If you know Ellison, then you know he’s almost exclusively a writer of short fiction. This is a collection of just a small fraction of that fiction. A very small fraction, as there are only eight stories to be found here. Yet there is something interesting about this one. There’s a theme: pain.
I really love Harlan Ellison. And before I nitpick one story in this collection in particular, which will probably happen at the end of this review, can I just say that even his weakest stories are stronger than other people’s best work? He’s that kind of writer. His worst can still be some of the best stuff you’ve ever read, and yet you wind up holding him to such an immense standard that you can’t excuse it either. That’s the power of this guy.
Trying to review a collection of short stories can be difficult. But I’ll start by saying that “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” can be found in this one. It’s considered one of his most famous works, and if you are interested in Ellison, you can’t pass it up. I was delighted to finally get a chance to read it here after hearing about it for so long. It’s that perfect blend of absurdity and ultimately sadness that makes the theme of pain resonate with even more power. It also goes to show that dystopia, as a genre, has more life in it than most authors can muster.
Another gem I have to mention is “Deeper Than the Darkness”. I feel a bit like a kid obsessed with hyperbole when I think of this one, because I really just want to scream from the mountaintops that it was awesome. It’s about a man who’s a firestarter. Like think Stephen King Firestarter. With a lot of the same struggles for the main character. It just goes to show that there is an innate fear of a simultaneous lack of control while being controlled by others that can be a story-telling goldmine in the right hands.
Here comes the nitpick. “Wanted In Surgery”. Machines have been created to replace doctors. The age-old fear of being obsolete. That’s a very real thing, the idea that you’re replaceable. It becomes even more real as technology advances. But the fears the main character, a surgeon outsourced by a robot, feels come off as pure melodrama. The machines haven’t even committed any crimes, but he finds he instinctively hates them. Ellison tries so hard to impart how soulless and heartless and unfeeling a machine is, that you need a human with a good bedside manner to make a good doctor. But none of it really came across for me.
He wanted the reader to get angry at even something as mundane as cleaning robots and feel a passionate resistance against any technological assistance of any kind, and it just makes me wonder how horrified he must be at where we’ve arrived. Which is valid, but this was the sort of story that wants to grab you and shake you and make you agree. And if you don’t, you’ll find yourself more amused by the protagonist’s hangups than anything.