Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #45 of 107: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison

“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison is #3 out of 125 on Dave Hook’s Recommended Reading List of SF short stories. That’s pretty impressive since Hook’s list is a meta-list generated from several lists. And we’ve finally reached the time period in The Big Book of Science Fiction when I began reading stories as they came out in the magazines. However, I didn’t catch this Ellison in the December 1965 issue of Galaxy, but in Wollheim’s World’s Best Science Fiction: 1966. (I did buy that issue of Galaxy a year or so later in a used bookstore, probably for about 10 cents. That’s when I first learn to love science fiction magazines.)

If you noticed, Ellison wasn’t mentioned on either cover nor did the story get any interior illustrations. Evidently, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” wasn’t immediately recognized as a future classic. But it didn’t take long to become one of the most anthologized SF stories ever.

“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1966.

But I don’t know why. Ellison’s razzle-dazzle prose to me is merely yelling, “Look at me! Look at me!” Sure, it’s a fun anti-establishment story from the 1960s. And I liked it a lot better back then. But now, I find its over-the-top wordy antics felt just like I felt watching the first episode of Batman back in 1966 — campy to the point of being embarrassing.

Like I said, when I was young Ellison’s stories impressed me with all their screaming and sneering and self-righteousness. Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary were cool too, in the sixties. But looking back through decades of hard-earned maturity, they now only look like clowns.

I got to see Ellison lecture twice, and both times I hung around afterward when young people tried to disagree with him. He was the fast draw that all the gunslingers wanted to take on. You didn’t want to be standing too close to them either because Ellison would roast them with his fire-breathing dragon replies. When I was young I enjoyed seeing Ellison’s skill with words, especially when he used his sharpest wit. Now, not so much.

That doesn’t mean I dislike this story or dislike Ellison. I will always love the guy who wrote: “Jeffty is Five.” I’m just burned out on all his famous pyromaniac-prose stories. I need to read through his collections and find some quiet tales suitable for my old age.

Besides, I like being on time and I get irked at having to wait for people that aren’t.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/15/21

6 thoughts on ““‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison

  1. Interesting to read how your view of Ellison’s burn-bright stories changed. I can understand how the razzle-dazzle (a good description) wordings could cause eye-rolling. The wordings can distract from the plot (or lack of one) underneath. I haven’t reached that opinion, as I enjoy the electricity Ellison brings in many of his stories. “‘Repent Harlequin'” was the second story I read by Ellison, after “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” — and both impressed me with their energy. I sought more Ellison stories after those and have been entertained. As for quieter Ellison stories, have you read “Eidolons” or ““The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore”? Both made an impact on me with what they had to say about aspects of the human condition.

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    1. Oh, I still like Ellison and have many of his books. And he could be a very insightful writer. I do like his stories that comment on the human condition. And I admire Ellison as a fascinating person and was sad when he died a few years ago. I suppose you’ve seen the documentary on him, Dreams With Sharp Teeth? It’s wonderful.

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      1. I haven’t seen the documentary yet but plan on doing so soon. I saw the trailer on YouTube and I’m interested to hear more about him. Sounds like he had quite the temper when rubbed the wrong way, and some wild experiences with editors and such.

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