The SPIDER Symposion: in-depth discussion of specific Ellison stories and works.

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Victoria Silverwolf
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Postby Victoria Silverwolf » Thu Sep 08, 2005 2:09 am


Road Signs on the Treadmill Toward Tomorrow


These are stories of odd delusions, wry fantasms, terrifying glimpses of where we're going, individually and as a species... stories that sound a cautionary note about the foolhardiness of Humanity tinkering with a Universe that, up till now at least, has been content to let us survive here on this infinitesimal dust-mote... as long as we don't get too smart for our own good.

This book is out of print. Langerhans info page | Webderland review by P.P. O'Sullivan | Review by Joachim Boaz with a Harlan comment



"Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman"

[The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 1962]

"Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman" is a very short story. In its original magazine publication, it takes up just a little more than three pages. In a certain sense, it is also a simple story. The entire plot is telegraphed in the story's opening words.

"She'll be listening, Paulie, you can bet on that," I said to him, touching him lightly on the shoulder. "She ain't dead, Paulie, nobody like her could ever really die."

When we find out a few lines later that Paulie is a great jazz musician, the events of the rest of the story seem obvious. Given the title of the story, the fact that you're reading it in a fantasy magazine, and the familiarity of the Orpheus theme in literature, is there any doubt about what's going to happen?

But it doesn't matter. It's not the story, but the way in which it is told.

"Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman" manages the difficult trick of combining informal language, appropriate for the jazzman narrator, with pure poetry. Consider the description of the way that Paulie plays.

It was like a million black birds with white wings sailing into the night sky. Like a sheet of coolness being drawn down over a fire.

Simple words which create vivid images.

Perhaps what I most admire about "Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman" is the way in which it avoids the problem of describing a climax which the reader has already anticipated in her mind. Instead of long paragraphs about the resurrection of Paulie's dead lover, the narrator leaves it to our imagination, and the scene shifts with these simple words:

Later, we got Paulie back over the fence, and into the car.

That one word "later" carries much of the impact of the story. Only a writer of great skill can tell us a story where we know exactly what is going to happen, and then dare to pull away from the inevitable conclusion, without a feeling of disappointment in the reader. "Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman" is an expertly constructed story of great beauty.

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Postby FrankChurch » Thu Sep 29, 2005 2:54 pm

"I hardly knew this woman. She was a cypher to me. In my world, woman like that come and go--like the way a shadow mellows out, when the sun plays hookie."

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Postby Jan » Fri May 30, 2008 4:50 am

"Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman" (1962) is about Paulie, a trumpet player of great talent who is suffering from the death of his girlfriend. One day he does the only thing in his power to try to get her back.

This is the oldest story in the book and a very short one. It clearly wasn't written for OBLIVION since it's not related to its themes. It recalls one of the stories in GENTLEMAN JUNKIE called "May We Also Speak" which Harlan had written a year or so earlier. Both stories contain the idea of a jazz musician, in fact a trumpet player, who is able to affect people in a very major way. "Paulie" is basically a very simple story but manages to touch us. It comments on our difficulty at accepting loss and moving on. Like Victoria said, the ending is obvious but well done. :| :| :oops:

"Knox" (1974; also in THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON) is about a married man named Knox in what seems to be a near-future United States in which minorities are persecuted. Knox wants to get ahead in "the party" and manages to do so by eagerly participating in the everyday killings.

When you read a story like this, you know what Harlan means when he says he writes to shock. He talks about a US that is now clearly under almost complete control of whoever governs it. Many people in the populace are willing accomplices in their schemes. While there is a sense of the killings being illegal, most people have stopped caring about law and justice. The government uses all the tools at their disposal to keep the new generation stupid and cooperative, including an advanced form of television. Knox' job on an assembly line seems completely senseless until you realize it serves as a way of testing the people.

The systematic persecution and murder of blacks and Jews is described in violent detail, as is the killing of a man based on his dissatisfaction with his job. Harlan created a racist society whose operating principles are just one step removed from things that had taken place during the Nixon administration. I'm glad Harlan worked hard to get everything right, most impoartanly perhaps the thought processes of Knox, for example when he is being asked about his suspicious co-worker. Unlike other times, Harlan keeps his own hate for the protagonist in check enough to make him a convincing character.

The style Harlan used is another good example of form follows function. As Peter O'Sullivan noted in his review: The story is marked in several places by the statement "Charlie Knox is a man who." Each time the statement is separated by a new pattern of periods. Each time, the statement evolves, just as Charlie Knox devolves.

While reading the story, I asked myself who it was written for. Certainly in cases like this Harlan's readers already agree with him before he puts the words on paper. It's too bad that writers and other intellectuals have very little or no influence on people like Knox. On the other hand, not even counting the wackos, I've seen dumb people here and in the Pavilion over the years, like the guy who said the people in Dresden deserved to die, or someone asking me during the war in Iraq, three years after it began, what Germany is ever doing for the world. Harlan seems to reach and even attract no small amount stupid people, though probably not the worst ones.

I'm not sure about the ending. The story could well do without aliens, I think. Another odd thing occurs in a bad paragraph that begins: "Charlie Knox is a man who. Refuses to ask the necessary questions." Where does this omniscient narrator come from, and where does he go? I also think the violence is a bit overdone in at least one place, turning it into a cheap effect. Still, the story is good and shows Harlan's dedication and accumulated anger. :| :| :|

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Postby Jan » Mon Sep 01, 2008 9:52 am


"Cold Friend" (1973) is about a man named Eugene who wakes up in a hospital bed in an empty hospital in an empty town that's adrift in nothingness. He effortlessly fends off several intruders and finally encounters a woman.

This story is one of those that are hard to categorize in terms of genre. Of course it could be considered science fiction and was published in GALAXY, but it would never appear in, say, a retrospective collection of the best SF, simply because it's not the kind of thing that specialized SF fans are looking for.

It's not easy to figure out what this story is doing in APPROACHING OBLIVION, following "Knox" as the second story. Superficially, it reads like something Harlan could as well have written in the late 50s. The character of Eugene is reminiscent of the protagonist of "Are You Listening?" (1957) - he's the sort of person you don't notice. He's an average guy and perhaps a bit too average to serve as a satisfying narrator. One guess about him is that Harlan painted a portrait of what some people seemed like to him, but I'm not convinced by a narrator describing himself with sentences like "I'm just like all the other people I've ever known." Perhaps people like that should be written about by an observer. Eugene does a good job at making the story one you immedeately want to skip.

On the other hand, there's the great concept, a variation of the last-man-on-Earth motif. Unfortunately, it's all based on magic, and Eugene's underwritten reactions don't exactly bring it off. The SF aspect was clearly secondary to Harlan.

While there may be several ways to read this story, the subtext appears to me to be mostly of a personal nature and thus of limited interest to most readers. Eugene does not mind too much that he is alone and in fact manages to adapt. In the real world he used to be an underappreciated guy, mostly ignored by women. The woman has a similar background and turned sour long ago. Thankfully Eugene finds this out in time, before he commits to her. She drops her disguise and becomes ugly again. So we have another woman who is really a monster, only this time it's society that turned her into one. This may be sort of a comment on a world in which good deeds are sometimes punished.

The most interesting aspect is Harlan's dealing with adulation. After all that he'd been saying in the GLASS TEAT columns and elsewhere, people had begun to look up to him in dark times. Perhaps he was sending a reminder to himself and everybody else that, without the art, he's just a normal guy who likes pizza. "Stop it, stop your damned badgering!"

Or perhaps Harlan was just trying to tell us that he wouldn't mind if the rest of humanity vanished, as long as he could retain his typewriter, some audio tapes and a few blocks of town. Either way, look at the marvellous autobiographical writing near the beginning about the narrator's "detestable habit of having to justify myself" and his preoccupation with leaving something behind in the world.

What we have is another weak story that's nevertheless of considerable interest, highlighting yet another side of Harlan that we know is very real, though the public sees little of it.

This was adapted for DREAM CORRIDOR Vol. 1. It looks good but certainly doesn't improve the story. In the introduction to that Harlan said the graduation incident really happened to him. :| :|

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Postby Jan » Wed Jan 28, 2009 10:45 am

"Kiss of Fire" (1973) – Mister Redditch turns once-inhabited planets into artificial novae for the entertainment of his fellow humans. His boss, the Designer, is not happy with his latest performance – people are bored. Later, a beautiful whore visits him, and he reveals to her that he himself is bored.

Like “Basilisk” and other stories of the early 70s this one shows Ellison in a pessimistic state. As he wrote in the introduction to the book, “We are clearly on a slide-through to destruction.” This tale of the future is about the types of powerful people that made him feel that way. The first question I must ask, is, how come mankind colonized the galaxy and made it into outer space? Harlan suggests that centuries of decay are leading to a deplorable situation where humans are dragging “the universe into death with them”. Since they are more likely to drag their own planet into death with them long before that, one should consider “Kiss of Fire” a parallel fantasy to the Nixon era more than science fiction.


The story contains an overdose of alien oddness that Harlan must have put in to provide color and to make the GALAXY editors happy. His mistake, once more, is that he puts in too many useless details before he gets any kind of story going. Then, by the time the first dialogue takes place, one finally begins to see some kind of connection between the writing and the real world.

This new form of entertainment, the creation of planetary novae, is an interesting comment on how jaded people have become. They are always looking for bigger, louder, brighter, and it’s no surprise that even these visual spectacles are beginning to bore everyone. The people who provide entertainment, like Redditch, aren’t artists anymore – society has no use for artists. The Designer, his boss, is reminiscent of the heads of big corporations that are running today’s entertainment industry (or large parts of it anyway, particularly in the U.S.). Note that Harlan still wrote this before The Starlost and I, Robot. What he's drawing his conclusions from are mainly the years of watching and thinking about televison for the GLASS TEAT columns as well as his dealings with TV and film producers. The corporations are playing their part in the destruction of humanity.

Jeen, the hooker, I find a somewhat implausible character. Her thoughts are alien alright. Wouldn’t one expect her to handle this situation differently? (I’m trying not to reveal too much, as usual.) Anyway, her story reminded me of something that was in the news just this week. The French used to have an atomic test site in the Algerian desert where they conducted their first tests, claiming that the desert was almost empty and no one would get hurt. By now officials have admitted that lives were affected and that around 30.000 people have died so far. In more ways than one this clearly shows the ignorance Harlan had in mind.

Another interesting fact is that Harlan uses the word “men” instead of “man” when referring to humanity. Easy to overlook but significant when you consider that the real hero of the story is Jeen and that, between the two of them, Redditch may be the bigger whore. Also note the absence of real love in the story. Redditch talks to the fading stored memory of his wife à la UBIK, and whores abound on the ship.

It’s ultimately a message story that doesn’t deliver an impersonal message; the writer is telling us about what the world looks like to him in a particular moment. No plot serves as a vehicle to the message, rather “Kiss of Fire” is only a slightly dramatic revelation of its own meaning. The conclusion is something one could argue about. It was probably dictated by Harlan's “I’ll now sit back and watch you all die” attitude which he later expressed in the introduction. Where was Harlan’s strength? Although times were hard, he was still in a safe place from which to observe mankind, the negative and the positive things about it. Europe wasn’t governed by Nixon, and the entertainment industry looks different over here as well. I've seen too many SF stories extending American values into the future with no consideration given to other beliefs and practices. Even if considered just as a parallel fantasy to the U.S. of 1972, it's still condemnatory of far too many people and loaded with too much negative sentiment to be satisfactory as either a story or as an assessment. What makes it important is it's basic validity, about which there isn't any doubt, and the points Harlan makes. :| :| :oops:

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