Reviewed Edition: Walker, 1974 (book club edition)
Copyright 1974 by Harlan Ellison, Cover by Diane and Leo Dillon (Back Cover Photo by Max Katz and Karen Friedrich)
Cover Art Shown: Barclay Shaw, from the BlueJay Softcover
The Langerhans review
Contents and Copyright DatesForeword: Approaching Ellison (Michael Crichton, 1974)
Introduction: Reaping the Whirlwind (Harlan Ellison, 1974)
Cold Friend (1973)
Kiss of Fire (1972)
Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman (1962)
I'm Looking for Kadak (1974)
Silent in Gehenna (1971)
One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty (1970)
Hindsight: 480 Seconds (1973)
Introductory Quote(Found preceding the story Knox)
Now I know less about how well the series sold than I do about the accuracies of my own deductions. The point is I read Ellison. I did. I truly did. And you know what? I had absolutely no freaking idea who he was! To me he was like Pohl, Heinlein, Eddings, and Niven. He was someone I'd eventually read when I made my way through the "Skiffy" alphabet. Seeing as how I was working my way to the center starting with Asimov and Zelazny it would have been quite a while until I got to him. But as it was 1994 and I was a snot-nosed, pimple faced, High School kid, I didn't quite make it. I think I got sidetracked a bit and turned toward a path of Horror and Fantasy. It wasn't until I got to college and began making intelligent reading choices that I rediscovered Ellison. And even then it was only through Stephen King. One day while reading that tome of all tomes on the art of Horror known as Danse Macabre, I found myself wading through the most fascinating story of this little man who gave a Paramount executive the bird. And the guy was a writer. What was it. Hal . . . No, Harlan. Ellyhu? No, that's not it. Ellimore? Nope. Ellison? Oh yeah. Isn't he that guy whose name appears in the credits of that show about a space station?
I spent about a year looking for Ellison. I wanted to read Ellison. I needed Ellison. It was a hunger. It was an addiction. And you know what? I couldn't find a damn thing. Eventually I got my hands on the Houghton Mifflin edition of Slippage, and found God in the series of reprints by White-Wolf known as the Edgeworks series. But something was missing. I couldn't quite pin it down. Then one day as I was walking through a local used bookstore with a young woman with whom I was at the time smitten, I was struck by an epiphany in the form of a purple covered book. My eyes dilated, my pulse quickened, my palms began sweating, and I swore up and down that the world had just dropped and my stomach had been left behind. Upon that shelf sat Approaching Oblivion: Road Signs on the Treadmill Toward Tomorrow, (I bet you were wondering when I'd get to that.) I left my current object of desires behind, and ran toward the nearest ATM to get the dough needed to make the purchase. Oh yeah, I left the girl there too.
Does my autobiography have a purpose to this review? Or am I just wasting precious kilobytes of space trying to boost my own ego? Well, there is a point. Reading Approaching Oblivion has given me insight into what I've been doing wrong all this time. I've become complacent. I've become lazy. I've become a myopic yabbo who doesn't see the dragon's hoard of gold, nor the dragon in front of me until something, or someone bites me in the ass. Ellison's words did just that. The collection was originally intended for an audience of the mid seventies, whose own blinders had kicked into overtime after the horrors known as Vietnam and Dick . . . I mean Richard . . . (no I was right the first time) M. Nixon. As Ellison himself pointed out, each story tried to address some fault with society that society would rather ignore. "This is what may happen if we keep on going the way we're going." Is how Ellison summed up the thematic content of this book. And he was right. I won't claim that I saw Shangri-La or some divine light because I read a book. That would be silly. However, to some greater extent than before, I've been able to open my eyes and see what has been going awry in my life. I have also been able to see how some of his fantastical ideas have come closer to reality than we would like to comfortably consider.
Do I absolutely love every story in this book? No. Although I'll admit to an addiction to his work (yes I have skipped classes to read his books) I will not submit to the idea of me as sycophant. I have some problems with the book. Well, individual stories to be specific. As a whole however, I wish some ideas in this tome were too old to be problems. But looking around at the universe, well they are still problems. One would hope that the stories in Oblivion were as dated today as Dr. Seward recording his diary on a phonograph in Dracula. But they're not. And that's frightening. Especially considering how some of the stories have become more prophecy than fantasy. And let's not beat around the proverbial bush. For years Ellison has managed to hit us over the head, bite us in the ass, kick us in the groin, tell us what stupid yahoos we are (and he gives us a glossary of words to play with in this book) and those of us who read his work catch on (well most of us) and in some small way try to make things better. But the truth is, almost twenty five years after its publication, Approaching Oblivion has too much to do with today's society than it ought to. I should be reading it and wondering to myself "whoh, they were pretty screwed up back then, four years before I was even BORN." Instead of thinking "Damn, you mean this was a problem back then too?"
I'll get into greater detail later on in the individual reviews of the stories. To do otherwise would leave this whole venture looking rather cluttered and thoroughly unprofessional. (although no one has ever accused me of being professional) Whether driving on a treadmill or running in a hamster wheel, we as a society seemed doomed to forever walk in a cycle of self fulfilling prophecies. Each time we return to our point of origin, the wheels are a bit rustier, and we are a bit rustier as well. As this book points out, and as Ellison has so eloquently (most of the time) surmised, the wheels will eventually rust to a stop and we will fall off, having rusted too much to pick ourselves back up again.
So to sum up after the ego rant I call commentary. Approaching Oblivion is meant to disturb, confuse, disgust, and ultimately make you turn on that little piece of organic matter that sits inertly between most people's ears. You know the one. That blockage that keeps the human head from becoming a wind tunnel for NASA experiments. (Sorry, Ellison's writing sometimes brings out my belligerent side. Does not. Does too.) I've taken enough psychology courses to know that human beings use only three percent of their brain. It is more likely that only three percent of human beings use their brains. Whatever the case, Ellison's task besides entertaining us with disturbing tales is clearly to make us think. There is a reason why many people label his stories as thoughtful. They don't mean that they are nice. They mean that the stories make people think and are of themselves full of thought. I should go before I climb to the top of Morris Dailey Auditorium and decide that humanity is too disturbed to survive. Although I doubt it would ever come to that.
Oh yeah. I still haven't read Pohl, Heinlein, Eddings, or Niven.
Peter Padraic O'Sullivan
San Jose, California
Comments: For me, Knox sums up everything I love about Ellison. It takes the best elements of prose and of poetry then infuses them into something sick and disturbing. With the exception of Vonnegut's MotherNight I can recall very few stories that have dared answer the question "are monsters created or born?" Or at least, if they have dared, they usually fail to back up their hypothesis. I don't see that failure here, however.
Reading Knox is like reading first-hand accounts of Nazi Germany. Take the character of Knox. He is by all accounts a normal man. He has a normal boring job on an assembly line. He is healthy, has a wife and children who love him, and can sing. Satan he is not. But like most people, Knox needed something to belong to, to believe in. So he joined "the party." Fair enough. It's a sad but true fact that human beings will do almost anything to belong. As much as we like to proclaim our individuality, we are quite simply a social animal who needs to feel part of something. Unfortunately, people stop thinking when they find something that makes them feel important; especially when one's life is such that there is really nothing else to feel important about.
Sorry if I'm avoiding the issue of what Knox actually does. It is enough to say that if I met him on the street I'd probably think he was an okay guy until he hit me over the head with a blackjack and screamed rather unflattering epithets about my Irish heritage at me.
The story chronicles Knox's evolution from normal guy with nothing exciting going for him, to a hate filled, venomous, and rather despicable piece of human flotsam. However, the ending at first left me a bit baffled. It seemed like Ellison was creating a loophole for the real universe by saying that some mysterious and shadowy aliens are in fact the cause of Knox's transformation. It wasn't until I thought further that I realized that the shadowy aliens were simply a manifestation of the hatred and excuses that people keep in the corner of their brain. Sure, in Knox's world Naziism was caused by carefully controlled experiments in human psychology, but the important thing is that humans can be controlled. Whether it's shadowy aliens or a psychopathic Austrian, someone or something out there can twist the very fragile moral fibers of humanity to create some of the most bizarrely frightening monsters in existence. In that vein, Knox leaves its mark.
On a lighter note, I'd like to comment briefly on Ellison's graceful, almost
poetic prose. The story is marked in several places by the statement
"Charlie Knox is a man who." Each time the statement is separated by
a new pattern of periods. Each time, the statement evolves, just as
Charlie Knox devolves. Call me crazy, but I just love writing like that.
Ray Bradbury once said that he loved reading H.G. Wells because of the stories
he told. When he was first trying to get published he would emulate
his favorite story teller. It wasn't until later that he would realize
his folly. H.G. Wells told stories. He didn't let
the stories tell themselves. Apparently that revelation led Bradbury
to be published. Ellison's stories tell themselves and Knox is
a prime example.
Comments: First of all, I have to say that this is what I live for.
Too many times I read stories written in first person narrative that sound
like they have been written by someone with talent. It's a little disconcerting
when the hero of a story who happens to be a six foot five construction
worker who barely made it through High School sounds like Norman Mailer.
I want my every day average joe narrators to sound like an every day average
joe. I don't want him to describe his environment as verbosely as Clive
Barker. Ellison understands that. His story has a voice of its
own, and it is the voice of the narrator. And he doesn't know how to
The story itself is indicative of my favorite sub-genre of fiction. I love the idea of a small segment of reality being surrounded by a white misted ethereal void. Reading this story reminded me a lot of the Doctor Who adventure, The Mind Robber starring Patrick Troughton. Especially the scene in which his three square blocks are invaded. Part of the excitement I feel for this story is the fact that Eugene simply describes a couple of the attackers then lists the rest, like a normal person would do. Had this story been written by Stephen King it would have gone on for about seventeen thousand more words and have described every single detail of every single attacker, and how each one was foiled. (Don't get me wrong. I love King's work. I just think that reading a twelve pound book isn't always the best thing for my wrists.)
Then there is the character of Opal Sellers. Unfortunately we all knew
her at one time or another. She represents the pathetic girl (or guy)
who always took the least act of kindness and blew it way out of proportion.
Usually that was caused by a lack of an kind of consistent relationship with
which the person could validate their own existence. While Knox
showed what happens when someone tries to hard to be accepted into something,
Cold Friend demonstrates what can happen when people go all of the
their lives not feeling like they belong to something. Maybe I'm reading
too much into these stories, (which can always be the case) but I see these
two as a point/counterpoint for some kind of happy medium. In the meantime
Eugene Harrison gets to live the rest of his life in a three by three block
of New Hampshire because he felt bad for this girl.
At least he can learn to make pizza.
Comments: When I first read this story I had a major problem with it. The language. I knew I was in for a difficult time when the story opened with "He drank ice crystals laced with midnight and watched their world burn." However after my third aborted attempt, I either became used to the highly stylized language or had a translator device surgically implanted into my left eye, because I eventually figured out what was being said. Difficulties aside, the story presents a rather alien look at the human race and its quest for the quick fix.
Several disturbing and rather interesting ideas present themselves in this story. Of the most disturbing is that society is actually capable of deadening itself to mental and emotional stimulation so much that it takes the death of a world to excite what little spark of imagination remains. Some of the dialogue about the quality of the "death" and syndication rights led me to think of Ellison's tenure as a television writer. Perhaps I'm projecting more qualities onto this story than are necessarily there, but I could see some definite parallels between this society and the television culture of the last forty years. It's just that television has never resulted in the destruction of an entire species. (Unless of course you count brain cells as a separate species.)
Another idea that Ellison made some play with was in the role of a greenperson. This entity appeared to be a messenger and emotional translator. The fact that it's purpose was to functionally destroy the chance of contextual error. I found this both intriguing and frightening. The intrigue was in the idea that nothing could be misconstrued. The fright was in the fact that such a creature should be necessary, thus destroying the art of conversation and human communication. But as with all else in that society, interpersonal relations seem to be mechanical and uninspired.
As a revenge piece, the story works. As a cry against human complacency
and the ultimate deadening of our senses, the story works. As a colorfully
woven tapestry of language, the story works. As a quick read on a bus,
train, or waiting for class, don't bother. It's more likely to have
you pulling hair out in frustration trying to figure out what the heck everything
is. Let alone what the heck is going on.
Comments: To simply say I liked this story is somewhat of a disservice. But it's true. I thought it was wonderfully written. I'm not going to dissect this one too much though. The story is fairly straight forward and the title is sort of a dead giveaway for the ending.
I would like to comment however on one thing that really got me about this
story. In the end for Paulie at least it stopped being about the
music and started being about the girl. I found this rather disturbing.
I'm always hearing from "artistes" that art should be larger than any two
people, especially the person creating it. But does that mean that when
art becomes just about two people, it somehow is lost? I'm not sure
about that one, but it is a frightening concept.
Comments: I had to come back to this story several times. In fact I was only able to get through it on my second reading of the collection. It's not a difficult story by any means. It's just . . . well . . . half written in Yiddish. I must admit though, once I got down a steady pattern of reading two lines then flipping back to the extremely helpful glossary that follows the story, I read through it like a speed demon. Not that I'm condemning the story for its language. I thought it gave a wonderful voice to the story (what else could make a squidgy, eleven armed alien sound like Jackie Mason in my mind?) and enhanced my pleasure (and frustration) with the story.
On an analytical note. I picked up on a lot of Ellison's distaste for religions. Especially the types where people follow blindly (or with their noses plugged as was the case with the worshipers of Seymool) without regard for life, liberty, and the pursuit of a bath. I also picked up on the idea that Ellison had a great deal of fun writing this story. I can't really clarify that idea, but it is a feeling that I get from reading it.
Taking into account the time this story was written (1973) it's evident to anyone who was alive then (or in my case, watches a lot of The Twentieth Century: with Mike Wallace) that the story was a response to the proliferation of religions (or cults depending on your view point) in America following the era of peace and love known as the sixties. While some of those organizations were in fact benign, a lot were there simply to exploit the gullible. With many people wandering the country, lost and disillusioned following the reign of Der Uberstinker Nixon, it was no wonder people sought long and hard for something to believe in.
The ending itself is a masterpiece. Not only is the idea mail order religion questioned heavily, but so is the strict adherence to the tenets of an established religion. Even when Kadak is finally found and brought back to the rest of the remaining jews, he is unable to complete the minyan based on a technicality. While the whole problem is solved by a similar technicality, it does make me question the importance of Evsise's tribulations. That is, except for the importance of the story itself.
In the end, this story is an exercise in frustration whose results are well
worth it. Although it took me a long time to read (and I'm the guy who
finished Stephen King's latest tome in less than a week), it left me better
for the experience. I think. At least I know a few new words to
describe me and the people around me (can you believe that I used the word
chutzpah in conversation?)
Comments: This story scared the living bejeezus out of me. In the great tradition of George Orwell, Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley, Ellison managed to create a brave new world of infinitely greater terror. As a student in college, I can't imagine not being able to ask questions. I can't imagine having armed guards patrolling my campus. I can't bring myself to conceive of a world where free thought is as alien to a student as good taste is to Mtv. What scared me even more was the apathy with which the rest of the world seemed to accept its situation.
The planet to which Joe Bob is taken is quite simply a literal representation of he had become on Earth. He was the freak in the cage; prisoner to a world that didn't care, but knew that it had to have someone tell them that what they were doing was wrong so that they could go on with their lives. He was their conscience.
What I loved most about this story was that throughout, Joe Bob was battling
with his own conscience. His desire to not kill, even though he knew
that he was justified. It talked a lot about his own morals (which,
we can surmise, he came to on his own). Maybe I'm blowing smoke but
Joe Bob is one of the most heroically tragic characters I have seen in a long
time. Yeah, he had his flaws. But at least he stood by what he
felt was right, even when he discovered that he was no more than a cosmic
joke. He had no power to invoke change, but like Henry David Thorough,
he knew what was right and refused to support a system that broke his own
Comments: A short story by many definitions. It demonstrates what happens when a person has a magnetic personality and doesn't know how to deal with it. But ultimately I think the moral may be love thy self.' I'm not sure. This one was a little to wild and maybe a bit esoteric for my tastes. I've never had girl scouts fight over me.
In some ways this story is a cautionary tale. Be careful what you wish
for even if you didn't. A play on the ultimate male fantasy (to have
everyone and their mother desire you sexually) but takes it to such a wild
extreme that is ceases being an enjoyable thought and turns into a nightmare
of grandiose proportions. As I said, a little wild, and a bit too esoteric
for my tastes.
Comments: To the casual reader this is simply a time travel story where a man tries to make his own childhood a bit more bearable. To the loyal reader of Ellison this is a story of a man who travels back in time to make his own childhood a bit more bearable. The only difference between the two is that the casual reader sees the character of Gus Rosenthal while the loyal reader sees the character of Harlan Ellison. By his own admission and the several yarns he has spun over the years of his childhood in Painseville, Ohio, this story is Ellison's own Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. And while this story is vastly more coherent (I've always had trouble with Joyce), it follows in a grand tradition of an author examining his own life through another character. Perhaps it is easier to examine your own life if you imagine yourself to be someone else. I just think that it keeps a person from being too self congratulating or self deprecating.
I have to admit that I'm not a terribly emotional person. I tend to repress emotion to maintain outward appearances. This story, however, brought tears to my eyes. It is a rare tangle of words that can do that. And I think what got me most of all was the honesty with which the story was told. Too often (bad writers and I share this trait) stories lack any real emotion. And while critics will usually blast a story brimming with such honest emotion as sentimental, I find it both refreshing and ultimately necessary. I want characters I can empathize with. Ellison succeeds with this story.
While people like my creative writing professor will label Ellison with
the epithet "science fiction writer", this story is one of those gems that
proves to those Ulysses droolin', Lolita lovin' literary snobs
that Ellison has a depth to his work that even they can't ignore for too long.
If only I could get them to read it.
Comments: A nice fuck you from Ellison. I like this story
for its simplicity and its poignance. Ellison takes out some people
who get on his nerves and the Earth actually gets people who want to do something
good for the environment for once. It really is a nice story.
Thank you Harlan.
Comments: I realize that my synopsis is really lacking, but this story left me incredibly baffled. Before I try to pick apart the story's ramifications in the real world, and before I dissect the rather incomprehensible ending, I want to talk about some of the ideas that I really fell for.
One of the first things I liked about this story was the scene when the Catman goes off duty. To have a Huxleyan society where an officer of the law is bound by a time clock is absurdly delightful. To think that a thief also runs by a time clock is just as surreal. It's like Sherlock Holmes chasing Professor Moriarty down a dark tunnel, cornering him, then looking at his watch and saying "Oh dear, it's tea time. Professor, get the scones, I'll play mother." You just don't expect anyone to adhere that strictly to a clock.
I had to read this story three times. I still don't get most of it.
The one forbidden thing (which I gathered to be having sex with a machine) is perplexing to me. Neil Leipzig's attraction to the machine is about as alien to me as a foot fetishist's attraction to toes, a necrophile's addiction to George Romero's movies, and a pedophile's attraction to children. I just don't get it. My brain isn't wired that way. But I suppose that in any society, if you tell people that there is something that they must absolutely never do, someone will eventually have the desire to do it. Especially in a society where everything else is allowed.
But Ellison's society is a bit odd to me in other respects. It seems to me that there is a kind of unspoken class system. We see the Leipzigs and assume that they are a typical family. There is the beaten and weary husband, the nagging wife, and the rebellious son. We also see Lady Effim, who is that world's version of the filthily stinking rich. Plus we hear of a peasant class under the rule of Lady Effim. Which makes me wonder. How can a society live with no taboos and still condone a class system? Unless people in the society accept their place in society unquestioningly. I'm not sure if I've expressed my doubts very clearly, but it still lingers.
Also, I'm curious as to the very end when The Catman basically curses his
son for killing his mother. There is a very bizarre paragraph that states
Comments: This story is about as human as a story can get. The idea that a poet is the best person equipped to report on the destruction of the Earth has a profound sense of rightness. Poetry is best described as a gestalt of images that leaves a lasting impression.
I thought it was a rather unique way of dealing with the end of the world. I thought it was interesting the way Haddon wandered the last remaining city on Earth, and examined the elements that made it a city, even without the people. His description of robots as being the happiest beings on the planet, and his eloquent dissertation of the wonderful life of the immigrant who knows the meaning of words for which there are no English translations. In an un-Ellison like fashion, this story gives some hope for the future of humanity.
What I thought was most effective about this story was the fact that in the end, Haddon was still human. His second to last thoughts are that he wants to be with his wife and children. And his last thoughts are whether or not he failed in his assigned task. But even he realizes that no more could be said.
This story is an excellent closer to the collection. It leaves Haddon's society with some kind of hope, and even more to the point, it leaves our society with some kind of hope. I especially liked the line that says
Story Reviews by Peter Padraic O'Sullivan (email@example.com)HarlanEllison.com is under new management. Thank you to Rick Wyatt for his many years of dutiful stewardship of this site.