Review of The Voice from the Edge: Midnight at the Sunken Cathedral by Harlan Ellison

SFFaudio Author of the Month

The Voice from the Edge: Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral by Harlan EllisonThe Voice from the Edge: Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral
By Harlan Ellison; Read by Harlan Ellison
5 CDs – 5 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Fantastic Audio
Published: 2001
ISBN: 1574534157
Themes: / Science Fiction / Fantasy / Horror / The Mob / Dreams /

Harlan Ellison will talk your ear off. After listening to the man perform 11 of his stories over the better part of five hours, I’ve come to the conclusion that he is not the type of guy that you’re going to be able to get away from easily; not once he’s started talking. But would you want to? Ellison is like the guy you sit down next in a bar only because it’s the only seat open, praying that he’ll leave you alone, but, sure enough, he turns to you and immediately begins to regale you with that “Car Talk” voice of his about his latest exploit. “Terminator? My idea. That sumbitch James Cameron tried to pass it off as his own, but I wasn’t having it.” Or, “I tell you I never met anybody more uptight than those guys over at Disney. I make one little joke… it was stupid, yeah, but just a joke! Of course nobody would really ever draw Tinkerbell doing that, but try telling those guys that you were only joking. Nope; there’s ol’ Harlan, out on his ass the same day he was hired.” Ellison seems to be one of those guys that are vastly entertaining to listen to, and to watch in action, but only as long as his perpetual low-level rage is never directed at you.

Which is what makes this collection perfect. You get to sit in your car, office, wherever, and hear Ellison tell you some of his best stories without ever worrying that you’re going to get more involved than you want to be. But, maybe you should be worried, just a little. While there are a few stories in this collection that are pretty light-hearted from beginning to end, most of them begin innocently enough, but then slowly become more and more disturbing until it’s almost impossible not to feel some sense of unease and trepidation, and then, when they end, almost palpable relief. “S.R.O.,” for example; what starts out as a cheery little tale of off-center entrepreneurship, read in Ellison’s best 1920’s gangster voice, begins to drift into a much more solemn treatment of beauty and the lengths to which people will go to experience it.

Then there are the stories which begin creepy and stay that way. “The Function of Dream Sleep” begins with the image a mouth opening in a man’s side, which is disturbing enough, but Ellison keeps on turning the “dread” knob up until even driving along an interstate in broad daylight seems somehow sinister and unreal. I’d be interested in reading these stories in text form to see how much of this sensation comes from the actual writing and how much comes from the sheer desperation Ellison puts into his performances. I wasn’t surprised to see that Ellison has a few acting credits to his name, (most awesomely, “man at orgy” in Godson); the range of character and emotion that are present in these readings rivals that of any “professional” reader. At times it’s apparent that Ellison’s familiarity with the stories allows him to enhance his performances by adding laughter, stutters, and other little bits of paralanguage that only he would be able to get away with. The postscript to “The Function of Dream Sleep,” in which Ellison explains some of the elements of his most autobiographical story, is also told in this extemporaneous manner. It’s like the old guy at the bar has finally started to wind down and is going casually toss off one last bit of terror that will keep you up for weeks before he empties his drink, slaps you too hard on the back, and starts shuffling for home.

Review of On the Road with Ellison: Volume One

SFFaudio Author of the Month

On the Road with Ellison, Vol. 1On The Road With Ellison, Volume 1
Live performance by Harlan Ellison
1 CD – 60 minutes
Publisher: Deep Shag Records
Published: 2001 (reissue from 1983)
UPC: 809879000322
Themes : / Non-fiction / Writing / Politics / Publishing /

On the Road with Ellison, Volume 1 is a collection of live lecture/performances by Harlan Ellison in 1981, 1982, and 1983 in front of three different university corwds. When he talks of mailing a dead gopher to an editor (er… comptroller) he’s hilarious, and when he reads an essay he wrote (“An Edge in My Voice: Installment #54”) he rattles our collective cage, making us look at a man who threatened to blow up the Washington Monument in a whole new way.

From the very first track, where he warns audience members to leave if words offend them, Ellison is abrasive yet totally engaging. Or perhaps he’s totally engaging because he’s so abrasive. Either way, the tracks are thoroughly enjoyable, and the album is worth grabbing.

And yes, there’s a Volume 2, also available from Deep Shag.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of City of Darkness by Ben Bova

SFFaudio Review

ed. – Here is a fine example of Harlan Ellison as narrator.

City of Darkness by Ben BovaCity of Darkness
By Ben Bova; Read by Harlan Ellison
2 Cassettes – 3 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Dove Audio
Published: 1998
ISBN: 0787117269
Themes: / Science Fiction / City / Gangs / Environment /

This is a story about a teenager who feels New York City calling to him – “live here, live here, whatever it is, it’s here, and nowhere else”. No, this isn’t Fame. In fact, it’s much closer to John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, because Ben Bova’s Manhattan has been covered by a dome, and only opens for tourists in the summer, because of several issues, including the quality of the environment (not fit for people) and the mood of the citizens (you can’t move around in the city without being shot at).

The teenager, Ron Morgan, receives his results on tests that determine his entire future. He scores very well (extremely well), but New York beckons. His father be damned, he sneaks off to get in one last visit before giving his life to the machine. Mayhem ensues, and when the gates close for the summer, Ron finds himself locked on the wrong side. He finds the city sparsely populated by interesting characters, many of whom are young people who have split up in a way that would have made William Golding nod. Gangs rule the day, and Ron finds himself in an extremely difficult spot, with nothing to rely on other than his mechanical aptitude.

This may be my favorite Ben Bova work. He crams many of his recurring themes into this story, but social and environmental concerns rule the day here. His picture of future New York is dismal, and very much an if-this-goes-on warning. The citizens who decide to stay in the city choose to because they don’t see life in mainstream society (i.e., a lifetime in pursuit of dollars) as a better option – another thing Bova makes us consider.

Now, the story is quite good. But, what makes the audiobook great (and it is great) is the way it was read. Harlan Ellison performs the novel, and won an Audie Award for it. Ellison’s style of narration is unique in my experience. He can keep up with the best narrators in the business when it comes to accents and character creation, and then adds a story-telling touch that makes it all the more personal. His emotion isn’t limited to dialogue. He stammers when a character stammers. He’s excited when the action is intense. He is fully present while he’s narrating, and he lets himself feel and convey those feelings without waiting for dialogue to do it. It spills over, right out the earphones, and makes the story much more vivid and intense. This is a superior piece of narration – one that professionals should hear.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of The Voice from the Edge Vol. 1: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

SFFaudio Author of the Month Review

Science Fiction Audiobooks - The Voice from the Edge: I Have No Mouth and I Must ScreamThe Voice from the Edge Vol. 1: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
By Harlan Ellison, read by Harlan Ellison
5 CD’s – 6 hours [UNABRIDGED stories]
Publisher: Fantastic Audio
Published: 2002
ISBN: 1574535374
Themes: / Science fiction / Collection / Series / Post-Apocalypse / Artificial intelligence / Utopia / Dystopia / Magic Realism / Love / Hell /

ed. – This is one of two Harlan Ellison collections that were released by Fantastic Audio. The second is called The Voice from the Edge: Midnight at the Sunken Cathedral.

There are two basic reasons to invest in a short story collection by a single author. The first is to experience first hand the stylistic, thematic, and technical contributions the author has made to his genre and to literature in general; the second is to sample the dynamic range the author covers, to gauge the extent of his palette.

This audio book delivers the first in spades. With Harlan Ellison’s friendly, yet curmudgeonly introduction, we are thrust immediately into the gritty rawness he helped bring to science fiction. Such stories as the harrowing, lurid, complex title story, the gleefully offensive misogyny and sociopathy of “A Boy and His Dog”, the pop-cultural, pejorative ranting of “Laugh Track”, and the sophomoric sexual preoccupation of “The Very Last Day of a Good Woman” clearly delineate the dark, adult-oriented themes he introduced, as well as his predilection for unlikable anti-heroes who often leave us feeling a bit less comfortable about ourselves. And on such material, his distinctive narrative style shines. He curses with conviction, and his voice handles guilt, revenge, and damnation with seeming familiarity.

In the overall story choice, we also have a remarkable demonstration of the range of Ellison’s writing. Compare the patient, redemptive power of “Paladin of the Lost Hour” to any of the stories mentioned above, and you’ll see what I mean. Throw in the sly, haunted twist of “The Time of the Eye”, the overwrought post-modernism and tedious beatnik vamping in “’Repent Harlequin!’ said the Tick-Tock Man”, the sublime, hellish search for love in “Grail”, and the puzzling juxtaposition of the truly horrific and the trivial in “The Lingering Scent of Woodsmoke”, and you cover quite a swath of not only the science-fiction spectrum, but the fiction spectrum in general.

Unfortunately, the use of a single narrator for all these stories blurs their uniqueness, especially since that narrator is Harlan Ellison. His delivery style can be enjoyable, but it is so raw, so exaggerated, and so pervasive that it tends to flatten the relief of the work itself. I can’t say that I question the wisdom of having Ellison narrate, for on any single story his voice adds the confident insight that only an author can bring to his own work. But this is a collection, and the diverse stories deserve a wider range of vocal performance to truly showcase their differences. My advice is to make the best of this paradox by taking the collection slowly. The quality of the material, the exceptionally crisp sound and the fine, user-friendly packaging make this an audio book you should not miss. Just make sure to pace yourself.

Author of the Month – Harlan Ellison

Harlan EllisonWe’re going to try something new this month at SFFaudio. On May 6, Harlan Ellison will be receiving the SFWA Grand Master award at the Nebula Award Banquet in Phoenix. Besides the multiple awards he’s received for his writing, he’s an Audie award-winning narrator who reads both his own material and material written by others, including stories by Ursula K. Le Guin and Ben Bova. He’s the host of the finest modern SF audio drama series 2000X. He’s even got a couple of live albums.

SFFaudio will focus on all this audio work as we name Harlan Ellison our first Author of the Month!

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of “Run for the Stars” by Harlan Ellison

Science Fiction Audiobook - Run for the Stars by Harlan EllisonRun for the Stars
By Harlan Ellison; Read by Harlan Ellison
3 CD’s – 122 minutes – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: ReQuest Audiobooks
Published: 2005
ISBN: 1933299533
Themes: / Science Fiction / Alien invasion / Drugs / Insurgency /

It was recently announced that Harlan Ellison will be named an SFWA Grand Master at the Nebula Awards Weekend in May. Regular readers of this website should know that I’m thrilled with the decision, as Ellison is easily one of my favorite writers. He also happens to be one of my favorite narrators. His audiobooks are insistent, as if he is vocally grabbing your shoulders to make sure you have his full attention.

Ellison to me is Ellison – he’s his own genre. He takes his main character and dangles him so far in the wind that the reader can’t possibly imagine him coming back. Yet he does come back, but is invariably damaged along the way. It’s painful to hear, how we treat each other. Very difficult to look at. But Ellison shows it to us, even here in his early work.

“Run for the Stars” is the story of a man named Benno Tallant, a drug addict who finds himself in a position to fight back against the Kyben, an occupying alien race. Unlike most alien invasion stories, this is happening to a colony that is not so friendly to Earth, which is the aliens’ next stop. Tallant fights not only the aliens, but his fellow humans. And himself – the reader is never certain that he wants to save the Earth, or himself for that matter.

The audiobook also includes some commentary from Ellison about the origins of the story, and how it got published. Commentary like this in an audiobook really enhances its value in my eyes. I enjoyed it as much as I did the story itself.

“Run for the Stars” is a fabulous listen – the first title we’ve reviewed from ReQuest Audio. In the hopper are two other ReQuest titles – “Eye for Eye” by Orson Scott Card and “Tales from Nightscape” by David Morrell. You can find their website here. I hope to hear much more from them in the future.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson