One of the oddest, longest running disputes in the world of sci fi has been between Harlan Ellison and sci fi author William Tenn
(real name Philip Klass, who is not to be confused with UFO skeptic Philip J Klass
). The origins are somewhat murky. Rumor has it back in the '60s Tenn was up for a Hugo
award and Ellison was actively campaigning against him.
Tenn, in retaliation, started spreading a rumor about Ellison at a sci fi convention
. The rumor eventually became a notorious urban legend in sci fi circles. Tenn teaches writing at Penn State University1
. He would tell his classes a story about how Ellison tried to hit on a much taller woman at a sci fi convention. Ellison, rather forward, said to her "what would you say to a little fuck?" The statuesque
woman looked down on the diminutive Ellison and responded "I'd say 'Hi, little fuck.'"
Many in the know were skeptical about the veracity of this story. Ellison is an arrogant cuss
but he's known to be a perfect gentleman around his female fans. It seemed unlikely he'd be so piggish to a woman fan.
The legend itself was repeated by Isaac Asimov
in his book Asimov Laughs Again
. Asimov did, however, claim in the retelling that the story was most certainly not true. Asimov might have had his own reasons for poke fun at Ellison as there's another legend involving Asimov and Ellison.
It goes something like this: the first time Ellison met Asimov at a sci fi convention Ellison saw Asimov in a crowd of young female groupie
s. Asimov was in seventh heaven. He was known to be quite the dirty old man (although that itself might be a legend). Ellison marched up to Asimov. Ellison did not identify himself. "Are you THE Isaac Asimov?" "Yes, I am." "Hrmph. You don't look like much."
Later at the keynote
Asimov was to give, someone pointed out Ellison to him. He realized that was the man who slighted him in front of his adoring female fans. Asimov introduced Ellison thusly:
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like you to meet a good friend of mine, Harlan Ellison. Stand up so they can see you Harlan."
Ellision proceeded to stand up.
"No, stand up, they can't see you. Oh, hmmm, perhaps you should stand on a chair or something."
Right. Anyway, Tenn apparently tried to patch up his relationship with Ellison in the '90s. Ellison was hospitalized at some point and Tenn sent Ellison a get-well card
. Ellison sent his get well card back with an 18-page rejection letter
Another legend about Ellison that appears to be true is he was fired the same day he started working as a writer for Disney
Studios. (Ellison admitted to the truth of this story in his book Stalking the Nightmare
). During Ellison's first day of work, during lunch, he suggested Disney should make a porno
movie. He started doing imitations of Disney characters having sex in the corporate cafeteria. At the table next to him was none other than Roy Disney
. Disney had Ellison pink slip
ped by the time he returned to his desk.
Although Ellison has verified the Disney legend, it does seem rather hard to believe Roy Disney was right there eating in the schlep caf. One wonders if Ellison didn't embellish things a little to make it seem like he crashed and burned in a spectacular way. Indeed, Ellison could be accused, himself, of keeping certain legends alive. For example there is a legend that Ellison was involved in a dust up at a Nebula Awards banquet. The story goes sci fi Ellison took exception to remarks by author Charles Platt
and then took a swing at him. Platt didn't press charges in return for a mutually agreed upon "non aggression pact". They agree to avoid each other in future and never discuss the incident. Curiously, Ellison himself has written about the incident, claiming it did indeed happen. If so, Ellison would seem to be in violation of the agreement. The story doesn't seem straight.
Ellison is also a fringe part of another legend that L. Ron Hubbard
bet Robert Heinlein
that he could invent his own religion and make a million dollars. While it's not hard to believe Hubbard making such a boast, Scientology
has bent over backwards to put this story to rest. Scientology's stand is there is no evidence Hubbard made such a boast, that there were no witnesses, so it's ultimately a highly libelous
statement. See you in court. Many people claim there was at least one witness. Isaac Asimov was present during the exchange. It's also alleged Ellison was a witness to the bet as well. Ellison claimed as much in an interview for a '70s satirical
magazine called "Wings
The interview has been reproduced online although who knows if this is itself is a true transcript
Ellison: Scientology is bullshit! Man, I was there the night L. Ron Hubbard invented it, for Christ Sakes!
I was sitting in a room with L. Ron Hubbard and a bunch of other science fiction writers. L. Ron Hubbard was famous among science fiction writers because he was the first one to have an electric typewriter.
Wings: He claimed to have written Dianetics in a weekend, and nobody can deny it.
Ellison: That's true. He wrote Dianetics in one weekend, and you know how he used to write? He used to take a roll of white paper, like paper you wrap fish in. He had it on the wall, and he would roll it into the typewriter and he would begin typing. When he was done, he would tear it off and leave it as one whole long novel.
We were sitting around one night... who else was there? Alfred Bester, and Cyril Kornbluth, and Lester Del Rey, and Ron Hubbard, who was making a penny a word, and had been for years. And he said "This bullshit's got to stop!" He says, "I gotta get money." He says, "I want to get rich".
Wings: He is also supposed to have said on that same night: "The question is not how to make a million dollars, but how to keep it."
Ellison: Right. And somebody said, "why don't you invent a new religion?
They're always big." We were clowning! You know, "Become Elmer Gantry! You'll make a fortune!" He says, "I'm going to do it." Sat down, stole a little bit from Freud, stole a little bit from Jung, a little bit from Alder, a little bit of encounter therapy, pre-Janov Primal Screaming, took all that bullshit, threw it all together, invented a few new words, because he was a science fiction writer, you know, "engrams" and "regression", all that bullshit. And then he conned John Campbell, who was crazy as a thousand battlefields. I mean, he believed any goddamned thing. He really believed blacks were inferior. I mean he really believed that. He was also very nervous when I was in his office because I was a Jew. You know, he was afraid maybe I would spring horns or something.
Anyhow, the way he conned John was that he had J. A. Winter, who was a doctor, who was a close friend of John's, and he got him to run this article on Dianetics, the new science of mental health.
Assuming Ellison wasn't trying to pull a fast one
(it was a satirical magazine), his story is problematic because he was 14 years old at the time. Would a 14 year old unproven kid be hanging around with such sci fi greats?
Tenn taught writing to a student named David Morrell
. Morell later became a writer in his own write (ha ha!). Morrell wrote a novel called First Blood
. If that sounds familiar its because it is. It's the novel upon which the Rambo
character was based. Ugg.