For those who missed the first two parts: I was finally let in on SF Signal’s little secret: they have a time machine and they allowed me to use it to travel back to those times in the history of science fiction that I thought interesting to report on. In part 1, I traveled to the first World Science Fiction convention in 1939 and interviewed John W. Campbell. In Part 2, I made for 1957 where I managed to wrangle an interview from a rather busy Isaac Asimov. For my third trip I’d had plans to visit 1968, but–
1968 was one of those years in which the world was coming apart at the seams. Wars and rebellions. Assassinations and protests. There were few shining lights in 1968. Among them, perhaps, was Apollo 8’s science-fictional Christmastime journey around the moon and, perhaps, science fiction itself. A year earlier, Harlan Ellison‘s groundbreaking original anthology Dangerous Visions had taken the science fiction world by storm and by 1968, stories that appeared in the anthology were winning awards left and right. I thought that 1968 would be a perfect time to visit and see if I could talk to the fellow who put together this (now) classic volume.
But the truth is, I was a little afraid. Not of the war and strife and rebellion, but of Ellison himself…
Ellison had a reputation and I didn’t want to be the guy bugging him for an interview. And so I chickened out. Well, sort of. I really did want to see Harlan Ellison again. I met him several times when I lived in Los Angeles. He’s come into the Dangerous Visions bookstore in Sherman Oaks every now and then to do a signing. I once watched him sit in the window of that bookstore after Chris Carter (of X Files fame) gave him a small piece of paper with an idea for a story: “The 100-year old pregnant corpse.” Ellison sat in that bookstore window for several hours tapping away at his manual typewriting and taping up pages as they came out. By the time he was finished, he’s written a story called “Objects In the Mirror of Desire Are Closer Than They Appear.” The story later appeared in F&SF.
Then I recalled an experience I had–the very first time I ever met Harlan Ellison–and it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. What happened that day was nothing short of miraculous. The memory of it had faded somewhat, but I thought to myself, why no go back to that day and relive the experience? Freshen it up in your memory? And it was for that reason that I set the time machine to July 7, 1995 and found myself sneaking into a Learning Tree event in the San Fernando Valley: “An Evening With Harlan Ellison.”
I had to be very careful. Not only did I not have a ticket (I suppose I could have gone back and gotten one, but it didn’t occur to me at the time) but seated right smack in the middle of the auditorium, two or three rows from the front, was none other than: me, sixteen years younger than I am right now. I took a seat in a back row, off in one corner and watched the place fill up. Eventually, Ellison started in, talking. Just talking, going off on tangents, those bright blue eyes of his pinning his audience to their seats. At one point he talked about writing a line in a story that went something like, “He had the eyes of a Dachau guard.” He then asked the audience how many knew what a “Dachau guard” was and was disappointed with how few people raised their hands.
Eventually, he pulled out a sheaf of typewriter paper and told the audience that he had a story just off his typewriter that he’d like to read to us. I glanced quickly over at myself down there in the center of the room. I knew exactly what that kid was thinking: Ugh, not another boring reading. Because in his time line, that younger version of myself had never heard Harlan Ellison read a story. There is something magical about the first time you hear Ellison read. I knew it wouldn’t be quite the same for me this time, but as I listened to Ellison read the title: “Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral”, I did something that never occurred to the kid sitting in the middle row who didn’t want to take his eyes of Ellison: I closed my eyes and listened.
There is no point trying to describe to you a Harlan Ellison reading. If you’ve heard him read before, you know what I am talking about. If not, well, all I can say it that he makes you experience the story in a way that reading it alone in your room can never quite match. That evening he read “Midnight In the Sunken Cathedral” and with my eyes closed I could see the story unfolding more clearly than any movie. It surrounded me, took over all of my senses, and the auditorium slipped away until the final words of the story had been spoken and the spell was broken.
Ellison took a break and people approached him to chat and get books signed. I stayed up in my corner but watched as my younger self carried hardcover editions of Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions up to the front. He (I) waited patiently until it was his turn and then he handed over the books one at a time, which Ellison signed with a smile. They exchanged a few words, and he (I) went back to his seat to listen to the rest of the talk. I slipped out at that point. I’d seen what I came to see. I saw the expression on my younger face, the one that was more determined than ever to be a science fiction writer. And I knew at last where my last trip should take me…