1962 - ELLISON WONDERLAND

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1962 - ELLISON WONDERLAND

Postby Jan » Sun Jan 21, 2007 5:01 pm

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Left: Signet edition with art by Robert Pepper
Right: Original cover by Victor Kalin with Ellison and characters from the book


ELLISON WONDERLAND was first released in 1962. The 1974 edition from Signet included a new introduction, and the story "The Forces that Crush" (a.k.a. "Are You Listening?") was replaced by "Back to the Drawing Boards".

Back cover blurb (Signet):
Buckle your safety belts for a journey to the wildest wonderland that never existed.

Front cover blurb (original):
Grimly humourous ventures into the somewhere world of science-fantasy, reported by Harlan Ellison, who has been there.

British back cover blurb:
16 excursions into the far-out zone where the incredible meets the impossible and the earthman meets...suicidal super-giants; illiterate leprachauns; a garden of plant monsters...these and other cosmic creatures await you...

For a table of contents and a look at various covers: Langerhans | Webderland book commentary by K.C. Locke | Get the book at E-Reads.

We have talked a bit about "The Silver Corridor" in the Dream Corridor #2 thread, apart from that this is new discussion territory.

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"The Very Last Day of a Good Woman" from 1958, also to be found in THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON and on the VOICE FROM THE EDGE audio collection.

It's about a clairvoyant man who knows that the world is going to end and who decides that what he needs to get his peace is to finally sleep with a woman within the brief time he has left.

When I started reading this, I had doubts about coupling a straightforward idea of a guy desperately trying to become a man with the concept of the world coming to an end. At the end, I thought I kind of understood what Harlan was going for.

Like some other stories we discussed recently, this one also deals with how important women are in a man's life and how we are at odds with a society that readily permits people to lead lonely and unfulfilled lives. With the help on an end-of-the-world scenario the writer juxtaposes the transitory satisfactions of the modern material world (like money) with the physical pleasure and the immaterial satisfactions of the soul (love).

Our needs, be they of material or immaterial nature, drive all of us to sad places - neither the woman nor the man are anything but pathetic, if seen from the outside, as we all are at times. The writer does not judge either of them - there is no hero and no victim, it's just people trying to arrange a decent life for themselves given their nature.

Arthur's decision to spend his last days trying to become a man seems believable enough and indicates what the real priorities of men (and women) are. Had the world not been about to end, he would have spent his time, he would have spent them on things of lesser importance to him that are easier to achieve.

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In a sad way, Arthus reaches his goal and finds momentary fulfillment before it all ceases to matter. In an ironic twist, and thanks to his knowledge of impending doom, he has the opportunity to use society's penchant for material things against it to achieve his ultimate wish. This one time a man has won the battle of human nature vs. an uncaring materialistic society.

The story also includes good descriptions of doomsday, as seen in short visions. In the past 49 years since the release of this story, the idea of putting people in situations where they have brief periods of life left to live has been used in all conceivable ways, but they have the advantage of making you think about your priorities. Recently, the movie MY LIFE WITHOUT ME did that very well. :| :| :oops:
Last edited by Jan on Fri Sep 26, 2008 11:18 am, edited 10 times in total.

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Postby Jan » Mon Dec 10, 2007 5:09 am

"All the Sounds of Fear" was the most recent story to be included in ELLISON WONDERLAND in 1962. The early sixties were a time when Harlan was writing fewer stories due to his engagements in Chicago and Los Angeles, in addition to his work on SPIDER KISS. I would say that the stories he did write were a little more ambitious than his 50s material. I'm sure he had more ideas than he could handle and consequently preferred to write only about the issues that seemed really important.

"All the Sounds of Fear" seems to be part of a transition towards "new wave" SF and stories like "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream". Style was clearly becoming more important to Harlan, as he was trying to find new places to go. In this story his auctorial voice is very strong and the style somewhat experimental, which results in a somewhat over-the-top narration. Stripped to the bare bones, however, this is much like a Twilight Zone episode; it has the inevitability, the fantasy element, the moral, and the visuals.

The story is about man in modern society, confronted with pressures to behave in certain ways and to fulfill specific expectations. It is highly symbolic in that Harlan uses the theater metaphor to talk about this. He presents an actor, Richard Becker, who is so good at what he does that he never needed an ego, a personality of his own. In true TZ fashion, he ends up paying the price. Fittingly, Harlan never enters Becker's mind but stays outside, reporting only what other people see and think. Applying the device of regression familiar to readers of "All the Birds Come Home to Roost" (1978), Becker, who has gone mad, re-lives each of his roles in reverse order until they finally run out.

In a somewhat ambiguous fashion, Harlan identifies fear as Becker's main motivation. This is an emotion that Harlan has observed in other people, but something he said he rarely or never experiences himself. This might explain why the fear aspect gets short shrift.

As usual, there is a lot of Harlan in this. Firstly, Richard Becker's method of researching his characters ("for six weeks Becker was a bum") mirrors Harlan's own participant observation in New York. Secondly, writing is related to acting and leads to the same questions about identity, which may be part of why Harlan wrote this.

"All the Sounds of Fear" is certainly a standout story (for the time) with an important message. There is nothing wrong with it per se, though I feel it doesn't quite live up to it's own importance nor to the metaphor. First of all, I thought the overall picture we're given is somewhat incomplete because certain obvious aspects like fear aren't actually dealt with in any concrete form. Without any of that, where does the reader come in? Vaguely feeling pity when reading the story isn't quite enough, nor was it when I read "The Discarded".

The structure is also more complex than necessary when Harlan opens the story with a depressing part of the ending and then goes back in time. He could have opened with the flashback itself which does a more than adequate and rather quick job of introducing character and problem. Reading early stories of Harlan, opening on a dark note and ending on an even darker one, is indeed reason to ask, in Richard Becker fashion, "Give me some light!" :| :| :oops:

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Postby Jan » Mon Dec 10, 2007 5:49 am

"Do-It-Yourself" is one of the three collaborations between Harlan and Joe Hensley. It was first published in 1961 and later incorporated into ELLISON WONDERLAND. In the 1974 edition Hensley only receives any credit on the copyright page, which may have led many people to consider this a solo effort by Harlan. (Don't have the older editions.)

The story concerns a woman who, intent on killing her husband, has ordered a do-it-yourself murder kit ("Current crazes fascinate me", Harlans says in the introduction) which includes strange objects, the functions of which only become apparent after she has followed the instructions provided by the talking manual.

What sets "Do-It-Yourself" apart from Harlan's solo material of the time is a slightly more restrained, straight-forward aproach to the idea as well as a higher than usual dose of humor. It's a satire with generous helpings of black humor. Genre-wise it's a cross between a crime and science fiction. Both elements appear in a slightly clichéd 50s fashion - Harlan would never have written this at a later date.

While the opening today seems altogether too long, the story comes alive the moment the instruction book starts to talk. The strangeness of the strangeness of the do-it-yourself kit is immedeately engaging, especially when it becomes apparent that the writers have given the concept some thought: How can this exist? Who would be producing it and how would it be marketed? The kit also arouses a technical curiosity. Although none of the strangely advanced technology makes sense, the producers of the kit have come up with some creative solutions for murder without punishment.

Incidentally, the story mentions Peter Ustinov who is described as a mimic comedian of the 50s. Needless to say, Ustinov went on to become immensely popular as an actor, especially in Europe, and he was an activist and a writer, active until his death in 2004. :| :| :oops:

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Postby Jan » Mon Dec 17, 2007 2:11 pm

"The Sky Is Burning" (1958) is a story about the human ability and the need of some to have dreams and hopes, a sense of excitement and possibilities. When scientists observe fireballs raining down the skies all over the solar system, it turns out that the fires are the result of living creatures entering the atmospheres and going up in flames. (Let's pretend the atmosphere and gravitaional pull of Mars, for example, would allow that.) The scientists are stunned and manage to rescue one of the creatures. It seems peaceful and resembles the Egyptian god Ra. Through telepathy it tells its story and then goes on to kill itself like all the others.

What matters in the story is the reason why the aliens are doing what they're doing and what it means for Earth people and, in particular, for dreamers. Underneath it all you can find Harlan's observation that some people are dreamers, some aren't, and about how thse two kinds of people don't quite get along. The presence of non-dreamers is accepted as necessary, though that's not where Harlan's sympathies lie. :| :| :oops:

"Back to the Drawing Boards" (1958) is, as far as I can tell, Harlan's only full-fledged robot story after he had begun moving towards the subject matter in the surviving 1957 stories "Wanted in Surgery" and "Invasion Footnote". Here he reuses the concept of the robot that is more developed that it seems.

A genius scientist named Packett constucts a human-looking robot/probe called Walkaway, mainly intended for space missions that humans can't accomplish. Now, Packett is a drunk and has a problem with authority which manifests itself when the company he works for wants to appropriate Walkaway. He insists that Walkaway be treated like a human and be properly employed. Before the robot is sent out on a mission to the stars, he adds a bit of programming. The rest of the story is about his return.

While I like robot stories, this one, like "Wanted in Surgery", was much more about the people surrounding the robot. Walkabout is barely a character, and the other two, Packett and his boss, are BOTH unlikeable. The best way to appreciate the story is as an unusual tale of revenge, though it lacks the proper construction even for that. Are we supposed to accept Packett's disdain for authority without properly developed reasons for it and feel great when, long after his death, he gets a kind of revenge that exceeds anything he could reasonably have wanted? While Harlan fullfilled the standard requirements of a SF story by providing two fairly plausible surprises, "Drawing Boards" falls short of having any kind of resonance. Another problem is that the prose is repetitive and in love with itself, so that the events unfold too slowly. Also, the title doesn't fit since the scientist never does go back to the drawing boards. :| :|

"In Lonely Lands" (1958) is a "soft" SF story about friendship which plays itself out on Mars. After a life of travels, a man has settled down and awaits the "Grey Man", most liekly a stand-in for death. Making his life easier is an alien that visits him in the night when nothing can be seen. The man had never known he needed friendship, but he realizes that he does and thanks the alien for it as he feels his final hour is approaching.

Compared with Harlan's later attempts to write about friendship, this one is much simpler and lacks the insights Harlan apparently had only later. While the intentions were good and the thematic concern is central to Harlan's work and character, the prose is particularly cringe-inducing (not to mention full of said-isms), and I doubt that anyone needed to read about something so basic in such a basic way. This story or mood piece is as repetitive as "Wanted in Surgery," unable to move on. Just to give you one example, on one page the protagonist says, "It's been easier with you here". Next Page: "Petrie had made things easier for him in these last years." The odd concept of the "Grey Man", the "philosophical" conversations on the porch, the mood, it all seems like a poor attempt to imitate Bradbury, conscious or not. :|

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Postby Jan » Sun Jan 20, 2008 10:23 am

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German edition, 1973

"Gnomebody" (1956) is a sample from Harlan's first successful year as a writer and apparently one of the few stories from that year he's fairly happy with. Half childhood remembrance, half romp, it's about a boy cutting school after a falling out with the sports coach who does not want him in his running team. Going into hiding in a small wooded area, he encounters a weird gnome and recognizes the opportunity to make a wish.

The story was also adapted for the second volume of DREAM CORRIDOR. It's clearly an attempt to write something comic and fun, and Harlan seems to have constructed it towards the punchline. That's really too bad, as the whole set-up has potential enough to be used for a real story with proper development, full characters, and another kind of ending. I suppose that Harlan hadn't reached a point where he could write about his Painesville days the way he would later on. Here, he's sort of using his past to entertain, much like the comedian alter ego he went on to write about in "Final Shtick." As a chapter in ELLISON WONDERLAND "Gnomebody" may have been alright, but in any other book this would have seemed way out of place. That kind of underlines the value of WONDERLAND, which remains one of his most colorfully uneven books. You just never know what you're going to get. In closing, I should mention that the story is one of the few in which he uses language to entertain, much like he does in his everyday life. Colloquial language changes so quickly I'm sure the story preserves a few phrases that have become less common. :| :|

In "Mealtime" (1958) a team of Astronauts discover a strange planet with a silvery surface and no mass reading. When they investigate further, their perceptions of humanity in the universe is changed forever.

According to the introduction, Harlan wrote the original version of this in 1955 and revised it later. It is, thus, a very early story from his fandom days. The revisions seems to have taken care of any stylistic weaknesses, if there ever were any. Following "Gnomebody" and "The Sky is Falling" in the book, this is another joke story, but it also revealed something about Harlan's particular role in the SF community as one who goes agains the grain. He challenged the conventions of the genre at a time when he was only beginning to figure out valid alternatives to them that worked for him. The argument between two of the characters is reminiscent of "The Silver Corridor", Harlan's definitive story on human bickering. I'm not sure if the captain's conclusion has enough foundation in the story as it presupposes a number of things about the creature, so it's a bit implausible. The same goes for the science in the story. The characters are dull stereotypes. :| :oops:

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Postby Jan » Fri Sep 26, 2008 11:50 am

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"Battlefield" (1958), a.k.a. His First Day at War, is an anti-war story written at Fort Knox. On the moon, in a future century, White is battling Black. On Sundays they all come down to Earth to see their families and chat about the war.

Here Harlan talks about how warfare can become so accepted that people fail to see how crazy it all is. The parties are called simply Black and White, which we learn is simply a result of where each has their base - on the dark side or the bright side of the moon. The soldiers are chesspieces. The thing that keeps the war going, it seems, is the fact that people are regarding it as a kind of sport, despite its many victims. There's no mention of any efforts to end the war since it's so much fun.

This is one of those painfully obvious one-idea stories that are really a moral statement. The future technology is fairly well worked-out, but that and the message is really all there is. Characterization? Plot? Forget it. At least it's short and the prose is good. :|

Link: K.C. Locke's review


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