Approaching Oblivion

Harlan Ellison
Approaching Oblivion Cover

Approaching Oblivion


This was my first and is likely to be my only encounter with the writing of Harlan Ellison. It's not as though I didn't know what I was letting myself in for. Ellison's reputation as an old crank, which he wears as a badge of honor, precedes him. I have watched Dreams with Sharp Teeth, the 2008 documentary on him and actually rather enjoyed it. (It might have been very late at night.) But this anthology dates from the mid-1970's, so he was at most a forty-year-old crank. Old cranks can have undeniable charm and even a sense of gravitas about them. In his forties, Ellison comes off as an overaged college student with a weighty chip on his shouler who has just discovered that the world is neither fair nor very nice and goddammit he's going to tell it like it fucking is.

I dislike so much about this book I hardly now where to begin, although the title, the subtitle, and the jacket copy seem like a good place. (I read a book club hardback edition.) A book published today with the title Approaching Oblivion could be a screed by Glenn Beck or any number of right wing hand wringers who lament the disappearance of an America they think existed sometime sixty years ago. Hyperbole swings both ways. Ellison caps it off with a subtitle, Road Signs on the Treadmill Toward Tomorrow, a phrase that evokes a self-pitying Jeremiah. Then there is the predictably slavish praise of the promotional copy on the book's inside flaps. Apparently the New York Times once described Ellison as "relentlessly honest," a fact relentlessly repeated in almost everything you read about him. Buried on the back flap is this irrelevant and irritating nugget. "[Ellsion} created a series called Starlost and walked away from $93,000 in profits when the producers departed from his original concept." Mr. Ellison, you are a pillar of integrity. I assume he did accept payment for the episode of The Flying Nun he wrote in 1968. It actually sounds pretty good, a kinky mix that has Sister Bertrille crash-landing on a desert island and patching up the relationship between the shipwrecked lovers she finds there.

I really did read this book and can say something about its eleven stories. But I have forgotten to mention one more indigestible nugget of pretension that comes before the stories themselves. Ellison titles his introduction, "Reaping the Whirlwind." Maybe I should have replaced Jeremiah with Hosea in my earlier comment.

Fiction can be "of its day" or even dated and still be if not very compelling at least an interesting window into its time. But Ellison's diatribes and experiments with transgressive material are too easily targeting a disenfranchised readership eager to accept as radical anything that spices its politics with sex and anger. "Erotophobia" is a neither very funny nor very dirty dirty joke that could have seemed the height of sophistication for those reading the issue of Penthouse in which it first appeared. In "Knox" right-wing groups are sponsoring a race war that is dragging into its conflict people who seem incapable of resisting its violent allure. When it turns out aliens are involved, readers of the original story in Crawdaddy were no doubt nodding their heads and thinking, yeah, dude, I knew it was something like that. "Catman" is an enjoyably weird far future tale that makes little sense but ends in an act of misogynistic incest that is more puzzling that shocking.

Enough. I hated just about everything about Approaching Oblivion, and as I said up top I doubt I will be searching out more Ellison. (Although I have been told that the Dangerous Visions anthologies are good if you skip Ellison's introductions to each story.) Strangely his book I am most drawn to is a nonfiction anthology An Edge in my Voice. This is the publisher's description.

At the beginning of the 1980's Harlan Ellison agreed to do a regular column for the LA WEEKLY on the condition that they publish whatever he wrote, without revising it or suggesting rewrites.

This is trumpeted as though the editors of LA Weekly considered Ellison on a level with Samuel Johnson or Andre Malraux. I suspect they just knew his name could shift a few papers, and those publications are always hurting for editorial staff.