Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, November 25, 2016


Phoenix Without Ashes by Harlan Ellison (2011)

Come, sit around me by the fire, children.  Let me tell you a cautionary tale about those b*st*rds in charge of making television shows...

Once upon a time there was a writer named Harlan.  He was a darned good writer and had won many awards, but he also had a bad rep because he was always insisting on quality (this is known as tilting at windmills, children, and it can be a very frustrating thing, indeed).  Back in the days when everyone was younger, a television producer came up to Harlan and asked him to come up with an idea for a science fiction television series to pitch to BBC in hopes that they would co-produce the show.  Harlan suggested a "generational starship" premise.  (Now generational starships as a plot device have been around since the days when everyone was much, much younger, but this generational starship was to be BIIGGG, big enough to explore a different culture every week BIIGGG.)  Alas, the BBC said, "Sorry, guv."  The producer then decided to take the show through the syndication route, eventual selling it to a number of NBC stations and to Canada's CTV network.  And Canada would give the producer lots of money if the show was filmed there and used a lot of Canadian talent.  So Canadian writers were hired to rewrite Harlan's script and Harlan's good buddy Ben Bova was hired as a science adviser for the series.  (A science adviser for a television series is like a science adviser for the Republican Party -- no one listens.)  And the budget was cut here and the budget was cut there and Harlan's BIIGGG idea was whittled down to manageable size and it lost its scope and power and Harlan was p*ssed  and said that, instead of putting Halran's name on the credits, the name "Cordwainer Bird" should be used -- because, when you are p*ssed it is somewhat satisfying to flip someone the "Cordwainer."  And Harlan walked away and nobody liked the show and it sank after only 16 episodes and many people thought that 16 episodes was 16 too many.  The end.

Well, not quite.  Harlan's original script won the Writer's Guild Award for Best Original Screenplay, so take that, you television industry Luddites!  And Ben Bova wrote a satirical book based on his experiences with the show and the sad tale of ineptness cut to the bone.  And then Harlan and Ed Bryant published a novel adaptation of the original script titled Phoenix Without Ashes in 1975.  (Although Ellison's name was on the book, I understand that most -- if not all -- of the novelization was written by Bryant.)  Then in 2010, Ellison rewrote the novel in graphic novel form, giving "Special thanks to Ed Bryant for his invaluable assistance.'  And that graphic novel is my Forgotten Book for this week.

The graphic novel and film are both visual media and, in this case, the graphic novel captures some of the wonder that had been in Harlan Ellison's original script.  Illustrator Alan Robinson and colorist Kote Carvajal have combined their talents to give us some scope of this universe, at times seeming vast and, at others, claustrophobic.  And Ellison?  Well, Ellison's simple approach to the story magnifies the concept.

The year is 2785.  Centuries before, Earth faced destruction from some unknown force.  To save humanity, a vast starship containing hundreds of interconnected biodomes was built to bring humanity to a new planet.  Each biodome extended at least fifty miles across and each was people by a different culture.  Early in the voyage however, an accident happened, the starship's crew were killed, the starship veered off course, and each biodome was sealed off.  In the five hundred years since that accident, the various cultures in the biodomes lost their histories and each developed in unplanned ways.

Devon is a young man in a biodome that originally supported a 18th century agrarian society that has now become rigid, patriarchal culture, deeply religious, and ruled by a demanding God through Elder Micah.  God has ruled that young Rachel is to marry Garth, Devon's best friend.  Now, Garth does not love Rachel and Rachel does not love Garth.  In fact, Rachel and Devon love each other.  But what are you going to do?  If God decrees something, you've got to do it, right?  But Devon is a stubborn guy and begins making a squawk, saying that God must be wrong (aa well as finding proof that Elder Micah is a fraud).  Before you say, "Religion is the opiate of the masses," Devon is locked up and sentenced to be stoned to death.  Devon escapes and somehow finds his way to a corridor that hooks his biodome to others, where a friendly computer clues him in on what's what.  Devon returns to his biodome, determined to bring the truth to his people and we all know how that is going to turn out.  Devon and Rachel flee, followed by Garth.

A simple story against an impressive backdrop told with power and imagination makes for a quick and impressive read.


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  2. The argument Ellison described wherein he was told that the horizons within the pods couldn't be (let us say, since I don't have it to hand) twenty miles away but only two miles, since if set up "realistically" for 20m they'd be muddy and unappealing...and it takes Ellison some time to get past the general goofiness to simply suggest, OK, you put 'em in as if two miles away, and we still continue to act as if that's how it would look at 20m...and the producers decided to change the script for no reason other than to match up with the 1973 computer-assisted design...or to spite Ellison. And maybe Bova as well, by that time. And the series was, to be sure, no visual feast, anyway.

  3. Harlan Ellison is always worth reading. I read the 1975 paperback by Ellison and Ed Bryant. I'll have to track down a copy of PHOENIX WITHOUT ASHES.