Having spent twenty years waiting for this book, and then wolfing it down in a day, it seemed only right for me to think about it for 20 hours before I started talking about it. I was disappointed, but perhaps something would change. Maybe I’d strike on some idea that would suddenly unlock it and the whole thing would strike me as brilliant. It’s happened before. Hell, it happened with the first book in this trilogy, Steel Beech, which I utterly hated upon first reading, but I now recognize as the best book of Varley’s career.
“Irontown Blues,” though…no. I don’t see it.
As with all the books in the trilogy, it’s standalone and mostly-self-contained. While events and people from the other books are relevant, those events will be replayed or explained here so the reader doesn’t have to schlog through 3 other novels and 13 short stories to figure out what the author is talking about. As a result, I’m going to dispense with a lengthy aside about the larger Eight Worlds universe this fits into for now, and just jump into the story.
In short, it’s a self-consciously noir detective tale. Chris Bach is a hard-boiled detective. He wears a trench coat and a fedora. He has a cheap office with a 1939 calendar on the wall. He actually lives in a community called Noirville. A hot dame with a sexy dress and a glamorous hat breezes in and gives him a case. You know, the usual.
The big reveal is that all of this takes place on the moon about 350 years from now, and that Chris is one messed up cat. He’s dealing with a massively bad case of PTSD and some well-earned paranoia as a result. His detective shtick is his attempt to cope with it by play acting a life as a generic gumshoe. It’s something he knows well from old books and movies, and the simplicity of it appeals to his attempts to stay centered.
Apart from “The Big Glitch,” the event that traumatized Chris, the moon is always depicted as a near-utopia in the Eight Worlds stories, but that’s played down here. We focus on the seedy underbelly. Even so, as Chris himself admits, there’s not much crime. Not really enough to justify his hobby.
The Dame’s case is interesting: in a disease-free future, some guy is deliberately infecting people with very hard-to-cure illnesses. Nothing lethal, but still a serious crime. Chris takes the job and then the book all kind of falls apart.
Do you know what a MacGuffin is? As Hitchcock put it, it’s the thing that has no value in and of itself, but which drives the plot because everybody wants it and is trying to get it. The best example in this context (Though not a Hitchcock-related) would be The Maltese Falcon. The bird itself is basically worthless, but people are willing to kill and die for it. That obsession sets up the conflicts, action, and, more importantly we learn about the characters. Specifically Sam Spade, the detective and protagonist. It’s pretty much a standard detective storytelling device.
The problem in Irontown Blues is that the case itself is more-or-less a MacGuffin. It exists only to set up the book and get it rolling, and provide a spine for the narrative to hold on to, but it’s not even remotely interesting in and of itself. It’s really just a lot of rigmarole that serves no purpose, it’s just a pointlessly convoluted manipulation, which the book itself pretty much admits, but when the author tries to put meaning to it, to explain why the first two thirds of the novel are just padding, well, the explanation doesn’t really wash. I mean, it’s internally logically consistent, I guess, but it’s far from satisfying, and it never connected with me. And while it may be consistent, that doesn’t mean it’s good.
The real reason, I think, is that the author simply wanted to write a hard-boiled detective novel, and that’s pretty much the end of it. The Eight Worlds universe just happened to be the most convenient venue at hand.
This confuses me, because I know Varley can write a good detective story. He’s done it before. This mystery stinks, though. It is clearly just busywork. Part of that problem is that Chris is really bad at his job. Now this could be endearing. A crap detective can be charming or funny, but here, no, he’s neither. He gets a case – first one in forever – then procrastinates for three days before doing anything. When he finds out he has to go to Irontown, he gets scared and procrastinates for days longer. He doesn’t even send his sentient bloodhound, Sherlock, to follow the dame around.
Another problem is that Chris is basically the least interesting character in any Varley story ever. His dog is more interesting. Hell, his dog’s translator is more interesting, and she only turns up in the notes where she talks about the difficulties of translating dog-thought into people-talk. She’s never even ‘onscreen’, so to speak. There’s really none of the existential dilemma we find in the first two books in the series. In Steel Beach, Hildy Johnson is trying to find some meaning in life, and figure out why she’s suicidal. Then a disaster happens. She doesn’t find meaning, but she does at least kick the suicide thing. In Golden Globe, Sparky Valentine is an actor who’s led a life of no particular significance. He gets a chance to do something that will be the pinnacle of his career, something that will make him feel his life is well-lived, and he goes through hell, high water, the whole solar system, and fights with the mob in order to do it.
In this book there’s none of that self-examination and quest for meaning. A bland PTSDed-out ex-cop plays dressup, some people try to kill him at one point, and then he and his dog live happily ever after with his girlfriend (A minor character from Steel Beach) whilehis dog’s translator lusts after him.
The traumatic event in his life revolves around the disaster from Steel Beach, and we have an extensive flashback of his actions and aftermath, and, yeah, that stuff is actually pretty good, but it goes to show how little of the rest of the book stands out.
Readers of the series will want to know if it finally makes good on the promises at the end of Steel Beach and Golden Globe. Yes, but in a far less impressive fashion than we were led to expect. In fact, it feels derivative of the penultimate book in Varley’s “Lighting and Thunder” tetragy.
Which brings up a second major problem with the book: Tone. Voice. Phil Collins sounds the same whether he’s singing solo or with Genesis, right? Sting sounds very different when he’s solo than he did with The Police. Varley, likewise, had a different authorial voice in the Eight Worlds series than he does in his other work. He also has a somewhat different voice in his standalone works, like “Slow Apocalypse,” which ‘sounds’ different than the Thunder-and-Lightning stuff. Here, however, we have an Eight Worlds story that doesn’t sound like an Eight Worlds story. It sounds like a Thunder-and-Lightning book. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just distractingly out of place. Remember that album of heavy metal covers Pat Boone did? Just felt wrong, didn’t it? Of course he did it as a joke, but Varley is serious here.
Another problem, I think, is that as this series has progressed, it has gotten less fantastic, and less disturbing. The moon is a a place where death itself is not an absolute certainty, nobody starves, nobody gets sick, everyone has access to all the information and entertainment there could conceivably be, everyone can live any kind of life they want, and folks change gender back and forth again and again based on their moods and the whims of the fashion industry. Hell, mosquitoes have been genetically modified so they no longer even bother people. Even this marks a slight reduction in marvelousness than the original Eight Worlds stories. (Which, despite a near-magical utopia, were plenty squick-inducing in places)
In this book, mention is made of perfect health, of gene-altered smart dogs, of cybernetic implants, but it’s all taken down several notches, and only mentioned when it absolutely has to be. It just feels different. Like he’s trying to put the mushroom cloud back in the bomb. I have to say that I do not think he’s actually trying to do that, it just feels that way by accident.
Another problem is that it absorbs the Anna-Louise Bach stories into the Eight Worlds universe. Those were a series of three stories about a lady cop who lives on the moon, and one where she’s a lifeguard living on a space station. They are in a world that is similar in some ways, but that’s all: similar. Until now.
Varley has decided to shoehorn them into Eight Worlds, and brother, believe you men, he has to hammer the hell out of them to make them fit. It contradicts the Bach stories themselves, and the Eight Worlds backstory. I found it terribly distracting, but that’s probably just me.
The final and biggest problem is just the lack of interest here. This feels less like a story that was begging to be told, a story Varley was busting at the seams to share, and more like the sort of thing he feels he’s put off about as long as he can, and is finally banging out from a sense of obligation, not passion.
In the end, it’s short, bland, kind of abrupt, and basically sugarless. And, sadly, it’s the end of the Eight Worlds saga, which has been running (infrequently) for 45 years. Not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a ‘meh.’
I actually recorded this 2 or 3 years ago, but didn’t get around to fixing the mix until this week, and then got bored and did the video. The low vocal comes from recording the song during a bout of insomnia around 3AM and not wanting to wake my wife or kid.
The video has two screwed up clips in the end, which I’ll fix when I figure out how to, and how to upload new video over an old one.
My friend Dan Groner passed away this month. He was 48. It was a stroke, apparently.
I hadn’t seen Dan in at least 30 years.
Obviously, even though we were friends, we weren’t super-close. It might be better to say that we were friends who drifted away on good terms after graduation, as happens to most people, I guess.
We were in college together from 1988 to my graduation. He was a music major, having recently switched over from classical acoustic guitar to electric, and started playing rock. He was exceptionally proficient, though given his background he was a little stylistically cold to begin with. He got better over time, though and was always the best thing in any of the bands he had going at that particular moment.
He was a tall, handsome, rock star-looking kinda guy with an enormous mane of late-80s heavy metal hair. Sometimes people would ask him to teach them guitar. I would say 95% of these were girls who just wanted an excuse to get close to him because, duh. His standard running gag was “Sure, we’ll use the Dan Groner method of musical instruction, which consists of three simple steps.
STEP 1 – Basic music theory
STEP 2 – Basic chords and riffs
STEP 3 – The Dan Groner Hot Oil Treatment,” and which point he’d usually wave his hair around. That always cracked me up.
Dan was one of maybe three people on campus who was actually interested in writing original music and songs. I was another. Unlike me, though, his songs actually got heard. Me, I was just a singer who couldn’t hold a band together or play an instrument. Him: he was a musician. He practically had a waiting list to join his bands. Still, we’d talk about the frustrations of trying to find an audience for your stuff when everyone else on campus was just playing John Cougar covers (ugh) or songs by The Ramones. I tried to recruit him into one of my ill-fated projects once. He politely declined.
I say “Bands.” Dan had a lot of bands. They were usually pretty short-lived and there were a few core musicians that he tended to rotate through from project to project, in addition to some lesser folks that’d turn up for one iteration, then never be heard from again. These bands were always almost inexplicably short-lived. A week, a month, six weeks, and they were gone, followed by a new lineup playing largely the same music, plus a new song or two.
I was never sure why he had such a high attrition rate, but I think it was just the strain of trying to do original music around a bunch of kids who really didn’t want it. It’s hard to keep people motivated in a band that continually starts its sets with, “Here’s a new one you’ve never heard before…” You don’t get the adulation you’d get with “Here’s one by INXS.”
Two things were consistent in all of Dan’s bands, though: (1) No matter how good the rest of the band was, Dan was always the bet thing in it and (2 ) The band had a terrible name. For whatever reason, Dan was just the worst when it came to thinking up names for his projects. “Gepetto’s Workbench” was a particularly awful example. And what can you make of “Three Dollar Socks?” There were myriads of others, but those are the only two I can remember right now. If anyone knows any others, sound off below.
But the name and the lineup didn’t matter because whatever they were called, and whoever was in it that week, it was always fundamentally the same, it was always Dan’s show. He knew what he wanted to do and he did it.
One day they were playing somewhere and I couldn’t remember their (disposable) name, so I referred to them as “Dan and the Not-Quite-As-Good-As-Dan Band.” The name stuck – at least among my friends – and we called them that ever after, or at least as long as I can remember afterwards. I came back for a visit two years later and people were still calling them that name.
I’m not really giving a clear picture of what a nice guy he was, though. He was always smiley, he was always friendly. Kind, even. I’m sure he had arguments and disagreements with people just like we all do, but he kept them quite and seemed quick to forgive. Even if you absolutely sucked at music (Like I did), he didn’t talk down. He was just a genuinely nice guy, and while we were never super-tight, he was always on the short list of people I didn’t hate. (I was a bit of a misanthrope in those days)
I don’t know what his life was like after graduation. I know he taught music for a while. I know he got married, but don’t know if he had any kids. I know he didn’t become a rock star, dammit. I’m sure that, had we both lived to a hundred, we never would have crossed paths again.
Even so, whenever he’d come up in conversations about the old days, or I’d find a forgotten old picture of him in a photo album, I’d always smile. It always made me happy to know that he was out there somewhere still gigging around, with that goofy smile.
The world is a poorer place without him in it.
An actual conversation over brunch today:
Bey: “If I were remaking Battlestar Galactica this week…”
Me: “As opposed to all the other times and ways we’ve talked about remaking it?”
Bey: “The first season would be almost identical to the first season of the original show, but in the second season I’d have the Cylons following the fleet.”
Me: “They already were.”
Bey: “No, for a different reason.”
Me: “Ok, what’s the Cylon’s reason now?”
Bey: “They want to find earth for the same reason the Galactica does: They’ve lost their home and have nowhere else to go.”
Me: “Holy crap! Ok, what happened to their home?”
Bey: “Commander Cain. After he escaped from those three base ships and that planet..”
Bey: “Yeah. He just went straight to the Cylon homeworld and just devastated it from orbit, wiped out everything, completely glassed it.”
Me: “Cool! Isn’t that a little powerful for a battlestar, though?”
Bey: “Is it? We’ve only seen them fighting other ships, which have armor and defenses and maybe shields and stuff. We’ve never seen them just unload on completely undefended rock. I would imagine that’s different than fighting a ship.”
Me: “Fair enough.”
Bey: “And it fits with Baltar’s plan in ‘Lost Planet of the Gods,’ when he said that the homeworld was virtually undefended with the entire fleet out scouring the galaxy looking for the Galactica. He said that if the Galactica came back they could destroy the empire.”
Me: “Yeah! But, wait, there’s a problem?”
Me: “The Pegasus has no crew and no weapons. Remember? Right before his suicide charge at Gamoray he evacuated all his fighters and shuttles and all but the smallest possible skeleton crew to the Galactica, and he fired off every weapon he had at the base ships.”
Bey: “Ok, so how big is a skeleton crew?”
Me: “Dunno. I asked a friend how many people it’d take to keep an aircraft carrier going if all you intended to do was run in a straight line for a half hour or so. He said a hundred people or so.”
Bey: “Ok, so two hundred people out of a crew of 5000, and no fighters or weaponry.”
Bey: “Got it: He flies back to the Colonies. They’re abandoned, there’s probably only a token presence there.”
Me: “And given Gamoray had been lying about the Pegasus, and the Imperious Leader never found out, and Baltar certainly wasn’t gonna tell anyone, the Cylons on the Colonies wouldn’t be expecting it.”
Bey: “Right. So he goes in, and simply salvages as many fighters and munitions and supplies as he needs, from factories, or abandoned bases, or whatever. There must be a lot left. He could get more than he needs. I have this picture in my head of the Pegasus with extra really large guns and missiles hanging off of it.”
Me: “What about crew?”
Bey: “There’s got to be some survivors, right? People who were in ships between worlds, miners, spelunkers, that kind of thing, hiding out?”
Me: “So he grabs them, and forces them into service?”
Bey: “Somewhat unwillingly, yes.”
Me: “I’m imagining anyone who was retired military would automatically be put back in service in their old positions. 50-60 year old fighter pilots, stuff like that.”
Bey: “Yeah. So their planet gets glassed, and only one Base Ship escapes, maybe with one of those single-disk old-model Base Ships”
Me: “And a buttload of tankers”
Bey: “Yeah. They run to Lucifer’s Base Ship, which has been following the Galactica, thinking, ‘well, they must know where they’re going.'”
Me: “So they’re attacking the fleet, or just hanging back and observing, or what?”
Bey: “Some battles probably ensue, but Lucifer is the new Imperious Leader.”
Me: “Makes sense.”
Bey: “He hasn’t had the operation yet, though, doesn’t have the afro. Maybe he’s had a little bit of it, just enough to justify a redesign and make him look cool.”
Bey: “And they’re actually trying to establish diplomatic relations with the Rag Tag Fleet.”
Me: “That’s brilliant!”
Bey: “Adama wants none of it, but the council overrules him.”
Me: “Adama was capable of empathy. There were Cylon civilians mentioned a few times in the show, and it was overtly mentioned that civilians and civilian targets were strictly off limits. The only people we ever met who went after civilian Cylon stuff were instantly sent to prison. Maybe seeing the ships full of civilian Cylon refugees makes him…I dunno….feel sorry for them?”
Bey: “Maybe, I dunno. Anyway, for whatever reason they realize it’s better to work together for the short term than fight each other to the death. Then the Pegasus shows up, and Adama has to order his own vipers to attack it.”
Me: “Wow. How are you going to do all this? It’s a lot to have happen offscreen, and just hear about later.”
Bey: “Helo plot. 5-15 minutes per episode, as required by that week’s story. 30-40 minutes of Galactica-as-usual, and 5-15 minutes of the unrelated adventures of the Pegasus and Cain.”
Me: “Man, you’ve gotten good at this. There’s a problem, though.”
Me: “Cain is a far better strategist than Adama. They all-but say it in ‘The Living Legend.’ He’s openly referred to as ‘the best damn warrior in the history of the colonies,’ and nobody ever contests it or attributes it to ego. He really just is that good. I mean, he kept an aircraft carrier – ”
Me: ” – battlestar fully functional behind enemy lines for five years, raiding the enemy for supplies and knocking over Cylon outposts and keeping his people alive with very few casualties. He told them they were never going home again, and they were ok with it. So Adama could *not* win in a fair fight.”
Bey: “So don’t fight fair.”
Me: “Also, Cain’s men – 2/3rds of the Galactica’s pilots at this point – would be vastly more loyal to Cain than Adama, just because.”
Bey: “Lock ’em up, put Cylons in the cockpits of the Vipers.”
Me: [laughing] “Ok. And humans in the raiders?”
Bey: “Mmm-hmmm. The fight isn’t fair because the fighters are behaving in super-crazy-no-way fashion, unlike vipers and raiders. Owing partially to them exchanging technology, and partially due to humans piloting Cylon stuff and Cylons flying humans stuff. That’s how they win.”
Me: “So do they kill Cain? Blow up the Pegasus?”
Bey: “Dunno. Don’t really care at this moment. I just want to come up with some way to remove the Cylons from the board as a threat so we can move on to some more interesting threat. Like the Seraphs, probably.”
Me: “I’m impressed.”
I remember having antlers as a child. It was the weirdest thing. At some point in college, I woke up distinctly remembering I had antlers. It wasn’t a dream, it was more like a sense-memory from childhood. It may actually be one, since as a very very small child I had a gimpy spine and required a lot of physical therapy, as well as wearing a partial brace for a while. I have no *conscious* memories of this, but (not counting the antlers) I do have one definite recurring nightmare that’s definitely from that time. So it’s possible.
Anyway, so I woke up in bed in the mid-80s thinking, “Man, this reminds me of when I used to have antlers.” I don’t know why. I might have rolled over a book or something in my sleep, which triggered it. I remembered very distinctly that I *hated* having antlers because I could only sleep on my back and couldn’t turn my head. That was the worst part: not being able to turn my head.
Then I thought, “Wait a minute, when did I have had antlers? And why am I *remembering* having antlers? And what the hell *happened* to my antlers? And why would I have had them in the first place?” Again, I can’t stress this enough: this was a memory of a childhood sensation, not a dream. I can tell the difference. Most people can.
This didn’t freak me out so much as confuse/intrigue me because I was reading entirely too much Philip K. Dick in those days, and also I *am* nuts. (Doctors say so!) Eventually I figured out it was probably the back brace keeping me from being comfortable when I slept, and here we are. Every now and again, the memory will pop up. “What are you thinking about, Randy?” Oh, back when I was little and had antlers.
Still, it’s intriguingly weird to remember something that never happened.
Sometimes, rarely, (As some of my friends can attest), I’ll just bring it up out of nowhere. There’ll be one of those long pauses in conversation that’ll go on a minute too long because whatever you were talking about has fizzled out, and no one has thought of another topic yet. “I used to have antlers,” I’ll say, bright and cheerful as day.
“Right, those little Christmas antlers you wore when we were opening up presents a couple years ago, I remember.”
“No, actual, real antlers. Made out of bone. Growing out of my skull.”
(At which point one of my other friends will usually say, “Oh, not this again,” or “I’m leaving.”)
“Great big Bulwinkle J. Moose ones,” I’ll say, proudly.
I did that yesterday, actually, at a restaurant. It was poorly timed. The old guy was reaching over from the next table to ask if he could get the sugar for the coffee, since there wasn’t any on his table. His mouth was open, he was about to speak right when he overheard the conversation. He was actually dropjawed for a moment, and then he accidentally made eye contact with me. His expression said something along the lines of ‘I will never stop vomiting because of what I overheard.’ Then he just sat up at his table, eyes-forward, and militantly avoided looking in our direction afterwards.
My longsuffering wife gave his wife the sugar.
“Can you please not talk about that in public?”
“Right, right, right, sorry. Must only say crazy things around friends. Mustn’t frighten the ‘Danes. Must use my insanity for good, not evil. Forgot. Sorry. Sorry.
A friend of mine was talking about people who don’t own TVs and won’t shut up about it. They’re just pretentious. He said the same is true of pretentious readers, who brag about all the great stuff, but really “They’re just reading Latin ass-masters,” to keep their Pretentious dues up to date. (“Latin Ass Master” being the greatest quote Iv’e heard this month, and I’m totally stealing it)
Anyway, this has got me wondering if I’m pretentious or not w/r/t reading. I mean, I read Dante’s Inferno, but I didn’t understand a word of it. I’m more likely to blurt out “I read it” than “I didn’t understand it.” I will reluctantly admit that if questioned, though.
I read Gulliver’s Travels, which you can’t brag about because everyone thinks it’s a children’s book, but (A) it’s not and (B ) it’s a fucking HARD read! It’s 300 years old. It’s not as tough as reading Shakespeare, but it’s much harder than reading modern English. (If you point out in comments that Shakespeare is Modern English, then fuck you, you, sir, are the problem, not the solution. Also, it’s now considered ‘Early Modern English.’) I also read “Tale of a Tub,” which Swift thought his greatest book, and which was widely regarded as his funniest.
Comedy doesn’t age well.
It took me about three years to plow through that book, and while I got about a third of it (It’s an allegory about denominationalism in Christianity) I couldn’t quote a single thing from it from memory, and I don’t think I laughed once. (Conversely, I did laugh quite a bit at Gulliver during the Laputa adventure). Any discussion of “Tub” generally starts with me freely admitting I didn’t understand it, and making a joke out of the situation. I’m less likely to do that with Dante, which I understood less of. So basically I’ll volunteer that I’m an idiot on something I *kinda* got, but will only admit I didn’t get the other thing when I’m cornered and have no escape. Seems reversed from the norm, but probably still pretentious.
I read Caesar’s Gallic Wars mostly just to say I did it. (Years later I read it to Bey during homeschooling for history. He liked it better than I did, though. It is pretty fascinating, it just did’t pop my cork)
Everyone assumes that I’m this amazingly well-read guy, but if you made a stack of all the Classical Latin Ass-Masters that I’ve read, and the Star Trek novels I’ve read, I guarantee you the Trek pile is higher. And I don’t even *like* Star Trek.
Thing is, I don’t even read all that much. I mean, I used to read a lot more than I do. When I was a kid, if I was good for a week, my reward was a Hardy Boy’s Mystery (“The Case of the Caper about the Capers in the Case”), which I’d wolf down in a day. There were a billion of those, so it was an easy way for my mom to buy my loyalty.
And I did used to read much more, but never what you’d call “A lot.” And it was generally pretty lowbrow. Whatever the school library had in Science Fiction (Generally from the 50s) or Space stuff (Generally from the 60s). In college I’d raid the flea markets and bookshops for used stuff, but again mostly old SF. I got in the habit of keeping a book in my car to read when I was unpredictably stuck somewhere doing something – Jiffy-Lube, Doctor’s office, whatever – and had a half hour to kill, and I’d usually have another one or two in my room. So I might have 2 or 3 books going at a time, but that’s nothing special.
I always preferred Short Stories to novels. I’m Shallow. Short attention span. If you make a stack of all the SF I’ve read in my life and placed it next to the stack of ‘straight’ fiction – that is, stuff without rayguns and aliens and space ships (or at least submarines) – the trashy SF stack would tower above the ‘real’ fiction stack like Trump’s ego towers over the Burj Dubai.
Of course that cheap joke implies I’ve read a lot more than I have. It’d be more like a two-story house compared to a standard wheeled garbage can.
I’d have love affairs with some author. Iike I plowed through everything by Kurt Vonnegutt in one summer, and hence can not tell his books apart (They overlap a lot). Same with Philip K. Dick. (They overlap less, but he repeats himself a lot)
Thing is, after college I read a lot less, and then when I started writing my own stuff (12 years ago) I read less still (“Why listen to music when you can play it?”) and when my eyes started going REALLY nearsighted, I read even less still. And honestly, I don’t even write all that much anymore. 1/2 a book in three years? Unimpressive.
So am I a poser, or what? I totally do judge people who read Trek novels. Including myself. A standard Randy joke is to make fun of SF geeks who’ve never read any SF apart from tie-in novels to Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate, and anything else with “Star” In the title. (BattleSTAR Galactica?)
I guess I am pretentious, slightly, as I take no efforts to correct people’s misapprehensions about me, but then again I don’t brag much, if at all (It conflicts with my fundamental self-loathing), so, hey, you decide.
He was kind.
The thing that struck me most about Harlan Ellison was that he was kind. That’s not the attribute most people mention about him, and I don’t think it’s one he probably would have used himself, but in the year or two I knew him, he was very kind to me, and he didn’t have any real reason to be.
I don’t want to give the impression that we were bosom companions, or besties or even terribly close. We didn’t have a walking-through-the-field-at-night-looking-up-at-the-stars-and-wondering-what’s-it-all-about-Alfie kind of friendship. We were never even in the same room at the same time. Honestly, I’m surprised we were friends. He’d called me up to talk about movies or something, the conversation roamed all over the place as it generally did with him, and then he said, “I presume we’re friends?” I said ‘yes,’ of course. You coulda knocked me over with a feather.
Back in 2009, I wrote a massive three-part review of his book about The City on the Edge of Forever, and the infamous clusterfuckery surrounding that. I was the head-writer at a now-defunct Science Fiction website back then. A week or so after I’d posted the last installment, my boss called me up and said, “You made Harlan Ellison cry!”
“Oh, shit, I’m a dead man!” I said.
“No, no, no,” my boss said. “You made him cry in a good way.”
A few days later he called me up, and he was funny as hell, and friendly as hell, and overwhelmingly smart. I mean, you could feel intelligence just boiling off the guy. If you’ve seen him on TV, or read stuff by him, you don’t really get the full sense of it, but, damn, the guy was an effortless, born genius. I’m far from stupid, but I could not keep up at all.
I talked him into an interview for my website, and we spent two or three days on the phone talking about everything and nothing, and joking around, and reluctantly coming back to the topic at hand before going off on a wild tangent. I taped it all, of course. Somewhere in my house I have a recording of him hacking up a lung when the breakfast he was eating went down the wrong pipe.
“Oh, God, [splutter]”
“You ok there?”
“Yeah,” he said, then started joking about how I’d be famous forever as ‘The guy who taped Harlan Ellison choking to death.’
I never posted the interview. It was very long, obviously. I sent him a copy of it beforehand, as I knew better than to risk misquoting him. He thanked me for the copy, said he really enjoyed it and it was very well done, then requested that I not publish it.
Harlan spoke a mile a minute, and he spoke about a lot of obscure things in rapid succession, and he used a lot of words that I don’t know. There were a lot of misspellings, and other problems, all technical. He said the content was good, but that he would appreciate it if I didn’t publish it until all those problems were cleared up. I was disappointed of course, but he reiterated that it was a very good interview, and that I asked him a number of questions that nobody, ever, had asked him before. They weren’t massively insightful or anything, but they were at least new.
Here’s the best example of his kindness. Not the only one, but the best one: He spent the next year and a half trying to get at least some of my interview published in the real press. He did this without even telling me. One night he called me up, and said, “Randy, I thought I had something for you with a magazine in Poland, but I didn’t like their terms, and they wouldn’t budge, so it fell through.”
I told him thanks, but he really didn’t need to waste time trying to get my goony stuff published.
“It’s a good interview. It’s a historical document. I don’t have time to correct it, but you did the work, and you deserve something for it, even if it’s only a couple of kopecks.” I told him to knock it off. A couple months later he called me up saying a website out of New York wanted to run a portion of it. We had a conference call with them, but they irked him, and he said goodbye, and that was that.
Here’s this guy, living legend, on everyone’s short list of the greatest authors of the 20th century, and he’s wasting time trying to help dipshit ol’ me. Not only was he trying to help me, he was expressly trying to make sure I got paid.
Why did he do it? Because he was kind. Again, that’s probably not the word he’d use, he’d probably consider it maudlin, but he felt the need to look out for the little ones. I’m hard pressed to think of an established author who’s done more to help new writers get established. He considered it a moral obligation, and he was often very aggressive about it, but aggressive kindness is kindness still.
He got sick.
Actually, he’d been sick for a while, but he didn’t mention it. To this day I still don’t know what was wrong. It became more apparent the longer I knew him, though. One day he called up to answer some question or another that I’d bugged him with, and he sounded like a ghoul. I asked him what was wrong. He said that he’d spent the night in the hospital, following some kind of attack that almost killed him. I suggested that maybe he shouldn’t be yacking to me after that, maybe he should just try to take it easy. “I’ll be fine, I just need to keep working.” A few minutes later, he said, “Do you mind if we come back to this some other day? I’m not feeling well.” I said of course.
The last time I talked to Harlan Ellison we were both very much aware that it was the last time I was ever going to talk to Harlan Ellison.
I was doing the dishes when the phone rang. He sounded…just awful. At death’s door. His breathing was weird, his voice was quiet enough that I had to ask him to repeat a couple things, and he was clearly terribly sad. I’ve been around it before. This was clearly the voice of a dying man.
In gist he apologized for not being able to get my interview published. I told him (For the Nth time) to forget it. He said that he had really wanted to do it, but he’d failed, and he wasn’t going to be able to now. He said that he wanted to give me something to make up for it. I said there was nothing I wanted, nothing to feel bad about, just getting to know him a little was plenty. He kept saying he wanted to give me something, and it became apparent that what he was really doing was closing out files and saying goodbye. It was important to him. He had started something, and he had to finish it, and if he couldn’t make it work, he had to at least give something. He asked what I wanted.
I named something trivial to let him off the hook. He said, “Ok. Well, I gotta go.”
“I understand. Hey, Harlan?”
I tried to think of something meaningful to say. I almost said, ‘Don’t go gently,’ or something half-assed like that, but fortunately I realized that was just completely inappropriate to say to a dying man. Then I thought, ‘who the hell am I to try to tell him something meaningful?’ I mean, he’s the hyperlexic’s hyperlexic. The man’s toenail clippings have more talent and drive than my entire body. No, it wasn’t my place to even try that.
“Yeah, bye,” he said.
I expected to hear that he’d died a day or two after that. I think he expected that, too.
That was, I think, somewhere in the middle of 2011, maybe earlier. He rallied and held out for another seven years.
It’s impossible to talk about someone famous without coming across like you’re name dropping. It’s worse when you only know one famous person, which is the case with me. I’m sorry for that. I’m not trying to make myself seem great through my connection to him, I’m trying to point out how great he was through his kindness to a less-than-nothing like myself.
Everyone knows Harlan as The World’s Angriest Man, as the sue-happy guy who was always complaining about something, as the outrageous guy on stage, as the hopelessly prolific writer, the raging lefty, as the guy who’d effortlessly cut you down eight ways from Sunday in a debate. He always saw himself as a boy scout. There’s a million different Harlans, and all of them are probably at least somewhat true. I don’t have any great insights, but I just thought I’d share with you a quality he shared with me, and one that I don’t think I’ve heard anyone mention before:
He was kind.