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

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Postby Jan » Wed Jul 11, 2007 4:31 am




Twin Orbits - One of the most exciting writers in all of science fiction has hitched his high-powered imagination to 14 others to launch a unique adventure in science fiction. -- Avon paperback

PARTNERS IN WONDER is Harlan's book of collaborations. He has included collaborations in his other books, but this is very much a book ABOUT creative collaboration and collects most of the better results that came out of such efforts up to 1971. Since Harlan has no fixed collaborator, he considers writing with collegues a learning experience, and what comes out of it is not always great but frequently unusual, especially if the writers didn't have a roadmap for a story. As a reader, you never know what you're going to get.

Langerhans page | SF Weekly review by Adam-Troy Castro

The book hasn't gone back into print since 1983 but has remained one of the easier books to find.


Barclay Shaw's cover for Ace


RUNESMITH is a story by Theodore Sturgeon and Harlan Ellison that first appeared in 1970 and was anthologized in Ellison’s book PARTNERS IN WONDER. It deals with Smith, the, shall we say, last intact member of the human race who is and feels responsible for ending human civilization as we know it. He did this with black magic he was unable to control. While he is living with his guilt and aloneness among the last remnants of Manhattan, where a few survivors are trying to hunt him down, we learn about the real forces behind humankind’s destruction and their further plans.

This story offers pretty much what one should expect from a collaboration between Ellison and Sturgeon that was written around 1970. Harlan was definitely at the top of his game, Sturgeon somewhat less so. Harlan pulled the story in one direction, Sturgeon in the other.

Harlan explains how the story was written, even going so far as to specify who wrote what part of the first draft. Thanks to those hints and my relative familiarity with both men’s writings I can tell at most times whose contributions I’m reading. Considering that Harlan set the tone by writing the opening section (followed by some Sturgeon, some more Harlan, and some more Sturgeon), it’s almost a given that Harlan would make the stronger impression here. What he’s going for is a kind of supernatural post-holocaust/last-man-on-earth kind of horror story that brings to mind Bosch paintings – I would put it near NO MOUTH and PROWLER.

Sturgeon, it seems, was in a somewhat different place, creatively speaking. His ending qualifies as AN ending, but it doesn’t feel like the ending that was required, more like an OK-I’m-not-going-to-ruin-your-day kind of ending.

The trouble with collaborations such as this one is that the writers need to be totally in sync to be able to pull it off. Since that isn’t usually the case, one of them needs to do a major rewrite to achieve a unified vision. A short story needs to be concise, the writers need to know what they're after, or to at least make sure they find out before the rewrite. You can get sidetracked in a novel, but a short story demands that extraneous elements are reduced to a minimum, otherwise you’re creating a lot of unnecessary baggage and loose ends. In this case, Harlan’s rewrite didn’t do enough, for two reasons that come to mind. One is that, as it stands, this story is at the most one third Sturgeon. Had Harlan affirmed himself even more, it would barely have been a collaborative effort at all anymore. Two, pulling the elements together would have required a lot of effort, probably more than writing an entirely new story.

What I think is that this effort would be well-served by being considered a collaboration experiment, rather than a collaboration. I think the experimental nature of it is what makes it exciting. While RUNESMITH fails as a story, it does deliver moments greatness and it’s never not storytelling at its best. Hardly anything happens that I expected, and I liked the way new elements and ideas were introduced, like the backstory, the explanations, or the evil characters. The introduction of the faceless ones and their conversation with their servants is masterful. The tonalities change quite a lot. I also liked Harlan’s dialectical look at human sleep, which is a concept that creative people have to grapple with.

I think there’s a novel hidden in the story, as all elements could easily have been expanded, particularly the hide-and-seek bits, the backstory, the sleep deprivation and black magic aspects, and the fight between good against evil. If they ever want to do one of those “Silverberg expands Asimov” type of books with Ellison material, I think they should take a long hard look at this one. The downside is, they would need one hell of a writer to recapture what Harlan and Ted did.

On the other hand, can we forgive Harlan for “Darling, you’re lovely when you’re angry”? The banter between the incubus and the nixie isn’t as amusing to read as it probably was to write, despite the way it stands out.

Another problem is that, in my mind, I think the story opened with the finish preceding the opening. There was no honest place left to go in terms of up or down. The world was already destroyed, the main character is portayed as evil almost until the end, and he’s never going to be happy, so what is at stake? Do we care if the Faceless Ones return from exile and take over the planet they already destroyed? (Nope.)

I never cared for Smith, apart from having a backstory, which accomplished a lot with very little, he was never really developed. Concepts like guilt and loneliness are not character development, obviously, unless they're connected in a meaningful way with what the character is and does. In Harlan’s bits, scenery mostly takes precedence over character. The story is basically an exercise in uncontrolled creativity, presented without excuse.

As expected, the loose ends are almost too many no list. If Harlan manages to explain the dead girl, that still leaves the dead guy unexplained. The faceless ones were exiled - OK, but by whom? What happened to the incubus and the nixie? One minute they’re talking about their plans, then we never see them again, as their death is not described. Is it any fun to have the villains fail and die off stage? Did that qualify as a battle, or even a struggle?

If the girl was a weapon, it sure didn't work all that well.

Harlan used runes (he probably got that from Melville) and pentagrams again in the NO MOUTH computer game. (I never got past that part of the game, and I hope no one uses the p word again, written or spoken, in my presence.)

Harlan implies that, after he was done with it, he sent the story out without further approval from Sturgeon. If this is so, I think that goes against the idea of a collaboration. I don’t think Sturgeon cared a great deal about the story, as it was more of a Harlan project, but you never know for sure if he agreed with all the changes Harlan made to it.

Harlan also tells us that the idea was to write a story dedicated to the late Cordwainer Smith, so from that point of view one can appreciate certain plot elements, the mood and stylistic choices. I have never read any Smith (I will do so shortly), so perhaps somebody can help me out here. I can say that the style, not the subject matter, reminded me of Tanith Lee, who came later. Did John Carpenter ever read this, perhaps some time before he wrote “Escape from New York”?

All things considered, this is definitely a story worth reading. If considered as an experiment, one can fully enjoy many sections of great prose. It contains some of Harlan’s most majestic somber writing. :| :| :| :oops: (out of four)
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Postby Jan » Sat Dec 15, 2007 8:47 am

RODNEY PARISH FOR HIRE. This collaboration with Joe Hensley was published in 1962 and later included in PARTNERS IN WONDER. Harlan, who calls it one his favorites, wrote it in alternate sections with Hensley, though he remembers little about the divisions. Hensley was born in 1926 and died this August. There is supposed to be a final novel that will be released next year. This is the first time I read anything by Hensley, so if anyone can recommend anything else, that would be great.

Apart from this one, Harlan and Joe had collaborated on two other stories, one of which is "Do-It-Yourself" (from WONDERLAND - I thought this was a solo story, but Joe is credited in the acknowledgements). Hensley also wrote one for DANGEROUS VISIONS, and I'll look that one up as well.

The story is about a kid delinquent who happens to be an avid collector of baseball cards, coins and stamps. The holes in his collection provide the impetus for him to hire himself out as a killer.

There is much truth in this, of course. First of all, Rodney seems slightly related to Harlan, who also collected a great deal of things as a kid, and even stole for it, I believe (see "Free With This Box!"). If there is anyone who knows about delinquency, I think it must be Harlan, beause he knows the emotions involved (or not involved) and he has been around thiefs, bullies and gangsters. I think Euclid Avenue is near where Harlan grew up, if I'm not mistaken.

Rodney is a case of almost trivial, but strongly felt needs kicking in before any moral development has taken place. Rodney is quite ruthless and even enjoys what he is doing, seeing nothing wrong with it, and looking at the deformed bodies of his victims afterwards. He's enjoying the whole process as much as getting his "payment" from the kids that hire him. I can sort of understand what's going on in his mind, as the collecting needs of a child can be very strong. I went through the same phase (and it never quite stops, does it?), though fewer people have been killed in the process. (And they'll never figure out why the tree in the middle is somewhat less green than the others.)

Harlan and Joe provide little direct insight into Rodney's mind, since Rodney is just a kid and his thoughts and motives are very simple. I'm not sure all writers have what it takes to write from the perspective of a kid and make it interesting, but these two certainly do (see "Jeffty Is Five" etc.) The ending is serviceable and morally correct - Harlan would call it "an ending".

Since reading "Runesmith" I love the idea of alternating writers, although here the switchovers are blurry. I recognize some Harlan ("whatchamacallit"), but very little that I doubt Harlan would/could have written. Harlan tells us that his first section ended with "He wasn't much taller, then." The paragraph beginning with "Of all the kids" also seems very Harlanesque. Anyway, the writing style never changes in any noticeable way, though I'm sure one could spot slight variations in the implied worldview.

Overall, this is a strong story from Harlan's late 50's period. I don't think PARTNERS IN WONDER has been praised a lot (and Harlan was apologetic about some of the material), and I have certainly neglected it (it was one of the final Harlan books I managed to obtain), but the five stories I've read so far are all teriffic. :| :| :|

THE POWER OF THE NAIL, co-written by Samuel R. Delany, was published in 1968. This is a science fiction story set on a distant planet populated by small rotund life forms called Saquettes which, if they’re unlucky, are killed by flying creatures, only to be reincarnated elsewhere. Under orders a married couple erects an outpost on the planet. The woman doesn’t like the place and the marriage is clearly in its final stage. One day the man, Robert, realizes that the presence of the monitoring machinery affects the ecology in a way that means death to many Saquettes.

Ecological themes turn up in Harlan’s work every few years: “The Wind Beyond the Mountains” and “Ecowareness” come to mind. Given the two talents involved in writing this and considering the period in which it was written one would expect a superior outing. Alas, that is not the case - the story doesn’t quite add up dramatically. It was written without a master plan, and no amount of rewriting done by both could quite pull it together. For one, the idea that on a strange planet the concept of coffins would be known seems quite odd, but even if you accept that, there is no reason why the coffins Robert builds would be round, if the creatures die the way they did here.

The domestic quarrel appears to serve as a parallel story without having much to do with the planet or the change Robert goes through. We’ve seen those kinds of quarrels, so there should be a reason to put one into a science fiction tale. The ending finally brings the title into play in the oddest way, and Robert’s accident seems to be just an accident. You could call it the planet’s revenge but the planet is not a character, and while Robert probably deserved what he got, this still happened after he felt bad about what he did and built the coffins. Still, the writing is fine, and the oddness of it all helps make the story moderately interesting. :| :oops:

By the way, none of the three stories I've talked about so far have had an afterlife, you'll only find them in this book. (Correction: This year, "Runesmith" was included in Volume XI of Sturgeon's Collected Stories.)
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Postby Jan » Thu Dec 20, 2007 9:05 am

I SEE A MAN SITTING ON A CHAIR, AND THE CHAIR IS BITING HIS LEG, co-written with Robert Sheckley in 1967 is a weird SF novelette but not as weird as the title suggests.

A man named Pareti is a sort of fisherman on a future Earth devastated by a long war. Mutated plancton has become the main source of nutrition, so people like Pareti are paid good money to collect it from the ocean surface and to take it to processing plants. What he doesn't realize is that contact with the raw plancton can cause the outbreak of a certain desease that never affects two people in the same way. Once you have it, there's no telling what's going to happen to you. So when Pareti gets infected, he receives some more money and can retire to anywhere he wants. People are now living in underground cities that were build during the Cold War, and Pareti decides to go to one of them in Nevada to enjoy himself.

The story progresses from fairly standard SF storytelling to weird Sheckley/Ballard/Burroughs territory. While the Harlan of the day is evident in some parts, he manages to vanish most of the time in an attempt to go along with Sheckley and start "thinking like a brain damage case" (introduction). Not sure if that was a good idea as some open discussion and common sense would have served the story well towards the end. For example, using the first title that came into Sheckley's mind was a bad idea, and the German translator seems to agree with me. The opening third is so solid and entertaining that one wishes they had found a way to stay on that track and sustain it. From the time the disease really kicks in, the story gradually stops making sense. First of all, why would Pareti not be under constant medical supervision? Second of all, the phenomena eventually arising from the disease are too strange to be explicable. I don't enjoy that kind of thing in a SF story where not much is done with it anyway. It looks like they had committed to the title and were getting tired towards the end anyway. However, the two thirds leading up to the underground Las Vegas are solid fun and definitely make this story worth a read.

It's interesting that this story seems to be set in the same or a very similar future as A BOY AND HIS DOG, which Harlan wrote a year or so later. It's the same future, but not necessarily the same period, I would say, and certainly the places aren't the same. The concept of underground cities requires less suspension of disbelief here because Harlan and Robert briefly take a step back to talk about the future world as a whole and its history, thereby making it more acceptable. :| :| :|


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Postby paul » Fri Dec 28, 2007 4:24 pm

Jan, I don't have time to get into it right now, but P in W was one of the first paperbacks of HE's I owned, and i love it. I agree that should have been more collaborations with women, and i would give my entire left arm to write something approaching the excellence of Come To Me Not In Winter's White. Made more than one boy or girl cry when I've read that one out loud.
Gotta run. Just wanted you to know you're not shouting into the outer darkness totally in vain.
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Postby Jan » Thu Jan 24, 2008 11:31 am

Thanks paul! I read the story for the first time last week.

Roger Zelazny (1937-1995)

COME TO ME NOT IN WINTER'S WHITE (1969) is Harlan’s collaboration with Roger Zelazny. A rich scientist named Carl Manos builds a room for his terminally ill wife, in which time passes much more slowly, making it more likely that a cure can be found before she dies. Over the years, the age gap between them widens, and Carl has to find a companion to keep her company while he’s busy.

It’s hard to tell that Harlan had anything to do with this, as the writing and subject matter are of a sort he is not usually identified with. It’s romantic for the most part and full of gentle characters. You can tell it’s not going to end the way Carl expects, it’s only a matter of the writers not letting you outguess them. There were a lot more obvious endings to this. The value of collaboration has seldom been so obvious, considering the slight changes in direction that keep the story fresh while it unfolds.

The only problems I had with the story concern believability. While none of the characters is more than serviceable, Carl, the great scientist, also comes across as somewhat dumb. I was never ahead of the writers but certainly always ahead of Carl, who doesn’t give things much thought (except for his decision to choose a female over a male companion). In addition, the writers fail to properly set up the very last bit in which it appears that the wife’s room is akin to a cage for no logical reason. Where does the food come from at the end? The inclusion of poetry seems appropriate, however Harlan couldn’t stop and made an otherwise simple, effective ending slightly pretentious. :| :| :| :oops:
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Postby Jan » Tue Jun 10, 2008 6:49 am

WONDERBIRD (1957) was written by Harlan and Algis Budrys (who died yesterday). A religious leader of creatures on a strange planet takes the young ones to a place where they await the arrival of the Wonderbird. When it comes, it turns out to be a spaceship, carrying a a husband-and-wife team of comedians.

On the surface, this early piece of Ellison appears to be another joke story, but considering the way it was written, without an ending in mind, it's a little more exciting than that. In much the same way as some of the other collaborations, it shows both the value and the downside of writing-by-turns. While remaining perfectly consistent, the story takes many subtle turns and never lets on where it's going because the writers don't really know either. In this case it works. With the foreword in mind, I'd say it's about as amusing to the reader as it was to the writers at the time. The joke is funny but not the point of the story. It's reasonably entertaining as a whole and succeeds as storytelling, even if it's, of course, just a forgettable little thing written on the side. :| :|

SURVIVOR #1 (1959) by Harlan and Henry Slesar. A reader of science fiction was chosen by aliens to be his contact man and Earth's last survivor, along with his mate. What, he hasn't got a mate?

Given the premise, I'm sure Harlan could have done more with the material when SF fandom really took off in later decades. What he and Slesar wrote here lacks color and ultimately disappoints when they pull out the rug from under the story - it feels to me - at the end. Among the light stories it ranks high though, because the prose is tiptop and it manages to entertain somewhat. :| :|

UP CHRISTOPHER TO MADNESS (1965) by Harlan and Avram Davidson. Another light story preceded by two lengthy introductions. I wonder if it's an ideal way to produce short stories with a partner if each one types a few passages and leaves the plot in "an unsoluble condition" for the other to solve. I'd say no way, and this story certainly seems to prove it, or rather what I managed to read of it before I surrendered. Harlan seemed to think the story was funny though. The introductions deal with Harlan's New York days in between Chicago and Hollywood. I thought his past actions, as described in his own "rendition" of the events that both describe, are of interest, but the memoirs have little to do with the fiction, and Davidson's in particular is not such a great piece. Harlan provides quite a glossary for the story.
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Postby Jan » Fri Jan 23, 2009 11:31 am

HARLAN ELLISON - Monday, January 19 2009 11:46:38 - wrote:WHY IS THERE NO "PARTNERS" WITH WOMEN???

For no particular reason, and doing as I almost never do, I went to the S.P.I.D.E.R. Forum, and--again--for no particular reason began reading your assorted exegeses on the collaborations in PARTNERS IN WONDER.

Very interesting, intelligent observations.

The one comment that prompted THIS post, to you, and to the person who picked up on it, is something no one else has ever commented on, or asked me, though the asking should be obvious:

You thought there should have been collaborations with female writers. And, boy, were you right on the bullseye.

There was GOING TO BE a book of such stories.

With collaborations by me and


and two or three others, whose identities escape me for the moment. A few of the above had not been contacted, most had, and I'd even begun the writing of stories with Connie and Kris.

It never happened.


I wish I could give a more interesting answer, but I suppose time and space and health and death and availability and (in one case) incompatability of style all came together inaptly, to sideline the project. Now, of course, it remains only an interesting,

"Gee, wouldn't that've been an interesting experiment with Harlan and (fill in the name) working on the same story."

You may, however, take sad small satisfaction in knowing you asked me a question--sort of asked--no one had ever asked before...obvious though it was. So many many of my best friends have been women writers, and I was all fired up to do it...

Well, the world is rife with "what ifs" and sometimes that's all there is to it.

Yr. Pal, Harlan

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