Wednesday, August 28, 2013

He's Not Dead Yet!: Harlan Ellison's 7 Against Chaos

Writer Harlan Ellison’s not dead yet. In a piece I wrote about Ellison last year in Critics at Large, and in reference to his statement in September 2010 that he was dying, I speculated, only half jokingly, that he was still alive because the Angel of Death was scared to try and take him. The truth, as indicated in a recent interview on the cultural Vulture web site, entitled "Harlan Ellison Isn't Dead Yet," turns out to be somewhat more prosaic. Harlan, who is now 79, has been suffering from some physical ailments and emotional ones, too, which had laid him low for a long while, with only the odd short story (the Nebula ward winning "How Interesting: A Tiny Man") to his credit. But fans of the man and his work can rejoice. His first full length work since his fine short story collection Slippage (1997) has surfaced, in the form of a graphic novel. Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos (DC Comics) is an often riveting tribute, in many ways, to his formative influences as a writer.

Not surprisingly for one who grew up in the 1930s and 40s with adventure radio shows and comic books as a passion and inspiration, Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos (that his name is part of the title testifies to his popularity among those in the genre fields) is, in significant ways, a classic superhero novel. But these heroes, men and women, though they possess powers, aren’t typical of the genre. In a far future Earth, they are re-ordered creatures, modified by man to do his dirty work as slaves, or for his entertainment purposes, in a universe wherein all the major planets – Jupiter, Mars, and Venus – have been terraformed for industry and settlement. Characters possess claws instead of hands, useful for digging in mines, or have been transformed into human-size insects to fight in arenas; or, in the cases of unreconstructed humans Kenrus and Roark, punished for going against the powers that be and, in an apt Ellison concern, for voicing moral outrage at the injustices in their world. (Ever since he marched for civil rights with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Harlan Ellison has been adamant about expressing his concerns about moral lapses in his country.) But now they’re needed: something is going grievously wrong with our world. The president has spontaneously combusted, time is collapsing in on itself with people and creatures from the past colliding with the present and climates are changing overnight, from water to desert. Someone (or something) is bent on altering Earth, but for what purpose? Enter a masked man, who as the novel begins, is collecting and/or rescuing various re-ordered people and some fully human ones, for an unexplained mission that has been pre-ordained by computers who can predict aspects of the future.

Writer Harlan Ellison

A collaborative effort between Ellison and Paul Chadwick (Concrete) – they’re both credited for the book's story and art  – with Ken Steacy working as colorist and Todd Klein as letterer, Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos is lavishly and lovingly drawn and depicted, unfolding as a near cinematic journey through time and space. The story is a little wobblier, at least early on, with some of Ellison’s late career bad habits, overwriting and over-explaining rampant. You can see this particularly in terms of the sometimes unnecessary scientific explanations, which come across as more of an irritating exercise for Ellison (and presumably Chadwick, too) of demonstrating their knowledge of complicated concepts and ideas. (They actually clutter up the story’s progress somewhat.) Once the main plot kicks in, as the seven band together and head back far into Earth’s past to figure out who’s manipulating space and time, Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos improves tremendously. The book adeptly juggles traditional science fiction concepts, such as alternate history, with genuine, moving concerns for its main protagonists – not all of whom will survive the trip into the past. Harlan Ellison's 7 Against Chaos is obviously influenced by all manner of films and books, including, of course, Akira Kurosawa’s classic film The Seven Samurai (1954) as well the ideas and novels of  such late SF giants and colleagues of Ellison's, including Clifford D. Simak (Way Station, Cemetery World), Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood’s End, 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Isaac Asimov (The ‘Foundation’ series, ‘The Three Laws of Robotics' concept, governing how robots can behave when it comes to interactions with humans), among others. (Ellison is also re-visiting and re-working a smart idea he put forth to Paramount Pictures in the late 70s when they were soliciting storylines for the first Star Trek movie, one that they soundly and foolishly rejected.) But it retains its own spirit of originality throughout, leavened by Ellison’s trademark sharp wit and heartfelt cynicism. (The former envisions Tantalus, the insectoid man, enjoying a Chardonnay and some cheese for a job well done and Urr, a powerful robot , trying to tell jokes, somewhat reminiscent of the android Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation doing the same, but Ellison’s take on it a little funnier and rawer. The cynicism rests in the vile treatment of our heroes at the hands of their fellows.)

Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos, which concludes on a wonderfully ambiguous and provocative note, is deliberately old fashioned compared to most superhero graphic novels of our day. It’s almost completely bereft of sex, convectional or otherwise, devoid of explicit language and not all that graphic in terms of its violence. That makes sense as it really hearkens back to Ellison’s childhood interests and too profane or graphic an approach to the material would betray that vision. I might have preferred a more revolutionary product, in the vein of Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust allegory Maus (1991) or Alan Moore’s subversion of the superhero mythos in Watchmen (1986-87) but that’s not the intent of this graphic novel, which is not trying to re-invent the wheel. It should also be remembered that however much longer Harlan Ellison has to live – much longer hopefully – he is in the twilight of his career and evaluating his seminal and highly influential track record. That includes his brilliant short stories ("'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," "Jeffty is Five," "I Have No Mouth, and I must Scream" and dozens of others), ground-breaking anthologies (Dangerous Visions, Again, Dangerous Visions) and remarkably incisive criticism (The Glass Teat, The Other Glass Teat), not to mention myriad essays, suggests, at the least, that he be allowed to rest on his deserved laurels and deliver a comparatively modest work like Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos. Considering who he is and how much he‘s done, writing or editing 75 books alone, this graphic novel is good enough, for long-time fans of the man and newcomers to his work alike. 

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be teaching a course on acting archetypes in the fall. He will also be giving two lectures on American film censorship on Tuesday September 3 and Tuesday September 10 from 10-11:30 am at the Bernard Betel Centre (1003 Steeles Avenue West).

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