when someone passes, to merely point out the good. That was not the point of this piece, which was to point out how a single well written work can change a persons’s life, as his essay did mine.


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