Thursday, November 20, 2008

Review - Harlan Ellison's Watching

It's hard to believe that Harlan Ellison will be 75 next year. He has so long been known as the enfant terrible of the world of fantasy and science fiction literature, as the brash younger brother to the elder statesmen of the field. But Asimov would be 88, Clarke just died at 90, Heinlein would be 101 (!), so, in that company, Ellison is just a youngster.

And he's always been different anyway. Leaning more toward fantasy than hard science fiction (he calls what he writes "speculative fiction"), there is a biting quality to his best work. The aforementioned "Big 3" presented a view of humanity that was essentially progressive and positive (at least potentially); there is an undercurrent of misanthropic bile that lies beneath Ellison's writing.

In one important respect, he does resemble Asimov, in that both have written extensive amounts of non-fiction and have revealed much of themselves in the process. You may not feel you "know" Clarke or Heinlein no matter how many of their books and stories you have read; it's impossible to say the same about either Ellison or Asimov. Ellison, in particular, has often presented himself in his essays, a portrait which, while not always flattering, is indelible.

Movie and television reviews are, perhaps, the most ephemeral of essays; once the movie has left the theaters or the TV episode is over, it's hard to see why anyone should care (admittedly, the existence of videotapes and DVDs has changed this somewhat). For these reviews to be worthwhile, there needs to be something more, whether it be the inclusion of cultural context or writing that is simply so compelling that it remains fresh. Still, a book in which the newest contribution is 19 years old, and the reviews often barely mention the film, would seem to have questionable entertainment value.

So Harlan Ellison's Watching (2008) might seem to be a niche book, one of interest only to those who enjoy fantasy and science fiction movies of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s - and it's not even comprehensive, so sporadically timed are the essays contained within.

But it's not a niche book, due solely to the quality of Ellison's writing and the force of his personality. Opinions spill off every page (he's not a fan of either Steven Spielberg or James Garner), and they are interwoven with the creation of this character named Harlan Ellison.

For this is not really a book of reviews of the quality of a film, a director, an actor, but a memoir of a fascinatingly infurating character, Harlan Ellison. Is it accurate? I don't know if anything written here is any less opinionated than his accounts of movies, but why would I rely on critical detachment in one case but not the other?

Nevertheless, it is this quality which makes this book memorable, much in the way of Ellison's two books (here and here) on television, writing which focuses on long-forgotten shows. There is a significant amount of cultural observation in all these books, much of which still resonates today, but it is still culture filtered through the sensibilities of one Harlan Ellison.

And the writing is wonderful, passionate and witty and scathing, as you might expect if you have read his fiction. There is a palpable joy reflected in these words, the pure joy that comes from being able to express one's own self to others, and prove that, ultimately, the pen is mightier than the sword (and you know Ellison wouldn't fall back on such a hoary cliché, which is why he's he, and I am I).

This wouldn't be a critique if I didn't find something to criticize, and it concerns not the work, but the audience. If you haven't read other of his essays, Watching is a difficult place to start. He alludes several times to his battles with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry; if you know something about this now 40-year-old feud, these references will be meaningful to you. If you don't, you'll feel that something has been left out. If that's going to bother you, you may want to start your Ellison non-fiction reading somewhere else on the shelf. If, however, you're comfortable with loose ends and you want to watch a marvelous prose stylist turning his pen to films (and things on the periphery), read this book.

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