This 1974 collection of short stories, Approaching Oblivion, was my first experience with the work of Harlan Ellison. I had been aware, of course, of his stature within science fiction, and to a lesser extent had been aware of his reputation as — how to put it nicely? — a uniquely difficult personality. After reading this collection, and particularly the introduction, I see what people mean about his contentious nature. This is a man with fiercely held beliefs, who is pissed at the world for its stupidity and wants the world to know it. To an extent, I can respect that, since there are a great many things about the behavior of my species (presumably it’s mine, anyway) that infuriate me to no end. However, if I were a writer, I would hope that my stories would be at least a little bit constructive, giving people something to think about and maybe at least a glimmer of hope. On the contrary, the stories in this volume seem to have no purpose other than to express Ellison’s bitterness and contempt for the world he lives in (at least the world as he knew it in ’74). The introduction declares his intention to give up on humanity and, as it were, fiddle while Rome burns, laughing and saying “I told you so” while the world destroys itself. It’s a pretty piss-poor attitude if you ask me. (He wrote a second introduction ten years later which seems slightly more mellow, but still….)
But even all that wouldn’t be so bad, if the stories were at least interesting. For the most part, they’re not even close. The stated theme of this collection is “cautionary tales” that warn of where we’re headed if we don’t change our ways. However, none of these stories contain anything like a well thought-out projection of current trends into the future; few of them say much of anything about where we’re headed. Most of these tales have an extremely bizarre, dreamy, surrealistic quality, containing utterly fantastical events which are not even questioned by the characters but accepted as if they were perfectly normal. Some of them don’t even remotely qualify as science fiction (I don’t know if Ellison uses that label, but people claim him as a science fiction writer, so there you go). Cautionary tales? The only thing I feel cautioned against is reading more of Ellison’s work.
I’ll now quickly run through the stories and briefly comment.
“Knox.” Presents a harsh, totalitarian, racist, dystopian society; at the end the main character perceives some unknown beings flickering at the edge of vision, and believes they are influencing humans to be more cruel. Wouldn’t that sort of let us off the hook, partly?
“Cold Friend.” A man wakes up to find the world has disappeared, except for nine square blocks and a single woman that he was kind to in high school; this woman wished the world away to be alone with him (much to his chagrin). What does this caution us against — being kind to people in high school?
“Kiss of Fire.” Humanity rules the galaxy and cruises around looking for worlds with extinct peoples and then destroys the corresponding stars as some sort of art form (why this should be amusing, I don’t know). On one world, though, the people were not extinct but only waiting to be reborn, phoenix-like. Well oops, they’re extinct now, thanks to humanity. One survivor comes looking for revenge.
“Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman.” Easily the worst of the lot. A jazz musician’s girlfriend has recently died and her rich family didn’t let him attend the funeral. One night he and his band go to the cemetery to play her some music. They hear sounds in the crypt, then turn and run. End of story. Umm…. what!? How utterly pointless.
“I’m Looking for Kadak.” Easily the most annoying of the lot. It’s about a futuristic group of blob-like tentacled aliens on another planet, who just happen to be Jewish. Yes, you heard that right. And they spend the whole story arguing and orating and whatnot, sounding as stereotypically Jewish as Ellison can possible make them, and agonizing over the finer points of Jewish religion. So what?
“Silent in Gehenna.” At least this one said something, even though nothing too interesting. A revolutionary fighting alone against injustice and getting nowhere is captured by beings from another world or dimension or something; he is kept in a cage, and lectures them about the evils they do; they use him as their captive conscience to assuage their guilt, then keep right on engaging in the same evils. I guess there’s a moral there, but still the story didn’t do much for me.
“Erotophobia.” A man is so attractive to women (and some men) that he’s in danger of being loved to death, he claims. In the end he sees himself in a mirror and falls in love with himself. Yeah, whatever.
“One Life, Furnished, In Early Poverty.” This is just like several old Twilight Zone episodes in which an unhappy world-weary man returns magically to his childhood in his home town, trying to recapture some of the old joy, only to realize he can’t stay and has to go back. It’s not bad for that kind of story, but that kind of story doesn’t interest me much.
“Ecowareness.” The Earth is a conscious being and finally wakes up in anger against humanity’s pollution and starts killing people in various gruesome ways; after that people stop polluting. The last lines are: “Now isn’t that a nice story. And fuck you, too.” Wow, what a constructive take on the issue. I bet the average grade school child could write an ecological story more thoughtful and insightful than that.
“Catman.” An unhappy man finds fulfillment in having sex with a computer. And I don’t mean in a virtual reality way, or with an android, or anything with any kind of realism. I mean he stands next to a giant computer and it melts and they merge together and have lots of orgasms. Maybe I was wrong, maybe this is the worst of the lot.
“Hindsight: 480 Seconds.” The only one out of the whole collection I actually enjoyed somewhat, and that had an interesting premise. The world is about to be destroyed by a massive asteroid collision (I’m simplifying there), and the entire population is evacuated via spacecraft. Except for one single man, a poet, who has volunteered to stay behind to witness the end of the world and record it and his perceptions of it for posterity, transmitting it to the fleeing ships. Minutes before the end he breaks down and decides he wants to live. Too late.
One good story out of eleven? Not too impressive. Poor stories, poor attitude…. this kind of fiction is not for me. Maybe some people “get” it, and that’s great for them, but if this collection is at all representative of Mr. Ellison’s work, then I’ll probably never be a fan. So be it.