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Review: Harlan Ellison: Can and Can’tankerous January 20, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
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Another review in exchange for a free advance read from Netgalley.

I’ve read a lot of Ellison. I tracked down a lot of his books in the 1980s. I loved his columns as much as, if not more than, his fiction. I bought his Outer Limits episodes on VHS. And I bought a limited slipcased hardcover edition of his book on his Star Trek episode, City on the Edge of Forever. Haven’t read much from him lately, though. So when a new collection of his popped up on Netgalley, many years since the last Ellison book I picked up, well, that was an easy decision.

But.

This feels like a relatively minor collection in the context of Ellison’s work… but if you’re a devoted Ellison fan, that’s not much of a problem. (And if you’re a really devoted fan, you want the limited edition.) But it’s not a great starting point for newcomers. One story in particular is a rather drawn-out revisitation of old pulp SF adventure tropes that never really takes off. Some of the stories are apparently rewritten oldies, and they definitely feel dated. Unlike a lot of his classic work, much of this book feels like anything but a writer taking on the world today. I set the book aside once or twice to read other things, not something I often do.

What made this book especially interesting to me, though, is the short bits interspersed between stories in which Ellison writes about his stroke. I won’t say it’s enough to make the book worthwhile on its own, given its brevity, but it adds up to a pretty memorable story.

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1. vint - February 28, 2016

Duuuude! You either haven’t read Ellison often enough to know what you’re writing about or (more likely) didn’t read CAN & CANTANKEROUS with undivided attention. “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” is not only a modern Ellison classic (and Nebula winner) it is also VERY MUCH a story reflecting both contemporary society (with it’s crazy, addled, ADHD attention span and slavering desire for gossip and reality shows) but it is timeless in that it likewise pays homage to things like Shelley’s FRANKENTSTEIN and, of course, the film version, too. “Incognita, Inc.” is one of the BEST short stories in the Ellison oeuvre, and it shares literary heart with “Paladin of the Lost Hour” while adding yet another fine entry in the magic “shoppe” sub-genre. And, of course, the HEART of this collection, one of Ellison’s Abecedarian tales, is an overlooked modern classic. The 26 short-short fictions span the range from horror to humor to SF and fantasy. One of them, “H is for Hippogriff”, even slides into the realm of poetry (it is THAT good)! Those are just the ultra-high points. Other stories, like “Objects of Desire…” (a dynamite SF/hard-boiled horror mystery) and “Goodbye to All That” (a humorous short tale that rivals “Prince Myskin, and Hold the Relish” for flat out funniness) or “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes” (a decidedly Bradburyesque but definitely Harlan Ellison flavoured crime fiction fantasy) are head and shoulders above the rest of the writing crowd. To say this is a minor collection is to say the same of STRANGE WINE; and to admit you really don’t understand Ellison’s writing..

sjroby - February 28, 2016

Hi, and thanks for commenting. It’s entirely possible I didn’t read under the best conditions (I hate reading pdfs; I’d rather have epub). But I’ve read dozens of Ellison’s books and the only part of this book that didn’t feel like stuff I’ve read before was the stuff about the stroke. There was only one story in the book I actively disliked, the rest were pleasant enough experiences. But much of it did feel already familiar, or dated, or just not as powerful as the stuff that made me a fan way back when.


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