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Ellison Versus PKD - two sides, same coin

I’m not a quick witted conversationalist.  I have to deliberate. I have to process. The Oscar Wilde witticism’s do not flow forth with the fire hose force of my personality and vast intelligence… However, once I get the ball rolling I’m okay. I can sound halfway intelligent if I concentrate. But the older I get the more effort it takes to retrieve those little bits of information and spit them out in real time; especially these days when I’m not honing my conversational knives at various tables and bars in an array of social circles around town.  In fact, my current existence can presently be described as semi-hermetic. I work, I come home, I sleep.  Most of my social interaction besides work comes through my kid.  And that’s okay. That’s all I want for now. Still, I can feel the skills eroding daily. Recently I watched “The Social Network” and was struck (as I always am) by Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue.  My God, do people really talk like that?  Every character in that film seemed to speak not only at warp speed but with the whip-crack intelligent wit of a Noel Coward on meth. I was confused because I thought socially inept nerds with touches of Aspergers would be the last persons you would think of as people who could hold their own at the Algonquin Round Table or crossing verbal swords with Harvard honors students.  Even my kid who, when she gathers with her friends, can speak and react at light speed, commented on how fast everyone talked in that movie. It was one false note in a string of false notes that made “The Social Network” a less than spectacular experience for me.  I preferred the more humble, subtly paced charms of “Winter’s Bone”.  It’s the Hoosier in me that probably causes me to identify more with Ozark meth dealers than with Good Will Hunting blue blood types with computers. 

                I got to thinking about all of this after watching two documentaries about a couple of my favorite authors, Harlan Ellison and Philip K Dick (PKD).  Years ago I read a very good, very comprehensive biography of Philip K Dick called “Divine Invasions” by Lawrence Sutin which among other things chronicled some of the more colorful interactions between the author and his peers including his main artistic rival, Harlan Ellison.  Although the two only physically met once or twice there was evidently no small amount of professional animosity between the two; most of it coming from Ellison’s camp.  The two of them pretty much tilled the same soil in the Science Fiction Back Forty. It was widely felt amongst the fandom that PKD was the artist effortlessly turning out mind-blowing works fueled by a blending of drugs and an unending well of Original Thought while  Ellison was the tradesman churning out stories, novels, and scripts whilst trumpeting his own genius to whomever would listen. When it came to social interaction and conversation  Ellison was the preening peacock to PKD’s moss coated sloth. My favorite part of the biography was when PKD’s ex describes the two men meeting at a sci-fi convention in the early 70’s.  She talks about how suave and charismatic Ellison was. At the time, Harlan was quite the lady-killer and was burning through wives at a fairly rapid rate.  PKD’s ex talks about being fascinated by Ellison but that her loyalty to PKD was deep. She adhered to the PKD view of Genius Artist and when put beside Harlan Ellison in a social setting the differences were profound and unsettling.  Soon, there was an argument of some kind and PKD’s ex describes the debate as Ellison moving along like a Ferrari while PKD was going “clunk, clunk, clunk”.  Still, in the end, through a deliberate yet devastating attack PKD won the verbal joust and Ellison was vanquished and indeed, embarrassed in front of many peers by an author he neither respected nor liked.  Add to that no small amount of professional jealousy; for no matter how good a writer Ellison was or is, he will never be known for being the talented visionary PKD was.  What was galling to Ellison was that PKD showed almost no effort in the work and seemed to take his gift for granted.  This may have been (although I doubt it and indications are that that is not the case), but I just found the rivalry interesting and funny.  It’s especially enjoyable when one side of a rivalry is clueless about the other’s animosity, which according to the bio was exactly PKD’s feelings towards Ellison.  He was neither here nor there, but he WAS a fan of Ellison’s work.  Of course,  the biography leaves out some key people in the PKD conversation, particularly in the later years after his “vision” so I was pleased to see that there had been a few documentaries made since the bio’s publication.

The PKD doc that I watched was poorly made, and I wouldn’t recommend it. However I was interested in it because it focused on what I think is the most fascinating part of the man’s life.  In the middle of the seventies, on the cusp of worldwide recognition and cross-over popularity Philip Dick was contacted directly by the guiding force of the universe.  God, if you will.    In the movie “The Gospel According to Philip K Dick” we get interviews with several close associates and friends who knew the man at the time of his visionary experience.  Dick claimed that one day in 1977, his mind was pierced with a pink light from Above which transmitted instructions and views of the future for him to interpret.  These instructions, according to Dick and in no uncertain terms, came from God who appeared as a shadowy, enormous figure blotting out the sky.  At the time Dick was under medical care for a variety of mental and physical ailments and it was widely thought that the author had jumped the tracks.  Still, several mysterious occurrences in his life and the lucidity of the author’s writings tended to disprove the common thought that Dick had lost it.  From this point until his death in 1982, Dick did nothing but write or dictate the verbatim text of these messages from the Almighty. The same year of his death, indeed only months later, the movie “Blade Runner” came out and thus began Hollywood’s long love affair with the work of Philip K Dick.

In contrast, Ellison continued on with his yeoman’s work creating many memorable television scripts, novels, and short stories.  Most recently he is credited with co-creating the series “Babylon 5”, and was script writer of one of my favorite indie sci-fi movies “A Boy and His Dog”. He relishes his role as the genre’s curmudgeonly “wild man” and has successfully sued the mighty James Cameron who admitted to stealing his idea for the “terminator” character and its plotline from teleplays Ellison wrote in the 60’s.  The documentary “Dreams with Sharp Teeth” is a well made, intimate look into Ellison’s life and work told almost exclusively in the author’s own words. Ellison comes off as the cranky, opinionated, argumentative old grandpa everyone would love to have in the family, but if it really happened it would be a miserable pain in the ass.  I highly recommend this documentary even if you have no idea who the man is.  He is supremely charismatic, interesting and entertaining as a human being despite his fame and glory as a writer.  This is a man who has spent years arguing for sport and sharpening his wit on the bones of those he’s crushed in the arena of discourse.  Some of the opinions and ideas he espouses may be anathema to some but no one can argue that here is one of the most eloquent and sharp-minded artists of our time. 

The differences between these two giants in their fields are profound and I like them both for different reasons.  However, my fan boy heart goes out to PKD because he represents the social awkwardness tripping up the intellect that is the bane of nerds the world over.  The self assured adult that I try to be sides with Harlan Ellison who represents the Buddy Love all those Julius Kelp’s wish they could be. 


Mar. 30th, 2011 02:10 am (UTC)
I'd concede that Ellison is the smoother writer - PKD tends to forget the reader and get involved in himself. The simplest way I see the differences in these two author's styles is that PKD writes from his head and Ellison writes from points south. The visceral writing style always seems to read better.

I can only imagine what Ellison had to say about fans. I've never been part of any fan communities as in going to cons and dressing up and arguing obsessively about plot points and inaccuracies. However, I was on several Sci-Fi bulletin boards in the mid 90's where I got a good dose of just how nuts fans can get.I spent a year moderating a board that was a continual flame war between grown adults threatening each other over Robert Jordan and Anne McCafferey books. Fucking nuts.
Still, to ignore fans and be dismissive of people who enjoy your work enough to pay for it is like spitting into hands filled with money for you, IMO. Still, I can see Harlan relishing the act of biting the hand. Or in his case, biting and giving it a few good, hard shakes.