This past Sunday I was featured on the Adam Messer Show on a radio station in Savannah, Georgia. It was a great, unscripted interview where we talked about Star Trek and spies, two of my favorite things. Have a listen HERE.
It was difficult enough yesterday to hear that someone had gone to the offices of a local newspaper in Maryland, The Capitol Gazette, and shot an unknown number of people, five of whom died.
I’ve been a reporter for a magazine and a freelancer for a local paper. This hit home. But life wasn’t done with the tragic yesterday.
Harlan Ellison has died.
I can barely type those words, and I have trouble accepting a world without him in it. His writing will be with me forever, but the thought that irascible curmudgeon won’t do another rant, won’t demand that writers be paid, won’t upset the publishing establishment is depressing.
“I Have No Mouth. And I Must Scream.”
In the late 1960s, I purchased a copy of the March 1967 issue of IF: Worlds of Science Fiction. Inside was a story that rocked my brain, “I Have No Mouth. And I Must Scream,” by a writer I’d never heard of, Harlan Ellison.
The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world occupied by the last four humans on earth. They are manipulated and tortured by an artificial intelligence, but humanity being what it is, they find an escape, except for one, whom the AI punishes. The title of the story is also the story’s last line, and when I read it, I was astonished that someone could write like this.
I immediately started reading anything by Ellison I could find and became mesmerized by his style, his dystopian approach. He won Hugo and Nebula awards for his speculative fiction, but he also was a journalist, a crime writer, a horror writer…a writer.
In Los Angeles, where he moved to pen TV shows (among them my favorite Star Trek episode, “City on the Edge of Forever”), he would often set up shop in the front window of a book store with an aging manual typewriter. Using his two-fingered typing method, he’d write a story based on a first line pulled from a hat by a book store customer. As he finished a page, the bookstore owner would tape them in order in the window, and people would stop by and read, waiting for every new page.
A Chance Encounter
In 1974 WorldCon, the international convention that bestows the Hugo Awards, was in Washington, D.C. Ellison was going to be featured there, and I had to go. For someone who’d just graduated from college and had not yet started her teaching job, I had to save up babysitting, dog-walking, and horse-grooming money to pay the fee.
I contacted a student of mine from student-teaching days, and he agreed to come with me. On day one of WorldCon, I drove to McLean and picked him up and drove into D.C.–my first time driving myself. But it all went smoothly. Parked in the hotel, picked up my ticket and event schedule, and wandered around to get my bearings.
A group of people, exclusively young men, were grouped in a hallway of the hotel. A tall, white-haired man I immediately recognized. Isaac Asimov. I’d read a lot of his work, too, and he and Ellison had an on-going “feud” about hard sci-fi and spec-fic. (They actually were good friends, but the fans believed in this feud, so…)
I got closer, and sure enough, the other person in the hallway debate was Harlan Ellison. A small man in stature, I was dry-mouthed with being star-struck, but I worked my way forward until Ellison was only a few feet away.
“I don’t have time for this drivel,” he said. “I have an appointment I have to get to.”
Now, I never once thought I’d get to speak with him, but I was immediately sad that this encounter would be too brief.
Then, he was beside me, hand on my arm. “I have an appointment with this young woman. Excuse me.”
Me? Of course, I went with him–I was too stunned not to–seeing my friend’s concerned face as Ellison led me away. Ellison was a notorious womanizer. He was married several times, most lasting only a year or two, except for his last marriage, which lasted 32 years.
Ellison escorted me into a holding room where people about to go on stage for a panel waited. He ordered everyone out, and they obeyed. He and I sat down in side by side chairs, and he asked, “What brings you to WorldCon?”
This was 1974. Women or girls were rare at cons, and I was 22 years old and damned good-looking then.
I didn’t want to say “You” and be an idiot, so I said, “I want to write science fiction.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because of you.” Then, the fan girl took over. “I’ve read everything you’ve written.”
A thoughtful scowl, and he said, “I doubt that. My bibliography is over 50 pages long.”
There was the irascible Ellison I’d read about. I felt like a fool.
“But if you want to be a writer,” he said, “do it. Start and don’t stop. Write what comes into your head. Don’t censor it. Don’t worry about what people think. Write it down. Now, don’t try to write like me, because no one can do that. Write like you.”
There was the egotistical Ellison I’d also read about. But he was kind to me. I suspect my youthful good looks had something to do with it.
We chatted for about twenty minutes. He asked what I’d written, if I’d had anything published. Rejections only I told him. “Keep at it. You’re not a writer unless you’ve been rejected.”
“Well,” he said, standing, “thanks for getting me away from the troglodytes. Enjoy the con and keep writing.”
And he was gone.
I have remembered that encounter for 44 years and cherished it. I accepted he probably forgot it as soon as he left the room.
Some years later in one of his stories, he had a scene where a woman had an embarrassing issue with her period. He didn’t write derisively about it but with tenderness and care. It was so similar to what happened to me on the second day of the con, I’ve always wondered.
Rest in Peace
I’d heard Ellison had had a stroke a few years ago which had essentially ended his writing but not his irascibility. I have a good-sized collection of his works, and they are now precious to me. For the rest of my life I can go look at how he put words together in such an incredibly beautiful and horrific way.
I didn’t take one piece of his advice. I still do try to write like him. When I write something horrific, something that makes people look away in distress or disgust, it comes directly from him through me. I always wanted to tell him that.
And yesterday he died in his sleep. Not fitting. Not the way he would have written it. If he had, there would have been drama, a fight to the death, and dystopia. He went silent into that good night.
I have a mouth. And I’m screaming.
As a teenager, I read John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Along with the TV show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., it intrigued me about the world of espionage, especially Cold War espionage.
I’m a child of the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis is not mere history to me. I lived it. I was glued to the television news. I had to bring a shoe box to school with a change of underwear, a bar of soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and some other odds and ends I don’t remember. We practiced “duck and cover” and trooping to the school’s musty basement, designated a fallout shelter. My father, in the Reserves by then, was told he’d likely be called up and deployed again to Berlin.
At the time I didn’t realize if a nuclear exchange had occurred, he would have died quickly. Not so much us. We lived two hours outside of Washington, D.C. We would have survived the initial blast, but radiation poisoning would have gotten us sooner or later.
I was ten and a half years old, thinking I wouldn’t make it to eleven.
Le Carre – The Master
Born David John Moore Cornwell, Le Carre was a pen name he used for writing spy novels while employed by Britain’s Security Service and Secret Intelligence Services. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, was his third novel, and its success allowed him to leave MI-6 and write full-time. His best-known character is the spy George Smiley, who has appeared in most of his works. He swears none of his work, especially “In From the Cold,” is based on things he experienced. Rather, he says, he was a keen observer of behavior and people.
His novels are dark and gritty, the settings dreary places I’d read about. My father had served in West Berlin and talked a bit about the situation there. I watched news reports about the Berlin Wall and about the daring escapes by people from the east to get to the west section of the city. Le Carre’s books were “real” to me.
And I loved them. They drew me into the world of intrigue and counterintelligence, not enough to want to be a spy, but enough to want to write stories like Le Carre’s and, later, Alan Furst’s.
Back to the Beginning
Le Carre’s newest release is A Legacy of Spies, a sequel of sorts to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. That intrigued me enough to plan on reading A Legacy of Spies, but I decided after almost fifty years, it was time to re-read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
Oh, the language! The way he describes people and places. He puts you there. In the opening scene, I was at Checkpoint Charlie waiting in the cold and dark for an asset to defect, my tension a direct result of Le Carre’s scene-setting, his subtle revelation of the characters’ emotions. Though you never “see” the main character in that scene, Karl, the defector, when he meets his fate, your heart is pounding.
And it’s a writing lesson, too, on how to engage a reader, how to infuse a scene with tension, and how to deliver the punch to the gut.
It’s old school espionage, not the gadget-ridden, high-action novels and movies of this century. It’s spy vs. spy, it’s pitting wits against other wits, it’s manipulation and extortion, it’s human not tech, and it’s absolutely thrilling.
Do you want to know why I write about spies? Read anything by John Le Carre.
P. A. Duncan’s first novel, A War of Deception, is available now on Amazon. This week only, the Kindle version is 99 cents.