Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Review of “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison

In the introduction to her collection of poems and essays Dancing at the Devil’s Party, Alicia Ostriker writes that any good artist’s m.o. is defiance of norms. (I paraphrase.) There may be no writer who takes this idea to heart like Harlan Ellison. His personality controversial enough, he walks the talk in his fiction, however, of which his 1965 novelette “’Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman” is a prime example. Non-conformity in absurdist terms, Open Road Media’s re-release* of the story in 2016 provides a strong representation of Ostriker’s view.

Prefaced by the (loosely styled) essay “Stealing Tomorrow,” Ellison describes mankind's primitivism in the face of civilization, and the instinctual desire to rebel against that which is rational. The essay setting the tone, “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” goes on to tell the story of a non-conformist flouting the legal and social mores of a society governed by the clock. A satirical representation of the freak scene happening in American counter-culture of the 60s, the conclusion forms a Nineteen Eighty-four body with A Clockwork Orange head.

While one can argue the merits of rebellion in time and place, Ellison’s Che Guevara notion in “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman” is as entertaining as it is vividly surreal. Inspiration to Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riders of the Purple Wage” in style, Ellison’s voice pervades the tale, giving it bite where lesser writers would have nibbled. Agree or disagree with the base conception, it remains powerful absurdism by chic alone, and worth the time for it.

*For those unaware, Open Road Media is slowly and quietly re-releasing a huge quantity of older science fiction and fantasy in e-book form. Preserving a lot of old speculative fiction that would otherwise slip through the cracks, their effort is worth commendation, particularly as they are not going out the way to advertise the effort themselves.


  1. I enjoy a lot of Ellison's work, especially his short story in the first 'Dangerous Visions' anthology, 'The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World'; which gave me a very disturbing dream (or, one could say a "dangerous vision" if they thought they were witty, but I'm not so I won't). Anywho, I've been lurking on your site here for years now and I think this is the first Ellison story I have seen reviewed on here, although I could be wrong. Any plans for more Ellison? Or, if you take suggestions mayhap you could review 'Lud-In-The-Mist' by Hope Mirlees? Please?
    And thank you.
    Keep up the great reviews

    1. My blog is kind of an ongoing account of the books I'm reading, as well as reviews of books I read before I started it (hence the multiple posts per week.) Ellison is someone I read the "big" stories of before the blog ("Jeffty is Five," "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," "A Boy and His Dog," "Harlequin," etc.), but no collections. I've been lucky, however, and been able to get a couple ARCs of his collections. The review of "Harlequin" above was kind of a warm up. Reviews should come some time in the next couple of months.

      Ask and ye shall receive. Here is the review of Mirrlees' wonderful novel - and thanks for the compliments.

    2. Very nice!
      Thanks for the link for the Mirlees review. Also looking forward to seeing what you have to say about some of Harlan's other stories. I would also suggest watching the documentary 'Dreams With Sharp Teeth' if you haven't already.
      Thanks again(!)

  2. Hi Jesse

    I think you hit the nail on the head, the story of a non-conformist flouting the rules of a dystopian society is a very common possibly overdone SF theme. But what very much raises the level of this treatment, is Ellison's vision and style, from the very Ellison title, to the surreal characters and whimsical attacks Harlequin launchs to disrupt society. A really enjoyable read.


    1. Indeed, there are no dystopian stories like "Harlequin." For sure it's one of a kind. I really enjoyed the freak scene parallel to US counter-culture in the Vietnam era.