Friday, March 9, 2012

Strange Wine by Harlan Ellison, a review

More than 30 years ago in the introduction to Strange Wine (1978) Harlan Ellison railed against television, declaring it the death knell of books and reading. In his usual blunt style:
I now believe that television itself, the medium of sitting in front of a magic box that pulses images at us endlessly, the act of watching TV, per se, is mind crushing. It is soul deadening, dehumanizing, soporific in a poisonous way, ultimately brutalizing. It is, simply put so you cannot mistake my meaning, a bad thing.
It’s hard to say whether Ellison’s fears were misplaced or have come to fruition. I’ve seen reports from the National Endowment for the Arts declaring that reading is in crisis and Americans are reading both less, and less well; opposing reports state that books like Harry Potter have revived reading in old and young alike, and that e-readers have made reading cool again, opening up an old pastime with new technology.

Perhaps Ellison’s essay is showing a little age. Television sets—the glass teat, as he once famously described them—are now competing with computer screens for our national attention, and computers of course allow us to both passively consume entertainment like TV while granting us more access to information and an enormous variety of reading material, albeit of variable quality. Worth noting too is the fact that Ellison was writing in an age of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Bewitched; perhaps TV has gotten better since then (then I think of The Bachelor and Fear Factor and wonder if gladiatorial combats aren’t coming next). But I think there’s a kernel of truth to Ellison’s rant about television: I wonder if there isn’t something being lost with the decline of paper books, which promote the act of sustained reading without ready access to an internet browser.

All that said, Strange Wine is not a literary masterpiece that proves reading is definitively better than watching TV; I’d rate it well behind his superb collection Deathbird Stories. There are a few gems here, but they lie amid a bevy of solid but unspectacular EC Comics-style gotcha stories. In other words, stuff you can find on reruns of the Twilight Zone or Creepshow. But a few entries move us beyond what TV typically offers, challenging stories that embrace ambiguity and don’t allow for easy, comfortable analysis. Others are designed to grasp you by the shoulders and wake you up to the cold brutality of the world and the meaningless of our existence, a sensation you’re not likely to encounter watching The Biggest Loser.

Strange Wine contains 15 stories and the introductory essay “Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don’t Look So Terrific Yourself.” The latter is Ellison’s rant on television, provocative and entertaining and very uniquely Ellison. Some of the most enjoyable bits of Strange Wine are Harlan being Harlan is his introductions (we get a lot of Harlan, who offers an introduction for each story). Ellison is a divisive figure in SFF circles, to say the least. Personally I’ve always liked the guy. Sure I don’t agree with everything he says but people like him make the world a more interesting place to live in. He’s also a tireless advocate for writer’s rights, adult literacy and reading, admirable causes all.

As far as the stories go, “Seeing” is amazing. In the introduction Ellison says he dreamed up the idea for the story when he envisioned eyes that could see in new and strange ways. “Seeing” has a dystopian Blade Runner vibe, a dying, polluted Earth where people are abducted off the streets and their bodyparts sold to the rich. It’s also a rumination on what it means to truly see, and how lucky we are as humans with our limited vision. If we could see the past and future of our own short lives and the darkness we come from, and into which we return, we’d go mad. We are vessels, surrounded by darkness, bound for other places, and it’s better that way.

“The Wine Has Been Left Open Too Long and the Memory Has Gone Flat” (what a title) is about a group of aliens who convene on the planet Vindemiatrix Σ. The Universe is now 50 billion years old, “and it was tired,” in entropy and nearing a final heat death. The aliens have done it all and seen it all and are afflicted with ennui, but during their strange meeting (they share sounds with each other in a form of extra-lingual communication) they hear a sound that presages what lies beyond the end of the universe. It’s the sound of reality and finally wakes them up from their torpor. It’s not necessarily a happy sound but nor is it the sound of absolute despair.

Some others I liked included “Croatoan,” an unsettling story about certain… things flushed down the toilets that live in the sewers of a city. “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is about a concentration camp survivor who sees the ghosts of tried, convicted, and executed Nazi war criminals walking the streets. It’s one of those “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” type of stories (Ellison is fond of heavy-handed didacticism in his stories, which often serve as dire warnings about where we are headed as a race unless we avert our current course). “Strange Wine” is a moving (and disturbing) story about an old man struggling to make sense of the tragedy in his life. It’s a very personal story by Ellison, who in the introduction admits “I’ll be damned if I can make any sense out of life. It gets more complex the longer I keep breathing.” I can identify.

A few stories are rather forgettable: “The New York Review of Bird” is Ellison’s revenge-fantasy perpetuated against tin-eared critics and inattentive booksellers, and tries to be funny but falls flat; “Working with the Little People” is about a writer who loses his creative spark and falls into despair until a group of gremlins answer his prayers and begin pounding away with incredible stories that flow from his typewriter. I found it a rather silly and telegraphed tale.

But overall this is solid stuff from Ellison. I own the 1979 paperback pictured here but Strange Wine was reissued in 2004 and is readily available. Recommended.


Keith said...

I h ave the 1979 edition. It's definitely worth reading.

Tom Simon said...

Harlan Ellison is indeed an articulate and often amusing fellow. Yet sometimes I wish he would shut up about all the admirable causes he likes to crusade for. To borrow an expression from George Orwell, his belligerent rhetoric accomplishes nothing but to preach to the converted, and it may deconvert a few of those.

Brian Murphy said...

To borrow an expression from George Orwell, his belligerent rhetoric accomplishes nothing but to preach to the converted, and it may deconvert a few of those.

Probably true Tom, but I can't help but be entertained in spite of myself.

Anonymous said...

TV provides some of the best storytelling available right now — far superior to the big screen. The Sopranos, The Wire, Justified, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, The Shield... This ain't no Mary Tyler Moore show...

Jim Cornelius

Brian Murphy said...

Im partial to The Walking Dead... love that show.

francisco said...

and what about the stories of harlan Ellison himself for shows like The new twilight zone?

by the way what have you got against The Mary Tyler Moore show? is that the show with Edward Asner?

classic tv shows like the american anthologies series Twilight zone, Night gallery, Tales from the darkside... or english traditional dramas like Upstairs, downastairs are much better than silly shows (for not saying something stronger) like Lost, althought I'm not a great fan of modern tv series

francisco said...

Harlan Ellison

Upstairs, downstairs

Brian Murphy said...

and what about the stories of harlan Ellison himself for shows like The new twilight zone?

Yeah, I don't know if Harlan would consider those exceptions to his statement about TV being universally soul-sucking, or if he ever admitted he just plain sold out...