Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Review of Paingod and Other Delusions by Harlan Ellison

For anyone with a passing knowledge of speculative fiction’s history, there is an awareness that Harlan Ellison, love or hate the man’s personality, is a writer to be experienced not summarized. You may encounter this review and get a perspective on the fiction, but encountering it first-hand is an entirely different bucket of frogs. When he's on, he's on—a prose master that grabs a thread of story and runs headlong with it, the narrative voice undeniable. (And when he’s not on…) So, forget what Ellison says off-screen and just read his stories. There are none like them, anywhere, and his 1965 collection Paingod and Other Delusions is a prime example.

The collection opens on the title story “Paingod.” A tale of the god Trente, deliverer of pain to the huddling masses ("the one who dealt out the tears and the anguish and the soul-wrenching terrors that blighted life from its first moment to its last"), changes are afoot in the heavens when he begins to have a sense of empathy. Looking down upon two particular men, their stories feed into his beliefs, and ultimately inform his final stance on the subject of suffering. Myth twisted, this story is not what the reader might expect given the opening. More suffering, this time indirectly at the hands of a particularly regimented government, “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” may be the most representative Ellison story in the collection. Telling of a non-conformist and his experiences at the hands of an extreme-rote ruling body, the man’s ultimate fate in the system falls somewhere between Nineteen Eighty-four and A Clockwork Orange.

A similar concept presented from an entirely different perspective, “The Crackpots” tells of a disturbing trend among a population for outright craziness. Such citizens dubbed Crackpots by the government, one Minder (government’s investigator) learns firsthand the reason behind their wacky behavior after getting caught up in their antics. Morlocks and Eloi laughing in the shadows, Ellison nails his point home with an absurdist twist. A short piece, almost a vignette, “Bright Eyes” portrays a dark view of the future of existence. A boy and his rat steed venture forth into the world to herald the coming of a new era, only to discover… A story often over-looked in Ellison best-ofs and reprint anthologies, it nevertheless is worth a read, if not for atmosphere and symbolism alone.

After “Bright Eyes,” the collection begins to unwind. Somewhat reminiscent of a later Delaney work Babel-17, “The Discarded” tells of mutant humans, their exile onboard a generation starship that nobody wants to allow to dock, and their ultimate fate. Ellison angled more toward pure genre, the story has drama and imagery, but lacks the full thematic punch delivered by other stories in the collection. A highly cynical look at the future of medicine, “Wanted in Surgery” attempts to look ahead at what going to the hospital might be like with robotic surgeons, specialists, and general practitioners working in place of humans. Ellison sticking to his guns ideologically, he tries to present a scenario wherein the human element of doctoring remains in need. The idea is grand, but the execution is not abstract enough from reality to give the absurdism its sharpest, most satirical edge. About a homeless psionic firestarter, Paingod closes on its lowest note. “Deeper Than the Darkness” posits another abstract totalitarian government—an organization for whom our firestarter is enemy number one. Pressganged into supporting Earth’s war against the Delgarts, the story devolved into a mess of psi-powers. Ellison apparently trying to channel his inner Alfred Bester, it never fully succeeds, what remains weak and insubstantial.

In the end, Paingod and Other Delusions may be the quintessential Ellison short story collection. A mix of quality, there are a couple standout stories coupled with stories of lesser quality. But always Ellison is in high gear. Unafraid to go full-bore toward his targets, it isn’t surprising the lack of self-doubt produces some stinkers, of which “Deeper than the Darkness,” and to some degree “Wanted in Surgery” must be considered. Taking the dark view toward the human institution, however, his images and scenarios perpetually advocate rebellion, if not for principle alone. His authorial voice key to the stories, each is imminently readable—driven by the words—even if the underlying material may be disagreeable, and for this remains recommended.

The following are the eight stories contained in Paingod and Other Delusions:

"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman
The Crackpots
Bright Eyes
The Discarded
Wanted in Surgery
Deeper Than the Darkness

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