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Can & Can'tankerous Paperback – June 14, 2016
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On the whole, this is a strong collection—with a Nebula award-winner and a Bram Stoker nominee--that shows Ellison, while his output may have slowed, still has authorial chops.
How Interesting: A Tiny Man – Tied for the Nebula Award in 2011. This story uses satire and speculative fiction to examine the nature of creativity and society’s responses to it.
Never Send to Know for Whom the Lettuce Wilts -- HE extensively rewrote his 1956 story “But Who Wilts the Lettuce”. The result is a well-paced but thin story about a gnome-like alien attempting to subvert Earth through small inconveniences. He bends nails, wilts lettuce, weakens buttons, and even invents the English language. He wears a yellow button with the proclamation “Conqueror”.
Objects of Desire in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear – HE wrote this in a single sitting at a bookstore after Chris Carter (producer of the X-files) suggested the premise. The result is sci-fi noir unlike anything else I have seen from him. The ending is a mess, though. In the final two pages, readers abruptly encounter a gender-shifting time-traveling succubus, and the final paragraph introduces a paradoxical time-loop without any explanation. The rushed ending is a shame because this story surely contains the seeds for a great novella.
Loose Cannon, or Rubber Duckies from Space—This is a dreadfully bad 200-word story commissioned by a magazine and inspired by a painting. However, it is introduced by a hysterical 800-word essay from Neil Gaiman which tries to sell the story as all that’s left of Harlan’s 17-volume masterpiece fifty years in the making. Harlan must have a great sense of humor, because Gaiman spoofs both his obsession for brevity and also his reputation for sometimes failing to deliver big projects on time, or even at all (Dangerous Visions 3? Blood’s A Rover?). Assuming it was all planned in advance, this is a fun little piece of literary mayhem.
From A to Z, in the Sarsaparilla Alphabet—Nominated for a 2001 Bram Stoker award. Comprised of 26 short-short stories, each one concerning a different creature of myth and legend, presented in alphabetical order (Archon, Banshee, Charon, etc.) Some tales are funny, some violent, some disturbing. HE draws on Greek, Norse, Chinese Egyptian myths, as well as American tall tales. Texan author Joe Lansdale even gets a shout-out. These are wildly inventive and fun, but also highly informed. Case in point: I did not understand the two-sentence tale about Seraphim, until I researched the nine celestial orders of angels common in Eastern Orthodox doctrine.
Weariness – Three ancient alien beings confront the end of the universe and ponder the existence of an afterlife. Another piece of flash fiction, this time inspired by a dark moody surrealistic painting; HE wrote this tale in an hour during a writer’s workshop. The painting is reproduced in the book, as well as an afterward explaining how he wrote this as a tribute to his friend Ray Bradbury and how it is part of their continuing philosophical conversation about God and death. I found this one to be effective in its own unique way.
“The Toad Prince, or Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure Domes” – My favorite story in this book. If you believe the tongue-in-cheek introduction, HE sold this in 1957 to Amazing Stories but it never got published. What did he do? He revised it and sold it to the same magazine again in 1999, this time telling them it was a loving tribute/parody of the old time pulp style. The story is classic Ellison – inventive, weird, and refuses to march along in the direction you think it will go.
Incognita, Inc – An ancient cartographer who draws maps of lost lands and fabled kingdoms is finally put out of business by modern technology. This is a magic shop story that a less mature HE would have played for laughs, like “Djinn, No Chaser”. However, the power of this light fantasy is its evocation of a sense of loss in a world where technology has eliminated all frontiers and mystery. The final scene is both triumphant and fitting.
Goodbye to All That – The only misstep in this collection. HE occasionally writes a story that is essentially a joke leading up to a single punch line. If the joke is funny and the story is very short, like “Voices in the Garden”, then it works ok for me. I chuckle and move on to the next page. This punch line was funny but not enough to justify the whole story. The afterword HE wrote was entertaining, though.
He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes – HE creates his own Sherlockian puzzle with this story. He provides a series of scenes (which may or may not have occurred in the order presented), several mysterious characters (most without names), and a resolution to an undefined mystery. The reader must work out the plot—who did what, and when, and why. I read it twice but have not been able to unravel the story. I searched online, and it would appear no other sharp-eyed readers have posted solutions.
That's one of the symptoms of the stroke––
I drift a lot:
all the tales seem interlocking now."
Harlan's words not mine.
I read a lot of books, but I don't review many.
My first three attempts to review this book have been rejected (for reasons I still don't comprehend)...so here is a heavily redacted version.
This book changed my life. Harlan Ellison, in general, has changed my life. But this book did in particular, especially because of the author's bravery in writing it after having a major stroke (btw, this is the kind of maudlin sentiment that Harlan Ellison himself would probably detest, but there you have it).
Perhaps we are all d r i f t i n g.
Perhaps the whole world is dealing with the symptoms of a collective creative stroke.
Perhaps all the stories are interlocking and the result is the inescapable pull of the literary equivalent of dwarf star material.
...all that is left is a 'thank you' shouted into the collapsing blackness. A shout of 'love' at the heart of the world...while he's still around to hear it.