This past weekend was Archon 39. Our local science fiction convention.
Donna and I have, with a couple of exceptions over the years, gone to just about all of them since number 6, which was in 1982 at the Chase-Park Plaza hotel. The guest of honor then was Stephen King, which meant that everything was exaggerated and gave us a seriously distorted set of expectations of what this convention was normally. The guest list that year was a who’s who of authors, who were then the rock stars of the convention scene. We met Joe Haldeman, Robert Bloch, Robin Bailey, George R.R. Martin, and several others. We were, you might say, agog. It was a bit overwhelming and in retrospect it was a peak experience, at least as far as conventions go.
The problem with such things is, you never know that’s what they are until some time afterward, and even then there might be some question as to how peak it was. So you go into them a bit unprepared to really appreciate them.
Not so this Archon just past. We knew months in advance that this was going to be a peak experience. Because Harlan Ellison surprised everyone by agreeing to appear, despite ill health and considerable impairment from a stroke a year ago. I knew about this immediately because I instigated the whole thing and ended up promising to be his gofer for the weekend.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to do that, Harlan has minions, and they came. But I didn’t know that until they actually arrived, so the month or so leading up to this I found myself getting more and more stressed by the responsibility I felt.
Note I say “felt” rather than “had.” What my actual responsibilities were compared to what I felt them to be were somewhat mismatched. I found myself at one point asking myself “What the hell is it with you? Calm down!” Did no good. But everything came off fairly well. Not everything that was intended to happen, did, or at least not in the way planned, but I’d say a good 70% of it worked, and the stress served one positive function other than making me obsessive about details. I knew this would be a peak experience.
Harlan is in a wheelchair. He’s partially paralyzed on his right side. There was some question as to whether or not he ought to have done this, but he would not be denied. If sheer willpower counts for anything, Harlan has enough to do pretty much what he sets his mind to doing, even in his present condition. Donna and I picked him and Susan up at the airport Thursday night around nine o’clock and took them to the hotel in Collinsville. We sat in the lobby together for a while. Two of his best friends showed up, Tim and Andrea Richmond, who we now count as friends.
By Friday evening’s opening ceremonies, Harlan’s presence at the con was unmistakable. I wheeled him up on stage after he had spent over an hour signing books. He’s slower, sure, but the mind is as alert and sharp as ever. He was pleased to be at the convention and he disarmed everyone.
We who have been involved in SF for any length of time know The Stories. Harlan can pop off at the drop of a moronic comment and hides have been flayed (metaphorically) and sensibilities challenged. If I heard it once I heard it fifty time, “He’s so gracious!” Yes, he is. He has a heart of enormous proportions.
He was physically unable to do as much as he clearly wanted to, but under the circumstances what he did do was generous and impressive.
Peak Experience time. I got to be on a panel with Harlan Ellison.
Let me explain. I grew up reading stories by the giants of the field when most of them were still alive and many still publishing. For me, the pantheon includes Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Robert Heinlein, C.L.Moore, Alice Sheldon, Joanna Russ, C.J. Cherryh…well, you get the idea. And Harlan, who wrote like a fey combination of Bradbury and Bester with a touch of Borges stirred in and made everyone react viscerally in ways they did not react to their other favorites. I recall getting very turned off by Harlan when I was, say 15, and then later coming back and trying his work again only to find that I had missed almost everything important about the stories the first go-round. He was like a tornado whirling through the more deliberative winds of his peers. I’m still not sure I “get” everything that is going on in an Ellison story, but that’s the sign of a work worthy of ongoing consideration.
Of the aforementioned bunch, I shook Asimov’s hand, chatted with Bradbury and Cherryh, never met Bester, Heinlein, Moore, Russ, or Sheldon. There are a couple of dozen other Greats I’ve had opportunity exchanged words with. I’ve been on panels with Gene Wolfe, Frederik Pohl, Elizabeth Ann Hull, a number of others. So many are just gone.
I got to be on a panel with Harlan. The 12-year-old in me was having a field day. This, I thought, is as good as it gets. At least in my list of cool things to do.
After 2010, I never thought I’d see Harlan again. Certainly not at a convention. He’d said he was done with them. Who could blame him? He’s tired. We talk on the phone occasionally. I like him, but most of the time I don’t quite know what to say to him, other than some variation of Thank You For Being a Powerful Aesthetic Presence In My Life. Of all the acquaintances I thought I might make in this curious life and profession, his was unexpected.
So when this opportunity came up, by a series of unexpected steps, I was torn. Certainly his health is problematic and he’s 81. This probably was not, for a number of reasons, a good idea. On the other hand, when I reach that point in my life and there’s something I want to do and believe I can do it, I hope there are people who will help me do it. I do rather doubt I’ll see him again. I don’t know when we’ll be able to get to L.A. anytime remotely soon. But I did get to spend a good chunk of this weekend with him and it was surprising and rich and bittersweet.
He charmed practically the whole convention, signed a boatload of books, gave of himself until he just couldn’t. I’m sure he got as good as he gave. I will confess that I was waiting for someone, anyone, to start anything negative with him. It would not, had I been there, lasted long. But no one did, everyone seemed so gobsmacked pleased to see him.
We did not take him back to the airport on Sunday. Other, closer friends did that. He recorded a thankyou and goodbye for closing ceremonies, which was classic Ellison.
I confess, it’s strange. Coming from a place in life never expecting to ever say a single sentence to him, he has become one of the major influences and associations in my life. All told, I doubt we’ve spent a week’s time together. But it’s always been memorable. I’m about to wander into mawkishness now, so I’ll wrap it up with two final images and maybe one more line.
So there we have it.
I hope he hangs around for many more years, as long as his mind is clear and his imagination active and he feels welcome. There are a lot of people—a LOT—who are very glad of his presence.
I know I’m glad to know him.