News travels slowly to Kansas.  The Dalenberg Library just got word of the passing June 27 of the enfant terrible of science fiction, Harlan Ellison (5/27/34-6/27/18.)  It is difficult to envision Ellison as an 84 year-old.  He was somehow frozen in our mind as the outspoken wunderkind who dominated the short story category of the Hugos in the late 1960’s with productions like “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.”


There is no better way to pay tribute than to present a Treasure from the Dalenberg Library:  Harlan Ellison’s legendary unproduced screenplay of Asimov’s I, Robot.  At one point, post-Star Wars, circa 1980, it looked like Ellison’s screenplay would be produced at Warner Bros. with no less than Irvin Kershner at the helm.  Sadly, that never happened.  Ellison himself tells the story of how he pissed off the studio chief by saying that the man had the intellectual capacity of an artichoke.  Hard to get them to greenlight your project after that.


Ellison was constantly at war with the television and movie industry for just not “getting” science fiction, and also for screwing over screenwriters. Ellison had an impressive history of suing film-makers and winning.  James Cameron called him a “parasite” after Ellison sued over intellectual property theft when they didn’t give him credit for story basis on The Terminator. Ellison won the suit and got the credit, so who was the true “parasite”?  Fact is, Cameron owes a big part of his storied career to Harlan Ellison’s ideas that had become so integral to science fiction folklore that Cameron may not have even known from whence the concepts had sprung.


In the years after Star Wars, there was a lot of bad science fiction on the big screen.  Many films devolved into meaningless special effects extravaganzas, where the concept and story were abandoned in the final reel, and the audience was treated to a whole lot of bright, exploding, morphing nothing.  Ellison’s I, Robot screenplay was doomed in that era because the robots weren’t cutesie and the female lead was a cerebral scientist rather than an ingenue. 


Isaac Asimov loved the screenplay.  It was really Ellison’s love letter to the Old Master.  Now they are both gone, but their works live on.  Asimov was only 14 years older than Ellison, but he hailed from an entirely different era.  Asimov was a star of the John W. Campbell camp from the old Astounding Magazine days of pulp science fiction.  His first published story was in 1938 after a period of unusually personal tutelage from Campbell. Ellison’s first science fiction story was published in 1956 after bombarding the market with coarse self-taught efforts, getting a lot of rejections, but finally learning how to make sales.  They were both brash, self-aggrandizing individuals, Asimov perhaps more gentlemanly, and Ellison more of the opinionated loud-mouthed brat.  Their bond was strong, and the I, Robot screenplay bears the stamp of each of their respective styles.

–Dale D. Dalenberg MD