Book Reviews Approaching Oblivion

Published on June 12th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley

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Approaching Oblivion – Harlan Ellison

I was first introduced to Harlan Ellison, like most of my generation, by reading “I have no Mouth and I must Scream”, after hearing about the 1995 PC game of the same name.

Having grown up on Poe and Twilight Zone, I have an affinity for dark and morbid tales that end in woe, which is why I loved “I have no mouth and I must Scream”.
Set in a future where an all powerful sentient computer called AM has left only 5 humans alive after massacring the rest of the human race, I have no mouth is one of the most brilliantly depressing stories to come out of science-fiction and so when I found Approaching Oblivion, it was a must have.

Approaching Oblivion is a collection of short stories written and compiled by Ellison and collected with the intention of getting together some of his harder to find stories, as well as a few new ones.

There is a foreword by the late Michael Crichton, which offers little to the book or perception of Ellison, but I thought it might be worth mentioning for any Jurassic Park nuts out there and after that is an introduction by the author himself, to be honest, perhaps if it’s a large and overwhelmingly well received book, then I usually would forgive one introduction. But two? There’s more biography here than fiction, this after all being the shortest book of short stories that I own.
After a brief collection of anecdotes somewhat vaguely pertaining to how the book came about the book actually begins.

Knox is a story of ethics set in the future after a change in politics, seemingly inspired by Nazism, this shows Ellison’s communist leanings as main character Knox is swallowed by a world of elitism.
One of the less memorable stories in the collection, Knox is a vague and generic treatment of Fascism, offering little we haven’t seen before in other novels, bringing only a taste of domestic life to the mix, something seen little outside of Philip K. Dick novels, which is somewhat what this reminded me of, one of Dick’s throwaway stories.

Cold Friend is set in a post-apocalyptic stretch of land that ends after only a few blocks of suburban houses. The protagonist has survived the end of the world, due to having died of cancer beforehand. Right, I see. So after waking up, I mean “reviving” our undead hero finds that he is alone on this island of reality and cannot leave as the ground ends abruptly as if ripped from the earth, however, he’s not really alone because there odd people from different time periods that start appearing, and the world’s not really condensed because these people manage to keep wandering into it.
I was thoroughly unimpressed by this one, utterly incomprehensible and flawed, it’s hardly an interesting concept anyway, but illogical plot and aggravating characters do little for this number.

I have no Mouth and I must Scream is a PC adventure game based on the short story.

I have no Mouth and I must Scream is a PC adventure game based on the short story.

There’s a few really short stories here,
Kiss of Fire essentially equates to “Casanova gets beguiled by angry lady”. With added exasperation!

Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman should have been named Paulie Charmed the Dead Girlfriend and because it gives you a better idea and it didn’t have much ring to it anyway.

I’m Looking for Kadak, is probably the oddest story I have ever read.
Juxtaposing Jewish custom and lingo into a sci-fi story, where a race of alien like creatures have taken up aspects of Judaism, a group of them need to perform a ritual which is being hindered by the fact that a key member is not present, so someone is sent our to retrieve him. The ensuing adventure involves weird alien prostitution, animorphing and talking to rocks. Also there is a glossary at the end, because there’s enough weird to warrant it.
Silent in Gehenna is about a freedom fighter who has been challenging the oppressive government for years when he is caught and forced to work for them and soon discovers the futility of his championing the guilty majority.

Erotophobia is about a man who inspires extreme lust and sexual desire in everyone he meets. You can tell that one is going to be hilarious, yet even Ellison manages to make it morbid!

One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty, is about a man who goes back in time to hang around with his younger self, it acts what I assume is semi-autobiographical about a boy who hasn’t any friends and a family that don’t treat him well, it feels a little bit sad, especially since I can imagine how awesome it would be to have your future self visit and finally have someone decent to play Streets of Rage with that won’t leave mid-game because I’m being “too aggressive”.

It appears Ellison and I share the same devoidal hole of thought.

It appears Ellison and I share the same devoidal hole of thought.

Catman, my favourite of the lot, is about a father and son whose jobs involve pitting themselves against one another, but only when on the clock, as what I can only surmise is Future cop and Future thief.
It tells a story of a broken family, the mother is controlling, the father is conflicted and the son is on a journey to the “next level” of living.
This one I felt resonated, in the way that several days later I was still thinking about it, more specifically how a videogame would work, as I can imagine lots of new and interesting themes developing from this format.
I especially love the ending, a kind of antithesis to “I have no Mouth”.

Finally, we have Hindsight: 480 Seconds, a story of the people of Earth finally leaving the planet, due to its immediate and impending death. The people of Earth have appointed a single man, a poet to remain and catalogue his thoughts about the end of Earth and his own life, for posterity.
I love how almost everything can be done, “for posterity”, Holocaust? Apartheid? Posterity.

As always, we end on a melancholic note, but this time round, there’s a small hint of positivity.
I suppose the hope of a new start is better than the despair of no-end.

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