Harlan Ellison 1934 – 2018

Ellison in 1977, with his beloved typewriter.
Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Goodbye To Harlan Ellison, ‘America’s Weird Uncle’

Harlan Ellison is dead. He was 375 years old. He died fighting alien space bears.

Harlan is dead. He exploded in his living room, in his favorite chair, apoplectic over the absolute garbage fire this world has become. He’s dead, gone missing under mysterious circumstances, leaving behind many suspects. He went down arguing over the law of gravity with a small plane in which he was flying. Harlan took the contrary position. He won.

Harlan Ellison, science fiction writer and legendarily angry man, died Thursday. He exited peacefully (as far as such things go) at home and in his sleep. He was 84 years old.

Any one of those first lies seems to me more likely than the truth of the last one. Hard enough to believe that Ellison is gone — that something out there finally stilled that great and furious spirit and pried those pecking fingers from the keyboard of his Olympia typewriter (without, apparently, the aid of explosives). But a quiet farewell to this life that he loved so largely and this world that he excoriated so beautifully? If someone had asked me, I would’ve bet on the space bears.

Harlan Ellison was, after all, one of the most interesting humans on Earth. He was one of the greatest and most influential science fiction writers alive (until yesterday), and now is one of the best dead ones. He was a complete jerk, mostly unapologetically, and a purely American creation — short, loud, furious, outnumbered but never outmatched — who came up in Cleveland, went to LA and lived like some kind of darkside Forrest Gump; a man who, however improbably, however weirdly, inserted himself into history simply by dint of being out in it, brass knuckles in his pocket, and always looking for trouble.

In his youth, he claims to have been, among other things, “a tuna fisherman off the coast of Galveston, itinerant crop-picker down in New Orleans, hired gun for a wealthy neurotic, nitroglycerine truck driver in North Carolina, short-order cook, cab driver.” He was the kid who ran off and joined the circus. Bought the circus. Burned the whole circus down one night just to see the pretty lights.

Stone fact: He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, lectured to college kids, visited with death row inmates, and once mailed a dead gopher to a publisher. He got into it with Frank Sinatra one night in Beverly Hills. Omar Sharif and Peter Falk were there. Ellison was shooting pool, and in walks Sinatra, who laid into Ellison because he didn’t like the kid’s boots.

And look, this is Sinatra in ’65. Sinatra at the height of his power and glory. A Sinatra who could wreck anyone he felt like. But Ellison simply did not care. He went nose-to-nose with Sinatra, shouting, ready to scrap. Gay Talese was there, working on a story, so Ellison became a tiny part of what, among magazine geeks, stands as the single greatest magazine profile of all time: “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold.” “Sinatra probably forgot about it at once,” Talese wrote, “but Ellison will remember it all his life.”

And that was absolutely true.

But that moment? It encapsulated Ellison. His luck, his deviltry, his style and violence. He lived like he had nothing to lose, and he wrote the same way. Twenty hours a day sometimes, hunched over a typewriter, just pounding. He published something like 1,800 stories in his life and some of them (not just one of them or two of them, but a lot of them) are among the best, most important things ever put down on paper.

Ellison brought a literary sensibility to sci-fi at a time when the entire establishment was allergic to any notion of art, won awards for it, and held those who’d doubted him early in a state of perpetual contempt. He wrote “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” But everyone knows that, right? He wrote “A Boy and His Dog,” which became the movie of the same name and still stands as one of the darkest, most disturbing, most gorgeously weird examples of post-apocalyptica on the shelves.

His anthology, Dangerous Visions, gave weight and seriousness to the New Wave movement that revitalized sci-fi in the ’70s. That kicked open the door for everyone who came after and the scene we have today. He wrote a flamethrower essay about hating Christmas and the script for “City on the Edge of Forever,” the Star Trek episode that most nerds who lean in that direction will tell you was the best of the series. He wrote for comics, for videogames, for Hollywood, got fired from Disney on his first day for making jokes about Disney porn.

“My work is foursquare for chaos,” he once told Stephen King. “I spend my life personally, and my work professionally, keeping the soup boiling. Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous; I much prefer troublemaker, malcontent, desperado. I see myself as a combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket. My stories go out from here and raise hell.”

And he followed those stories right out the door. Did he get in fights? He did. And bragged about every one of them. Filed lawsuits like they were greeting cards. He assaulted book people with frightening regularity, went to story meetings with a baseball bat back in the day. He groped the author Connie Willis on stage during a Hugo Award ceremony, for which some people never forgave him.

And there’s nothing to say to normalize that. He wasn’t just some curmudgeon or crank to wave off. I once called him “America’s weird uncle,” but that almost seems too gentle because he was more than that. He was an all-American a**hole, born and bred. Science fiction’s Hemingway. Its Picasso. Talented and conflicted, both, and with a fire in him that sometimes came out as genius and sometimes as violence and no one ever knew which one they’d get.

But all of this? None of it really matters today. Because the man is dead and these are the Legends of Ol’ Harlan now. The tales he left behind — on paper and in the heads of those fortunate enough to read him when he was at his acetylene brightest — and the stories that followed in his stories’ wake. To say he was one-of-a-kind would be trite, and he would likely hate that. What he was, was a legend. Singular. Absolutely deserving of all the love and all the anger he earned in his time. With his work, he has purchased immortality at bulk rates. With his life, he stayed on till dawn and cursed the sun for rising. If ever there was a man who lived more than he was due, it was Harlan Ellison.

He’s earned his rest.

And the respect of the space bears.

Source: NPR

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Preparing Libraries for Nuclear War

A library in Jersey City, NJ via Flickr/Daniel Mennerich

From seemingly useless under-desk drills to legit bunkers, the general public was prepared for nuclear war during the Cold War. But what about libraries? Reference librarian Brett Spencer examines how libraries and librarians braced for the coming threat.

Many of today’s scholars dismiss the nation’s civil defense push as a propagandistic effort that used fear to unite Americans against Russia. But at the time, the threat felt very real for everyday Americans. The nation’s attempts to shield itself from the coming bomb were reflected across institutions, including libraries.

That’s surprising, says Spencer, especially given many librarians’ stance on other Cold War issues, like McCarthyist attempts to control the books in their collections. But despite their resistance to political pressures, librarians “vigorously participated” in civil defense during the 1950s.

This participation showed up in library collections. Libraries became clearinghouses for pamphlets, books, and audiovisual materials about how to survive a nuclear attack. The New York Public Library led the charge, collecting “mountains of civil defense booklets” that laid out how to drill for an atomic bomb and survive after one fell.

Libraries around the country screened movies like You Can Beat the A-Bomb, an upbeat film that presented information about the “best” ways to survive an attack. (In reality, most of the measures shown in the film would have been useless during a nuclear attack.) In Detroit, librarians even published their own civil defense magazine filled with abstracts of relevant materials. It was an example, says Spencer, of how librarians “provided bibliographic control to the flood of doomsday literature that washed across Atomic Age America.”

Librarians didn’t stop there. Librarians encouraged civil defense groups to use their facilities for recruitment, training, and first aid classes. A branch even became New York’s civil defense headquarters. “If World War III had broken out,” writes Spencer, “emergency operations in America’s largest city might very well have been directed from a public library.” Libraries were turned into fallout shelters, urged on by government claims that the stacks “offered excellent radiation shielding.” Librarians stood ready to help shelter citizens or even evacuate their cities in case of emergency.

But these attitudes soon changed. The nation became disillusioned with the Cold War. In the late 1960s, as Vietnam War protests grew, librarians increasingly supported the peace movement. As both the U.S. and Russia stockpiled more and more weapons, it seemed less and less likely that civil defense efforts would ever succeed. Defeatism set in, and librarians increasingly called for disarmament.

These changes were reflected in library collections, where peace materials began to balance out civil defense brochures. “Librarians… came to the realization that the best way of saving Americans from a nuclear cataclysm would be to stop a war from ever happening by promoting peace through their books,” writes Spencer. By the end of the Cold War, librarians increasingly embraced peace advocacy over civil defense. The Bomb never fell on the U.S., but it exerted lasting changes inside the libraries it may have destroyed.

Source: JSTORE Daily

Japan’s Hayabusa2 Spacecraft Nears Its Target, the Asteroid Ryugu

Outline of Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission — a six-year round trip to an asteroid for samples. Chart by Reuters

If all goes according to plan, two spacecraft will commence close encounters of the curious kind with two separate asteroids by the end of August. Their goal: to retrieve samples that may contain organic materials dating back to the solar system’s birth. These building blocks may be key to understanding the origins of the planets and of life on Earth—and could also make future space prospectors very rich.

Japan’s Hayabusa2 probe is on track to arrive at a kilometer-wide asteroid called Ryugu on June 27. On August 17 a nasa craft, OSIRIS-REx, is scheduled to arrive within sight of a roughly 500-meter-wide asteroid called Bennu. These space rocks will be the focus of approximately two years of sensor surveys and efforts to collect samples for scientists back on Earth to analyze.

“There are going to be so many groups around the world that are going to be able to study the samples for decades to come,” says Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who is not affiliated with either mission. The new data, she says, are “really going to revolutionize what we understand about the composition and the makeup of these primitive bodies from the early solar system.” Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx will not be the first missions to retrieve an asteroid sample. That honor went to Japan’s first Hayabusa spacecraft, which in 2010 returned to Earth with a tiny sample from the asteroid Itokawa after an unplanned crash on its surface. Itokawa is representative of so-called S-type asteroids, which consist primarily of stony materials.

Source: Scientific American

“Rock & Rule”: The oft-forgotten animated post-apocalyptic rock ‘n’ roll sci-fi fantasy mutant musical

Released into theaters in 1983, Rock & Rule — known as Ring of Power outside of North America — was the first English-language feature produced by the Toronto, Ontario-based animation company Nelvana, when the company were still trying to find their way, apparently, into the American (and global) animated movie market.

Three hundred animators worked on this one, under the direction of Clive A. Smith, who was able to do a few things well — he managed to get some of the top acts in music at the time to participate in the now-dated soundtrack, including Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry and her beau Chris Stein of Blondie, Cheap Trick, and White’s Earth, Wind & Fire (billed as a “special performance by” the group) — but overall the film failed to connect all the dots, going over budget, spending more than $8 million on the project which came very close to putting Nelvana out of business.

The Rock & Rule project remained under development for at least four years, beginning in life in 1979 under the watchful eye of co-producer Michael Hirsh and director Smith. The original story was actually derived from a 1978 TV special, produced by Nelvana, called “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” surely based on or inspired by the Faustian short story tale told “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” by Stephen Vincent Benét.

Believe it or not, it still took three writers — Patrick Loubert, Nelvana’s senior producer, who came up with the basic idea, John Halfpenny and Peter Sauder — to write the screenplay for this one.

Some sources say that Nelvana’s producing team originally saw it as a children’s film first before it underwent many changes along the way, becoming darker with the addition of certain more adult-themed subject matter, and relatively few computer images were used (computer-created graphics and animation were still in their infancy at the time).

The movie’s plot takes place after the Third World War in a future setting where humans have been wiped out, and animals have evolved into humanoid-like anthropomorphic human creatures after being exposed to radiation from nuclear fallout, resulting in their warped appearance looking like dogs, cats and mice.

Apparently, as the story evolved, the characters became less like rodent-based animals and more like humanoids with rat ears and noses (it’s still the number one off-putting thing about the movie if you ask us).

At the center of the story, right from the beginning, is an older rocker-type Mick Jagger-ish supervillain-ish named Mok Swagger, simply referred to as “Mok,” who is voiced by Don Francks — he also worked on Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Metal — and his songs are song by Lou Reed (“My Name is Mok,” and “Triumph”). Mok’s nickname is “The Magic Man,” and he’s apparently something of a legend, or so we’re told (he saw one of his recordings “go gold, platinum, and plutonium in one day!”).

Mok’s nefarious plans include the fact that his computers have deciphered an ancient Satanic code, which he uses to unlock a gateway to another dimension. He’s hoping to find the portal to Hell (or someplace like it), in order to go down there and then return with a fearsome demon-like dude from the netherworld who will him rule over the world, such as it exists in its current post-WWIII state.

That monster from another dimension — let’s just call him the Devil — is voiced in song by Iggy Pop (“Pain and Suffering”).

The portal apparently will only become accessible to Mok when opened with something called the “Armageddon Key,” which turns the lock, so to speak, when specific musical chords are sung by a very special voice — and this is the voice he’s been searching for, which leads him right at the beginning of the film to the end of his search, having returned to Ohmtown, the city of his origin.

There he finds a cute mutant small town rock outfit called the Drats — some sources claim that Drats! was an original working title for the film — who are trying to hit it big despite lacking what most might say is something essential: talent.

They’re led by a singer named Omar, voiced by Greg Salata, but his songs are sung by Robin Zander of Cheap Trick. There are three of them: “Born to Raise Hell,” “I’m the Man,” and “Ohm Sweet Ohm.”

Mok, we’re told, believes the voice belongs not to Omar but to Angel, the band’s bassist and Omar’s girlfriend, Angel, and it’s pretty clear to us too that she is probably an even better front singer for the band — including Dizzy (drums), and Stretch (guitar) — than he is.

The drama unfolds as Mok tries to convince Angel to sing those magic songs of her in order for him to be able to descend into the darkness to retrieve their future leader. Angel is kidnapped and taken to Nuke York.

Mok’s plan all along has been to summon the demon during a concert, and use its power to do the typical villainous things — become all-powerful, rule the world, etc., and once Omar finds out what has happened, it’s up to him and his bandmates to come to Nuke York and rescue her and save the day (they’ll still be in the post-WWIII apocalyptic Nuke York, which sorta also looks like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner… but whatever).

The Earth, Wind and Fire track, as mentioned above, is heard during a scene where they are searching for Angel in a NY club called “666.”

Our heroine Angel is voiced by Susan Roman but featuring Debbie Harry’s singing voice on the songs “Angel’s Song” and “Invocation Song” (“Angel’s Song” was actually an early version of the song that became “Maybe For Sure” from Deborah Harry’s 1989 album Def, Dumb & Blonde).

Harry and Zander also duet on “Send Love Through”

Angel, by the way, is clearly a feminist role model and the film’s protagonist — were you thinking it was Omar? — as she’s not sitting around, waiting for her boyfriend to save her, nor does she fade into the background when the guys in the band ride into town to rescue her.

Melleny Brown — the actress, singer, and DJ was just fourteen at the time, and not yet known for her work with the Care Bears franchise, the Canadian/US TV series “Star Wars: Ewoks,” or by either name Melleny Melody and Melleefresh — sings “Hot Dogs and Sushi.”

Almost a year before its eventual release, United Artists and MGM picked up the film for acquisition. MGM/UA had come about at the time because MGM had recently acquired United Artists after the debacle of Heaven’s Gate, which had made just three million dollars back in box office receipts after costing $44 million to make. The post-Heaven’s Gate company wasn’t long for the world, and were being faced with bankruptcy, leading to MGM ended acquiring all of United Artists films.

Apparently the new company executives took a look at what they’d been delivered by Nelvana and they were unimpressed; they sent the animators back to the drawing board, so to speak, with mulitple script revisions and other changes which according to those involved with the project not only delayed the film’s release and sent them soaring hopelessly over budget, but also wrecked the actual story they’d been working on.

Hoping to add some star power to the film, the actor voicing Omar for the American film distribution was replaced by Paul Le Mat, who many will remember for his role as John Milner, the street racer in George Lucas’s American Graffiti.

MGM screened the film again, for a test audience, and were baffled at how they’d actually market the film, which was probably perceived as being too adult for the children’s market, yet too childish for the adult market. It had a scary post-World War III plotline that involved drug use, profanity, sexual scenarios and the animators had even implied devil worship, and so it was clearly made for an adult audience despite the fact that adults weren’t yet going to animated movies in theaters, not on a regular basis, not yet.

They decided it was better to give the 77-minute Rock & Rule a limited release (it’s likely it was rated R at the time too) in the United States and not waste any more time on the project — a kind of b-grade Baskhi knock-off (it may remind some of Bakshi’s much better films American Pop, Wizards, or even his animated Lord of the Rings features) — which was difficult to market to its intended audience.

Rock & Rule was test-screened in Boston, Massachusetts, on just one day — April 15, 1983 — and later at a film festival in Germany (it may have been screened elsewhere in Europe but was never released in France), but it was essentially shelved and pretty much went unseen on the big screen by most ticket-buying audiences thereafter for quite a while.

At the time, there was no help from movie critics — like Janet Maslin of the New York Times — who were simply baffled as to what they were supposed to like about Rock & Rule, with Maslin writing that “The animation […] has an unfortunate way of endowing the male characters with doggy-looking muzzles. In any case, the mood is dopey and loud.”

Speaking of loudness, the soundtrack… well, there wasn’t one — despite the fact that the film boasted a lot of A-list rock artists. Some of the songs appeared as b-sides of their singles (unfortunately, like much of 80s music when heard today, most of it sounds pretty dated and of-it’s-time).

There was a tie-in promotion with Marvel Comics, who did a comic book adaptation featuring actual drawings from the film, produced that same year as Marvel Super Special #25, and apparently the comic book sold well despite the film’s limited release.

Rock & Rule was released on VHS, and laserdisc — they were all the rage at the time — but it didn’t find its core cult audience until HBO and Showtime both began showing the film on a regular basis during late-night airings.

Nelvana’s next animated feature film (released in 1985), was much more successful, and would net them a $23 million gross: The Care Bears Movie. Meanwhile, the Canadian animated company still retained their original cut of Rock & Rule (with Omar not being voiced by Paul Le Mat), and for a time they sold expensive VHS copies.

Unfortunately, the full wide-screen print of the cut was destroyed in a fire, and if you’re looking for a VHS copy, only the version in pan-and-scan format exists to this day, if you can find it.

An obscure edit of the film was broadcast in 1984 by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in the 1980s, but it cut out a lot of the stuff which made it appear to be even more muddled than necessary.

Those now hard-to-find VHS tapes began to circulate through traders and via comic book nerds at conventions, and it has since then grown from its cult status due to occasional screenings at colleges and repertory cinemas — it’s a fave of the original Night Flight generation — into an animated film with a respectable following for which it holds a special place in their memories, no doubt because there are many who likely enjoy poking fun at it while they watch anthropomorphic animals singing 80s new wave songs in a setting of sex, drugs, and Satansim.

In 2006, a special 2-disc DVD of the film was released by Unearthed Films, and it included audio commentary by Clive Smith, along with behind-the-scenes pictures, and making-of material. The original cut of the film also came with this release.

Source: NightFlight