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HomeTechnologyJ. Michael Straczynski on Harlan Ellison's Epic Sci-Fi Legacy

J. Michael Straczynski on Harlan Ellison’s Epic Sci-Fi Legacy

Celebrate the lasting legacy of Harlan Ellison—the highly influential, sometimes spicy Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Award winner—with Greatest Hits, a short-story collection (including some that have been out of print) arriving next year. It’s edited by J. Michael Straczynski and features a foreword by Neil Gaiman, as well as an introduction from Cassandra Khaw.

“Harlan Ellison’s writing left an indelible mark on the world—and on me,” Khaw said in a statement provided to io9. “Like many who have read Ellison’s stories, his work stayed with me. The breadth of his storytelling is beautifully illuminated in this collection, which holds the best of his work from across a storied lifetime.”

Here’s the full cover by artist Max Loeffler; keep reading for an interview with Greatest Hits editor J. Michael Straczynski. The book will be released March 12, 2024; pre-order here.

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io9: How did you narrow down Ellison’s work for this collection? Considering how prolific and highly lauded he is, I’d think you couldn’t even collect his award winning stories without filling two massive volumes.

J. Michael Straczynski: It was a process. I started with the stories that won the most awards—and there are a lot of those. Then I asked, “What are the fan favorites?” and “Which were Harlan’s favorites?” Then, after aggregating all the material, I wrestled with the combination of stories that would provide readers with the best perspective on Harlan’s body of work. Because he wrote all kinds of stories, I think it’s important for readers to understand the breadth of his work. From the horror and bite of The Whimper of Whipped Dogs and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, to the humor of I’m Looking for Kadak, to the gentle fantasy of On the Downhill Side, and the semi-autobiographical storytelling in All The Lies That Are My Life—they’re all there. I wanted the stories to serve as an entry point for readers who might not be familiar with Harlan’s fiction, and my hope is that these stories will drive readers to his other works.

io9: Ellison was an outsized personality; did you attempt to convey any part of his (self-admitted) contentiousness in this collection?

Straczynski: There’s a touch of it in one of the introductions, but beyond that, no, and for one reason: Harlan is no longer with us to be contentious. We do, however, see examples of what made him the writer he was through his engagement with the world: his support for free speech, the ACLU, civil rights and women’s rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and marching with Martin Luther King in Selma. While giving a speech about gun violence in Billings Montana, even though he’d been warned he might be in danger, someone took a shot at him, the bullet missing by inches. He refused to leave the stage and continued his speech. So yeah, he was a firebrand.

io9: Is the title itself, Greatest Hits, a wink to Ellison’s temperament?

Straczynski: Not really. Harlan loved music, and he always listened to it when he was working. So my thought was more like the Greatest Hits label you see on a compilation of a music artist’s retrospective.

io9: What can contemporary readers—and writers—learn from Ellison’s stories? (Would he even want them to learn anything?)

Straczynski: I don’t think Harlan ever wrote to teach readers as much as he wrote to provide them with a visceral reading experience. He wanted to grab you by the scruff of the neck and show you a part of the world, or a part of your life, and ask where you stand on issues and what it all means. It helps that the themes of his work are as resonant and timely as ever. The importance of individual resistance against the rise of a fascist, oppressive government in “Repent, Harlequin,” Said the Ticktockman…our willingness to turn a blind eye to those in need of help in The Whimper of Whipped Dogs…the potential danger of AI in I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream… racism, misguided technology, misogyny, anti-Semitism – it’s all there, examined from the perspective of one of the finest writers of our time.

io9: What sort of subjects do you think Ellison would be interested in now—where do you think his stories would have gone?

Straczynski: Harlan was an astute observer of the world and always took the unexpected path. One can only imagine.

io9: If you could only tell people to read just one of Ellison’s stories, which would it be and why?

Straczynski: If I had to pick just one—which is admittedly hard–I’d go with Repent, Harlequin because it addresses some of Harlan’s favorite themes. It’s accessible and current, has gentle and funny moments alongside moments of tyranny and darkness, and is a microcosm of Harlan’s storytelling skills in one set piece.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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Amit Ghosh
Amit Ghosh


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