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Harlan Ellison's Complaint

Harlan Ellison's Complaint

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A meditation about what "human" characters do in stressed situations, prompted by a diatribe of Harlan Ellison's.

About ten years ago, Harlan Ellison wrote a book called City on the Edge of Forever, after the1967 Star Trek (OS) episode of the same name.  In it, he detailed the writing process and especially the events which resulted in the script being radically altered from what he had originally created.  Much of this book was very sour grapes, and some of the complaining very hard to stomach -- e.g., he hated the fact that apparently Gene Roddenberry had received so much credit for "fixing" a "flawed" script and making it "usable", when (in Ellison's view) the newer script was terrible, and he hated that so many people had made so much money in the long run on Trek when he (Ellison) was really responsible for saving the show, etc.  Personally I always loved the broadcast version of the episode, and always credited Ellison with having written a brilliant script, and I expect that most viewers felt the same way -- so Ellison's gnashing of teeth really struck me as misplaced.

Still, I did agree that his original script was better, and I was struck by one significant complaint that has stuck with me ever since.  In the original version Ellison wrote, Kirk, in love with Edith Keeler, is unable to bring himself to allow her death (even to save the world), but the world is saved, instead, by a stranger who accomplishes the same thing.  In the broadcast version, Kirk musters the strength to prevent McCoy from saving Edith, thus saving the world but killing the woman he loves.

I found the broadcast version very moving, but I'd always had a hankering to write (myself) the other ending; I even wrote the beginning of a story called "The Day Kennedy Wasn't Shot", about a fellow who goes back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination and finds that he can't live with the world that results (i.e., his beloved isn't in it) so he goes back and restores the original timeline.  This later evolved into another (also unfinished) story called "Karmic Joke Number Nine", about time travel as a form of therapy.  Anyway, when I eventually (eight years after trying to write "Karmic Joke Number Nine") got around to reading Ellison's diatribe and his original script, I was impressed with how bitter he was about the revision that was imposed on him.  He felt that a Kirk who couldn't allow the death of his beloved even to save the world was much more human than the duty-bound Kirk who eventually appeared in the broadcast version.  Ellison doesn't like perfect people as characters.

Well, neither do I, if it comes to that.  But I do have a taste for Heroic Sacrifice as a device, and so I wonder how I really feel about these two endings.  More specifically, I wonder what I would have written in his place.  It's not a completely idle question, because a number of HP FF writers toy with the question of whether Harry, Ginny, etc. would be able to permit the death of a loved one in order to win the war, and whether it's "fair" to make them try.  Me, I've already come at that idea two different ways, both of which result in the death of either Harry alone or both Harry and Ginny.

Is Ellison's original Kirk more "human", therefore more believable?  Or is he someone who just isn't able to set his own happiness as less important than the happiness of billions of others -- which arguably makes him not human, but just weak?  (In the Christmas Engagement entry I'm writing, I have a line where Ginny tells Harry, "The war is more important than we are."  Rick says to Ilsa,  "The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.")  I'm brooding about this.

...Incidentally, the Userpic is the exterior of our home renovation as it currently exists.  Considering that the house was a ranch four months ago, it looks pretty good, right?  If you could see the interior (essentially a blasted shell) you'd think differently...
  • Is Ellison's original Kirk more "human", therefore more believable?

    I'd have to say that I don't think either is more "human" necessarily; it's more a question of what kind of human he is. Noble self-sacrifice is laudable, but so is loving someone so much that you'd let the world go to hell in a handbasket to keep them safe.

    I hope JKR doesn't make Harry or Ginny make that choice but I have the feeling (based on alchemical parallels) that what it will come down to is Harry being willing to sacrifice himself. He'll do it, of course, because that's the kind of guy he is, but it won't be a matter of Ginny "letting" him - she won't be in a position to stop him. The fact that he's willing to make the sacrifice will, of course, be what enables him to survive it.
    • Clearly I messed up a tag somewhere - that whole post wasn't supposed to be in italics!
    • Hmmm... I seem to get hung up on that word "human" all the time. It caused a real row over at the "Cracked Muggle" list in an exchange with Moshpit. I guess, by more "human", Ellison means (although maybe he didn't really use that particular word), that that behavior is more like a real person rather than an idealized one. The reason I wanted to write that other story is that I couldn't imagine living with that choice.

      I definitely will not predict who sacrifices what in canon -- except I'm pretty certain that Snape will die.
  • Is Ellison's original Kirk more "human", therefore more believable?


    You've posed a very interesting and complex question, and it's difficult to give a clearcut answer, I think. I guess other questions you'd need to answer before you can come to a real conclusion are:

    1) Which behavior is more consistent with the characterization portrayed thus far? I agree with bandcandy here - both choices can be human, depending on the person, though one may be more rare than the other. I'm no expert on Kirk, by any means, though I have watched the series, and my take is that the ending that aired is more consistent with Kirk's characterization.
    2) Are you trying to delve into the realities and foibles of true human nature, or are you trying to illustrate a morality tale?
    3) How sure is the character that "billions of others" would benefit in such a way as to make the sacrifice "worth it"? Is it a gamble? Or a hunch? Or is the information perfectly clear?

    It seems that the original version was a cop-out in a sense, in that Kirk didn't have to live with the ramifications of his decision. It all turned out all right in the end for the world, and he didn't have to be the one to sacrifice his loved one. (I don't actually remember this episode - I'm just going by what you described above.)

    *shudder* Just don't put me in that situation!
    • I can't answer that about Kirk, because I rarely watched the show and don't even recall even seeing that one. I was even surprised Ellison had anything to do with the show.

      About the fate of Harry and or Ginny. At the end of book 6, Harry tells Ginny they have to be apart because he could not face it if it was her funeral. Nothing about how Ginny would feel if that situation was Harry's funeral. I think once Harry decides something, thats it. Nothing will change his mind. It's also not clear what Ginny will or not do. So maybe his decision (or for that matter her's) will not guide the course of their fate. Perhaps it's Tom Riddle decision, no matter what he or she does. Making a fatful decision and living with the ramifications will haunt them both, whether they get through it or not. It maybe that Harry will be willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. That would also include a greater good for Ginny and her family. He'll do it out of love. Perhaps that will enable him to survive.

      That used to be rancher eh? Like to see another picture after the house "grows up"
      • I think it's clear that Harry indeed is willing to sacrifice—himself, his relationship, his future...

        Not his friends or loved ones.

        But I think that's what gives the breakup scene any sense of pathos. The HP series isn't a love story, primarily (though you'd never believe that if you only read fic!)—it's a coming-of-age adventure tale, and as such, Harry has to commit himself utterly to his task. That's what makes him a hero.

        Mind, I don't think it's going to be easy—I don't think Ginny or Voldemort or Ron and Hermione or Harry's Chest Monster™ are going to let him simply move straight forward in 'vanquishing' the Dark Lord. And I'm sure that the decision to leave Ginny behind is going to bite him in the bum at some point, because, as much as this is, as I said, a light-against-dark adventure, it's also a coming-of-age story, and the point of view character can't truly become an adult until they recognize their need of the opposite sex....

        But that's a whole other rant that I could go off on for hours. And won't. XD
    • Moonette has hit it on the head -- "delv[ing] into the realities and foibles of true human nature, or [trying] to illustrate a morality tale." I wonder, though, whether you can write an effective morality tale (i.e., one that inspires people to act more morally, or to think more about morality) if you don't delve into those realities and foibles? I mean, if the protagonist doesn't behave like someone you imagine you could meet, will you be moved by what he or she does?

      (Maybe you can. Sidney Carton is moving, although I've never met anyone like that.)

      As to question number 3, the actual episode was a time travel story, in which the entire future Kirk knows has vanished because the Nazis won WWII using nuclear weapons. So the benefits are pretty clear. BUT this raises a very interesting additional question. Many very poignant self-sacrifice stories give the protagonist exactly that sort of perfect information -- even at the end of Tale of Two Cities, Dickens has to imagine that Carton knows what he cannot know -- "If he could see these two on their last earthly bed," etc. Without perfect information, or really, really good information, it seems to me that the certainty of the loved one's death would override the possibility of the benefit to even a whole world.

      • Without perfect information, or really, really good information, it seems to me that the certainty of the loved one's death would override the possibility of the benefit to even a whole world.

        Oooh! *shiver* THAT's an excellent variation. Wow.

        You're so right ... the whole episode works because Kirk *knows* that he's doing 'the right thing' ... that the Guardian will snap them back after the timeline has been restored, etcetera. What if he didn't know for sure? And on top of that ... knew he'd never find out if he succeeded (say, if the Guardian couldn't magically pull them back, which I always thought was a bit suspect). There's a lot of depth in that idea!

        (I just discovered your LJ and having good fun reading through your entries)
        • Hi Brad,

          Enjoy, enjoy! I just added you as a friend so you can now read the essay about my trip to Poland in 1998, although I should warn you it's not exactly what you'd call "enjoyable." Picture angsty fiction without the fiction.

          I'm glad you agree about the importance of foresight in this episode.

          You know, you planted a nasty little seed in my head about H/Hr fiction a while ago... No, I don't have any ideas yet, but I can't seem to forget about it... (But I'll probably want to do my Snape thing first, and I have to finish "Shippers' Hell" before anything else...) (I mean, before anything else except the Christmas Engagement entry...)

  • I loved that episode of ST too—the paradoxical sadness of it, and the quasi-metaphysical grandeur. Just right for a kid who's just starting to try to think about things.

    Ellison's writing was like that too. I loved some of his short stories—"I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" is one that I remember—because they always twisted your image of the world a bit, and he had a way with language, as the title of that story exhibits.

    He's also a putz.

    I saw him speak at a Star Trek convention back around 1976, and good lord was he impressed with himself. Mind, I'm sure he found all of us teen dweebs pretty pathetic (though he seemed to be doing his Lockhart number on the girls), but here he was, speaking to an audience that must have been two or three thousand strong, all of whom were interested in Star Trek, and most of whom were well-read, at least when it came to science fiction, yet all that he talked about for an hour and a half was himself. Not even his writing, and barely his involvement with ST—I think he was involved with another episode or two of the series. He just went on and on about Harlan Ellison. The grand finale was rambling story about him trying to impress some women that ended with him passing gas, the point of which seemed to be not to take yourself too seriously, but which made him come across... as taking himself way too seriously.

    And that's how I felt about it when I was thirteen. ;-)

    A hero is someone who takes the problems of the society on as his or her own and sacrifices him- or herself—temporarily or permanently—to the solution of those problems. It's the only reason that the exchange between Harry and Ginny at the end of HBP isn't thoroughly scream-worthy: in the narrative context of the story, this is the sacrifice that the two of them have to make to defeat the Big Bad and heal the Waste Land.

    Kirk always (ALWAYS) made it clear that there was only one woman for him, and her name was Enterprise... even if he did enjoy a quick cuddle here or there along the way.

    And thanks for the picture of your house! I'd reciprocate, but mine is all wrapped up for the holidays... XD
    • Yeah, everything I've ever heard about Ellison (except from himself) corresponds to what you've said... Only big writer I ever saw at a Trek convention was David Gerrold in Detroit, the day the Yom Kippur War started (that's when I was thirteen). I thought he was clever and interesting and very funny. (I got to tell him that the first novel of his I ever read (Space Skimmer) I picked up in a bookshop in Jerusalem!)But then, Gerrold has always had more heart than Ellison, although he appears to worship the ground Ellison walks on...

      I agree with your definition of a hero.

      Yes, Kirk always maitained that the Enterprise was his woman. But there were two very specific exceptions to that: Edith and Miramanee. His whole orientation towards those two was different from the others. If he could have saved Edith and still done his duty, I think he would have.

    • He's also a putz.

      Oh, thank goodness. I was wondering if I should jump in with my own personal opinion of Ellison, but I couldn't have summed it up better.

      I was into Science Fiction and knew a little of Ellison's work when I turned up at *my* first, biggest convention - but I was 33 at the time, not 13, sorry :-) - when I made my first trip to the United States. DragonCon in Atlanta, I think. In comes Harlan ... and spends the entire hour ranting, walking up and down the isles, just shouting out loud, etcetera. The perfect personification of the 'loud, arrogant, self-obsessed American', if you don't mind me saying ... I mean no offense, really, but there is that stereotype outside the USA, and by golly he fit it to a 'T'. I couldn't believe it.

      I gather he's easily the sort of bloke who'll escalate things in a trice ... you say something nasty in words, he'll try and punch your lights out. Which is one of my definitions of an uncivilised cro-magnon ... but he's the successful millionaire author, I'm the lowly mortal worker ant, so maybe I've got it wrong. And he's got some staunch friends in his camp (who turn out at conventions to speak for him) like Peter David, who - I think - set up FOE (Friends of Ellison), with buttons and all, when Harlan was mired in one of his epic struggles. Back a decade or more ago, anyway.
      • Well, I don't have anything to add to this; we seem to be more-or-less united in our view of the man. I have met people who like him -- like him personally, that is -- but that was 26 years ago and I've never seen him myself...

        As to the stereotypical American Male -- yeah, well, all stereotypes have their grain of truth. I'll claim to be an exception, but who knows?

        You came to the U.S. for a science fiction convention?? Wow.
        • You came to the U.S. for a science fiction convention?? Wow.

          Oh, goodness, I'm not that big a Sci-Fi nerd!


          Well ... back then ... hmmmm ...

          It was my first ever fair dinkum holiday ... prior to that I'd mainly saved up my holiday time (I was a real computer nerd, loved my work back then), taken a week scattered here or there (most of it for post graduate exam study). But then I decided to have a proper holiday, took ten weeks off and spent it all in the USA. A lot of my time was centred around some of my hobbies - I started the holiday with DragonCon in Atlanta, wound up with the San Diego Comic Con - but I also did a lot of tourist stuff, did a few Contiki bus tours of the southern half of the USA, up the east coast, New York, Washington, etcetera.

          So no, that SF convention was just one of the things on the agenda. But it and Harlan was my first real experience in a foreign nation. Great country you have over there.
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