Ah Harlan. Harlan Harlan Harlan.
It's impossible to be an active member of the science fiction community and not have a Harlan Ellison story to tell. Shoot, I've got them, and I've never met the man. In fact, Harlan Ellison could be used as a sort of SF shibboleth. Rather than asking people how they define SF, ask them if they have Harlan stories. If they have Harlan stories, they're in. If they don't, they're out.
When I first opened Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever, I was curious as to how Weil and Wolfe would separate the man's work from the stories about him. Thankfully, they didn't even try. To be more specific, they embraced the challenge. In fact, after a quotation from " 'Repent Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," the very first line of the book suggests that "Harlan Ellison's characterization of Harlequin, the rebellious joker in a future society ruled by the clock, inevitably reads like to a self-portrait to anyone who has met Ellison or seen him perform at his frequent lectures and readings, or who simply knows his reputation." The rest of the book interweaves an informed critical address of these four elements of Ellison: his work, his identity, his performativity (1), and his reputation.
The introductory chapter provides a solid overview of Ellison's career and the themes that run through it, and, more useful for those familiar with his work, puts that work into a context of both the literary marketplace and the larger society, establishing a context within which Ellison's success was forged.
Which is good, because immediately thereafter, Weil and Wolfe plunge directly into the most slippery aspects of Ellison: the relationship between Ellison's life and his own work. I found this section especially useful, because I encountered Ellison first when I was a teenager. I won't say I read him, because that's not a fair summation of the experience. I was a teenaged SF junkie in small town Ohio, and my local library shelved their science fiction books alphabetically, which meant I found Ellison's Deathbird Stories squarely between Asimov's robot books and a cluster of Heinlein juveniles. Riiiight.
I opened Deathbird Stories and started reading "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs," and my eyes began to boil in their sockets. To paraphrase a line made science fictional by William Shatner's delivery, this was not your father's SF. Forever after, then, the vividness of my earliest Ellison experiences defined my later reading of his work, impairing my critical faculties in ways I am certain he'd appreciate. Therefore, I found it particularly useful when Weil and Wolfe provided terms for categorizing Ellison beyond "SF" and "oh my god." They deem him a master of "autofiction," fiction that incorporates autobiographical material within fiction—but also, a category including non-fiction that is shaped by fictional techniques so as to blur the lines between them. When Weil and Wolfe include a list of authors Ellison has mentioned as admiring for their incorporation of their lives into their work—Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wilde—a new context snapped into focus. Not Ellison as the hard-to-classify writer of speculative fiction, but Ellison as the writer of specifically masculine auto-fiction, committed even beyond his conscious understanding to a recasting of his own life that has ideological implications: to be a man is to write about the world in specific ways that claim to be objective and insightful, but also praise oneself as a good man for doing so.
The chapter "An Estimated Life" provides textual analyses that demonstrate the parallels between Ellison's life and work, and even parallel passages between works that are supposedly non-fiction and works that are supposedly fiction. This provided a section way to understand Ellison's relationship to science fiction. Rather than just being a genre in which he labored, SF was both one of the materials that formed Ellison, and one of many raw materials that he reworked, along with his own pain, research, and experience, into his auto-fiction.
"An Estimated Life" focuses on this interplay of life and fiction; later chapters move through Ellison's career a stage at a time. This treatment allows Weil and Wolfe to make two crucial points in a number of different ways. First, they place Ellison's work in its context—showing, for example, how Ellison's "J.D." (juvenile delinquent) fiction fits in with other work in the same publishing niche from the period. In doing so, they often provide useful details about other genre writers, such as Robert Silverberg, who also labored in this area, quietly indicating the link between American SF and masculine self-identity along the way. Second and more important for an understanding of Ellison, Weil and Wolfe document the changes working in different fields produced in Ellison's writing as he incorporated not just techniques from the different genres, but also different thematic emphases.
On the down side, providing an overview of Ellison's career in the introduction, examining his life and work in "An Estimated Life," and then examining each stage of Ellison's career one at a time produced a fair amount of repetition. Since material in some of the chapters was also published independently, in essay form in various critical journals, this means that the themes must also be re-explained. In book format, the result is a kind of doubled vision; at times I would say, "Didn't I already read this point?" and flip back to check.
That weakness was primarily an irritant, a side effect of an otherwise useful perspective. A second and more substantial weakness was the curious curtailing of critical context at times. Don't get me wrong: each time that Weil and Wolfe put Ellison's work into a larger context, the results were useful, and in some cases, surprising. Their re-presentation of the generic constraints and literary-economic marketplace were quite strong. It's useful to see what Ellison learned from men's fiction, from television, from genre fiction, from the New Wave, and how he fit within each of these fields. However, only occasionally did they really link Ellison to larger literary tradition as they did with auto-fiction, and that's what needs most exploration in his work. The authors cogently point out a few places where Ellison leaves a story suspended between the uncanny and the Todorovian fantastic—but such observations come and go quickly, and how Ellison's work functions isn't examined in full detail on this level.
Likewise, each time that Weil and Wolfe document Ellison's place in a literary lineage, the work is vitally important. It is crucial to acknowledge that in Ellison currents as diverse as Hemingway and Shirley Jackson come together—and the work needed more of this. To note a specific example, Weil and Wolfe do a fine job of explaining how the image of the man in the golden cage in Ellison's 1971 story, "Silent in Gehenna," fits with his life and psychology—but this is not the first artist in a cage in fantastic fiction, nor is it the first anguished, ignored man in a cage in American literature. Given Ellison's interest in racial issues, and his far-ranging reading (and his literary ambitions), this image cries out to be related to the caged artist in Kafka's story "The Hunger Artist," and to that of the tortured slave suspended in a cage in De Crevecoeur's Letters From an American Farmer. Other images and themes in Ellison's work would also benefit from being placed in a larger, richer context.
However, this last matter will primarily concern scholars, and, as I mentioned above, every place that Weil and Wolfe do provide a larger critical context, it is focused and useful, and to be fair, given Ellison's complexity, and his intense productivity (the book's back cover notes that Ellison has published over 1,100 stories!), such tight focus is simply not possible for every theme.
I enjoyed this book, and it increased my understanding of Harlan Ellison. It is clearly written, and accessible to the general reader. And it not only shared some Harlan Ellison stories I hadn't heard before, it put them in context, telling me what happened after. For all of this, I thank the authors.