Perspective and the Night


I am the last poet.

The first one raged and wailed 
and filled himself with wild-eyed fervor.
He grew and he grew until he burst
and showered the room with sharp confetti.

He is gathering himself together, except for
the piece or two someone always hides in their pocket.

I am the last poet.

The second lost her way,
forgot where she came from and wound up
mocking the city of her birth.
When she found her way back her landlord
had put her stuff out on the street
and no one would have her.

She was last seen trying to buy a sweetbread
from a vendor who suddenly had no change.

I am the last poet.

The third started receding into the wall
and was surprised when no one reached out
to pull him back, not even his friends.

The fourth, reporting what his headset told him
suddenly got horribly interested in tuning his radio
and was quietly led off, his hands still twisting dials.

The fifth blended into the background too quickly,
she was showing us how to but she did it too well,
someone will bump into her eventually, don't worry.

The sixth, she shouldn't have stepped out of the pentagram.
The seventh dropped his papers and ran screaming into the street.
The eighth was carved up by an army of toy soldiers with bayonets.

We all know we're going to die, it's just that our feet forget.

I am the last poet.

I was already dead when I sat down here.
The breath that wafts across my vocal cords originates
from two springs and a small bellows.

My lips are moving from force of habit and these words
were snipped from the collected correspondence of war veterans.
If there's a modulus in my voice it's just your mind
playing tricks.  Minds will do that to you.

Pieces of me, with biscotti, will be on sale in the lobby
immediately following for a dollar ninety-five, sales tax included.  

So I'm sitting there, hating myself, with the remains of a woman, with the remains of her life, in the tiny room that has become her world. I'm sitting there watching her fall slowly backwards off a building, and it hits me:

The night is coming, and it's not known for playing favorites.

Some of us are young, some are clever, and some have powerful voices that ring throughout a boardroom or auditorium or prison yard and cancel out all other sound or thought. But none of us have arms long enough or strong enough to hold the sun up as it tries to set.

So set it does.

I'm coming to you tonight from the center of that sun, broadcasting live from inside the biggest fusion reaction in light years. My crew tells me we're getting through, somehow. Maybe they imparted some energy to some plants a few years back that got crushed into coal or oil your local power company later burned, maybe they warmed the surface of your planet and made some water move around and spin some turbines, maybe they skipped the middleman and just shot the rays straight onto solar panels.

Maybe you're splitting atoms from some previous supernova and not getting the full signal, in which case screw you. I don't know the technical details, I just know what the team tells me. The power's on, you're connected, the frequencies are modulating as frequencies are wont to do, and somehow my words are worming their way from a nearly-obsolete piece of machinery in a bedroom in La Petite Roche, Arkansas to a monitor around a foot from your eyes (and hopefully no closer).

You're probably not reading this because you bear any great love for me or my writing. You probably fell into this while walking around Ellison Webderland, and you probably wound up here because you were interested in Harlan Ellison and then were good enough to give me some attentional fallout.

Not that I'm not appreciative, mind you. It's just every once in a while that little demon Responsibility rears its tiny, ugly head and makes me aware of the weight not only of the solar radiation and the modulating frequencies but of the coattails I am riding on, and I feel obliged to make him go back into his fetid little cave for a while.

So that's why I'm here tonight, in the center of the sun, in a tiny room with a tiny old woman, and a foot away from my own computer monitor, coming to you in triplicate, in Dolby stereo, in a stream of 1's and 0's.

That's why I'm here tonight to talk to you about The Last Dangerous Visions.

A primer for those who arrived late or ill-informed: in 1967 Harlan Ellison solicited a few dozen science fiction stories from both the established masters and the brightest new writers, with the intention of testing the limits of the conventions of that genre. The book that resulted and that Harlan edited, Dangerous Visions, was an important part of the New Wave that set nearly everything most people (myself not included, I was less than a year old at the time) thought about science fiction on its ear. No less important was the follow-up volume in 1972, Again, Dangerous Visions. Both books were widely lauded for the way they changed the face of science fiction and for the new standard they set for the genre.

A third and final volume, The Last Dangerous Visions, was intended to come out shortly after. Stories were solicited, accepted and rejected, publishers approached, plans laid. As of the middle of 1998, it has still not seen print.

Of those who are still interested in this sordid bit of the history of speculative literature, two parties continue to generate controversy.

The most vocal and virulent are the science fiction fans who claim to have heard all sorts of promises (some documented, some not) about the appearance of this volume in the 70's and are furious that Unca Harlan hasn't bellied up to the bar yet. You'll see them pop up, as repetitive and annoying as the targets in a whack-a-mole game, whenever the subject of TLDV (and sometimes just the subject of Harlan) is broached in the slightest manner. It's rare that an extended HE appearance or online chat goes by without someone pestering Harlan about the book...either to express genuine concern or just to rattle the bars of the cage and watch the sparks fly.

The second, and much more bitter, group are the writers who had stories bought for TLDV, or their self-appointed champions. Again, although most of these writers have been paid twice for their efforts, they claim all sorts of ancillary benefits were promised them, I suppose not the least of which would be that their work would eventually see print. Again, some of these claims are well-documented. Their contention is that Harlan should devote whatever efforts are necessary to get TLDV out of the chute NOW or turn the materials over to someone who will.

Harlan has long since stopped making any promises about the book or responding to questions and entreaties on the subject with anything more than a comment that "It will be finished when it is finished." My response has been the same - to give a few simple facts about the matter, to point to what resources exist that give information on it, and to shrug my shoulders.

This is an attitude more than one fan has taken me to task for as has, more importantly, more than one of the writers who had a story bought for TLDV. My objectivity has been questioned, my loyalty to Harlan referred to as blind and irrational, and my personal integrity challenged. The words from the writers that expressed these sentiments did not do so in quite the kind or reasonable fashion one might expect from professionals attempting to redress a supposed wrong in their chosen field. And of course, naturally the words from the fans were usually a kind of obscene Pig-Latin.

Nonetheless, these people have all expressed a concern over both the controversy and my handling of it, and I would be remiss in the fey responsibility they have seen fair to impart to me if I did not at some point respond. Even though my attitude has not changed in the slightest, perhaps some amplification and explanation of that attitude is in order so that I might have a final and definitive word on the subject to point to.

Or, as Sam Jackson said in Pulp Fiction, "Allow me to retort."

First, let's address my "responsibility" on this matter. This is the kind of word that is so often bandied around by people who have no idea what responsiblity and accountability are really all about that it's lost almost all meaning. To that end:

Ellison Webderland is, I'll admit, the cynosure of the Ellison universe on the Internet. As much as I disavow any real expertise in literature and continually bow to folks who are more knowledgeable and point other folks the way to them, the fact is Webderland has come to be a somewhat authoritative and trustworthy source on the subject of Harlan and his work. In that, I do have a responsibility to the people that trust me not to jerk them around, and to give them the straight poop when I have it. I take that responsibility very seriously, to the point of locking horns with Harlan when the situation warrants.

However, in no matter does that responsibility overshadow the responsibility of running the Official Harlan Ellison web page and of watching HE's back on the 'Net. I am given a great deal of leeway by the Ellisons in this, for no other reason than that I am a friend and they trust me. By the same token, what started out as hero worship and the terrific charge received from being associated with this site has long since faded and been replaced by the responsibility of the visiting public and the online and offline friendships. It may come as a shock to some people but I no longer give a rat's ass how many hits I get each month or whether the website is considered "k-rad cool" or how often I get to chat with the Big Wowza Famous Author.

I would also point out that I make no bones about the fact that Webderland is the official Ellison site...and therefore you should expect an editorial bias to be present. For that reason I don't pretend towards a journalistic objectivity, nor do I make any excuses for the fact that what I have to say about Harlan is for the most part positive. This is not because I am his tool or his pawn, it is because I like the man and his work and have my own opinions and goals which are clearly stated in the "curator's message" off the main homepage. This does not mean, though, that I am allowed to sidestep any responsibility that accrues from running this site, even considering that my definition of such may differ from yours.

Regardless, I am in no way accountable for TLDV or anything remotely associated with it, so I do not have any responsibility to harass Harlan about it or jump into the snake's pit without full body armor. In this matter, I am aware of both the continuing controversy and interest, I am aware of Harlan's opinion and public stance on the matter, and I am left to make up my own decision about it. I've already told you what that decision is, and apparently it's not good enough for many of you, so allow me to explain why and how I made that decision. That will be all I have to say on the subject, so if your fingers are already itching to write a scathing reply tell them not to be disappointed when they don't elicit the response they were hoping for.

My opinion on the controversy about The Last Dangerous Visions is this (pay close attention, please):
While this is an unfortunate situation for all parties involved, it is also a matter that should be dealt with by all parties involved, and NO ONE ELSE. That means Harlan Ellison, whatever publishers he deals with, and the writers who have stories pending publication in the book or the representatives of their estates. It does not mean fans who heard Harlan promise at a convention in 1973 that the book was coming out in a month, Usenet busybodies who are interested in rallying behind whatever banner has the prettiest colors, or self-appointed champions of living writers perfectly capable of action and dead writers whose estates have not asked for help. As curator of the official Harlan Ellison site, I will gladly post any statements Harlan makes on the matter and point visitors to any objective source that can be found. Otherwise I feel all parties have had an adequate chance to express their opinions and to address any perceived slight or injustice, and it is my opinion that any further meddling or delving on my part would only hurt any chances of eventual resolution of this matter.

That's the official statement. And now, let me give you the muttering from offstage.

The first thing I think about when some fan harasses me or someone else about responsibility in this matter is how hypocritical such a stance is. You know damn well, or you would if your head wasn't too stuffed full of your own ravings and self-importance to allow independent thought, that every last one of your pestering, squawking, and insults make it that much less likely that the book you cry about (and most likely would not even buy) will ever come out. You go on and on about how I should be DOING something about this, how Harlan should be DOING something about this, how everyone but YOU should be DOING something. Either that, or you're just popping off some quip or nasty comment to make sure you get your shots in where all your friends can see.

You want something to get done? Fine, do it. Start a war chest. Get enough people to promise they will buy a copy of TLDV when it comes out, and get down payments in a trust. Inform Harlan of your efforts in a simple, non-accusatory, informational letter. Send him updates when you hit another milestone in the effort. And otherwise leave him alone, it's distractions like yours that prevent him from getting to the work you claim to so greatly desire to see.

If that doesn't strike your fancy, there are innumerable other positive things you could do. So do them. Lobby those writers you are so quick to speak for and suggest action. Persuade others to stop all the yammering and stammering and let HE concentrate on doing what he needs to do. I don't know what else, use that much-vaunted fan creativity and figure something out! I know it's just a wee bit harder than bitching about what other people aren't doing, but you might give it a shot sometime.

As for you stupid gits who continue to ramble about how Harlan personally told you and a zillion other people at some convention twenty years ago "The book is coming out next weekend! I promise!" -- give me a break. I know Harlan tends to be optimistic about his upcoming releases, and I know not everything he has ever prognosticated about in public has come to pass as postulated. I know the book didn't come out that next weekend, or the next. I realize you feel because of what he said to you that Harlan bears a personal responsibility to YOU to drop everything, ignore where his next sandwich is coming from, and devote his full attention to meeting that responsibility.

You'll just excuse me if I think you're being just a little bit of a hard-ass. You're the same person that expects Harlan to entertain you, to be bigger than life, to astound and amaze you with his stories and his wit. You're the same guy who shouted out "Tell the Charles Platt story!" again and again and then watched Harlan get sandbagged when he obliged.

You don't get to eat your cake and have it to, Skippy. You don't get to hear the Master Storyteller ply his craft, you don't get to leach every bit of emotion and drama out of him that he can give, you don't get to encourage and reward every outspoken and candid statement, every hyperbole, every off-the-cuff remark; and still treat every last word as some kind of written contract with every last one of the masses.

And if you're not interested in this matter because of a personal promise Harlan made you, then you're just minding other people's business. Besides which, Harlan has already said what he has to say on the matter and he has not wavered in this as long as I've known him. If you persist in making an ass of yourself, you're only going to get the same response the last twenty people got. Therefore, there's no reason for you to open your trap than sheer perversity, and no reason for anyone to pay any more attention to you than they would some random bag lady shouting incoherencies into the sky.

If you are one of those people who feel Harlan is personally beholden to you for words he spoke to you on this subject (or you are not involved but remain interested in the subject), then do hang on. I have a few words for you of my own at the end of this long road, closely following a severe mood shift that you are best warned about ahead of time. It's all for you, so trust me, I will get to you. But for now, let me move on.

I've read the words of a number of the writers involved in the project, some secondhand, some in letters written to others, and some directed my way. I have to say, yet again, that all these words are wonderful but they really need to be directed where they will do some good. It's remarkable to me the amount of effort that has been expended in spreading nastiness and stirring up controversy on this matter instead of trying to help it reach a satisfactory conclusion.

I'm not exactly sure what the big deal is - it's frustrating, immensely so to some of the writers, that the book has not come out. However, I would say that after twenty-five years it's likely that the stories would not have the same impact as they would have around the time they were written and the writers would have been well-advised to pull those stories and seek publication elsewhere if they really wanted to be heard. As far as I know, while Harlan may have done his best to convince people to keep their stories on board he did not refuse any direct request to pull a story.

If you're one of those writers, I really can't speak for the past or for anything Harlan has said to you. That is a matter between the two of you. I also didn't know Harlan then, didn't speak to him on the matter, wasn't around for any of the inception of this wild ride. All I can talk about is the present and the recent past. And what I know of that is this:

Harlan does not give any set date for finishing the work that remains on TLDV and getting it published, and his only promise is that it will be done when he's done with it. He considers this to be a matter between him and the parties involved and he does not consider public comment on that matter to be of any value. He invites the writers still involved or their representatives to either keep their stories in and await publication or to pull them and field them elsewhere. He'll finish the work when he can. And that's all he has to say.

And to elucidate, perhaps I should go into some detail as to how involved that work would be.

First of all, Dangerous Visions had just over 30 stories. Again, Dangerous Visions had just over was so big that it ran over 800 pages in a softcover format with small print and had to be published in paperback in two volumes. The two books as they sit on my shelves are some thick, dense mofos - these are Madagascar Spitting Cockroach-killing books.

By most accounts, The Last Dangerous Visions has over 100 stories and would be around three times the size of Again, Dangerous Visions. Even after over 100 stories were edited and over 100 introductions written (I make no assumptions about how much of this work has been done already), this book would have to be typeset and published by someone.

Christopher Priest's pamphlet on this matter is a nasty bit of work and makes no bones about its anti-Ellisonism, but on this topic he does have a point. Getting TLDV published in anything aside from online or CD-ROM format would have been quite a remarkable feat even in the days when the works were still New Wave and people were clamoring for the book. I'm sure it can be done, and I wouldn't put anything past Harlan, but the simple fact is it is an almost Sisyphean task, one that will require a supreme effort from Harlan with very little return and very little likely success.

In other words, it is not simply a matter of Mr. Ellison scribbling a few marginal comments and notes and bundling up the documents and sending them on to be printed and bound. It is an onerous, rigorous, and difficult task that has taken a lot of Harlan's time and will continue to do so.

There's nothing new or unusual about a book that was supposed to come out not coming out. It happens all the time. It's disappointing for the authors, editors, and publishers involved, but it happens and it happens often. What makes TLDV unusual is that Harlan persists in trying to get it out, refuses to give up on the work, continues to keep it alive. It's obviously a thankless burden, and most people would have dropped back ten and punted by now, but that's not Harlan's style. Anyone who knows him knows that. Harlan is practically the patron saint of impossible quests and difficult causes, and given a little breathing room he's been known to pull off a miracle or two.

Of course, it's always easier to pillory him for the miracles he hasn't pulled off (yet) than it is to take personal, positive action yourself, isn't it?

I suppose my answer to the writers winds up being the same as Harlan's. Either keep your story in TLDV and wait, or put your money where your mouth is and pull the damn thing. Perhaps people don't realize just how easy it is. Harlan is not interested in holding onto the rights to stories against the wishes of the authors. He'll make it easy for you if you decide that's what you want. In fact, at least one author has pulled a story, attempted to submit it elsewhere, and then RETURNED the story to TLDV when the results were not satisfactory.

It comes down to this. Harlan has said all he intends to say on the matter, and he has let you know clearly and succinctly where he stands. If you have a problem with any of that, pull your story. If you take exception to any way you have been treated in the past, pull your story. If you want your work to see print in another venue, pull your story. You'll excuse me for saying this, but when professionals in a situation they do not like are given the opportunity to take their bat and ball and go play somewhere else, they are well advised to do so.

In my opinion, the power to remove one's story from consideration nullifies any remaining controversy. Either you accept what Harlan has to say and continue to want your story in his book, or you don't and you're free to go. I know there's history there, and often a little bad blood, but that's the kind of stuff professionals, and hell even grownups, are supposed to rise above.

You don't have to accept my opinion or take my advice. As I've said before, this is a matter between you and Harlan, and one you should be taking up with him in a direct and professional manner instead of rabble-rousing amongst the seventeen people on the planet still interested in reading what you wrote almost three decades ago.

Pull your story or don't pull your story, talk to Harlan or don't talk to Harlan, but for chrissakes leave the rest of us out of it, okay?

It could be argued that I am falling into the same trap I ask people to avoid and making this matter my business. I'm not. I am responding to the charge that I am shirking my responsibility in not investigating this controversy and using my influence and voice to help resolve it.

I hope I have demonstrated why I do not feel the fans deserve my help and why the writers do not need it. I hope I have shown where my responsibility lies in this matter and how I have accepted and dealt with it. The only thing that remains is for me to meet my personal responsibility as a friend of Harlan's and the curator of his official website. This goes not to any objective measure of circumstance or to any overall accountability but to the easing of my own conscience on the subject and the maintenance of my personal inegrity.

As far as that personal responsibility goes, I consider TLDV to be a closed case and a matter to be handled by those directly involved. I see no objective reason to point to a lasting injustice or to continue to drum up controversy on the matter, and I have no interest in whether the book actually ever comes out or not. I would prefer to see Harlan devote his efforts to writing great fiction and non-fiction and continuing to entertain and enlighten us as he has done for so many years and through so many stories, essays, and books. I would consider it a greater loss to the world if Harlan were to deny us months of productive work so that this book of stories no one but a few loud and strident voices seem to care about anymore could come out.

That is the way I feel, and that is the way I choose to deal with the matter and the reasoning I use when deciding how to direct my efforts regarding the website. As far as personal discussion and opinion, I believe I have clearly stated why I am not interested in examining happenings and motives from decades ago and why even if I were I do not feel it is my place or my business to do so.

I recognize the desires of others are not the same as mine. I encourage those who are directly involved to do as Harlan suggests and either keep faith or pull their stories. If they have issues, I encourage them to deal with it in a direct and professional manner. I encourage those fans interested in forming a grass roots effort to help this book get published to do what they have to do. I remain willing to link objective resources on the subject and to answer factual questions about the matter.

Other than that, I wash my hands of it. It's a matter of perspective.

And, on that note, let me finally get back to those fans and their promises. I've got a story for you boys and girls (or I should say men and women, for anyone who is still waiting on their real or imagined promises is at the least in their thirties by now). I'm going to go way off into the ether for a bit, but it's all for a purpose, so bear with me. And hang on, because having dragged this chain of cars all the way up to the top of the roller coaster I have no choice but to pull back the hooks and let them roll.

One day near the end of last year I sat in a room in a nursing home with my father, my sister, and my grandmother Mary Grace. Until that day I had not seen my grandmother for a couple of years as her health had prevented her from travelling and I had been living out of state and I guess she had been a lower priority than other family.

I remembered her from to years ago last as a proud and loving woman, expansive of both body and spirit, who lived for her children and especially her grandchildren. She had survived many health problems including diabetes, shingles, and a double mastectomy, and her husband had died five years earlier of congestive heart failure brought on by his genes and own expansiveness. He did not go quickly, and his illness drained this former farmer's family of whatever money remained after the real estate crisis of the 80's. Mary Grace went on, but eventually had to sell to her eldest son the house she had lived in for decades, the house I had spent over twenty Thanksgivings and Christmases in, and move out while he rented it to help pay her expenses.

My grandmother quickly became no longer housed, but warehoused.

Her body and mind began failing her. I had heard my father speak of this, but I was still unprepared for what I saw and heard.

She had fallen in on herself. She looked so small. Suddenly I realized how short she was, how short she had always been. How mortal she was, how mortal we all are.

The woman who never forgot my sister and me on holidays and birthdays, who always had a generous gift, who never failed to have our favorite treats in the freezer at her house, had turned bitter and paranoid, saw enemies in almost every pair of eyes, mumbled at painful length about how her husband and family and nurses had betrayed her at every turn.

The woman who had always seemed overjoyed to be alive and cooking biscuits, who called me "Sugar" and seemed to mean it, was aware enough of her situation to realize what had happened. She had lived on, survived, past the point to where survival was of any point. Mary Grace was rolling forward on three wobbly wheels and only the thought of the abyss just off to the right kept her on the path.

We all know we're going to die, it's just that our feet forget.

She told me to never let this happen to myself, to never allow myself to be found in such a state, to mind my own affairs and to be prepared. She told me no one wanted to wind up like she did, no one deserved it, no one, least of all her. What do you say to something like that? How can you offer comfort, surcease? How do you look pure darkness straight in the face and pretend you can actually see something in there?

How do you pretend that everything is going to be okay when you know full well you're looking at the broken-down, regret-filled end of a wonderful woman's life?

I gave her a framed picture from my wedding and showed her some other pictures, we talked about happier times, and for a brief while I got to spend some time with Mary Grace. But by the time we went to lunch and she was sitting in the booth at the Dixie Cafe like a dried orange the light was mostly gone again.

And God help me, I didn't want to be there anymore.

I haven't seen or written to her since, to my shame.

Sometimes I see that single room with its shared bathroom and its single bed and rocker and fake-wood walls and a half dozen books again. And I see myself sitting on the edge of the bed there, trying to get the strength to leave the room and choke down some peas and meatloaf. My eyes welling up with tears as they often do because I am wife and parents dead, no children, my friends dead, everything I have valued in my life far from me and pulling away.

I wonder if it will ever come to that, and if I'm going to run out of gas before the race is run, and if I'll ever be sitting looking back at eight decades through a mist of fury and sadness. And even though I hope, I trust, that it will never come to that, I can feel the dim reflection of that anger and sorrow and the fear that I may be looking not into my worries, but into my future.

And in that pain, in that dangerous vision, the only thing that comes to me is a sense of perspective.

If we manage to survive, we are all of us headed for a room somewhere where most of what we treasure is in the past. We are all of us headed for certain doom, running pell-mell towards a gate through which no flesh passes. And unless we have perspective, we will find ourselves there sooner than we realize.

I sit here, and I wind myself through the coming years, and I pull myself like taffy so I sit both here and there in that future room, and from that vantage I can see my friends, my life, my struggles and my failings, and the things I thought were important then and now and then again.

I look back on my stance in this matter, and what I have said in the past, and what I have had to say tonight, and I am not dissatisfied, and I do not regret, and I do not think that I have misrepresented my friends, my responsibilities, or least of all the truth.

Harlan, despite his six decades, doesn't fit anyone's definition of "old", and if he ever slowed down a bit it was only to shift gears. He remains one of the most energetic, most passionate, most alive people I've ever come into contact with, and shows all signs of continuing in the same vein for the forseeable future. You're free to disagree with me on any of those points, but you can't argue that he continues to be a working and successful writer. It's my opinion that his best work remains ahead of him, and that we should let him get on with it as best he and not we, see fit.


For the innocent bystanders -- you are no longer innocent, and cannot pretend ignorance. If you care about anything I've said, stop the poking and prodding and leave well enough alone. Don't bring this up with Harlan at the next appearance or signing or online chat. Don't send Harlan a christmas card or tell him you can't find his books in the stores. Don't ask him to sign your copy of Sex Gang or Doomsman. Don't mail your unpublished sci-fi novel into the HERC. Don't put your glass that close to the edge of the table and don't run so close to the pool. You've been warned, and you're now responsible for your actions.

For the rest of you -- I'm sorry if you feel marginalized or slighted or shat upon. But I don't regret offending those for whom the failure of this book...and the fact that this man who has given us so much of his work, his thoughts, his passions, his self has failed to bring this single train in on time...has become a holy crusade, a matter of great import -- because it just all seems so petty, so stupid to anyone to continue to make him miserable over it. I think that perhaps if there ever was a rope we should let go of in our all-too-brief lives, this is it.

So be mad, be disappointed, be bitter, be whatever you want to be. But have some perspective.

Because, in the dark, it's all you have to let you know where you are.

Rick Wyatt
August 1998

Return to the Harlan Ellison Home Page

Return to the Ellison Webderland entry point

Maintained by Rick Wyatt -