Harlan

The first time I knew of Harlan Ellison was this neat show on the Knowledge Network called “Prisoners of Gravity” that ran from 1989 to 1994. The show, starring Rick Green (better known as Bill off the Red Green show) had the most amazing interviews of over 600 science fiction and fantasy authors. The particular episode, I believe, was about being a better writer. Harlan was on a tirade about writers who weren’t willing to do the ditch-digging work when it came to writing. My primary thoughts on Harlan’s interview was, “It sounds like he’s yelling at me personally, but he’s absolutely fascinating.”

I decided to actively seek out his work when I found out he was creative consultant on Babylon 5, my favorite non-Japanese-animated show. It was in that stuffy dorm room at SFU that I cracked open the copy of “Harlan Ellison is Watching” that I had borrowed from the campus library. What lay within was the kind of emotional validation that Republicans get from the Fox News Network. Here was a guy who was not only unafraid of using word like circumlocution and verisimilitude, he used them like his typewriter was a sexual organ. You must understand that in highschool I had to constantly tone down my vocabulary to function among the student population. But for him, there was no reference too obscure, no trope too multi-syllabic. Even when he was ripping into Star Wars, the most beloved film of my childhood, he never failed to make me think.

So, when I found that the guy was going to be in Seattle for a small literary SF convention, I said, what am I doing not down there? Furthermore, when I heard there was going to be a writer’s workshop with him in it, I asked again, what am I doing not joining up?

The workshop took place right after Harlan had been involved in an international incident with the Penny Arcade creators at his guest of honor speech. Harlan had been quite cordial with me yesterday when I bought and had him sign a copy of “Shatterday”. Still, words like “chain-saw enema” and “torched manuscript” from accounts of his previous workshops still rang through my head as I rushed out to my car to retrieve my trusty notebook, forgetting that it was already hanging from my hip in my laptop case.

So there we were, the 12 of us crowded around a long dining table in green leather chairs with Harlan seated at the head. The rules of the game were simple enough, about 14 or 15 pieces of science fiction and fantasy art were handed out. We each picked one and in 20 minutes we would have to finish writing a story inspired by our chosen pictures. It was exactly the kind of fear I was looking for. Finishing stories had always been difficult for me, and to produce something with a beginning, middle and end in 20 minutes downright terrified me. Harlan himself had been supplied with a typewriter and was already pecking away at his piece. I harnessed the nervous energy that had before allowed me to drag five rugby players across the try line and set to work.

The art that I chose can be found here. http://www.donatoart.com/gallery/inheritors.html

And here is what I wrote, mostly unrevised.

Shop Talk
By
James Strocel

“You know, if they gave us the proper funding, we could get some traffic cones around here,” Saroyan pulled down his welding goggles and got back to work on the dilapidated track.
“Do you want to put me out of work or something?”
Harry scouted the maglev for trouble. It was a minor maintenance job, nothing they could secure a whole crew for or even get the proper warning equipment. It was Harry’s job to watch Saroyan’s back as he worked. Nothing worse that a vat-grown mush-dealer trying to take a shortcut on the track during rush hour. Illogical and as dangerous as that kind of thing was, it still happened. The perils of dealing with the public.
“So how’s the single life treating you, Sar?”
Saroyan lifted his goggles to check his handiwork. “I just thank god she didn’t take the kids.”
Saroyan’s torch kept buzzing around the dulling cacophony of the arcology. Harry clenched his teeth, and released.
“So how much did she pay them to be one of them?”
Saroyan put the welder back in his kit. “About 30 million yuan’en. Hell knows where she got it.”
Saroyan’s wife, Milia had joined one of the “new races” out in the Lagrange Colonies. More of humanity trying to figure itself out. Every type of genetic derision imaginable. Colonies of the blind, the deaf, the winged, the gilled. It took all kinds out there.
“Tell me Harry, what do you think?
“Hm?”
“What the hell wasn’t I giving her? I always shared flex time with her. I mean goddammit! Jerry’s not out of middle school yet. And you know where she went, Harry? She went to one of those freefall colonies beyond Luna. Completely minimalist! No family attachment, no possessions, no nothing! And what are they going to do with 30 million? They’re going to let her float around there ‘till all the bone mass is gone and she’s a tub of goo, that’s what!”
Harry switched off the stop warning. “Yeah, just think about what you could do with that kind of money.”
“Harry, stop being full of shit, it’s not about the money!” Saroyan sighed.
There was a long uncomfortable silence as they walked back to Harry’s dock. “Look Harry, maybe you’ll understand when you have a family.”
The maintenance bracket took Harry in its grip. “Maybe I can take a few simulations. I hear they can be pretty realistic.”
“I wonder what is real for you Harry,” Saroyan patted the dock twice, and the maintenance bracket removed Harry’s arms, legs, and head and whisked them off to another body and another job.

The End

There were some great stories in our group. One was about a family of farmers that grew TV shows instead of barley. Another had a man starving himself to eat at a burger joint with a dark secret. Yet another explored the world of fine art in the future. I was third down the line to read my story. Harlan asked what I did and I started with tech support, but gave the short answer that I put truckers on the internet. He asked if I was nervous and I stammered yes. He reassured me that no one was going to hurt me, so I started reading

When I had finished reading, Harlan gave a big smile and said “You like the hard science fiction don’t you?” I replied yes, thinking back to my Gundam models and the fact that Planetes is the greatest anime series in history. His comments and those that came from the rest of the group were quite gracious. Harlan told me about how Robert Heinlein would “limn” or describe the culture and setting of a scene with phrases like “the door irised open.” The others had commented that they liked the blue collar feel to the piece, but felt it was lacking in physical descriptions of the characters, as well as an overall arc, citing that it sounded more like the first chapter of a novel than a self contained short story. I thought to myself, “not bad for 20 minutes”.

However, it bothered me that the comments were on my story were so even handed. Later in the workshop, Harlan commented that if we spoke up when reading our work aloud, myself included, we would gain confidence with our writing. He lost half my story because I mumbled when I talk. This was the greatest lesson of the workshop. Afraid of making any kind of reaction with my writing, I had become timid. The question now was not whether or not I had talent, but whether I had the guts to prove it. That two hour workshop was only a stepping stone. Next month I will be going to the Surrey International Writer’s Conference where I will be exposing more of my work. If I am to improve, I must risk getting pilloried and ostracized just as Harlan did before me. I dishonor the work of my predecessors by slinking in the shadows, cringing at the thought of the slightest reproach by friend and foe alike. If I am to make a vocation of my craft, if I am going to make term “writer” refer to part of my being and not a petty diversion, I must get stronger. My writing must change from the outstretched hand that endures the fearsome onslaught into a fist of rage that strikes against an unfinished world.

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