Reviewed by Dorman T. Shindler
1st Hardcover: Morpheus International (1994)
1st Paperback: Morpheus Internations (1994, softcover)
Cover Art: Jacek Yerka
To the memory of my beloved son, Philip,
who loved light and became a soul of light.
Yes; to the light. To the memory of absent
friends who have gone into the light: to
Isaac and Fritz and Avram. Their arrival
ups the lumens a millionfold each.
"Only he is an artist who can make a riddle out of a solution" - Karl Kraus (1874-1936)
(due to review format and the fact that these stories were all written for publication in this collection, the usual links and copyright dates are not included. All stories are copyrighted 1993)
The Creation of Water
I thought about doing one of those highly personal essay/introductions that seem pretty popular when doing one of these "Webderland" reviews. You know the kind I mean: informal, full of personal information that relates the reviewer's life experiences to something he or she once read in a book or short story by Ellison. I thought about it, then went back and read Isaac Asimov's six rules for reviewers. The last one, in part states:"...the review must _not_ be a showcase for the reviewer himself. The purpose of the review is not to demonstrate the superior erudition of the reviewer..." (The highlights are mine).
Sure, I could probably do a semi-passable imitation of Ellison's highly personal nonfiction writing. But what's the point? He does it better. And I'm not here to call attention to myself, or my writing. I'm here to celebrate all things Ellison. So, on with the show.
I promised Rick that I would write this review using the format that he set down for everyone. Then I re-read MINDFIELDS. And found that I'd have to break my promise. See (as does the material of any worthwhile writer), Ellison's story-telling techniques and formats have evolved over the years. In the fifties (and the very early 60's) he mostly turned out formula stories (be they SF, crime ficiton, or otherwise). In the mid to late sixties, as his style and vision began to coalesce, Ellison began writing more complex and mature stories ("'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Tick Tock Man," "Neither Your Jenny Nor Mine," "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," "A Boy and His Dog"). He even experimented with form, stretching the "boundaries" of the short story, pushing the envelope, as it were ("Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes," "The Beast That Shouted Love At the Heart of the World," "The Region Between"). This maturation and experimentation carried on into the seventies, with lots more classic tales as a result ("The Deathbird," "Croatoan," "Jeffty Is Five," and more). And while stories written in the eighties (such as "Paladin of the Lost Hour," "Grail," or "The Function of Dream Sleep") were no less powerful, Ellison seemed to be going through a period of transformation, stepping out of his chrysalis to reveal a completely different style. (For those of you that think in purely visual terms, think of the car commericals by the "big three" which tout this or that new model for coming year).
The writing which Ellison brought with him as he emerged out of his creative cocoon in the late eighties was "The Writing of the Ellison of the nineties." Shorter. Leaner. Even more economical, if that is possible for a writer of short stories. He'd occasionally given hints of this new style as far back as the late seventies, with "From A to Z, In the Chocolate Alphabet." And in the eighties, with his Locus Award-winning "Eidolons." But Ellison's new style -- I like to think of it as Borgesian -- really came to fruition when he began work on his comic book project ("Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor"), and when he was asked to write an introduction to an artbook being published by Morpheus.
Ellison declined the invitation to write an introduction, and instead proposed
the writing of 33 separate stories inspired by the paintings in that book.
As Ellison relates it, "Like a hungry beast in a sacred jungle, I have
been given the honor of stalking through Jacek Yerka's divine
imagination, describing what I see." The result was "freeform Ellison" at his most unhindered. In MINDFIELDS, Ellison takes every sort of
stylistic mannerism and genre trope he has used in the past, puts them in the blender, and turns it to high speed. (For the record, now that we're in what I like to call the "naughties," Ellison's style may likely change again -- especially given the fact he is collaborating on stories with the likes of Neil Gaiman, Dan Simmons and Connie Willis). If THE BEAST THAT SHOUTED LOVE... is archetypical of Ellison's writing in the sixties, DEATHBIRD STORIES archetypical of the seventies and ANGRY CANDY represented the eighties, then MINDFIELDS is Ellison showing his ninetis plumage. And if there was ever any doubt that Ellison is a true literary son of Jorge Luise Borges, MINDFIELDS should lay rest to it.
Of all his collections, this one is his most underrated and overlooked. Why that is so, I cannot say (perhaps it had something to do with it being marketed as an artbook -- I don't know). Whatever the case, there's no time like the present to pick up a copy of this remarkable book and fall into the gorgeous visions brought to life by the merely brilliant Jacek Yerka...take a look at each one of them, bypassing the stories as you work your way from front to back...then go back to the beginning, and read the remarkable tales that spilled out of Ellison's typewriter after he gazed upon Yerka's gorgeous work and went off to play in the fields of his imagination.
Note: In the last half dozen or so years, I've spent some time reviewing books for several newspapers. From what I've been able to discern, most novels and novellas can withstand a bit of "deconstruction," or plot rehashing. But when the act is performed on fictions of shorter length, it bleeds the life out of them. It's akin to pulling the wings off a mayfly. Especially stories that are called short-shorts (which many of those in MINDFIELDS are -- some of them are no longer than a paragraph). Subjecting these stories to literary (or nonliterary) disembowelment would do them (and future readers) a disservice. Furthermore, these stories by Ellison are inexorably linked to the paintings which inspired them (and, for that reason, I am told, Rick has endeavored to get permission to display some of the art from MINDFIELDS along with this pseudo-review). So I wont be encapsulating the stories for you. And my reviews will be nothing more than my initial, gut-level, reactions to reading them. If my reactions turn out to be wrong, so be it. Where art is concerned, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Where fiction is concerned, emotion and meaning are in the heart, mind and experience of the reader. What you _bring_ to the story is as important as what you take from it.
The Creation of Water
Ellison celebrates the marriage between LIFE and ART, and the baby named fiction that was born as a result.
Twilight In the Cupboard
There is no escaping true evil -- even in the "afterlife."
Complacency and indifference are the enemies of us all. "Vigilance!" is the proper battle cry. So when the men in black try to fit you with a like suit, beat hell out of 'em and run screaming as you sound the alarm of invasion. (Ellison says all that _really_ need be said about this one in his afterword).
Pay Attention: you won't often find Ellison writing true SF. This is one of those moments. A well-researched, beautifully written homage to jazz and old-time SF that culminates in a politically incorrect punchline.
Theory of Tension
Reincarnation -- the ultimate vicious circle.
Back to Nature
Suffice it to say that Ellison's whimsical side got the better of him (don't get me wrong -- I like the story, and I can relate, but let's face it: no one wants to admit to it).
A dark little tale that seems to be directed at the publishing business and its bottom-line, make-a-quick buck mentality.
A fun, sharp-edged, meditation on the most uncelebrated literary past-time: embellishing one's past, both personal and professional. Ellison does it with his usual flair for witty phrases and word play ("She went for it, hook line and dangling participles") and dead-on satire of the academia (from "Paris-Match" to "The New York Times"), which takes itself far too seriously.
Borrowing from one of Ellison's own introductions to a story in his collection, SHATTERDAY, let me just say that I have nothing to say about this story.
No matter what heights we may rise to, our species always manages to keep a firm grasp on the dirt from which we crawled.
The fever. We all are subject to it at one time or another. The desire to create. To reach for great heights and rise above the ordinary. For some of us, it is a dream which remains just beyond our fingertips, eluding our graps at every turn. For the rest, it will always be a fever dream that forever haunts the shadows of our nights.
Attack at Dawn
I worked in the "corporate world" for a total of 6 1/2 years, in three different stretches. That particular climate allows for only two distinct life forms. The first is the "company man." It comes in several forms (it can evolve, sorta like the Pokeman creatures): from cowtow, to buttkiss, to backstab. The second sort of corporate animal is the mover and the shaker. What good old boys like to call a boatrocker. A troublemaker. It's a much more rare animal. In fact, I'd say it's definitely on the endangered species list. What a shame.
Time heals all wounds. It can also put the world in perspective for us. Things that once conjured rage and anger, only serve to stir up gloom and despair. Time is a great modifier. Unless it plays a nasty trick on you -- like making sure you meet your one true love when you're on the downhill side of life. Cie la vie.
Between Heaven and Hell
Just reading the morning paper can be an exercise in amiguity. Here, a story about a man who rides the rails, just like the bindlestiffs of old -- except that he uses the transportation to carry him to his next victim. And there, on the next page, a story of a girl who saved the life of a dog after its owner had shot it several times in the head -- because the dog chewed up the remote control to his TV. Just looking around at the flotsam and jetsam that often passes for humanity can call for an exercise in self-control and result in a taxation on one's sanity. Then a cool Summer rain washes over your face, the opening bars of a Miles Davis tune tickle your ears, the smell of lilacs in bloom fill your nostrils and the sight of a blue-eyed child at play greets your half-closed eyes. Just being alive can be an ambiguous feeling.
Shed of Rebellion
Lite, Rite, Irregardless...You can't have your cake and eat it too...I could come up with a dozen more examples of bad grammar, lazy spelling and stupid syntax -- including a fairly recent horror known to some as "ebonics" -- that drive me _nuts._ All of them were taking root _before_ the internet became fairly entrenched in everyday life; most of them flowered in the pale, deatly blue light of televisionland. The future ain't what it used to be. It's probably worse.
To Each His Own
I've always thought death -- and what follows -- to be an intensely _personal_ experience. Obviously. But this seems to go against the grain of what most religions teach. You know the deal...tunnel of light, angels and songs, long dead friends and relatives waiting to greet you. Talk about your pipe dreams.
Santayana said it much better than I ever could: "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it."
It was Walt Whitman, I believe, who said it best: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am vast, I contain multitudes."
Beneath the Dunes
Artists, plumbers, shopkeepers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, students...we all should be subversive. We all should strive to be "sand, not oil, in the machinery.
It wasn't just those Germans who, through their silence or otherwise, sold their souls or a piece of their souls. All of us have done so, in one way or another. It may have been a small thing (failing to be there for a friend who needed emotional support) or it may have been larger (selling out at work in order to get that raise you wanted). Late at night, when it's quiet and sleep wont come, we all have to live with it.
Darkness Falls On the River
A beautiful and lyric lamentation to the onset of adulthood and all that it entails. Ellison at his most poetic.
Though I understand that Ellison doesn't care for him, permit me to use a quote by Springsteen to elucidate: "She'll let you in her mouth, if the words you say are right. If you pay the price, She'll let you deep inside. But there's a secret garden she hides." (from "Secret Garden" by Bruce Springsteen, 1993).
Ellison once again displaying the fine art of whimsicality.
Guys like Ralph Nadar and Harlan Ellison are a dying breed. We need good ombudsmen to keep an eye on things, point out when they aren't working correctly. But their numbers are dwindling...
Truancy at the Pond
...On the other hand, there _never_ seems to be any shortage of "know it all critics" who are willing to tear apart the finest work of art, simply because others in the pack took a nibble...or because they haven't got what it takes.
We've all done some things we're not proud of. God knows I've done my share of base things. Yeech! I get disgusted with myself just thinking about them. (By the way, _no one_ can hard-boil a story like Ellison can).
Foraging in the Field
Preconceptions -- we're _all_ full of them!
Somedays, coincidences, traffic jams, bad food and discourtesy come at you back to back at a ratio that can only be explained by the wildest of scenarios.
Afternoon With the Bros. Grimm
More whimsy. Albeit, of a hard-boiled nature.
Just when I thought he couldn't pull off a new twist on the old, "deal with the devil" story, Ellison wrote this one. I like it.
Most of you "Webderlanders" will relate. The "ordinary world" seems to operate on a different clock than the one carried by those of us who live on society's fringes. That's okay. We like it here, don't we? If only we could convince the feckless masses to join us. What a wonderful world that would be.
Please Don't Slam the Door
I'm constantly amazed by other "grownups" who amble through the rest of their lives without stopping to lay down in the grass and gaze up in awe at the way sky looks on a sunny day; or getting up to run tearing down the neighborhood sidewalk just to feel the sheer joy of adrenaline; or looking up at the star-filled night sky and pondering about all the many undiscovered countries that lie beyond our grasp.
Ellison supplies some afterwords to _some_ of the stories in MINDFIELDS. Though one of them (the afterword to "Twilight In the Cupboard") calls to light an important historical figure, it isn't necessary to read these words before the story. So don't, okay? Just crack open the covers and go play in Yerka and Ellison's beautiful fields.
Review by Dorman T. Shindler
HarlanEllison.com is under new management. Thank you to Rick Wyatt for his many years of dutiful stewardship of this site.