Reviewed by Susanne Luesse
1st Hardcover: Avon (1969)
1st Paperback: New American Library (1974)
Reviewed Edition: Avon (Hardback Book Club Edition), 1969
Cover Art: Leo & Dianne Dillon (Hardback Avon Book Club Edition - 1969)
"This one, with love for
MISS EUSONA PARKER,
who refuses to believe she is not my mother
who refuses to believe I am not his mother."
Contents and Copyright DatesIntroduction: The Waves In Rio (March, 25, 1969)
The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World (1968)
Along The Scenic Route (1969 )
Asleep: With Still Hands (1968)
Santa Claus vs. S.P.I.D.E.R. (1968)
Try A Dull Knife (1968)
The Pitll Pawob Division (1968)
The Place With No Name (1969)
White On White (1968)
Run For The Stars (1957)
Are You Listening? (1958)
S.R.O. (1957 - under the name "Ellis Hart"
Worlds To Kill (1969)
Shattered Like A Glass Goblin (1968)
A Boy And His Dog (1969)
"The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World"
enjoys a unique place in the Harlan Ellison catalogue. Published during a
period of societal transition, it rides the cusp of change from the midst
of turmoil. Labeled an Angry Young Man of the New Wave Writers (a label Ellison
rejects), Ellison was the Outsider, the rebel, a David to the Goliath of injustices
he perceived and protested. His writings flashed with brilliance, and passionate
insight. His story collections published in book form, had received wide attention,
and he had received honors in a variety of literary forms. He was a man at
his peak. With the social upheaval of the late 60's, his passionate focus
on the need to eliminate what is unjust found resonance with those disaffected,
disenfranchised, and discontent with the status-quo of the times. He breathed
fiery insight, took fearless action, and told truths only whispered before.
His life of blended writer, critic, and activist was seized upon by a rebellious
majority thrusting him into the role of the hero, the leader, the visionary
with the answers - obligated to them to perform the Miracle Cure for all the
ills he exposes, by their acclamation. Beset by this unforeseen consequence
his success, he found his public situation at best uncomfortable and ambiguous,
and at worst as gross a miscarriage of justice as any he had protested to
This collection, incubated in the heat of Ellison's internal struggle to define intangible ethics, and draw lines for public and private behavior births an explosive exploration of Man's Place In Relation To Just About Everything as a personal journey shared - rather than a Ten Step Guide To Societal Perfection For The Ignorant and Lazy. Yes, the insights are all there in beautiful prose - and Ellison makes the reader think for themself, conclude by themself, and be responsible for acting on those personal conclusions by themself. It is this element of "brain food" without spoon-feeding, which is the 'secret ingredient' responsible for bringing together the mature style of writing which is uniquely Ellison'.
Three stories ("Run For The Stars", "Are You Listening", and "SRO", written in 1957-8) at first seems out of place in this collection, written a decade or more before the rest of the collection, and focussing on the alienation of the individual rather than the interplay and connectedness of persons and concepts which predominates the rest of the collection. No doubt the demands of the publisher for word count in the volume was a factor, but regardless of the reasons they were included, their inclusion provides a revealing look at the root causes for the social changes of the late 1960's. They establish the beginning of a developmental process, both as a person and as a writer, which culminates in the singular literary voice of this collection.
The book opens:
Standing in the hotel window staring out at the Atlantic Ocean, night crashing onto the Copacabana beach. Down in Brazil on a fool's mission, talking to myself. Standing in the window of a stranger whom I suddenly know well, while down the Avenida Atlantica in another window, one I know well, who has suddenly become a stranger. Watching the onyx waves rippling in toward shore, suddenly facing-out like green bottle glass, cresting white with lace, reaching, pawing toward shore, and spasming once finally, before vanishing into the sponge sand. I am a noble moron. I compose a poem.
It concludes a paragraph later (a paragraph describing what the poem said):
Now why in the name of reason would anyone, anything, travel
that far . . . just to be alone?
In later collections, Ellison uses introductions for each individual
story, as well as an introduction to the collection. This has become something
of a trademark of his. In this edition there is only an introduction to the
collection. This somewhat confusing, and disjointed introduction leads us
stream of consciousness style through an often interrupted and side-tracked
explanation of the title story. Ellison rewrote the introduction for subsequent
editions, and prefers the rewritten version. However, this version offers
an interesting contrast between the introduction and the title story. Nothing
could make the new distinctions between Ellison the private person and Ellison
the public writer more clear than the stark contrast as the book moves from
the (personal) introduction immediately to the story. Though both seem confusing
and disjointed as they open, the introduction rambles it's way to an abrupt
summation - while the story quickly reveals a complex and tight structure
missing in the introduction. The contrast leaves no doubt that Ellison is
making a clear distinction between the work and the person.
"The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World" is a watershed collection of Ellison short stories. The promise shown in earlier works emerges as a mature commitment to a set of literary standards, clearly demarking a distinction he now makes between the private person and the writer. As a writer, his commitment is to the writing, rather than the people who read the work. The private person is allowed to be human, not obligated by the response of a reading public to be anything more, with the same rights and responsibilities as every other human being, and held to no higher standard than any other. The writer is a craftsman of words with technical skill, attention to detail, and an entertaining storyteller - and a visionary extrapolating from his own experience an accurate reflection of his world in conceptual analogy to depict what most probably lies down the road now traveled - held to the higher standard of literature.
Ellison's final two paragraphs of the original Introduction express it best.
I suppose, then, that the bottom line of what I've rambled on about here, ties the stories in with what I felt in Rio (and with "waves", of all kinds): the stories that are merely stories - what Vonnegut calls foma, harmless untruths - are for entertainment. The others are to tell you that as night approaches we are all aliens, down here on this alien Earth. To tell you that not Christ nor man nor governments of men will save you. To tell you that writers about tomorrow must stop living in yesterday and work from their hearts and their guts and their courage to tell us about tomorrow, before all the tomorrows are stolen away from us. To tell you no one will come down from the mountain to save your lily-white hide or your black ass. God is within you. Save yourselves.
Otherwise, why would you have traveled all this way . . . just to be alone?
With those words, a new, unique, unclassifiably strong voice was raised in literature. "You Are Not Alone," became part of the Ellison credo. A 'writer's writer', mature, technically skilled, exacting to a higher standard, and very Very human, Ellison is recognized as a major literary groundbreaking force for the first time in this collection. It is here that Ellison's distinctive, mature style begins. It comes as no surprise that stories in this collection have garnered Hugo and Nebula awards. Subsequent editions of this collection contain additional introductions to each story, which add much to the readers understanding and enjoyment of each story by providing a personal context. This review is of the original version.
There is a clear sense that each story was drawn from Ellison's personal experience. It is not that each story contains autobiographical details - they don't, and some (like the title story) are completely unrelated to any actual events. Yet each story has an indefinable aura of authenticity, a ring of truth about it. This is due in large part to the REALNESS his characters radiate, which is so pronounced it is difficult to believe they are fictional creations and NOT real people renamed from autobiographical material, despite a complete lack of personal details and Ellison's insistence they are fictional. It is from, and between, these life-like characters that untold stories unfold as natural corollaries, exciting the readers to speculate on the ramifications of the main theme. It is as if the story on the page were a work of art used as wrapping paper, barely concealing what we almost recognize by the shape - and we must shake and squeeze it to learn what it so familiar. It is this verisimilitude (a "favorite" word and concept of Ellison's) which attains it's full maturity in these stories, setting a unique and easily recognizable stamp on all his works, and setting them apart as works of literature.
The book is not clearly tied to a single theme, as some of his later collections would be. Ellison states in his introduction that "waves" is the theme tying the stories together. If "waves" is understood to be the the currently visible portion of tides in fickle human perception, understanding, and behavior commonly called Destiny, that is true enough. However, it fails to define any common theme for each story in the collection, though the collection is certainly an accurate reflection of the many confusing, and often contradictory, goals which people really do set in personal and societal agendas. The variety of themes and story structures reflect an almost playful selection - as if Ellison were tweaking the reader's nose a bit. No sooner have we decided the title story has set the stage for experimental structure, than "Along The Scenic Route" presents us with a very solid (and standard) action story structure, and an uncommon perspective. "Aha!," thinks the reader, now we have it. But the very next story, "Phoenix", disabuses us of our notion we "have it". Neither the structure, nor the perspective are anything other than standard forms - but there is a twist. Well, shoot! Just when we thought we had it all figured out.. It is undoubtedly part of the charm of an Ellison collection of short stories that the only thing the reader can predict about the next story is that it will surprise - and that it will leave the reader with many directions for the mind to explore, which the stories merely point out in passing.
This collection stands the test of time well, in no small part due to Ellison's ability to make the reader think about about concepts raised in his stories long after the story has ended. The concepts are timeless. They are the eternal foundations of human wisdom and folly. As long as there are people, these stories will be read and enlighten.
"After an idle conversation with the pest control man..." Walter Sterog goes on a killing spree. The first Expeditionary Force finds a 37', beatific statue on a hither-to undiscovered world - with the face of Walter Sterog, had they known it. A violently insane seven-headed dragon, captured on the mauve level, is 'drained' as Semph, the inventor and operator of draining technology, and his nemesis/friend Linah, the Proctor, discuss ethics. Djam Karet -the hour that stretches - a field that pulses across time and distance with violence and madness, is followed - until the reader understands... And must question.
This story reads like a spider-web is woven. The reader is drawn from one thread to the next, each thread adding it's own, larger questions to the left-overs of partial answers it gives, spinning tighter and tighter, while adding layers of complexity and inter-relatedness to the various threads, until it reaches it's center, and we find ourselves where we began with new insights, an understanding of how the bits relate to each other and us, and a WHOLE LOT of questions unsuspected when we began the tale.
Ellison describes the style as:
The title story, "The Beast That Etcetera", was intended as an experiment. Consciously so.
It is not a sequential story. It is written in a circular form, as though a number of events were taking place around the rim of a wheel, simultaneously. The simultaneity of events around that wheel-rim, however, occur across the artificial barriers of time, space dimension, and thought. Everything comes together, finally, in the center, at the hub of the wheel.
As difficult as the structure is to analyze (never wise, when it's creator
is still alive and quite capable of publicly "setting you straight"
- to your public embarrassment), the story is even more difficult to dissect
and analyze. It is a synergistic work, that exists only as a whole. I suppose
I could discuss the dynamic and complex character of Semph, as a focus - but
that would destroy the symmetry of the character being a microcosmic reflection
of the whole, a "hub" to the "wheel", and in the process
eliminate the dynamic between the individual and the group which is a major
thread of the story in a variety of permutations. Likewise, focus on the relationship
between Semph and Linah would obscure the affect of group roles sought and
accepted upon individual persons in private relationships.
It is the presentation of fixed, dynamic, interactive focal points, which generates the complexity and depth of the story. And make no mistake about it - the themes to be explored, and insights to be gained are limited only by the reader. The story seemingly has a life it's own, which does not surrender itself to dissection by pat terminology, or slick opine. It invites us to get to know.. to find the substance in the spaces between. It welcomes the reader back, vibrant, fresh, and insightful every time, timeless itself.
The reasons for this story being so often honored with awards and praised are self evident when it is read. That is the best review, and probably the only fair review, of "The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World". I feel only enough confidence in my own abilities to say it is a MindGobbler of a story...
George and Jessica Jackson, driving the family car northbound on Highway 101, are cut off by a young punk. George screams obscenities at the driver - and sends an electronic message of the same via dashboard communications. Jessica, fearful of becoming another highway statistic, tries to calm him down, but his anger is not so easily mitigated. He dials the CC on the peek, and requests a duel. Automobiles with built-in high tech weapons and armor are the instruments of legal death on the highway. George is out-gunned, but determined. His manhood is on the line. As Jessica gets into her protective gear, resigned, the duel begins - and quickly escalates. The young punk is looking for a kill, and George is the target. He realizes this too late - when it has become a battle to the death, and he is losing. Then it is a fight for survival.
YOU STUPID BASTARD, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING
I HOPE YOU CRASH & BURN, YOU SON OF A BITCH
I'm not going to point fingers, but we all know who we are.. At some point,
while driving on a multi-lane highway, every driver has at least echoed those
sentiments in silent anger responding to an aggressive, reckless maneuver
of another driver. "Along The Scenic Route" begins with no need
for stage set-up, scene-setting explanation. We are THERE. Vividly. In emotionally
highlighted detail. How we got there roots back to real memories. Whether
we see it from the angry eyes of George, or the fearful eyes of Jessica -
we have seen it before. The story begins where real memories end, in a seamless
transition from fact to fiction.
As events unfold at breakneck speed (quite literally), the fantasies of "teaching a lesson" take on a reality through the story. Vague fears of real life find detailed substance in a terrifying logical progression. The horror and helplessness stem from how easily we can step into the situation. It is natural to root for George, and to "advise" him. It is unnerving to be disabused of any vain notions we may have that we are in any way superior to George. The story anticipates our "advise", acts out what we would have done, revealing the miserable results of our 'better idea'. The reader realizes the hopelessness, dreads reading the next phrase, but is caught in George's non-stop no-exit rush to tragedy, driven to see it to the end. The energy level of this story is guaranteed to wear out the adrenal gland in ten pages, totally distort the readers sense of time (it is a looong 'quick' read..). The reader is so completely engaged in the action, when the story ends, the mind automatically proceeds to the trauma post-mortem, running over and over the events to process them - as if they had actually happened.
The story is so firmly rooted in the readers memories of reality, character development is achieved with the slightest references. George and Jessica are templates the reader fills in with personal details drawn from real life, real people, real experience.
" Oh, George, when will you ever grow up?"
"George, this is crazy!"
"You're no hotrodder, George. You're a family man, and this is the family car!
Who hasn't heard that, almost word for word, as our anger boils, from some
well meaning observer?
And when our anger breaks on a painfully sharp reality, haven't we all said something like:
How did I get into this, he pleaded with himself. Dear God, I swear if you get me out of this alive I'll never go mad like this again. Please God.
The story works so well BECAUSE it does not interfere with the readers intimate
identification with the events by interposing unnecessary complexity. A simple
touch of common experience here and there is sufficient to trigger the readers
emotions and real memories, fitting them so neatly into the story it is as
if it were written around the readers personal experience. And, of course,
it was. We are rarely as unique as we believe.
So, having made a point of mentioning complex character development as a trademark of Ellison's writing - he humbles this reviewer with a stunningly real story, where a minimum of character development achieves maximum verisimilitude.
In the shifting red sands of a desert, Red, the only surviving member of a scientific expedition, replays the events which led to his dire situation. His recollections are scattered, and somewhat confused. Tab, his friend and colleague from the University where they were both professors, is dead. Only his theory that time has weight and is conserved and recycled according to the laws of physics, and the machine he invented to detect a change in the cycle survive of his life. Marga, wife of the financial backer "Curt, or Clark, or something", who came out of the Red's past unexpectedly is now as dead as the past she came from. The nameless, but none-the-less repellant, husband is also dead. Naivete, stinginess, ignorance, and belief in a dream led them to their deaths. But Red is not lamenting so much as affirming. The theory was correct! He carries the proof. He must get back with it. It is the only justification for so much suffering.
I almost hesitate to even hint it. Could this plot be 'predictable'?? Yet it is. The familiar device of the "twist" at the end, the obvious allusions to common apocalyptic futures, the lack of any sympathetic characters (I felt no sorrow for folks who set themselves up to die and did, and ambiguous about whether or not it would be a 'bad' thing if Red joined them), and barely a mental ripple when the story ended to show that something had passed through the gray matter. A blatant plug for the tired old "What price glory" theme did not move me to much more than idly wondering if we *really* NEED heroes, and casually concluding probably not - it would be simpler and more efficient to not do those stupid things that cause the nasty situations where heroes are created.
Now ponder with me, if you will, what I just said. A gifted writer presents me with a story that seems as common and inspiring as dirt - so I conclude that's what it is... And also conclude without effort or volition exactly what the writer personally advocates as a truth no one wants to see - there is no *need* for heroes; they are simply a by-product of stupidity; and stupidity is not needed - a truth previously and conspicuously absent from my own library of concepts and opinions. Hmmmmmm... Maybe there is more to this story than meets the eye.
In the presentation of Red as hero, we are immediately turned off. He lacks the qualities we associate with heroes. He is not self-sacrificing. He is selfish and callous. He is not cool, calm, and collected. He is confused and judgmental. He is just like too many egotistical people we know - more concerned with proving himself superior to others and caught up in that fantasy than he is with reality. His self-proclaimed 'Noble Mission' wallows in the ignoble, and ultimately is meaningless. There are no dire consequences should he fail, and his success will only add an already overwhelming abundance of interesting known phenomenon of no practical use. Yet, he positions himself as a hero - with enough justification drawn from the circumstances to make it a viable possibility. It is our emotional distance from, and distaste for, Red that leads us to construct an alternate view of the circumstances - one which does not permit any hero, rather than allow Red's claim. Red builds his case for being a hero offering bits of substantiation in proof drawn from interpretations of facts remembered - and the reader counters each 'proof' with a different interpretation, building a case against heroism. The story ends with Red's self-affirmation as a hero - and the readers conviction that there is no hero, only a lot of stupid things needlessly done.
The story works brilliantly in an "All's Quiet On the Western Front" sort of way. By presenting the facts in all their ignobility and stupidity, the reader cannot accept them as proof of heroism, and is led to a head-shaking larger conclusion that heroes are all just normal people trying to remediate stupidity - and heroism itself is a pretty wasteful concept. Just don't do that stupid stuff in the first place. And, of course, we never do stupid stuff... Or have fantasies of being heroes..
For 600 years there has been peace. The Sleeper, beneath the Sargasso Sea had guaranteed the peace. The Sleeper had once been a man, had been assassinated, had been put in the machine to dream, and had become something new, something powerful - something ever-present in the mind of every living human, with the power to smooth out every mind that turned to thoughts of war. And there was peace. And there was stagnation. For 600 years. Pieter Kalder changed that with his serendipitous discovery of how to opaque the mind and keep the Sleeper out. He taught Albert Ophir, his assistant, the method. No one cared.
Seventeen years later, Laurrayne found an instant use for Kalder and the opaquing method - the same one Leaf found for Ophir - and the road to war begins. But first - the eternal life of the Sleeper must end, and with it the Sleepers power to enforce peace. Leaf and Laurrayne race Special Teams to the hiding place of the Sleeper, to turn off the Sleeper, to be the first to know the Sleeper was gone, and to safely have the advantage of first strike in the first war in 600 years.
It is with some trepidation that I commit this review to incontrovertible print. The story just doesn't do it for me. The anti-war vs. pro-progress thesis of this story is illogical, blatantly stated, belabored, and oddly out of character for Ellison. Perhaps during the social upheaval in which this story was written, the emotional rhetoric of the times seemed to justify this artificial division, and pre-emptive conclusion asserted as "fact" without any support, or examination. The notion of progress requiring the violence of war, as if there were no other possibilities - hence no purpose in examining, debating, or exploring the idea, completely undermines any credibility the tale may have had otherwise. The character of Albert Ophir, the only well developed aspect of the story, wasn't enough to carry it. Identifying with this protagonist was derailed by constantly wondering "WHY'd he do THAT?" If an explanation was offered, it was given with the same depth and tone one associates with a parent 'telling' a toddler - which may close the questioning, but does not answer the question. The "resolution" of the anti-war/pro-progress tension at the end of the story is at best weak. It felt like Unca Harlan said, "Because I said so..." In the parlance of the times, it felt like a cop-out.
It isn't often an Ellison story fails to leave something for the reader to chew on, or least entertain. This one left me disappointed, and frustrated. It sniffed around a viable thesis, but never got a bead on it - so never went anywhere with it. Rather than explore the relationship between competition and co-operation that yields progress, it begins with a statement of incompatibility and opposition between a small aspect of competition (war) and the product (progress) that is not consistent with the real world, unable to see the larger concepts, or even "hint" at productive avenues of speculation. I wanted to read about the broader perspectives and alternatives I knew were related to the fundamental issue the plot avoided. What role does co-operation, so obviously necessary even to militarism, and so obviously committed even in this story, have to play in progress? Why is intentional violence the only motivation for progress? How does eliminating war eliminate all risk and unpleasantness of any sort to guarantee a utopian peace? What about disease, natural disaster, prejudice, inequalities of greed, and other existing downsides in life - can't they motivate progress? Can humans feel challenged and motivated to progress outside a win/lose reward/punishment framework? What is utopia in practical terms for real humans?
The tale is permanently imbedded in the era of it's writing; not dated in references, but rather obscure for lack of them. The public and private debates on the morality of war which permeated those times are now missing, and with them the semblance of depth drawn from personal convictions. It is as if the reader 'eavesdropped' on a conversation from long ago, and heard only a single statement extracted from an emotional debate. It skirts legitimate questions, avoids substantive concepts to explore and ponder, and ignores realities to make a 'statement' - when even a cursory nod, or a hint of an insight, could propel the story into one of Ellison's trade mark 'think pieces'. This story would undoubtedly benefit immensely from a re-write.
What if Santa Claus were a real person, of strange and mysterious origins, and the Christmas gig was only his cover for his *real* activities? This story follows Santa from half-past September through his 007-style mission to save the world from S.P.I.D.E.R. , a hilarious romp through satire and wild imaginings to an ending that leaves you laughing. You'll never think of Santa Claus the same way again.
The first time I read this story (admittedly back "a few" decades now) it settled forever in my mind the debate over Ellison's so-called dark and dismal perspective. As literature, it maintains the high standards Ellison sets for himself. As political satire, it is top notch. If there is any criticism to be made, it is endemic to the form - political satire quickly becomes dated, and many of the innuendoes and nuances that made this story so exquisite at the time are lost to new readers unfamiliar with the long ago details of the politics satirized. Despite that, this tale remains a belly-laughing, pant-wetting, knee-slapping romp through two enduring myths, that leaves both exposed as silly fantasies - and the reader smiling.
When Kris emerged from the dropshaft, Miss Seven-Seventeen's eyes grew round. He came toward her, with the easy, muscled stride that set him so far apart from the rest of the agents. (Most of them were little more than pudgy file-clerks; where had she ever gotten the idea that espionage was a line of work best suited to Adonises?
Santa Claus?? Not the fat guy in the red suit, surely... He does carry all
those super-spy gizmos.. But he lives at the North Pole with the reindeer
and elves.. And has steely-blue licensed-to-kill eyes.. But, but.. he makes
all those toys, and does the Christmas Eve Gift Delivery Thing.. And he kills
bad guys, and has amorous romps with beautiful female spies.. SANTA CLAUS?!?
The fat, jolly dude in the silly outfit?? Still... it always was a
little odd that he could keep track of naughty and nice for every child
in the world.. And it would be the perfect cover... Ellison is amazingly successful
at blending two of the most disparate images into a single, working whole.
The story is quick paced, and structured as a novella - though quite a bit shorter than novella length - making it an easy and enjoyable read. The language is engaging, getting the most from switching between familiar distinctive Spy Novel style and colloquialisms to surprise the reader.
I will not spoil the fun by saying too much - but do think it worth noting that there are 8 "bad guys" Santa must deal with in the story - and only 7 written about.. That may seem like a rather large oversight for an author so dedicated to accuracy of detail. I tend to think of it as prophetic - the omission is Spiro Agnew.
Eddie Burma is a charismatic man, full of life, rich in memories to share; a man that others listen to, and wish they were "like".
That was Eddie Burma's problem. He was an empath. He felt. Deep inside himself, on a level most people never even know exist, he felt for the world. Involvement was what motivated him. Even here, in this slum nightclub where intensity of enjoyment substituted for the shallow glamour and gaucherie of the uptown boites, here where no one knew him, and therefore could not harm him, he felt the pulse of the world's life surging through him. And the blood started pumping again.
Eddie's problem is a deadly one.
This story follows the intricate interweaving of co-dependency between public figures and fans through a maze of self-images, self-justifications, moral quandaries, and assertions of mutually exclusive rights each claim, told unabashedly from the perspective of one who is famous. The story is set in the final hours of the life of a famous person - one Eddie Burma. It is the shadow behind the bright lights, the truth that waits beneath the PR for the final judgement, laid out for the reader to understand and ponder. While the story and character are fictional, the relationships are not - they are the everyday fare of millions of people. The impact of the story grows larger and more pertinent over time as issues of public vs. private life, and attendant "rights" become public debate in the Information Age. This story should be required reading for all who would be famous - and all their fans.
The Eddie Burma character is richly developed, portraying complex overlays of mixed motivations. The other characters seem shallow, and one dimensional in comparison - and yet, that is the ideal presentation. The effect is to place the reader in the same frame of reference as the central character, a point of view most often inaccessible to those living ordinary lives. The use of flashback flows naturally from the action and suddenly "jerks" back to the storyline, duplicating reveries suddenly cut short by reality, are very effective and keeping with the overall tone and tale, giving it a very realistic feel. The reader is immersed, and identifies completely with Eddie - though in all likelihood, the reader in daily life is not at all similar to Eddie.
The first time I read this story - it "bothered" me. I had an emotional rejection of it's theme and the conclusions it led me to draw. I wanted a "happy ending" - and only after some reflection realized what I was trying to reject was not the ending of a story I knew was fiction, but the reality it draws on. I wanted a happy ending for the story to remove from the world of what is clearly unacceptable - the idea of emotional vampires, living without personal substance, "borrowing" from other lives to fill the void, and placing demands on others to satisfy their voyeurism. I did not want to admit such things into my reality, as if by rejecting the story I would also remove the truth it tells. Yet, it is a reality for millions of "fans", and for the objects of their obsessions.
It is is definitely one of Ellison's finer "think" pieces. It is so grounded in his personal knowledge and experience of being Famous, there can be no doubt as to the truth behind the tale. And that can be very disturbing to the reader - who, for the most part, will be identifying with a character and role that is definitely not the one they fill in reality. It raises the kind of questions that can only be answered by each individual for themselves - and the questions are fraught with judgements already made while reading and championing the point of view presented, which suddenly apply directly to themselves in reality.
My emotional response was not due to identifying with Eddie Burma (since I am very ordinary myself), or that I in any way identified myself with the antagonists (I am very satisfied with *my* life, thank you). If I had to pick a character in the story to identify as most like myself, it would have to be one of the patrons of The Cave - happily oblivious caught up in their own lives, concerned enough to offer help when they noticed someone might be having a problem. What unsettled my emotions was the notion I am enjoying my life because others are sacrificing theirs to feed the vampires, that I am unaware of even being at risk, and that I give nothing to those sacrificing themselves on my behalf. It implies a "debt" which I am not certain exists.
This is the first Ellison story to address the Pandora's Box of relations between public figures and their audience. It deals with the topic on a personal, visceral level that is powerful. He went on to write other works in which the theme is explored in more specific terms and settings. Many of those have garnered more attention, establishing Ellison as a controversial proponent of a public figures right to personal privacy. It has become a hallmark of the public Ellison, and given him a reputation for him as a "fan-hater". It is ironic and tragically revealing that Ellison's ability to so strongly present this reality through his work has met opposition and persecution.
Mourg radiated annoyance. The work was piling up,and the division was understaffed, and he knew - as certainly as there was vapor for all - that before his next shedding, they would ship in more of those.
Mourg is having what we would call a "one of those days".
His job is unsatisfying - rote, petty, and boring at best - and this shift
begins with a screw-up which is sure to catch the attention of Sid, his superior,
resulting in some sort of penalty. He is forced to cover up the error for
which he fears he will be blamed, and resents having to resort to guile. The
ruse is successful, and the visit from Sid seems to have gone well... But
later, trying to get to sleep, Mourg is haunted by the last comment Sid made..
From the opening lines, there is a feeling of familiarity - and confusion - much like having something explained by someone Who Knows about such things in jargon that is unknown, and getting the gist of of things without understanding a single term tossed about. The story's setting is the unknown, the details provided meaningless to the reader - yet the situation is comprehensible, the action easily followed. This stylish technique gives the story exactly the right "feel" to make it work, retaining the mystery and subliminal quivers of the unknown, while conveying the plot and concept clearly - to allow the reader to identify sympathies with a completely alien protagonist, rather than the human in the tale.
Although very short, even for a short story, there is still room for a twist or two. The first "sudden" realization, which always "satisfies" for having "figured it out", is completely undone by the final twist. I found a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek humor delicious in this story. The initial connection made between the bureaucratic hum-drum so familiar in own lives, and the workings of the divine order brought a smile.. and then some thinking.. What would it be like to be God?? To have humans constantly whining, pleading, and demanding?? What would it be like to not be God, and still have humans whining, pleading, and demanding - because they can't tell the difference?? The notions of mankind's relationship to its' gods is laid wide open for inspection. What if there is a God - but mankind has failed to properly identify the Deity??
This story is a small jewel. With a few minutes reading, it induces many hours of speculation and reflection on the nature of our species - and does so with a smile.
Norman Mogart , pimp and junkie, has hit the end of his rope - and the beginning of an eternal adventure. His only 'merchandise', one voluptuous and saucy Marlene, has been transferred out of his possession into the custody of the Women's House of Detention, causing a cash-flow crisis which initiates a downward slide as his creditors respond to his new circumstance. Desperate for the money to support his lifestyle, and finicky about the quality of merchandise he offers, Norman looks for alternatives - and finds one in a shop with the strange sign "ESCAPE INSIDE". The proprietor is odd, to say the least, but Norman is focussed on escape and finds it easy to overlook. The offer is made, the deal is cut - and when Norman regains consciousness, he is somewhere else.. someone else.. Harry Timmons, Jr., wracked with fever, deep in an unknown jungle, alone, and obsessed with the Place With No Name, close to reaching his goal. Harry's obsession is as strong as Harry is weak, relentlessly forcing both Harry and Norman into the place where Legends are born and die, to discover the eternal truth that will be theirs.
This story is notable for the complexity of concepts interwoven into a single fabric. It combines belief systems, establishing a common underlying morality while it challenges our notions of self, the belief a person is single unique, any life is insulated from others, and godly actions arise from godly persons. The story is clearly divided into a before and after from the perspective of the protagonist. The structure disassociates the reader from the protagonist rather than promoting identification, which serves to enhance the readers focus on the concepts presented, making the story far more enjoyable as a 'think piece', than as an action yarn. The settings and characters are developed well enough to create both an emotional atmosphere of mystery, and a comprehensible human framework to the concepts. It works superbly on every level to convey an intrinsically abstract (and therefor difficult to portray) inter-play of concepts, giving enough substance to stage them understandably, and allow the plot to stand alone as an entertaining tale for readers not inclined to delve into those deep waters.
The first section of the story is easily followed, and intimately understood. We all know a "Norman Mogart", someone who amends their value and status with euphemisms and self-entitlement. He's the secretary who calls herself an Administrative Assistant, the bus driver who calls himself a Transportation Engineer, every half-plotzed BS'r who ever collared us and bent our ear with their self-importance; and no matter what the euphemism, how close or distant from the truth, all the Norman Mogarts of the world offend us with their insistence we accept the fantasy as fact, and honor it by giving them the respect, status, and authority they think they are due them. It was with no small degree of relish, that the well-deserved 'bad ending' of Norman Mogart was read. In fact, there was a certain emotional let-down in realizing the loser was going to find a way to 'skate' out of his just desserts.
The second section of the story jumped immediately to the crux of the moral issue. How does Just accommodate Mercy? Is forgiveness Just - and does Mercy require it? What punishment truly fits the crime? What constitutes a "crime", and who decides the criteria? Can sacrifice for others, done without intent to benefit them, still be heroic? Oh...and could Jesus Christ and Prometheus have been homosexual alien lovers? It is a classic Ellison mix of the outrageous and the fundamental, capturing the imagination with an outlandish and shocking premise to focus on serious issues.
It would be a disservice to this story to review it from the stand-point of personal reactions and conclusions drawn. It was clearly written with the intention of "making the reader think" - which means spoon-feeding the "meaning" I have personally concluded as The Meaning, under the guise of a review, would contradict the purpose of the story. I will say only that it did make me think, the thinking was pleasant and productive, and it continues to make me think with every re-reading - even though I know "how it ends" .
It is worth noting that underlying the structuring of this story, is Ellison's premise that the reader will bring to it a personal knowledge and depth that will fill in and flesh out the the framework presented - which makes the story something of a One-Size-Fits-All in the "think piece" category. It puts Ellison into a singular place among authors. He does not have a pre-defined readership in mind that he is speaking to in his work, not does he write for himself alone - but rather creates an open structure to allow him to speak to all readers without condescending. It is certainly a mark of his talent that he is able to create such a platform. It is also a mark of what kind of person he is, that he would seek to do so. It is this open-framed structure of writing, so completely suited to "making the reader think", that has guaranteed Ellison a place among America's Greatest Writers.
Paul is a successful gigolo. His life a series of adventures, with a series of women, who provide for all his needs. It is almost the perfect life to Paul. It lacks only one thing - the security of being loved by the woman, who provides for him. Paul yearns for that security, fantasizing of it as he fulfills his obligations to his current companion, the Countess. Paul is about to find his dream. Be careful what you wish for.... you might get it.
This is a very short story, only three pages in length. I would call it a "smile" piece, not particularly heavy on the intellect - but very entertaining and amusing. It is the sort of thing that might have easily been dropped in a lively discussion at a party. It is cinematic in effect, and could almost be taken as a synopsis of a script for a Twilight Zone episode in story form.
I have to admit - overtime I read this story, I enjoy it. There is a certain satisfaction to the "punishment fits the crime" ending.
The placement of this story in the book, between "A Place With No Name" and "Run For The Stars", is a welcome break. There are only so many intellectually demanding stories that can be read in succession before the mind begins to feel overloaded. This little story cleanses the literary palate with a grin for what is to follow
Benno Tallant was a drug addict. It defined him, dictating his every thought and action. He lived for the dreamdust that made him feel like God, financing his habit by any means possible - even looting the dead. Both his drug use and the looting to pay for it were capital crimes. While the Kyben/Earth war raged, Benno dreamed only of his next snort. He knew he would be caught eventually, and would be sentenced to death. He had thought about it, with fear, and decided death would at least be freedom from the drugs. Benno thought he had it all figured out - until it happened. How could he have imagined the death sentence would be surgical, making him the human delivery system of a sun-bomb? Left alone on a planet with alien Kyben conquerors hunting for the bomb implanted in him, Benno runs for his life - and runs into a resolution for his situation no one could have figured on, least of all him.
This story is firmly rooted in the era of the Cold War and McCarthyism. The Kyben/Earth war is blatantly analogous to the Cold War. The pivotal role of a bomb with ultimate destructive potential is drawn directly from the realities of the late 1950's - there would be no winners if the weapons were used. Wars fought far from either homeland were thinly veiled testing-grounds for what was perceived as the inevitable war between the Super Powers. The Us/Them mentality of fear decreed only two options for individuals - unquestioning support for the war, or being a traitor.
Vivid descriptions of location, and edge-of-the-chair action move the story along smartly, creating a believable environment for the plot. The use of subtle nuances in language to trigger emotional reactions particularly suits the nature of the tale, embedding a morality-by-default into the overt action tale. These elements translate nicely into a novella-structured tale to define a psychological and emotional (and therefor innately intangible) perception of reality prevalent in the 50's, through focus on one individual forced to find an alternative to the inevitability of the bomb, inescapably becoming a traitor should he succeed. The distrust of governing officials and their motives is intrinsic to the character and the tale, finding justification in the story by the callous treatment of the protagonist, deemed unworthy of receiving any real benefit from the much mouthed principles and scruples of the officially righteous. The cold hypocrisy of the Resistance in the story validates and initiates the process of the protagonists' search for an alternative to the inevitable detonation of the bomb. Ironically, the Us/Them mentality is preserved in the story, as the final resolution is presented in the patriot/traitor vein - as an act of revenge, understandable in terms of the ill treatment received. Bennos' transition from coward to killer, to traitor flows as if it were a natural process, each step justified by the right to survive. It is an eerie precursor to what later became known as the Stockholm Syndrome, the dark evolution of victims through fear and revenge into becoming indiscernible from the oppressors.
For years, as he skulked and begged, as he weaseled and cheated, his strength of evil had been going through an adolescence. Now it was mature. Now he had direction, and he had a purpose. Now he
was no longer a coward, for he had faced all the death the world could throw at him, and had bested it.
There is in each of us a tendency to adjust our moral judgements to accommodate
ourselves and justify it. Ellison disassociates the reader from Benno and
justifications by making him a drug-addict, which allows the reader a clear
view of the process. There is an adolescent capacity for evil in us all. Taking
a pen home for personal use is not stealing. Fluffing out a resume is not
lying. Taking credit for what we know we didn't do is not cheating. This chilling
view of an extreme case applies equally to us as well.
There is a self-serving underpinning to survival, which twists morality and justifies hypocrisy - and no one is immune. The story is definitely a cautionary tale. What is fed by evil grows to be evil, even when it is done in the name of all that is right, and justified to our satisfaction.
Albert Winsocki is an unobtrusive man. The most exciting thing about him is his surname. He is the sort of person who enters a room, and people ask who left. His lack of distinguishing personal attributes is matched only by his lack of concern. He has a comfortable, secure life in his own eyes - predictable and safe. He is an inert human in an interactive human world...until his life reaches it's logical conclusion, that is... Suddenly, Albert has a story to tell.
There are several ways I wanted to start telling this: First, I was going to begin it:
I began losing my existence on a Tuesday morning. But then I thought about it and:
This is my horror story.
seemed like a better way to begin. But thinking it over (I've had a devil of a lot of time to think it over, you can believe me), I realized both of those were pretty melodramatic, and if I wanted to instill trust and faith and all that from the outset, I had just better begin the way it happened, and tell it through to now, and then make my offer, and well, let you decide for yourself.
Are you listening?
Albert tells us his story of a fate worse than death. He had not lost his
life - he has lost his existence. With no meaning or substance to validate
his life, he drifts outside what living people call reality, taking us with
him on a hauntingly familiar, yet strange and terrible exploration of his
This work is clearly based in the late 50's, couched in reaction to McCarthyism. For the first time, the consequences of exhibiting 'unacceptable' behavior or appearance in America were official, dire, requiring no more than an accusation from anyone to activate. Careers and reputations were lost, and entire lives ruined, due to malicious and unsubstantiated gossip from anonymous sources. Nonconformity was feared, and appearances superceded substance in importance. As a direct consequence, cultural diversity and individuality were lost as people assumed officially approved (and bland) roles to avoid accusation. Our nondescript hero epitomizes the 50's man. He has complied with the dictums of the times. He is secure in his role, safe from notice and the potential for disaster, reaping the modest rewards of his success. This story looks at the heart of that process, with a piercing eye for the truth.
The story is written in a very accessible style. The use of colloquial syntax immediately puts the main character in focus as a common man, and the reader into familiar territory. This serves as a very nice counterpoint to the story line, rooting the horror of the tale told in what the reader knows is every day life. The use of this style serves exceptionally well to emphasize the concepts embodied in the story. It is a deceptively simple analogy.The single event chronicled catapults the reader into the depths of the great moral questions about the meaning of life.
When life has no meaning, is it living? What makes life meaningful? Is the meaning in the value of achievement? Which achievements? Our private goals attained, our career objectives met, our social obligations fulfilled? Is it in our relationships? Which relationships? Our relationships with family and friends, our relationship with Deity, our relationship to people in society at large? Is it based on feeling satisfied within belief systems we choose, or is there an absolute measure based on equally indefinable concepts, such as Justice and Truth? These are not idle questions for Albert Winsocki. The answers are essential elements to resolving his dilemma, and regaining his existence.
They are not idle speculations for us, either. Family structures bear little resemblance to traditional models. 'Mom' and 'Dad' are no longer absolute descriptors as multiple families become more common. Who is and is not family, and to what degree, is a matter of much confusion and insecurity for family members. People are increasingly mobile, changing jobs and homes often. Co-workers are most often the primary social group and source of friendships - which almost entirely disappear with a change of jobs. Without attachments or ties to the interchangeable communities they live in, 'Support Groups' have evolved for affirmation and help, relying on the function of an organized group rather than individuals, who come and go. The underlying message is clear - individual people have no value outside the roles they currently occupy, which may end at any time. A common insult these days is to be told to "get a life" - which assumes that without a role to fill that justifies your existence, you are meaningless.
The quest to discover the nature of life's meaning has been a hot topic since the first two synapses shook hands and agreed to become enough intellect to separate man from beasts. Oddly, the practice of "shunning" as an ultimate punishment is just about as ancient, as an intuitive application of meaninglessness. The major themes of this story are as timeless and universal as themes can be. Sadly, with the passing of time this story acquires an increasing sense of urgency and immediacy. The euphoric hopes of the times which saw this collection published have dissipated from Hippie Love into Yuppie Greed, an evolutionary step backward for society. Fortunately, we have been blessed with a visionary of Ellison's caliber, who can ask the right questions, and point out to us the inherent dangers of ignoring the truths about our own species.
Bart Chester was trying to figure out how to get into sweet young Eloise's panties for the night when his Big Break came out of a clear blue sky - literally. An Alien spacecraft arrived on earth.
Then, with innate entrepreneur blood coursing through him beating fiercely, he thought joyously, Good God, what an attraction this would make!
Concessions. Balloons saying "Souvenir of the Spaceship." Popcorn, peanuts, Cracker Jacks, binoculars, pennants! Food! Hot dogs, candied apples; what a pitch! What a perfect pitch!
Officials do their Official Things in response to the Alien Spacecraft landing.
The police cordon off the public. The Scientists lug in gear for testing.
The Military calls up troops and weaponry. Bart hustles to license all rights
to the aliens - as their exclusive promoter and manager - and he knows
he is going to make it BIG this time. This time it will be different.
A sense of Destiny drives Bart as he connives, schemes, and barges his way
to the achievement of his dream against all odds. It doesn't get any bigger
than having the only alien show on the planet; especially when the aliens
are entertainers by trade, put on the best show ever seen on Earth, and will
perform free for the sheer joy of performing. It is Bart's dream come true..
But dreams can take strange twists, and nightmares are dreams, too, and we
can't wake up to All Back To Normal when dreams come true..
This is the last of the three 1950's vintage stories included in this collection. It bears the undeniable stamp of Fifties-Think, combining the love/hate UFO fixation, the addiction and adulation of entertainment, and the rampant materialism of the times. While it is easy to focus on the ugly materialism portrayed in the story, patting oneself on the back for making the connection to the subsequent rejection of materialism that was prominent in the social rebellion of the 60's, and righteously feeling justice is served at the end - it is also a mistake to look no deeper.
This story has it's roots in the Entertainment Industry as a moral milieu. Told from the perspective of Bart Chester, it presents the implicit moral framework of The Industry; one which is uncomfortably easy for the reader to accept without question or note. The natural tendency of the reader is to identify with Bart (and feel smug in judging him to be morally inferior), assuming in the process that self-image is fact, that somehow "I" am one of the gifted, the talented, the creative, the intelligent which The Industry exploits and abuses - the role filled by the Aliens in this story, with whom we feel no connection. In truth, the reader has an equivalent in the story - the audience - who barely exist in our awareness as we read, except as something somehow shallow, trite, clueless, unnecessary, and deserving of whatever they get.
The use of perspective is a stroke of genius. In the act of responding to the overtly perceived perspective of Bart Chester (AKA the System), the reader is actually reacting to the embedded perspective of the artist (Ellison, the writer), exposing personal morality and ego, and personal participation in the very process decried. For those who realize this, and have strong enough constitutions to accept it, this revelation is blinding and ultimately character building. The story is not about materialism - it is about relationships between artists, the Business, and the audience, steeped in invisible and intricate manipulations twisting fact into an unsavory, unrecognizable parody promulgated as ultimate truth. It is about the readers self-perceived 'personal relationship' to Ellison (who hasn't got the faintest idea who the reader is), a fiction supported by the skillful manipulations of middle-men for their profit, and justified by baseless ego. Firmly rooted in the constants of human nature - selfishness, greed, and egotism, so easily seen in others, and so rarely recognized in oneself - this story uses the readers psychological filters of self-justification and self-image to expose an enduring truth about every human with a loud "GOTCHA!". Perhaps because it is so raw, immediate, and real, demanding the reader adjust self-image to facts outside the comfortable confines of fiction to conform to truth about self, this story so rarely is given the accolades it deserves. It is difficult for the recently humbled to praise what humbled them. Yet, it remains timelessly relevant, and universally effective in reminding us the internal battles of personal ethics and morals are never won - only fought to higher ground - and our victories require constant vigilance to maintain.
Jared The World-Killer is the best mercenary. Ever. He can deliver a client any world, or worlds, of their choosing - for the highest fee possible, on planetary scales. He is hated, and sought out by those who want what his services guarantee - which is everyone, sooner or later. He has power beyond conception, wealth beyond measure, an impregnable private moon to call home, a legion of loyal followers, and a single friend. He can afford to pick and choose his clients, and does so with the aid of a super-more-than-computer of his own design and programming, which sifts through the never-ending requests for his services looking for the 'right' ones to further Jared's personal goal. It has worked, so far as they can tell - but the weak link in Jared's quest to fulfill his vision is himself. He grows weary in spirit, and short of time. The machine has an answer - The High Irina is to become Jared's woman, his replacement if necessary, and the provider of progeny to carry on his most secret goal. Jared has a new world to conquer.
This story is a classic 'Ends Justify The Means' analogy - and I liked it - especially the final two paragraphs, which put a nice kink in the classic arguments (NO - I am not going to give it away - read the story). The tale is vividly told, and plot is well paced. The opening action sequence draws the reader quickly into an emotional response to clearly immoral events, quickly establishing the piece as a morality play. Tension and conflict of moral response build as the main character takes form and substance as a 'hero', dedicated to achieving ultimate and enduring peace for all sentient life - by acts of destruction morally unacceptable to anyone with a conscience. The tension is aggravated, rather than alleviated, by the constant depiction of Jared as a Martyr making an unbearable personal sacrifice in the commission of these heinous acts - as he watches the horror and suffering he causes, untouched and unbloodied himself, "for the greater good of all". The reader rejects the justifications of the protagonist, horrified at the suggestion that such actions could ever be excused, much less heroic, and gamely grits the teeth reading on.. pushing to reach the Happy Ending.. which will set all to right, see justice done, and resolve all this tension.. Happy Ending?.. As in The End Justifies The Means for story-telling?? As if we expect the writer to "solve" an intractable moral dilemma of mankind in a short story?
Ellison has done it again. He crafts a plot which focuses the reader on fictional details and theoretical morality, while subtlety engaging them in the process of the "real thing", providing much food for thought (not to mention quite a bit of insight into self) when the reader tumbles to the Bait-and-Switch maneuver (and wonders if they will ever 'catch on' before Ellison snickers "well???" at the end of the story).
This story has a provocative ending, introducing an entirely new perspective (and moral dimension) in the last two paragraphs - a masterful feat of writing to say the least - leaving a stunned reader many hours worth of processing the ramifications of the closing lines in moral terms..which most definitely apply to self.. 'Worlds To Kill' is a "think piece" of the highest order, packed into a seemingly straightforward and predictable story.
Rudolph Boekel, newly discharged from the military for medical reasons, still has a mission - to reclaim Kristina, his former fiancée.
He had waited eight months for her to come back to him, since he had been inducted and she had written him telling him, Rudy, I'm going to live with Jonah at The Hill.
Rudy loves Kris, and believes that love will conquer all. He believes all
the platitudes taught him in youth. He believes he only needs to find Kris,
and talk to her - and everything will 'work out'; they will be married as
planned, and live Happily Ever After. But Rudy's neatly packaged world hadn't
figured on The Hill - a brooding, run-down, old "gothic hideous"
house, that does not require his belief to be what it is, or permit his disbelief
to interfere with it's purpose.
This story creates a disturbing atmosphere of quiet terror. The threat is tangible, the fear is palpable - and like all good horror stories, it makes the maximum use of the readers imagination to supply the gory details, and possibilities. Everything is just out of the corner of the eye, just at the edge of hearing - until the moment of truth comes for Rudy, and a look in the mirror proves just beyond the grasp of rational mind. The use of the classic Horror genre to tell a tale set in a surrealistic (and very true to real-life), uncaring drug culture removes any boundaries our minds attempt to set. Is Rudy experiencing reality, albeit fictional - or hallucinating on drugs? The entire piece says "HORROR", and the reader is most inclined to accept the events in a Lovecraftian sort of way - but the story continually reminds us of the drugs, implying that the entire episode may only exist in Rudy's hallucinations. The ambiguity creates conflict in the readers mind - at first. The tale is compellingly told, propelling the reader along through the slightly off to the completely bizarre. As events blur into each other in the telling, distinctions between reality and hallucination waver and melt - until only the events related are significant.
This story is a remarkable recreation in literary form of the all too common process of addiction. The reader is taken on a vicarious journey into dangerous places of the mind. The comfort zone normally provided by the knowledge that one is reading fiction, and therefore need not take anything read seriously, is negated by the ambiguity of presentation. It is with a *shrug* of unconcern the reader abandons the task of determining reality to enjoy the fiction - the same mental shrug of the drug user in search of a 'high' to enjoy, which dismisses consequences and dangers. The work is free of any preachiness. It needs none. The point is made in how easily the reader abandons critical thinking of their own for 'harmless' enjoyment.
It is unfortunate that this story is more relevant today than when it was written. Drug use has entered mainstream behavior under the euphemism "recreational use". The "drug culture" so ballyhooed in the late 60's by the media as an Ultimate Evil seems laughably miniscule and innocent now. Communes became Crack Houses. Hippy free love and drugs are now International Criminal Cartel Big Business. The danger of an overdose and/or "flipping out" has been overshadowed by drive-by-shooting style violence of gangs dealing in drugs as a focus of activity and income. "Young people" (i.e. college student age) using drugs to party are now truly children, and truly addicted. The one thing that has not changed is the horror drug addiction brings to the addict.
There is occasionally a work so powerful in presentation, so excellent in technical detail, it leaves it's audience limp, aching, incapable of responding to the overwhelming truth of it, wishing it would simply fade away into irrelevance - and unable to forget it. This is one of those stories. It is too real, and too painfully true, not to be acknowledged - but we wish it weren't.
Vic is a Rover, a solo with no Rover-Pack allegiances or turf. Like most Rovers, Vic has a dog to sniff out the the basic necessities of life for him - women and food, not necessarily in that order - in return for providing the dog food. Unlike most dogs, Vic's dog Blood is fully telepathic - and educated. Blood has taught him to read, write, and do simple arithmetic, in the course of overseeing his life. Together, they roam a post-Third War world of ruined buildings huddled together as cities in the vast glowing radioactive wastelands, dependant upon each other for food and defense from other predators. Their simple lives take a sudden turn into the complexities of civilization, when Blood sniffs a woman in the sanctuary of the Metropole Theater. Vic had heard rumors of girls from the downunder cities who had cumup to see the movies.. He couldn't believe his good luck! A soft, naive downunder girl! Easy pickin's for a Rover to rape. Blood sniffs out the girl, and they follow the trail to Quilla June Holmes. As she asks incessantly "Do you know what love is?", Vic discovers 'easy' isn't always simple, simple answers can be very 'difficult', and love defines itself.
It comes as no surprise that this story was adapted to film as a movie. The imagery is detailed and vivid, teeming with allusions and symbolism. The three main characters, Vic, Blood, and Quilla are among the best defined in fiction, developed into astoundingly authentic persons with all the complexities of mixed emotions, personal agendas, strengths and weaknesses, tangled relationships, and conflicting loyalties so familiar in this life. Ellison uses the standard novella form very nicely - for his own purposes, in his own unique way. It goes without saying, the entire work is technically excellent as literature.The building of dramatic tension through action scenes alternating with quiet background set-up for the next action sequence, common to this sort of structure, is transformed into a double-layer of tension building. The 'quiet' scenes are fraught with emotion laden intellectual concepts struggling for a 'right' answer to be the clear 'winner', culminating in action scenes which are logical outgrowths of the conflicts - and like such 'acting out' in real life, fail to resolve anything, only adding more complications to an already difficult, deceptively simple scenario.
There is no respite for the reader as the chain of events leads into deeper and deeper ideological waters. On the surface, the story is summed up by it's title. It was criticized for a time as being sexist and chauvinistic, by those who did not *like* the ending. However, even the most casual reader cannot fail to recognize Vic, Blood, and Quilla as symbols of the natural, intellectual, and social components of humanity respectively, in an amazingly accurate analogy. The depth and veracity of the analogy is due to the realistic depth and complexity of the characters and their interactions. While Vic, Blood, and Quilla are undisputedly symbolic, each character embraces the entire spectrum of human expression. They each have the internal tension of subjugating all thoughts and feelings to a chosen Weltanshaung, defending that "truth" from anything that might undermine the security they derive from their definition of what life is, and how it works. For each, the uneasy internal balance is threatened by the demands of relationships that implicitly seek to convert them to a different point of view, as 'proof' of the bond. The interplay of internal and external pressures upon each to conform is well developed and richly textured, forming the heart of an exceptionally realistic recreation of human interaction. It is this accurate reconstruction of human psychology that allows the greater analogy to hold true in such depth and detail.
The use of the first person perspective of Vic puts the story firmly in familiar, yet still vague territory. He is a basic model human being, identifiable as fundamental, rather than backward or primitive. Vic is an excellent observer, acutely aware of the physical world around him, able to give finely detailed accounts of the events - and totally unconcerned with the morals, or deeper meaning of them. The use of his perspective gives the reader all the facts, without the bias or taint of intellectualism and social structure. If we do have an "inner child", Vic is certainly that amoral and self-serving reality. This makes the perspective completely understandable, yet still removed from anything the reader might identify with, forcing the reader to evaluate and interpret the events of the story independently of any of the clear perspectives presented. This use of overt perspective to present (expose?) another deeper, less accessible one, seen earlier in S.R.O., is seen in a polished and mature form in this story. At every turn, the reader is confronted with the obvious, with no obvious conclusions as to where the truth may be. Common 'truisms' that Everyone Knows are presented in paired Point/CounterPoint opposition - and both disposed of. The most obvious example of this is the pairing of the notion that all change is progress, which dies a brutal death in the Rover-Packs, and the concept of the past being simpler, purer, superior to the present, which dies equally unpleasantly in the Golden Age sterility of underground Topeka. The comfortable and unquestioned truth of common morality tarnishes and crumbles under the weight of natural questions.
Is it still rape if the 'victim' enjoys it, and wishes to continue? If death is natural, why is killing unnatural? No belief is unchallenged, no middle ground is evident, no answers readily forthcoming, as the story wends it's way through the currents of human experience. Distinctions between Good and Bad, Right and Wrong, Hero and Villain, Winning and Losing - all hazy at best in the jumble of 'mixed bag' reality - are proven to be totally unviable fictions born of artificial belief systems in the cauterizing glare of Ellison's more truthful story-telling. The reader is left to ponder the murky waters of reality rippling through the story, bereft of emotional crutches, intellectual justifications, and societal props. Perhaps this is why so many find the "ending" so difficult. It does not bring us any closure. And yet, as if by process of elimination, a truth emerges about the human condition from that all too familiar confusion - a truth as indefinable as love, and as powerful as intellect.
Stories Review by Susanne Luesseharlanellison.com is maintained by Rick Wyatt - firstname.lastname@example.org