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

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Postby Jan » Tue Dec 25, 2007 7:49 pm




This book from 1967 is currently out of print after having been almost constantly in print until the early nineties. A new edition with a new cover was released in 1983 with this note: Virtually every line of this collection of stories has been revised for this new publication. Indeed I don't recommend original edition by Pyramid because it seems to have errors like word omissions. In 1991 the book became part of the DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH omnibus. Two stories were replaced because they also appeared in DEATHBIRD STORIES, and a non-fiction piece was added.

Harlan sells remaining 1983 Ace paperbacks for $7 via store - ask in Pavilion. | Buy 2009 edition or e-book | Info and table of contents on Langerhans for I HAVE NO MOUTH... and for DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH | Webderland book review by K.C. Locke

Feel free to post comments about the book.



"Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes" (1967) is Harlan's famous story set in Las Vegas. - Also see review by K.C.

A man named Kostner loses his last money at a blackjack table and realizes he has no future. On his way out of the casino he discovers a silver dollar in his pocket and decides to gamble at the final slot machine that accepts such coins. He wins the jackpot. The bars show three blue eyes, which only Kostner can see. We learn that a girl named Maggie has once stood in the same place and died.

The main accomplishment of this story is that it’s marvellously written and impossible to put down. Harlan notes in the introduction that Maggie was a real woman called Shawn, which explains his vivid portrait of her. Since Harlan wrote this in Las Vegas, he could easily do the research necessary to make the casino world credible. I was reminded of Fritz Leiber and “Gonna Roll the Bones” in particular, which Leiber had written for DANGEROUS VISIONS, because the story deals with existential matters in a gambling environment. Harlan also follows Leiber’s lead in letting the story breathe and unfold more than he had often done in the past when he let his world-view weigh too heavily on the storytelling. In particular I enjoyed the dialogue scene between Kostner and the casino manager. That seems like something that would happen in this way, and indeed, the writers of “Rain Man” included a similar scene in their movie.

The ending is contrary to the expectations Harlan builds up, though his regular readers will have seen it coming. The pattern is old, so I can quote from my comments about “The Time of the Eye”: “The idea is that men all too easily fall prey to good looks and the female personality in general, and they have to live with the consequences.” Another recurring element is people’s capacity to deceive others in brilliant ways in order to get what they want.


The ending reflects the pain many men feel when they discover they've been used by a woman. (Whether that feeling is always justified is another matter.) There is a connection between gambling and women in that in both cases men hope for something they are unlikely to get. What that something looks like in the case of love is reflected in the dream Kostner has. The way Harlan gets Kostner's disillusionment across is masterful. Some humans are mouse traps, much like Las Vegas. Kostner has lost everything, again.

In an essay about the story written in 1973 for Robin Scott Wilson, Harlan called it his best story because of how Maggie emerged like a real person. For consider, the greatest books are those in which a single character emerges with that aura of verisimilitude so you can never forget him or her. He described Maggie as a woman who uses sex as merely another utensil to achieve her life-goals.

Indeed the story wouldn't work without the characterizations and the solid relationship between plot and character, but I think there is an additional reason why the story is so popular: People enjoy the fantasy of winning large sums of money. As a reader you fear that Kostner won’t get away with it, so you want to know how it ends. :| :| :| :|

Note: Harlan reads this story on an audio set of the same title definitely to appear in Fall of 2009 from Blackstone Audio.
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Postby Ben W. » Tue Feb 12, 2008 12:22 pm

Reading the story again, I'm sort of taken aback by just how freaky it really is. The final moment really is the stuff of nightmares.

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Postby Jan » Wed Apr 23, 2008 7:34 am

"Big Sam Was My Friend" (published in March 1958) is told from the point of view of a member of a traveling circus that's touring through the galaxy. He becomes friends with Sam, a guy with teleportation ability who tells him about a dead girl he's been looking for in "heaven" (outer space).

According to the introduction, Harlan wrote this while with the Army in Kentucky. It contains what he considered his first stirrings of "social conscience" that were to become important in his fiction. While I doubt that's true, unless this was written before some stories that were published earlier, it's a strong statement against passivity in the face of injustice. Unlike his much more on-the-nost stories about the subject, such as "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs", it comes across as a somewhat lazily written, low-intensity space adventure. The narrator is a generally likeable person, and it's not immedeately apparent that Harlan is critical of his attitudes. We grow to sort of like this guy only to find out he's all too human, all too weak. That's what makes this an unpleasant story.

At the time he wrote this, Harlan was far from the writer he was to become in the sixties, when he wrote "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream". I therefore always asked myself why this story was positioned directly behind that masterpiece in the collection. I still don't have an answer. Reading older and newer pieces with the stages of Harlan's development in mind usually works very well, but in this case readers new to Harlan were bound to be let down. I know I was.

Several of Harlan's early stories seemed to reflect his early experiences at the carnival, and this is clearly one of them. Reading this, one gets an idea about what that must have been like.

The story is a pessimistic one because it regards the behavior of the circus people as normal. We find Harlan's critical view of human nature confirmed, and we also find the "women are trouble" element. As for science fiction, Harlan uses only known concepts and combines them with very Earth-like societies. The aliens are culturally backward in a human way. The language is spiced-up contemporary, most likely influenced by Heinlein. For some reason the story is also told without much sense of drama and excitement, possibly because it's a first-person narration that's mainly about attitude. Harlan hardly used his abilities in the area of characterization either. For example, I didn't get a good sense of Big Sam outside of his conversation with the narrator. There is also a confusing section with unattributed bits of dialogue that Harlan or a proofreader should have cought but which survived into the revised edition (which looks unchanged to me). I could go on, but the point is that Harlan could write better stories even in 1957. Had Harlan never tackled the same theme again, I would probably recommend it, but I'd rather just consider it an early exercise and perhaps an early step towards the socially conscious Harlan we know now. :| :oops:

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Postby Jan » Tue Apr 29, 2008 11:44 am

"I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" (1967). AM, a supercomputer that wiped out mankind during the war it was built for, keeps the last five humans in large artificial caves under the earth. They lead a miserable life as immortals, subject to every whim of the machine that controls their environment and every aspect of their lives.

This was first published in If, Worlds of Science Fiction, followed just a month later by its publication as the title story of Harlan's new book. Harlan knew he had written something special - it had enough power to send an impulse through the science fiction community and earn him a Hugo award. It happens the be the first Harlan story I read, and it easily impressed me enough to look very hard for more Harlan books, all of which happened to be out of print at that time and were hard to find even in used book stores.

In my mind, Harlan hits quite a few Kafka notes in this tale, but he uses science fiction and brings his personal experiences to the table. In particular, the narrator of the story is being hated not only by AM but also by his companions. The reasons why the latter hate him are not explained in any detail, but no explanation is necessary. These guys have been living with each other, suffering together, for 109 years, and it's understandable why they would like to see less of each other. But, really, the feeling of being hated seems more of a reflection from earlier Harlan stories and his childhood. It's irrational.

The woman, Ellen, is described as a slut. There is no ambiguity, there is no mystery going on between the characters, and the dialogue is minimal. It has all been said a thousand times. The psychology and the honesty are what make the story a masterpiece, although it has the added bonuses of an original combination of ideas and an original FEEL to it all because Harlan's treatment of them is so unique.

Ultimately this becomes a story about taking charge. While I don't want to reveal too much, I feel the ending is as much about responsibility as the ending of, say, "Paladin of the Lost Hour". You haven't chosen the position you're in, but you do not wimp out either. The consequences of the narrator's decision are part of what makes this story so strong in it's honesty and reality.

The theme is that of trying hard to stay human in an environment that has become inhuman. The characters in the story are losing the war, but there is some decency left in some of them.

A word about realism: I always though the scene in which the characters are blown through the caverns for what may be months or years was a beautiful image. Parts of this story are not science fiction, they are magic realism or whatever you want to call it. It's not easy to mix the genres and I'm not sure it works, but the storytelling is so good you don't care.

There is one sentence that seems out of place, near the top of the second section: "... the machine masturbated and we had to take it or die" - this seems out of continuity with later revelations (the die part).

The patterns that divide the sections of the story are, of course, computer punchcodes. Harlan has been asked what they mean, and since you're unlikely to have a computer from the sixties, the messages are (alternatingly): I THINK THEREFORE I AM - COGITO ERGO SUM. This unusal bit of layout was a first for Harlan, who went on to greater form-follows-function experiments with "The Region Between", among others.


The story was included in THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON. There was a mulit-part comic adaptation spanning several volumes of the quarterly DREAM CORRIDOR which Harlan was reputedly not too satisfied with. Harlan has declined to license a movie version. He has recorded it several times and co-written a complex computer game based on it - see the link section on top. Next time I will talk a little about what we know about how the story came to be and what the game is like. If anyone knows about the audio editons or has other comments, please post away. Rating: :| :| :| :|

Review by K.C. Locke. Access "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream: a literary multimedia project" here on Webderland. Get the story in e-book format. S.P.I.D.E.R. info about the computer game. Harlan has recorded many of his stories, including the title story, on records, tapes and CD's like this. For availability of out-of-print recordings, ask Harlan directly, and check the HERC store.

An interesting bit of trivia:
Harlan on Monday, February 23 2009 wrote:Edward Gorey's death in 2000 broke my heart. For about ten years we had been putting off his collaboration with me on a Gorey-illustrated chapbook of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.
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About "I Have No Mouth..."

Postby Laurie » Tue Aug 05, 2008 2:20 pm

I don't actually find this a negative story for all of the horrific situation and events. I think I remember Harlan saying that or something like it in one of his interviews (sorry, don't remember which one). The narrator's humanity and heroic qualities still exist enough to enable him to make the ultimate sacrifice, a fate much worse than death, in order to free the others. The human races loses and the characters all lose but something valuable about the human spirit has been demonstrated. I see that as a "point of light" amidst the dark in a very dark tale.


Postby rich » Wed Aug 13, 2008 7:25 pm

I just reread this story on Scribd, and I don't think it holds up well. Perhaps when it first came out in '67 it was bold and beautiful 'cause this kind of writing wasn't done in 1967 science fiction, but it is, unfortunately, probably a prime example of the problems with Ellison's writing.

His protagonists seem to be stuck in adolescence, and it's quite possible that Ted is a teenager, but we're not sure. Ted's the youngest, but that's all we're told. The woman is not portrayed very well, and it is quite easy to see where the misogynism label comes from especially in this story.

Jan says the narrator is hated by the others, but this is not explained and I think it should be explained. That it's not is laziness by the writer since he took the easy way by using first person. The only thing that would make sense is if we use the unreliable narrator, but I don't think that's what Ellison intended because he says the narrator is actually a hero, in a sense.

So if we take the story at face value, we have a narrator (and who exactly is he narrating to? there's no one left) who belittles his companions, and they, in turn, belittle him/hate him. We're not given an explanation for this other than the narrator says so, though I guess we could surmise that they've lived amongst themselves for so long it's inevitable that they dislike each other. However, that's an excuse, and it's not shown.

Jan wrote:The psychology and the honesty are what make the story a masterpiece,

I don't think so. I think the psychology is shallow at best. The lone female character is a "slut" for doing nothing more than what (we assume) AM intended her for, and the males are nothing more than cardboard cutouts. What do we really know about Ted? Gorrister? Nimdok? Benny? Ellen? Nothing. And perhaps we're not supposed to because AM doesn't want us to, which again brings us back to the unreliable narrator, who, according to the author, probably is not unreliable and is speaking the truth.

Ellison excels in the description, and the tortures that AM conceives, but that's about it. Like I said, this story was probably a bombshell when it came out because of the themes, but it doesn't age well. It has all the problems of Ellison's worst writing: cardboard characters, technically flawed, and stuck in the "all people are shit except for the main character" type of storytelling.

A couple of things about the ending: I don't think it's so much about responsibility as it is about succumbing to despair. I think it's perfectly reasonable to suggest that Ted kills the others so that they don't have to live with AM anymore. But there's no reason for Ted to kill them. Ted doesn't like them. They don't like him. We're told this. And Ted takes it upon himself to do some mercy killing? Why it took 109 years for this to happen is beyond me, but there is no explanation for the actions, and there is no way it could've happened given what we're told in the beginning of the story. AM is omniscient, keeping them alive "somehow", yet AM cannot stop the deaths.

Ok. So maybe the story should just be taken as a fable. I can buy that. But it doesn't mean that it couldn't be rewritten better since most fables are added to, and or spun in a different depending on the writer. As a story I think it fails, and as a fable I think it's ok, but has all the inherent flaws of a fable: cliche and deus ex machina.

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Postby Jan » Thu Aug 14, 2008 3:38 pm

Hey Rich. I'd be interested to know what it's like to read a story like this in digital format. If it's any different.

I think the woman is portrayed as well as everybody else, though it's true that women in Harlan's stories tend to have as many character flaws as the men, sometimes more. I don't think it's misogynism, I think it's experience - Harlan's experience.

I don't think things like hate can really be explained. I don't think there are valid "reasons", just origins they may not even remember.

I think we know enough about the characters to understand how they feel and to understand what they do, which is what I meant by psychology. I don't see the shallowness nor felt like important information was missing. In short stories characters are defined by their actions and reactions, as you know. Questions like "What do we really know about x?" are secondary. The main questions have to regard the overall effect of the story.

Yes, Harlan excels in description... of action and reaction.

"All people are shit except for the main character" - The story is about what these people have turned into under the circumstances Harlan portrayed. I think in the final scene, as soon as the narrator did what he did, one of the others got it and helped.

I agree that the ending wasn't completely in line with earlier statements, but it not only made psychological sense, it also didn't seem inexplicable or inconsistent. So AM didn't monitor them quite as closely as he did 109 years ago. I don't think the narrator could have explained why he accomplished what he did, even if Harlan had come up with an explanation. But the reader can accept it, I think. In this story the actions speak, and the narrator knows very little.

I frankly don't see cliché in this story. I think it's one of the more original and unusual stories of the late 60s.


Postby rich » Thu Aug 14, 2008 4:54 pm

I'll agree to disagree with you on this, Jan. Though I would point out that it doesn't matter if the narrator knows why he hates someone or not, but the writer must show us why. Having the narrator not know is no excuse.

Look at just about anything by Poe. For example, The Tell-Tale Heart. It was the old man's eye. Irrational, and the reader knows that. But in "I Have No Mouth,..." we're given nothing other than "I hate them". There has to be a reason, no matter how irrational. Part of my problem with the story is that it's something that could very easily be addressed by the narrator (the writer), but isn't. I honestly wonder how much better this story could be with an extra thousand words or so.

By the way, the version on Scribd doesn't have AM's computer code. I didn't miss them, and now that they're gone I don't really know what they added other than it being a writerly trick.

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Postby David Loftus » Fri Aug 15, 2008 12:51 pm

I was much less impressed with this story when I reread it a couple years ago. The general SITUATION is terrific; the telling, not so. It seemed to me the narrator describes a lot of interesting stuff that happens offstage, when it could have been right up front, onscreen.

And more explicit description of motivations and relationships would have been nice, yes.

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Postby Jan » Sat Apr 18, 2009 12:56 pm

"Delusions For a Dragon Slayer" (1966)

A man names Griffin experiences a personal dream world, his potential Heaven, of which he has to prove himself worthy after a seemingly random fatal accident. - See also review by K.C.

This "phantasmagoric fable" (Theodore Sturgeon) is based on a fascinating premise and deals with the problems of self-knowledge and worthyness. A man who never does anything wrong, never makes serious mistakes in real life finds himself to be a failure in a scenario in which he is really put to the test. Harlan raises the question of how well we really know ourselves and others when we can only judge each other in the routine situations of daily life. Griffin never had to deal with extraordinary circumstances, and now he does.

Harlan wrote this "rococo" style, laying on "impressions, one atop another, like the scales of an armadillo" (introduction). He created a poetry-story composite like "Bright Eyes". Unfortunately the writing is all over the place, quality-wise, and the story somewhat flawed in concept. The main character, who has to prove himself worthy, in the dream land appears in the body of a Nordic man whose own personality asserts itself occasionally. That seems like something the powers that be would not do to someone whose own personality they are evaluating. For example, note how he becomes "two men once again" before he kills the creature.

There are unclear images like the ghost ship attached upside down to Griffin's ship, and at one point Harlan gets so carried away he describes the accident at the reef twice, while you wait for him to get over his ecstasy. There are unpleasant repetitions of things like people being ground to pulp, heads going to pulp and so on. To balance out the images of death, we get cascading colors and surrealness to a degree that overshadows the action. The supposed connection between Giffin's demise and the deaths of people like Marilyn Monroe did not become very clear to me, and neither do I know whether the completely implausible circumstances of Griffin's death are just bad writing or part of the whole master plan of the gods who control probability. Later, when he sees his reflection in a warrior's bronze shield, we have to accept this and similar things because we're in a dream.

Clearly, "Delusions" would have been more involving if Griffin had been a real character with a brain and if Harlan hadn't pulled out all the stops where his prose is concerned, but one has to give Harlan credit for aiming high and his willingness to experiment. This was also included in DEATHBIRD STORIES. :| :oops:

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