Harlan Ellison® comes across as pompous, overbearing, aggressive, and obnoxious, but I wouldn’t miss any of his stories. He’s one of the best story tellers in speculative fiction and I have no problem separating the man’s fiction from his personality (though that abrasiveness often comes across in his fiction, too). And, as much as I don’t like his personality, I have to admit that he’s interesting. Partly that’s because he does interesting things such as getting expelled from THE Ohio State University after assaulting a professor who criticized his writing, but mostly it’s because he’s been involved in the SFF scene since a couple of decades before I was even born, so he’s got a lot of stories to tell about the industry and about some of my favorite writers.
That’s what he does for a large portion of Ellison Wonderland, which was originally published in 1962 and has been reprinted a few times since then. The version I’ve got was just produced in audio format by Skyboat Media and Blackstone Audio. It’s got a full cast of excellent well-known voice actors including Stefan Rudnicki and Gabrielle de Cuir (a couple of my favorite narrators and the co-producers at Skyboat Media), Arthur Morey (another favorite), Richard Gilliland, Alex Hyde-White, and Jim Meskimen.
I love those narrators, but nobody reads Harlan Ellison like Harlan Ellison himself so, fortunately, most of Ellison Wonderland is actually read by Ellison. I really enjoy listening to him even though (as, for some strange reason, I want to keep saying) I don’t like him. Ellison narrates some of the stories, the introductions to all of the stories, and the very long multiple introductions to the various editions of the book (all included in this edition). In fact, all the introductions put together are longer than all the stories put together.
This is not as boring as it sounds because, as I’ve mentioned, the man is interesting, despite the fact that he’s a … (oh, nevermind, I sense that I’m becoming redundant and tiresome). Anyway, all of these introductions give us an opportunity to meet the man behind the stories. Ellison talks about how awesome he is, drops a lot of names (despite claiming that he’s not a name-dropper), discusses the ups and downs of his career and the various kinds of trouble he’s had with publishers and other people, shares nasty (but amusing) memos he’s written to intrusive television story consultants, explains why book blurbs are such a scam, complains about people expecting him to do interviews and other promotional gigs for free, admits that he hates lima beans and holds grudges for a long time, offers a solution for the fighting in the middle east (it involves very high walls), calls Susanna Clarke a “wannabee” and a “poseur” (because Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell is a “bloviating gasbag of a fantasy”), calls himself a “cranky old man” and “heir to the throne of the great assholes of the world,” talks about how he adores his fifth wife, explains why he writes short stories instead of novels (and thinks many writers should do likewise), tells interesting anecdotes such as how Avram Davidson (who’s Jewish) refused to touch a German typewriter or allow his books to be published in Germany, and slams Wikpedia, Mylie Cyrus, Twitter, Katy Perry, email, Judith Krantz, and Jay Z.
There are plenty of reminders throughout about how smart and knowledgeable Harlan Ellison is and how stupid and uneducated most of the rest of the people he meets are. (Except for his friends such as Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Isaac Asimov, and the numerous other brilliant, rich and famous people he hangs out with.) All of this is punctuated with caustic language such as “And if you don’t like it, I’ll punch the shit out of you.” I’d be tempted to call some of it a “rant” but Ellison says that if any reviewer uses that word, he’ll kill them and their family, so… I guess I won’t. All of this introduction is so self-indulgent, but also charming in a slightly slimy way. It takes up nearly half of the book — six hours of the 14 hour audio edition.
After that, we finally get to the stories. Some of them I’ve read before in other collections. Others were new to me. The stories are (I’ll also indicate the narrator if I recognize his or her voice):
“Commuter’s Problem” — (1957) A man discovers that his neighbors are aliens and that Earth is a suburb of a crowded alien planet. Great premise. Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki.
“Do-it-yourself” — (1961) A woman tries to kill her husband with a do-it-yourself murder kit. Funny and ironic. Narrated by Gabrielle de Cuir.
“The Silver Corridor” — (1956) Two men fight over their political theories in a science fiction virtual battle. Not his best. Narrated by Arthur Morey.
“All the Sounds of Fear” — (1962) Richard Becker is such a great actor because he lives his roles before he plays them. This eventually has horrible consequences. Good story. Narrated by Harlan Ellison.
“Gnomebody” — (1956) In this very short story, a boy has a wish granted by a gnome which, he discovers, is not a good idea. It’s also not a very good story. Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki.
“The Sky is Burning” — (1958) Harlan Ellison narrates this story about aliens, racial memory, and the end of the universe. Thoughtful.
“Mealtime” — (1958) This amusing story is about what happens when human beings introduce themselves to the rest of the universe.
“The Very Last Day of a Good Woman” — (1958) A 40 year old man realizes that the world is about to end and decides he doesn’t want to die a virgin. Harlan Ellison narrates.
“Battlefield” — (1958) In the future, war is a profession. The moon is a perpetual battlefield and the warriors come home to Earth on the weekends. Interesting idea.
“Deal from the Bottom” — (1960) The only food I truly hate is baked beans, so I have to agree with the last line of this silly story.
“The Wind Beyond the Mountains” — (1957) Arthur Morey narrates this poignant story about home, rest, and peace.
“Are You Listening?” aka “The Forces that Crush” — (1958) A man who is surrounded by crowds of people becomes lonely and aggressive when he discovers that nobody can see him. I liked this story about conformity. It’s narrated by Stefan Rudnicki.
“Nothing for My Noon Meal” — (1958) In another touching story about conformity and loneliness, a man is stranded alone on a harsh uninhabited planet after his wife dies.
“Hadj” — (1956) This very short story makes fun of our tendency to think we’re the center of the universe. Funny.
“Rain, Rain, Go Away” — (1956) You know how when you were a kid and it was raining and you wanted to go outside, so you said “Rain, Rain, go away, come again another day”? Well, what if that postponed rain all came back on the same day? I love that idea.
“In Lonely Lands” — (1959) A blind dying man has only an alien servant for a companion. Harlan Ellison narrates this touching story.
“Back to the Drawing Boards” — (1958) Leon Packett vows to get even with the government who wants to change and use the robot he invented. This clever story is narrated by Stefan Rudnicki.
After the stories in Ellison Wonderland is an exuberant afterward written and narrated by screenwriter Josh Olson, a friend of Ellison’s. This includes a really sweet and inspiring story about how Olson’s ninth grade teacher gave him a copy of Ellison Wonderland, a book that influenced not only the development of Olson’s writing career, but also, it seems, the development of Olson’s personality.)
Any speculative fiction fan must read at least some of Harlan Ellison’s stories and Ellison Wonderland is a great place to start. In addition to the diverse array of tales, the introductions provide insights into some of the authors, publishers, and other personalities who’ve been involved in the industry for decades. I can highly recommend Skyboat Media and Blackstone Audio’s new edition of Ellison Wonderland. It’s a wonderful production.