BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The rebellious Harlequin causes mischief in a society that is strictly punctual.
PROS: Engaging prose; interesting premise; a parable that’s effective 40 years after it was written.
CONS: If I think of any, I’ll let you know.
BOTTOM LINE: A classic short story that deserves its great reputation.
In 1965, Harlan Ellison sat down to write a story for submission to a writers’ workshop. The result after a mere 6 hours was “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”, a story that went on to win both the Hugo and Nebula Awards and is reported to be one of the most reprinted stories ever. Underwood Press published a nice-looking, 48-page commemorative anniversary edition in 1997 – aptly late considering the story’s premise – to celebrate the story’s initial publication. This hardback edition comes with some nice looking illustrations by Rick Berry. You know what? Forty two years later, the original story holds up remarkably well.
The setting is a future society that has become overly-punctual, trading freedom for conformance. Being late is a crime here, punishable by having corresponding amounts of the “wasted” time taken away from the offender’s life, with the ultimate penalty being death (or being “turned off”). This law is enforced by the office of the Master Timekeeper, also known as The Ticktockman, just not to his face. The Ticktockman keeps the wheels of this well-ordered society moving on schedule. The masked Harlequin is the fly in this ointment. He wreaks havoc armed with bullhorn and Jellybeans, making people late which – thanks to society’s rigid structure – snowballs into major economic problems.
Ellison’s story is an effective parable for conformance (and the need for nonconformance) that is timeless. The gist of it is summarized by a Thoreau quote included in the book: “He serves the State best who opposes the State most.” Harlequin’s simple shenanigans cause massive headaches for the leaders of this dystopia, leading its citizens (even the Ticktockman!) to wonder how civilization morphed into its delicately balanced position. Harlequin’s seemingly-frenetic behavior, which is really nothing more than childish mischief, is also exhibited by Ellison’s unique writing style; part conversational, part free association and thoroughly entertaining. The story is also told non-sequentially – starting in the middle, then showing us the beginning and ending – adding to the theme of nonconformance. This isn’t the first time I’ve read this story and it probably won’t be the last.
“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” is one of those must-read science fiction stories. It’s not difficult to see why.