In his time, prolific speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison fostered nearly as much controversy as he did publication credits. Described by Psycho writer Robert Bloch as being “the only living organism I know whose natural habitat is hot water,” Ellison’s spitfire opinions often earned him more enemies than friends beyond the literary community and even an assassination attempt or two. Like any master of the genre, Ellison imagined the farthest-reaching applications of contemporary technology, often with fantastical and terrifying results. Like any sensible human, he was quick to criticize that same technology for harming and “dumbing down” the populace.
Today, we’re taking a look at just a few of the modern inventions and innovations that Ellison would have despised.
1. Artificial Intelligence
Was it any contest? Ellison foreshadowed the nightmare scenario of artificial intelligence taking over the world with his short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” In that lovely tale, a nihilistic Allied Mastercomputer (AM) nukes humanity to near extinction, retaining five humans to torture for all eternity.
Make no mistake — while we’re nowhere near the reality of “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” Ellison would doubtlessly have wrinkled his nose at the recent strides in automated/artificial writing. AM’s engineered apocalypse is essentially a cautionary tale about the dangers of putting too much faith into AI, a warning modern tech developers have pointedly ignored time and time again. ChatGPT, by its very existence, lifts the cognition, creativity, and skill required of writing from the shoulders of anyone who uses it, placing the gift of creation squarely in the hands of machines.
If there’s any remaining doubt that Ellison would have despised AI, bear in mind that we’re talking about the guy credited for inspiring the Terminator franchise.
2. Elon Musk’s Neuralink Chip
In an interview discussing what he tells people who ask where he gets his ideas, Ellison famously answered, “Schenectady. There’s this ‘idea service’ in Schenectady, and every week like clockwork, they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas for 25 bucks.” His meaning was clear: the process of idea generation is an impalpable one. Or at least it was, right up until Elon Musk’s Neuralink project received FDA approval in early June of 2023.
Described by the Tesla CEO as “a Fitbit in your skull that goes right to your brain,” Neuralink’s capabilities allow the user to control any Bluetooth device with their mind. On the one hand, that impressive ability could provide ease and aid the deaf and blind and even treat complex mental disorders like schizophrenia. On the other hand — and with modern technology, you always need to consider the other hand — having a chip in your skull providing full access to the internet would raise several questions regarding the ethics of technology… the least of which is the originality of thought itself.
3. Apple Vision Pro and VR in General
Like any master of science fiction, Ellison imagined the farthest-reaching applications of contemporary technology, often with fantastical and terrifying results. To that end, he utilized sci-fi as a means of repairing a damaged and threatened world. Seeing as VR hinges upon removing the viewer from reality, there can be little doubt that Ellison would have hated it.
In Dreams with Sharp Teeth, a biographical documentary about Ellison’s life, the writer asserted that “There are people who would stand and watch old ladies mugged to death by street gangs and not lift a finger, but if you took their TVs they’d be on the steps of city halls with pitchforks and pump shotguns in five minutes.”
Ellison’s story, “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” reflects this exact sentiment. A take on the 1964 slaying of Kitty Genovese, the story imagines a reality where everyday folk are so numb to violence that their very indifference garners the attention of the sadism of some, and the numbed indifference of others in the face of violence garners the attention of a “death god.”
With such opinions on society-wide desensitization in mind, we can bet with some safety that Ellison would have disapproved of the recent advancements in virtual reality. Combine a means of escaping from reality and numbing yourself to the globe’s prevalent issues with a tech juggernaut like Apple announcing its Vision Pro headset, and you’re halfway to an Ellisonian nightmare already!
4. Deepfakes and Synthetic Media
If Ellison was contentious about using his work, could you imagine how he’d feel about people using him for views? Best of luck trying to manipulate the voice and likeness of a man who fired off lawsuits like 4th of July rockets. It might have taken him a while to reach you — busy that he was suing the Writers Guild of America, CBS Paramount, ABC, and James Cameron, to name a few offenders — but he’d get there eventually.
5. Attention-sucking Media Apps
An author of over 100 books, 400 short stories, and 1,000 essays and columns spares no time for procrastination and distraction. Can you picture a man like that working an hour or two into his schedule to tap and scroll his brain cells into oblivion? Our imaginations can only stretch so far.
More and more frequently, social media and entertainment apps seem to be the culmination of all the dangers outlined on this list. You’ve got AI-generated presidents, promotions for ChatGPT, and split-screen videos vying for every last ounce of space in your frontal lobe.
To make things worse, one of Ellison’s most famous antagonists is the Tiktok Man — a figure who, ironically enough, is obsessed with not wasting time. Just another reason for Ellison to hate the attention-stealing app of the same name.
We can’t help but wonder how a mind like Ellison’s would have reacted to the world we inhabit today, with news about AI and related technology breaking almost every day. While we can only speculate, Ellison’s opinions and visions outlive him in his fathomless body of work and the lasting influence he holds on speculative fiction to this day.
For an alternative take on the future of AI in spec fic, click here!