The SPIDER Symposion: in-depth discussion of specific Ellison stories and works.

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Postby Jan » Thu Sep 06, 2007 9:23 am



This is a collection of short stories first published in 1965. A revised edition was put out in 1975.


Cover blurb from 1999:
Robert Heinlein says, "This book is raw corn liquor - you should serve a whiskbroom with each shot so the customer can brush the sawdust off after he gets up from the floor." Perhaps a mooring cable might also be added as necessary equipment for reading these eight wonderful stories: They not only knock you down...they raise you to the stars. Passion is the keynote as you encounter the Harlequin and his nemesis, the dreaded Tictockman, in one of the most reprinted and widely taught stories in the English language; a pyretic who creates fire merely by willing it; the last surgeon in a world of robot physicians; a spaceship filled with hideous mutants rejected by the world that gave them birth. Touching and gentle and shocking stories from an incomparable master of impossible dreams and troubling truths.

Let us know what YOU think.

This book is in print.

Table of contents, notes, cover scans from Langerhans:

Review by A.M. Dellamonica (Sci Fi Weekly):

Review by Geoffrey Prewett:

All stories in e-format:

We have seperate discussions of "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" (link) and "The Discarded" (link).

On to the other stories...


Contributing this from France on a French keyboard with has some bottons switched... Comma instead of 'm'?!!

In "Wanted in Surgery" (1957) Harlan entered the popular subgenre of the robot story his way, and it sort of contains the reason why he didn't do the Asimov type science fiction. In his take on automatization and the relationship between humans and machines, humans have been rendered superfluous in an increasing number of functional areas, including medicine. The story concerns a surgeon's dissatisfaction with having been turned into an assistant to the phymechs in the hospital. He becomes obsessed with the idea of finding a reason why phymechs can't be entrusted the whole medical field.

Harlan argues that machines are supposed to be man's tools, but they cannot always take his place, even if it may appear that they can. The story certainly answers why Harlan doen't use a computer to write and is proud of it.

Harlan's focus (as opposed to Asimov's) is on human concerns and pschological aspects of automization, setting the story in a period of technological change way before Asimov's usual time frame. Change is still happening and people have to deal with it. Avoiding a black and white view technological progress that would have given away the ending, Harlan presents both sides of the story equally well, leaving open what will happen. While he has the human characters fight about the issue, the phymechs and other robots remain surprisingly faceless. They can talk, but they're certainly not Asimov's multi-purpose robots. There are categories of robots designed for a specific purpose (phymechs, robocops, jurymechs etc.). They don't get involved in philosophical discussions, nor do they defend their place.

While competently written, the story contains little in the way of surprises. While Bergman, the surgeon, is trying to come up with arguments about the new breed of physicians, it's fairly obvious what their shortcomings would be, in any given area. A conspiracy is hinted at but not dealt with in any real way. The same goes for the society's implied curtailing of free speech which seems even more of a problem than the robots.

On the other hand, despite the lack of surprises, you never do know what's going to happen next, nor how things will turn out. I doubt Harlan knew, as he kept his options open at all times. That's probably why Bergman, his main character doesn't take off; he's too much of a psychotic (even considering the psychological effects that the changes would have on someone), probably to keep us guessing which side Harlan is on. The ending, however, is a bit of a let-down, because by that time you will have imagined a number of more exciting possibilities.

It's interesting that this story was written before even electric typewriters were used widely. If you consider the message of the story, you wonder what exactly Harlan had in mind that had anything to do with the 50's. Did he see something coming, and what were its portents? Some would consider this a "If this continues" type of cautionary tale. I think, what Harlan was primarily doing was to go against the grain as far as people's widly optimistic expectations about the future are concerned - he was going for realism when most SF writers were talking about how much better things were going to get thanks to technology. :| :|
Last edited by Jan on Tue Jun 10, 2008 8:15 am, edited 14 times in total.

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Postby Jan » Mon Oct 15, 2007 9:23 am

Actually Harlan did write a more traditional robot story after this called "Back to the Drawing Boards". I had forgotten.

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Postby swp » Mon Oct 15, 2007 12:46 pm

The audio for this story is available on eBay from time to time as part of a collection of short stories. I don't buy from those guys, but thought it was interesting that this particular story came up when I so recently saw it on eBay.

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Postby Jan » Fri Dec 07, 2007 12:26 pm

"Bright Eyes" is a story published in 1965, based on a painting by Dennis Smith. I think Smith never became famous, though Harlan seems to have liked him. A creature called Bright Eyes and his companion travel to an unnown destination, encountering various obstacles related to a post-apocalyptic world. Bright Eyes is the last member of a race that preceded mankind on Earth.

Harlan's story output had decreased considerably in the sixties while he was working for television, but what he did write was often among his best work ever. "Bright Eyes", while no pefect story, is no exception. It foreshadows a lot of Harlan's later work, such as "The Deathbird", by being, it seems to me, one of his first "creature of myth" type fantasy stories, which were becoming or about to become an important thread in his oevre. While "Paingod", written around the same time, certainly had a creature in it, it's thoughts and behavior were more prosaic.

I found the story poignant and touching, and its concept of humanity, while deeply pessimistic, had some elements that are hard to deny. Still, if you read this right after "Sleeping Dogs" (the story that precedes it in the book), you might want to have some chocolate handy.

The fact that one barely recognizes Earth, no doubt due to how little attention Bright Eyes pays to it, takes a bit of the sting out of the story, since we don't identify with what we don't recognize. This is perhaps a good thing because it makes the message less painful. On the other hand I liked the characters so much that I wonder what it would have been like if they'd have had to deal with real life for a moment or two. The story stays striclty in its own subjective stylized world. In that way, it may resemble the painting, which Harlan described in the introduction. Incidentally, I don't think any of Harlan's stories is more closedly related to a Bosch painting, either.

Also a favorite of Harlan's, I would say "Bright Eyes" ranks high in the context of the book, something which generally applies to his 60's material that he mixed into his collections of the time. The two characters are among his best ever. :| :| :| :|

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Postby Jan » Fri Dec 07, 2007 12:29 pm

"Sleeping Dogs" is a 1974 Earth-Kyba War story from the revised edition of PAINGOD. Even though another story from that series is in the book, this one sticks out in several ways. First of all, in the ambitious PAINGOD a minor story such as this feels a little out of place, though it's understandable why Harlan would chose something like this to satisfy the need for additional material in a previously released book. No critic is going to look at the added material.

Anyway, this is straight SF, though it's obviously not from Harlan's SF period. The Earth dreadnought is attacking a planet occupied by Kyben, the main reason for the attack being that the planet might possess some important resources. The protagonist is a Kyben woman (Lynn) who is watching and reporting on the actions of the ship´s commander (Drabix), a cruel and prejudiced leader who commits war crimes and finally trips over his own stupidity, getting others killed in the process.

The story doesn't so much concern the Earth or Kyba (I suppose the races could be switched) as it does the arrogant commander and Lynn's hate for what he does and stands for. It´s clear which side Harlan is on, as Lynn's dialogue could be straight out of his mouth. As the Vietnam War was coming to a close, no amount of governmental secrecy could prevent people from realizing at least to some extent what a disaster is was. Harlan was probably channeling some of of his own frustrations about American policy and about the way high ranking members of the military had acted.

Violence is Drabix' only language. He is really more of a soldier, making important decisions when all he is really suited for is pulling a trigger or pushing a button. His patriotism makes him go out of his way to act according to his peoples' best interest as he sees it, even if it means he will be court-martialed. He's on a mission of his own, which happens in every war.

The ending is a bit simple and obvious, but hey, it's a morality piece. Though I like Harlan´s 70's period writing style better than the style of most stories in PAINGOD, "Sleeping Dogs" is clearly not on par with the older material. Like I said, a minor story, and an attempt to write straight SF for a specific magazine. :| :oops:

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Postby Jan » Mon Feb 18, 2008 2:17 pm

"Paingod" (also in DEATHBIRD STORIES) was published in 1964 when Harlan was 30. Obviously, this is a story about pain, most definitely not the kind of writing you would expect from someone at the prime of his life. If the life of the sculptor in the story is related to Harlan's own, one might presume that Harlan had recently been unhappy with his writing.

The only trouble is, I'm no damned good, and I was never ever really very good, but at least I made a decent living selling a piece here and there , and conning myself into thinking I was great and building a career, and Canaday in the Times said a few nice things about me. But even that's turned to rust now.

It's possible that Harlan was going through a crisis at the time after several severe disappointments in his personal and professional life. (This was in his early Hollywood days when he had to follow the money.) Indeed, he had trouble writing a decent foreword for the book, as he stated in the original foreword that he later dumped.

The story asserts that there is pain, a lot of it, and it asks why there there has to be so much suffering.

As Harlan tells us, both "The Deathbird" and this story were inspired by Mark Twain's remark that if "one truly believes there is an all-powerful Deity, and one looks around at the condition of the universe, one is led inescapably to the conclusion that God is a malign thug." While Twain may have been half-joking, Harlan seems to have believed this with all his heart.

He came up with the idea of a God of pain called Trente (which means thirty, Harlan's age) who is responsible for the dispensation of pain in the universe, though he is supervised by an even more powerful race called the Ethos (custom, habit). There is some question as to what happened to his predecessors which Harlan only answers after Trente's decision to visit Earth. There he learns the true meaning of pain when he meets the good-hearted but dispirited sculptor Colin.

When Trente resumes his work, his visit on Earth has made him understand the effects of his work. Unlinke his predecessors, Trente now truly understands his role... and embraces the master plan of the Ethos. Pain is seen as a necessary prerequisite for pleasure, since man would not know pleasure without it.

Overall, it's a nicely-written above-average story from Harlan's early serious period. It's characterized by Harlan's need for philosophical answers and his need to talk about the less pleasant aspects of life. The strengths of the story are mainly to be found in its characterization and style, while it's somewhat weak on a conceptual level.

The idea of a Paingod is unconvincing and presented in a manner reminiscent of a children's tale. One entity handling the dispensation of pain in all the universe? It's never even clear what his criteria are. While we all know that pain is not usually completely random, Harlan does not deal with this aspect at all.

After a page or two, interesting bits of characterization begin to creep in, as Trente begins to doubt himself and he feels he needs to find out more.

Harlan often has interesting secondary characters, and that is certainly the case with the scumbag orator, a thinly disguised criticism of irrationality, anti-communist sentiment and anti-semitism, yet not quite a carricature. The orator exists in a real-life environment where he actually gets arrested and exits from the story.

Colin is the struggling artist that Harlan was and that most artists are at some point. If there is no struggle, there is no pain, and, according to the story's logic, no pleasure. Colin could not have produced his masterwork if it hadn't been for the long, hard struggle that preceeded it and which, for all Colin knew, could have lasted forever. This raised the question if Harlan had also recently produced something that he was eminently proud of - "this thing of such incredible loveliness and meaning and wisdom." Or was was he just channeling his hopes? Either way, it's a great scene.

Trente's confrontation with the Ethos is one of Harlan's better alien encounter scenes (if you can call it that), comparable to scenes in "Runesmith" and "The Deathbird". However, this and the preceeding scenes are all very short, not as fleshed out as they could have been, which is mainly a good thing. A few additional seconds with Colin would have been nice, but that's because the character is interesting.

Apart from what I mentioned earlier, another aspect of the story's conceptual weakness is the way it looks at pain from only one angle, while implicitly stating that there are two to be considered. Where is the God of pleasure, unless that is our normal emotional condition? The universe Harlan presents doesn't make sense, so that the underlying philosophy, which is not properly developed, leaves one with the impression that Harlan, at that point, was too emotionally involved in the subjects he wrote about to apply an equal amount of rationality. He did not see a necessity to make a story about pain equally one about pleasure.

"Paingod" is certainly a strong story, anyway. I'm tempted to think of it as somewhat overlooked. It's certainly ahead of "The Discarded" from the same book, which is not a bad story, nor does it feel even remotely out of place in a book that contains the classic "Repent, Harlequin!" Both "Repent" and "Paingod" take place in symbolic universes centered on particular aspects of reality. :| :| :|

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Postby Jan » Fri Feb 29, 2008 4:45 pm

"The Crackpots" (1956) is a sample of early Ellison. The novelette features the Kyben, which makes it one of the two first (surviving) Earth/Kyba war stories, along with "Life Hutch." The story concerns a black-sheep society of outcasts belonging to the galaxy-ruling Kyben, banished to live on a planet where Kyben Watchers are keeping an eye on them. They're crackpots, an embarrassment to the Kyben. The "Stuffed-Shirts", as crackpots call their brothers, despise abnormal qualities. One of the Watchers is puzzled by a few quite ordinary encounters with crackpots who seem to be more than just crazy.

It's one of those stories that, as you start reading it, you know it's going to have a clever twist ending, and what's worse, you can guess pretty well what the nature of it is going to be, certainly without knowing the details ahead of time. So while I was waiting for Harlan to get there (same problem I had with "Soldier"), I did want to know if my suspicions were correct. Well, it turned out that the story, which appeared to be pretty straight-forward at first, was in fact more complex than it seemed. Having kept a few secrets while also having set up more stuff than he needed, Harlan ended up with a whole lot of explaining to do. While the explanations were dramatized adequately, I found them becoming a little tiresome in their own right.

Still, this is by no means a bad story and it fits nicely behind "Repent" in the book. In fact, it's sort of an early, more heavy-handed approach to the same subject matter: the division of society into a majority of people who need to and want to follow the rules, and a minority who exercise control over their own lives. Inventors, artists, free-thinkers. While Harlan's high opinion of the latter shows through as usual, the story does not feature the same black and white contrast as, say, "Repent", which is a more personal story.

While I was dismayed that the free-thinkers were actually okay with what the Stuffed-Shirts did in terms of their rule over the galaxy and even their treatment of members of their society such as the minimally deviant Elix, the point of this odd conceptual comprmise seemed to be that both kinds of people are needed for a society to function. Put simply, the Stuffed-Shirts did the administrative work that allowed the crackpots to act the way they wished and get anything they want.

Themus' conversation with "Santa Claus" contains interesting remarks that seem to sum up Harlan's feelings about society and his relationship to it - it's an invaluable scene for anyone interested in what makes him tick. If anyone walks away from the story empty-handed, they must have missed something. Another scene worth mentioning is Themus' encounter with the girl Darfla, easily the best character in the story.

To conclude, "The Crackpots" is an early stab at some perennial themes, easily as basic and fantastic in concept as the later "Paingod" and less successful at rising above the concept, but superior in terms of making a point that moves and stimulates the reader. In addition to that, the introduction to this story in the Pyramid edition is also worth a read, as are all of them. In the original introduction Harlan also mentioned that he was inspired by the people he observed on Broadway and Times Square at night when he was selling books every night. He talked about wanting to write about them some more, which brings to mind "Soft Monkey". :| :| :oops:

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