DETAILS Magazine Q&A with Harlan Ellison

Since you've been called a "noted futurist," I'd like to ask you if there is anything that you predicted that has come to pass.
"Noted futurist"? Oh, Jesus. Do you have any idea where that's from?

I know you were tagged "noted futurist" on the Geo Metro commercials, but --
Right! I'm no more a futurist than the man in the moon! For your opinion to matter, you have to have a title, whether it's the pope, or the grand kleagle of the klavern of the KKK, or professor, or doctor, or whatever. "Noted futurist"! I suggested that they call me "professional liar."

Your story "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" has been made into a computer game. But it's been causing controversy because it deals with issues like insanity, murder, rape, and the Holocaust. What the hell kind of game is that?
Well, first of all, my basic philosophy of video games is this: They're one of the greatest wastes of time ever invented. So when Cyberdreams came to me, I told them I would do a game that you can't win. I wanted to do a game that teaches ethics and courage. And they said, "But don't you think somebody should be able to win the game?" And I said, "No, not really." I think you ought to be able to lose more heroically than otherwise. The idea of the game is to stretch people's imagination and to make them aware of their responsibility to the rest of the human race -- not to shoot down dinosaurs for four hours.

So why have some found it objectionable?
Apparently some stores will not carry this game because they're afraid it may offend someone, to which my response is "Who? Nazis?" We had someone say, "This trivializes the Holocaust." I got really pissed about that. In this age of skinheads and morons who believe the Holocaust was all made up on a Hollywood soundstage, there's nothing that can trivialize the Holocaust. Put the Holocaust on cocktail napkins! Put it on Tampax ads! Put it on television every fifteen minutes! The only way you can trivialize the Holocaust is to forget it -- and this game refuses to let you forget it.

One of your books, The Glass Teat, had on its back cover the words AMERICA: CHANGE IT...OR LOSE IT! Do you think we're losing it?
We lost it long ago. Look at our country, for Chrissake. We're nothing but purchasing machines for giant conglomerates. We're ruled by the tyranny of the stupid.

How would you propose to get America back?
What do you mean, "get America back"? The great idea that was promulgated by Jefferson and Adams and Washington is an America that exists only in noble documents. We're a nation that rode roughshod over the Native Americans. We're a nation that enslaved a fifth of our population. We're a nation that denied the vote to women and still denies them many of the privileges men are accorded. We're still a nation that believes that homosexuals are evil monsters that deserve to be struck down in dark alleys. We've still got Mark Fuhrmans and skinheads and KKK idiots -- not to mention phony patriotic militiamen who blow up buildings in Oklahoma and derail trains. They're all too cowardly to admit that the kind of America they want never did exist.

You've spoken out for decades for women's rights, and yet you don't seem to have a problem publishing stories in skin rags like New Rave. Why is that?
Well, if I publish a story in The Atlantic Monthly, then eleven intellectuals will read it, nod sagely, scratch their gray pates, and that will be the end of that. If, on the other hand, some sexist, racist, no-neck gazooney of a truck driver is sitting in a pay toilet in the Howard Johnson's on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and he's whacking off to a picture of a woman with a vagina the size of Au Sable Chasm, and then he turns the page and finds my story, and maybe that story says to him, "You are a no-neck, slavering, prognathous-jawed, gimlet-eyed moron, and you should be better, because you are human," then maybe it'll do some good.

Is living in an increasingly technological world doing us any good?
The danger is that as technology gets more complex, the more likely it is to leave behind masses of people. Most of the Simpson jury were average people, and they said, "Oh, we discounted all that DNA stuff." They didn't understand it. If you'd said, "We found his fingerprints on the knife that was stuck in Nicole's throat," they'd have said, "Oh, I understand that." Now extrapolate that into the larger arena of general society, and you will see that most people are terrified by technology. At the same time, there is a push by commercial interests to get you into technology, whether you need it or not.

Is there such a thing as too much information?
Absolutely. The phrase that annoys me the most these days is "the information explosion." It's a slogan coined to sell you computers you don't need. We know everything we need to know to get through a day, to write a book, to do the shopping,to raise our kids -- information that's been available for hundreds of years in libraries. These people could have saved their money and bought a goddamn Encyclopaedia Britannica. There's too much information because it's noninformation. It's like television -- television has to fill time twenty-four hours a day. You have to fill it with crap like Jerry Springer and fishing shows and gossip shows and crap like the Home Shopping Network. And we say, "It's all entertainment." But we are entertaining ourselves out of existence. The world is dying around us, and we're busy watching fucking television.

Is there anything you like about TV?
I watch Friends, I watch Cybill, I watch PBS, I watch the World Series. Television, taken selectively, is okay. But television is the most perfect opiate ever created by the human race. If at three in the morning you need a fix, you can turn on the set. You may be watching right-wingers like Jerry Falwell shrieking their lunacy, but nonetheless you will be entertained. That's the problem with television: It won't go away.

I take it you're not right-wing.
All the right-wingers keep screaming about how much liberal disposition there is on TV and radio and movies, which is bullshit. There's very little extremely liberal thinking done in any of these mediums. Christians constantly complain that someone is doing an anti-Christian thing. But nobody is allowed to say, "Hey, atheism might not be a bad idea." Freedom from religion is also guaranteed by the Constitution, not constantly having to listen to this crap and having our political agenda dictated by people who believe that people walked on water.

Is the Internet a major step for humankind -- or is it just a faster car, a new tool?
It has enormous positive aspects -- doctors being able to conference over it, being able to do a diagnosis immediately -- but I personally don't have any need for these special aspects, so I look at the general population. What I see is that the Internet is a way of allowing the inherent bad habits of people to flourish: gossip, the spreading of misinformation and disinformation. People have already found ways to do computer scams, to lure people out of their homes to faraway cities where they can be raped. If there is a way in which technology can be misused, the infinitely wonderful and variable mind of humanity will find a way to do it.

People will do that stuff with or without the Internet.
There's nothing inherently wrong with technology, including electronic communication. But when you are able to get your rocks off immediately -- if someone pisses you off, and you just bam off e-mail -- you are indulging the worst aspect of the human psyche. It allows you to shoot your mouth off before you think. When I write a letter that's really angry, sometimes I let it sit for a day or two. When I get back to it, if I still feel that anger, I know it's okay to send it. It's important to remember that the Internet is not human communication, it's a simulacrum of human communication. When you have a colon and a parenthesis to show you're doing a smiley face -- this is interactive? Give me a break. This is dehumanizing.

How is progress -- exposure to information and technology -- affecting us on the personal, individual level?
One of the great quotes of our time was made by Howard Cosell. He referred to professional sports as "the toy shop of life" -- something that distracts you from the really important things. If you can root for some artificial nuclear family like the Indians or the Buffalo Bills or the Ducks, then you don't have to worry that your neighbor next door is dying of cancer and his kids are going to be out on the street and have to go to an orphanage. We allow ourselves to be distracted so easily, gulled so easily.

What is our responsibility as human beings to the future of the human race?
I suppose, boiled down, it is that you leave this place slightly cleaner and more swept up and better than it was before you got here. There's a quote I like from John Calder, one of Samuel Beckett's English publishers: "The purpose of art is not just to depict reality, but to give us the courage to face it." And Teilhard de Chardin said that the task assigned to us is to climb toward the light. Anything that assists in that is worthy of purpose and is noble, and that's what I try to do.

There's a flat, grooved disk of gold in space right now, stuck to the side of Voyager , hurtling toward distant star systems with recordings of the laughter of children and music from different countries, a depiction of the carbon atom, and a map of the solar system. If you could send your own selection of information, what would you send?
I would send a self-activating hologram that would show a naked man, woman, and child walking toward you, with their hands open and extended, showing that they mean no harm, and that they are hiding nothing, and that we welcome congress with some other species. On the other hand, if I really gave a shit, I would figure out a universal warning that said Stay away from this planet, because these people are out of their goddamn minds!