Posts Tagged ‘Harlan Ellison’

Bill Carter, “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, & The Network Battle For the Night” (1994,1995) & Harlan Ellison, “The Glass Teat”(1969-1970, 2011)

May 9, 2016

Rightly or wrongly (probably more of the former), many people look at entertainment industry conflicts as an entirely who-could-possibly-care proposition, a battle between millionaires who shouldn’t want more than they have but apparently do (and not necessarily in terms of money, either – but money is supposed to fill those universal holes in our sense of self-worth, or so we’d like to believe.) For a normal person with a normal job, it’s difficult to fathom what could possibly be so important about being the one spearheading one particular show – and in the two decades since the The Late Shift was published, the idea of something like The Tonight Show having any sort of legacy that was worth fighting for, or that anyone would care so deeply about a format that seems antiquated and intentionally ephemeral, seems even more ludicrous – there were major changes in the television landscape happening alongside the NBC fiasco, and it’s even more significantly different now. That, and the fallout of the events in this book (and later events that were so similar that the same author wrote about them as well) ended up more or less taking the gleam from the Tonight Show – the way the show (and late night television in general) has evolved since Leno took over, left, took over again, and then left again has made it seem like something perfectly fine in its perfunctory and irrelevant niche – it’s mild entertainment for the ones who want it, and that’s pretty much it.

At the same time, considering how television was, it’s not that difficult to see why Letterman put so much into the idea of taking over The Tonight Show – it was destination television, a near-constant in the entertainment world for decades, a showcase for talent (like him and Leno), a venue available to millions of people who always know when it’s on. When you put so much into the idea of being an entertainer, being the lead in what was then the most consistent source of late night entertainment would seem the ultimate prize, the most prestigious position anyone could possibly have – and that’s especially true when you idolize your predecessor as much as Letterman idolized Johnny Carson. Letterman seemed to view The Tonight Show not only as the best venue for his talents, but also recognized it as the origin of his career. That kind of character study, of both Letterman and Leno, makes up about half of the book, the other being the executive wars going on primarily at NBC, where the players are definitely invested but often in ways that go back to that “war of the millionaires” idea (of course, it’s fun to read about it anyway, because the industry and the money involved means we can gleefully observe the bloodletting without any compunction – morality and proportion checked out long ago.) Both seem to have ideas and personalities that are the priority in their decision-making, Letterman’s devotion to craft and Leno’s to the idea of hard work going hand-in-hand with success, rather than just keeping a business afloat or even personal wealth – when the money does come up, it’s rarely the deciding factor (but it’s still there to make us workaday nobodies do a double take and wish we had their problems.) Where does one decide to bring art into the equation when you’re talking about something so inherently crass as television? It seems to be more at stake than would seem rational, but I guess people’s need for creative exposure and prestige would have to go somewhere – and at some point, it was going be with a medium as (seemingly) universal as network TV.


It’s likely based on nothing but established personality defects, but I can’t help but find that even though there’s rarely anything blatantly wrong with most modern TV criticism, there’s this feeling of stultifying dullness that creeps in. The idea of the “golden age” of television seems to inspire in a generation already raised by TV not a desire for introspection or context, but an assumption that “we’ve already won”, so all we need to do is tell everyone how intelligent and well-made everything is without adding any actual interesting thoughts to the mix. The kind of animating venom that really gets one thinking about the state of a medium, about its failings and what it could be, sometime feels absent – but maybe television has just been around in its current form for so long that everyone just sort of accepts that this is the best we can do, and it might be more sustainable sanity-wise to look at the successes that might be found in this current form and not constantly dwell on the never-ending parade of failings. It’s maybe better for the writers – but as a reader, I prefer the anger, to be honest.

Ellison’s The Glass Teat columns were being written in a very singular moment in American history, and also a very important transition point in the history of television. While there’s plenty in here that modern readers will recognize, there’s also plenty that just seems at odds with how things are now – the timidness and artificiality of TV news (especially in times of major upheaval) is about relevant as ever, but it’s difficult for us in the post-80s/90s media world (where envelope-pushing vulgarity became so common that it stopped having any sort of subversive edge) to grasp just how milquetoast and bloodless the majority of network TV was. For example, the sitcom format can always be accused of being intentionally removed from reality/humanity, but the quaintness of the shows Ellison describes is still very much a product of a decade or more earlier (one of the most interesting columns has Ellison defend the early, unsuccessful pilot version of what would become All In The Family years before it would be picked up and instigate some real change in the sitcom world.) Dramas seemed equally detached, going through cycles of heroic archetypes (doctors, detectives, and western heroes) that seem to ignore everything going on in the world of the common person. The sixties protest culture and its myriad of issues is a constant throughout the columns, presenting the kinds of new thoughts about race, gender, institutions, and freedom that were clearly absent from the world of television, making the few venues for it (like the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, one of those shows mentioned here that has mostly faded into obscurity) major rallying points.

It’s the sort of media criticism that is still widely practiced among the progressive/alternative thinkers – taking the giants of the entertainment industry to task for their failures to engage with the society of now, and simply pushing out frivolous junk for the lowest common denominator – but in the case of this collection, it’s in the context of the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, and the 1968 Chicago DNC. The networks are seen as a complacent part of the increasingly authoritarian systems that were shoring up in the wake of civil unrest, placating the masses with shallow entertainment while also undermining the protest movement in often subtle ways. These columns are part and parcel with that movement, pushing back against the form of mass entertainment – and as an underlying thesis statement, it gives each column, no matter where it ends up going, a sense of purpose, becoming a piece fitting into a larger idea gradually building up over the course of two or so years. Just having an guiding vision for criticism rooted in current realities is enough to make it interesting to read, both as a historical artifact and an example of how to write about television in a way that feels meaningful.


Various (Ed. Harlan Ellison), “Dangerous Visions” (1967, 2002) [Part three of three]

October 18, 2012

For this book, I’ve decided to take a different approach. Since I feel each of the stories is worthy of at least some attention on their own, I will try to get all my observations for each out there within 100 words, which for 33 stories would equal about three standard posts. Who needs all those extra words, anyway?

Sonya Dorman, “Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird”

A gripping little number where Dorman explores the logical conclusion of the utilitarian society. That this world is brutal should be obvious, but what really makes this revelation devastating is how betrayed the motherly protagonist feels when its her time to be “useful” to her offspring. A cycle of altruism is at the heart of how we humans imagine a family, and this is an ideal the mother clings to despite everything else. In the end, though, these ideals are futile in the face of desperation-led selfishness, which is portrayed as too sadistic and organized to even be animal savagery.

John T. Sladek, “The Happy Breed”

For years, the claim has been that our society is becoming increasingly infantilized, people willingly seeking to have adult responsibilities and considerations taken away and left to others out of laziness and in the name of “security”. Sladek essentially presents an early version of that idea here, with the threat of machines slowly taking away every semi-adult pleasure, even the simple ones like pet ownership, competition, and creativity. It starts off with this small-scale, and then slyly moves into much bigger issues (such as the removal of any sort of danger or challenge), before getting quite literal with its themes.

Jonathan Brand, “Encounter With a Hick”

Once again, we’re dealing with the issues of God and man, but in this case it’s a humorous deconstruction of the idea of human exceptionalism and “purpose”, reminiscent of what Douglas Adams would be doing later. Corporate construction, the main mode of “creation” in the modern age, is properly recognized as meaningless – the greatness of human ingenuity turned to the task of making products, entire structures built in the name of brief economic advancement; permanent impermanence. This acknowledgement is why, as seen here, it would be particularly demoralizing to find out that our entire existence was produced this way.

Kris Neville, “From the Government Printing Office”

It’s ironic that our increasing knowledge of psychology, which has freed us from the older superstitious interpretations of the mind, lead us to a new, more specific brand of human conditioning and categorization. This is the starting point for Neville’s story, where a parent’s hope for their childrens’ future becomes a series of technique to produce specific types of people. Much like the Dorman story, this is a utilitarian society where the emotional bond between parent and child is broken down for some “greater purpose”, this time shown from the child’s perspective, where this appears as a failure of authority.

R.A. Lafferty, “Land of the Great Horses”

There are many things going on in this story, even with its seemingly simple high concept. The idea of a true motherland, with that concept’s religious significations; how well-integrated people of many origins in society really are; and the question of whether a nomadic lifestyle is a constant search for the new or the old. We look at the modern nomadic people, the Roma in this case, as a strange throwback to an older time; but Lafferty sees them simply as a people in waiting – and then shows what happens when someone else ends up in the same situation.

J.G. Ballard, “The Recognition”

I am willing to take Ballard at his word when he says the story is about “a cordial distaste with the human race”. In our worst excesses, we become barely recognizable – as hinted by the narrator – and as shown with the subsequent taunting crowds, we are willing to be both victim and victimizer, as long as the attention is on us. The woman and dwarf who run the circus never seem too pleased with their line of work, the necessary task of putting up a mirror to every passerby – giving them the greatest freak show of all.

John Brunner, “Judas”

The last of the God and Man stories, Brunner’s particular take on the matter is one where man creates God rather than overcome Him (which might be the same thing, anyway). This leads to a strange inverted scenario where the robotic God takes its place as a figure of worship (supplanting its creators just as humans did in the early stories) and is confronted by its creator, which is then followed by the revelation that humans can very quickly rationalize irrationality, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The attempt to preserve imagined “meaning” also connects this to Brand’s story.

Keith Laumer, “Test to Destruction”

I have a personal inclination towards stories that incongruously combine genres – in the case, a dystopian thriller and alien science fiction. The opposing forces (opposed both stylistically as well as narrative-wise) representing this blend both attempt to take control of the protagonist by subjecting him to a great internal challenge – which he succeeds in overcoming. But in victory, he has essentially become his enemies – both the human and the alien – taking their particular positions of power. And in his mastery, he loses the connection with other people, something that was frequently tested in his mental “trials”.

Norman Spinrad, “Carcinoma Angels”

A funny story about the lengths someone will go to get what they want, and what would happen if they were confronted with a no-win situation. As the author notes, we do tend to look at cancer as a sort of malignant entity to be fought, and not simply a strange biological quirk – thus the various mythological (and modern mythological) battles Spinrad imagines that Harrison Wintergreen is imagining (because the whole thing is simply his brain rationalizing itself). The cancer section of the story is entirely “self-absorbed” – literally- very similar to the nature of cancer…and to Harrison Wintergreen.

Roger Delazny, “Auto-da-Fe”

We’ve seen machines take over almost every other facet elsewhere in this anthology – institutions, humans, gods – so in this story, we have machines take over the role of animals. It’s a very simple image – a matador facing a car – which Zelazny imbues with many underpinnings. For example: how humanity uses its fellow organisms for challenge and glory (it’s less sad that a car is wrecked, but how is it treated any differently than a bull would?) and how important cars and other tools have become so important in our lives they are integrated into our traditions.

Samuel R. Delany, “Aye, and Gomorrah…”

Understand, we are very unsuited as a species to many things – which leads to stories like this, where people are physically altered, bits of their humanity removed for the benefit of human progress. But those alterations can have some weighty consequences on the people and society – thus this story about the genderless spacers and those who fetishize them. The spacers are completely objectified – both as workers in constant motion and figures of desire for the frelks – and must either exploit the situation or confront their own inhumanity. This establishes a tragic cycle of people using people.

Various (Ed. Harlan Ellison), “Dangerous Visions” (1967, 2002) [Part two of three]

October 3, 2012

For this book, I’ve decided to take a different approach. Since I feel each of the stories is worthy of at least some attention on their own, I will try to get all my observations for each out there within 100 words, which for 33 stories would equal about three standard posts. I don’t want to be short with you, but…

Fritz Leiber, “Gonna Roll the Bones”

This reads more like a modern fable, a strange but fitting entry. It follows the old European storytelling method of a normal person outmanoeuvring the supernatural through pure skill, something that lends itself well to fantasy in a modern setting, yet I don’t see it very often. In any case, I can really appreciate fantasy stories that eschews both the cliches of traditional stuff and the tweeness of most modern urban fantasy; and despite the Faustus backbone, the way the stories rolls along (heh) and the imagery are both entirely Leiber’s. The wife stuff, though, that passed right by me.

Joe L. Hensley, “Lord Randy, My Son”

I like how the title implies more than we get here: Hensley is positioning this as an opener for a larger story that will never be, colouring the whole reading experience. But in not getting to the “good stuff”, we actually have a more interesting, human story. The science fiction elements pop in mainly to emphasize the passages where Hensley’s actual point surfaces: the little resentments in life interacting with the larger injustices in the world. The father and son are paralleled in both the structure and content, their unknown similarities driven by their strained relationship that they barely recognize.

Poul Anderson, “Eutopia”

This probably has the funniest zinger ending in the whole book. Since you are dropped right into the story, what really drives this thing is the sense of always playing catch-up with Anderson’s mile-a-minute world building. I generally have a bit of a problem with alternate histories, as they often end up feeling myopic (as the direction of human civilization is built on many big and small events from all corners). But by examining several through his biased protagonist, Anderson seems to really be getting into what defines and shapes civilization in a way that most alternate history stories don’t.

David R. Bunch, “Incident in Moderan”

The more mechanized war and violence becomes, the less responsible we feel for it. This is process that has been going on for hundreds of years; hell, it started once we began killing from a distance. That “distance”, in many senses of the word, has vastly increased over time; now, little flying robots to do it for us. Bunch’s story, from when we were still devising schemes with nuclear rockets, is a comical reflection of this – war, at a distance, and involving our increasingly technological inhumanity, turns the whole thing into a game with morality and consequences safely removed.

David R. Bunch, “The Escaping”

Another war story from Bunch, which paradoxically has a narrator who embraces the technological turn of war, dreaming of escaping his captors with tanks, devising revenge strategies with oblique processes (coding?), and watching the world from above in his flying egg. Of course, that is all in the background; what is really important here is the fantasy of evasion, of getting away from a dire situation using only one’s wits. There’s joyousness in the way the narrator describes his plan, his return to the egg, but he also recognizes the futility. The situation is sad, but the dream is giddy.

James Cross, “The Doll-House”

A lot of the tension in the story only involves the fantasy element on the fringes – simply having the protagonist bet his life savings, even on what is essentially a sure thing, is gut-wrenching. What is a pretty shop-worn premise, this is another story where someone finds a symbolic secret to success and is destroyed by it, is often highly enhanced by these banal elements. What also helps make it all the more horrifying is that the ending doesn’t feel like a comeuppance; it is how all the pressures of real life can end up completely crushing a man.

Carol Emshwiller, “Sex and/or Mr Morrison”

Emshwiller writes a very lighthearted story that focuses on our societal inadequacies, our aversion to ourselves. It seems intentionally child-like, if only to get back to a sense of curiosity, to a mindset clear of all the learned nonsense, a complete rejection of adult prudishness (which her afterword is meant to demonstrate fully). After all, sex is obviously an interest in each other physically – so why should we be so afraid of our physical form? Emshwiller is saying that, whether in the fanciful context of her story or in our own lives, we shouldn’t hide away from each other.

Damon Knight, “Shall the Dust Praise Thee?”

As I mentioned previously, there is an undercurrent in many of these stories of humanity’s technological advances allowing us to surpass the feats of gods of. During the time of this anthology, there was a real fear of a global annihilation that seemed more real and devastating than biblical Armageddon. Knight reflects that here: God’s scheduled end to the world ends up occurring after the nuclear apocalypse, showing God as outdone even in the realm of destroying everything. If we are capable of such destruction, we should be capable of also preventing it, placing our fate in our own hands.

Theodore Sturgeon, “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?”

Although there is a bit of quirky fast-talking and universe-building in the first half of the story, the rest of it is devoted to Sturgeon’s polemic, in which he uses an extreme position, in this case by having his utopian alien society argue in favour of incest, to make a slightly less extreme point. The incest angle is mostly there for effect, probably being the most polarizing taboo Sturgeon could think of logically arguing for; but while his ultimate point, that our taboos are often irrational and limiting, I don’t know if it can completely justify its choice of rhetoric.

Larry Eisenberg, “What Happened to August Clarot?”

Not knowing if and how Eisenberg has really influenced anything, all I can say is that I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. The rapid-fire jokes, appropriation of genre tropes for mockery (in this case, the mystery/detective story), and creative use of description feels to me like something that has become a staple of a lot of modern comedy, especially in the comedy nerd circles. Aside from that, though, it’s an interesting entry in this book – a bit of pure silliness in between far more serious works (even if they are also tinged with humour much of the time).

Henry Slesar, “Ersatz”

The whole story here kind of feels like a very elaborate set-up for what is a borderline gay panic joke, although Slesar has an interesting idea. Once again, we’re dealing with post-atomic war zones (making this a sort of companion piece to Bunch and Knight), and the experience of those remaining when there is essentially nothing left. Humans have many needs, and there is an attempt to placate those needs with a sort of fantasy (which the Santa Claus imagery invokes) – the “ersatz” of the title. That fantasy has limits, though, and the protagonist rejects it upon that realization.

Various (Ed. Harlan Ellison), “Dangerous Visions” (1967, 2002) [Part one of three]

September 23, 2012

For this book, I’ve decided to take a different approach. Since I feel each of the stories is worthy of at least some attention on their own, I will try to get all my observations for each out there within 100 words, which for 33 stories would equal about three standard posts. Conciseness will be my new master.

Lester Del Ray, “Evensong”

A classic “zinger” sci-fi story, probably a good way to start off the collection. Ultimately it is combination of two related high concepts, God is an alien and God is us, and bringing about the logical conclusion to both those stories (God is undone by His creation). It’s saying something about our potential – but whether or not it’s a potential for good is unclear. I only just noticed that this story is echoed twice in the book – by Damon Knight (in a sort of mirrored way) and John Brunner (who has an interestingly mangled version of the idea).

Robert Silverburg, “Flies”

An incredibly cynical deconstruction of humanity in this; it’s delightful how creatively relentless Silverburg is here. Yet it somehow doesn’t feel entirely “mean”, but rather just flatly observing, which gives it a unique feel. This was the first story, and only the second, where I was really taken with the way it was written, the episodic style and the computer-like asides buzzing in and out of the text. Of course, the cold, uninvolved tone of the text is part and parcel of the other major theme, the one relayed by the title, so it all ties together in the end.

Frederick Pohl, “The Day After the Day the Martians Came”

Uses “science fiction at the fringes” to talk about race in America, which is something that had to happen in ’67. Pohl keeps both the actual alien element, which is made to seem as silly as possible, and the point, which contrasts it, boiling behind the scenes, while we are shown how stupid, obnoxious, dehumanizing prejudice is in action. Many of the stories in this collection have some sort of heightened, semi-comical air to them (although that could be my modern sensibilities seeing it that way), and here the “silly” context is used to make us really observe characters’ behaviour.

Philip Jose Farmer, “Riders of the Purple Wage”

Probably the most stylistically wonderful story in here; Farmer goes from one idea or joke to the next at a gleeful, dizzying pace, while taking the main idea just seriously enough that it makes for an effective end. It’s exactly the kind of daringly experimental story the stodgy world of science fiction should look at more. However, I think Farmer had some problems with women – see the way almost all the women characters (except for a writer, interestingly) are portrayed, the use of homosexuality as a metaphor for selling out, and the focus on the loss of father figures.

Miriam Allen deFord, “The Malley System”

It feels a tad cutesy that deFord, a true crime writer, would write a sci-fi crime story for this anthology (same goes for the Robert Bloch story we’ll get to in a moment). But it’s interesting that as lurid as the crimes are, deFord doesn’t intend to show the titular Malley System as a just punishment. The story seems to be talking about the whole practical and ethical dilemmas we face at the very core of criminal justice – that no matter how effective a punishment or corrective method seems on paper, they never work out the way we hope.

Robert Bloch, “A Toy for Juliette”

I think this story is more interesting in the context of the story that proceeds it. I have no idea if Bloch and Ellison discussed this as part of the semi-collaboration, but they echo in their portrayal of psychopathic evil getting one-upped by some other psychopathic evil – in this story, that’s the zinger; it’s continuation thoroughly interrogates the idea over its course. Independently, Bloch’s story is good as a bit of dark comedy, but its still there more as a larf (which I realize could be said for a few of the stories) and a springboard for Ellison’s story.

Harlan Ellison, “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World”

Ellison goes all out here. It’s fascinating in its refusal to go the expected route – “Jack the Ripper in the future” would seem to be a simple concept, but Ellison has too many ideas to do something simple. Ultimately a story about the nature of evil, it shows how a very unhinged person is used for the pleasure of sadistic voyeurs (commentary on how we often observe violent crime?) – and when Jack finally goes on his anticipated killing spree, it becomes a sad moment of someone thinking he has control only to have it taken away from him.

Brian W. Aldiss, “The Night That All Time Broke Out”

Aldiss seems to show how we often conflate two different versions of “time” – the specific personal moments that the people who use the “time gas” are attempting to recreate again and again, and the time that affects everyone and marches forward always. People seem to feel a need to escape the present (the disappointment) and the future (the soon-to-be-disappointment), no matter what era it is – there is always a golden age, and a desire to strive for the former. We then get the consequences of this desire to go backwards – reverting back to essentially nothing, to pre-civilization.

Howard Rodman, “The Man That Went to the Moon – Twice”

As bothered as I am by most “oh, modern terms are JUST SO” stories, I can see that Rodman is trying to show something both sad and triumphant here. As much as it is about the end of the era of wonder and imagination, it’s also about someone trying (and failing) to relive the wonders of childhood, unable to adapt to “harsher” modern sensibilities – and then passing that wonder on to the next generation. So as much as the people of “today” aren’t as friendly as they used to be, there will always be someone to keep on dreaming.

Philip K. Dick, “Faith of Our Fathers”

I think this story had the most profound impact on me of anything in the anthology. There is something really fevered and frightening in its unravelling of perception – portraying the truth as almost impossible to decipher. Even when the “conspiracy” (although Dick is playing at level that goes far beyond conspiracies) is revealed, it is essentially a giant blur – something beyond our puny imaginations, beyond even the disturbed images that the leader portrayed itself as when “reality” is unveiled. The Cold War dystopia is the hallucination, it turns out, and what’s really controlling the populace is far worse.

Larry Niven, “The Jigsaw Man”

Niven is playing off the parasitic nature of medical science – his afterword really gets across the idea that he thought this was where we were headed (the historical facts mentioned at the beginning is definitely meant to clue us in on this). The story shifts a couple of times – going from prison break, to medical horror, and then to dark comedy – all flowing directly from the story’s main conceit. Really, the ending joke shouldn’t come as a shock if you were paying attention, but the tone makes it still feel like it came out of left field.