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REVIEW: “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman by Harlan Ellison

REVIEW SUMMARY: Still a great story.


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.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

8 Comments on REVIEW: “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman by Harlan Ellison

  1. It’s strange sometimes how views can differ. Many for instance consider Nightfall by Asimov to be the best sf short story ever. To me the story can barely compare with say Asimov’s own The Last Question let alone some of the other to me much more deserving titles. But Repent is different I am glad to say. I recently read it, not with a little dose of reticence being mindful of Ellison’s reputation as the angriest young man in science fiction, and I loved it. The story is nicely fast paced and potable while hitting you with a tone of bricks. Overall a story worthy of its reputation. And that is always fresh.

  2. 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 the most reprinted story ever.

    Actually, I thought it was another Ellison story, “I have no Mouth and I must scream” that holds that distinction.

  3. Paul: I incorrectly read this wikipedia article. And we all know if its on the InterWebs, it must be true. It should read “…reported to be one of the most reprinted stories ever.” I’ll update the post

  4. “Repent” is all right, but I Have No Mouth would be in my top 3 short stories of all times, together with Clarke’s Sentinel and Kuttner’s Mimsy Were the Borogoves.

  5. This is such a great, memorable story (as are many Ellison stories). It is cool that it’s being published like this – good cover! Oddly, because of an old friend who used to be infamous for lateness, I tend to sympathize with the poor ticktockman but still love this story.

  6. I read it a little while ago myself, and didn’t find anything extraordinary about it at all, but I guess I at least owe it another read.

    I think “I have no mouth and I must scream” is the best short story I’ve ever read.

  7. This is indeed a great story. I liked the end a lot, even though I didn’t get it at first (these things usually take a little time for me). If it’s true that he wrote it in six hours, that’s pretty amazing. I have a hard time finishing a short story in less than a month!

  8. I haven’t read it in a few years, but I remember really liking it. I just bought “The Essential Ellison” a few days ago (over 1200 pages of Harlan!) and in Harlan’s intro he mentions that Bob Silverberg told him that he (Ellison) was a subject of ridicule among older science fiction authors until this story came out.

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