Harlan Ellison’s latest short story collection, Can & Can’tankerous, is nothing less than a cabinet of wonders built by a demented magician—a box filled to bursting with carnivalesque impossibilities such as doomed and/or omnipotent homunculi, conquering alien imps who unknowingly help the human race while trying to destroy it, time travelling super models, beneficent rubber ducks, Martian sex slaves, phantom cartographers, the 1948 Cleveland Indians, at least twenty-six different brands of mythological beings, and (thrown in for good measure) the ghost of Satchel Paige. This collection of ten short stories published between 1956 and 2012 spans an impressive array of genres, time periods, worlds, and emotions.
As with his previous books, such as the classic collections Deathbird Stories (1975) and Angry Candy (1988), Ellison is able to gracefully segue from one genre to another within only a few pages—sometimes within the same story. For example, the third offering in the book, “Objects of Desire in the Mirror Are Closer than They Appear,” combines classic science fiction tropes with a heavily noirish atmosphere, creating a hybrid that somehow looks and feels nothing like the parent-genres that breathed it into existence in the first place.
The centerpiece of the book, a 15,000-word novella entitled “The Toad Prince, or, Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure-Domes,” is a near-impossibility: an impressive feat of close-up magic that excels at pulse-pounding science fiction adventure redolent of 1950s pulp stereotypes while succeeding in being a satirical deconstruction of those same well-worn clichés. As I avidly read the planet-hopping adventures of Sarna (Our Hero), a Terran prostitute trapped in a world of sex-crazed Martians, for some reason my brain insisted on imagining this epic as a graphic novel drawn by the late sui generis artist Moebius, who often combined cosmic vistas, blatantly sexual themes, and Golden Age science fiction tropes in his own unforgettable stories. (Hollywood producers, please take note: If not a comic book, this novella would also make a wonderful animated movie in the style of such borderline-psychedelic SF films as Fantastic Planet and Heavy Metal.)
For the purists among you who have an inherent distaste for Golden Age retro themes in your genre of choice, rest assured that this collection of stories includes at least four Master Class tales that are as accomplished as the best short fiction produced in America during the past two decades: “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” (which won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 2011), a wildly inventive—and oddly affecting—twist on the age-old concept of the golem; “Incognita, Inc.,” a melancholy tale about an old man responsible for creating the maps that have led countless generations of adventurers to the lands of myth and legend, a deft parable that can ultimately be seen as a wistful meditation on the death (and, one hopes, rebirth) of the imagination in our overly commodified society; “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes,” a devilishly clever jigsaw puzzle of a tale that compels you to begin rereading it the second you’ve finished the final sentence; and “Goodbye to All That,” an absurdist fantasy that has the fearless audacity to create a scenario that can only be resolved by revealing the Ultimate Punchline to the Ultimate Joke… and, in the end, despite this ostensibly impossible-to-overcome buildup, somehow manages to be funny.
“Goodbye to All That” is also noteworthy in that it expands on Ellison’s ongoing obsession with Lost World scenarios, a type of story rarely attempted these days; in fact, one could say it’s an extinct subgenre. Ellison’s contributions are unique in that these types of exotic adventures, whether novelistic or cinematic, tend to be epic in nature, e.g., H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) or Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933). Ellison’s Lost World stories, however, compress such sweeping narratives into only a few pages. Some of the most memorable tales in Ellison’s 1997 collection, Slippage, played with Lost World scenarios in a variety of fascinating ways (e.g., “Darkness Upon the Face of the Deep,” “Chatting with Anubis,” and “Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral”).
Several of the stories in Can & Can’tankerous flirt with this venerable Lost World concept, e.g., “From A to Z, in the Sarsaparilla Alphabet,” “Incognita, Inc.,” and “Goodbye to All That.” I suspect “Goodbye to All That” was inspired by a juxtaposition of two wildly different narratives: James Hilton’s bestselling 1933 novel Lost Horizon, perhaps the most famous Lost World story of the twentieth century (the protagonist of “Goodbye to All That” is named Colman, no doubt in honor of Ronald Colman, the star of Frank Capra’s 1937 film adaptation of Lost Horizon) and Robert Sheckley’s antic 1976 Playboy story “What Is Life?” in which an explorer treks to a mountaintop in the Himalayas only to be confronted by an invisible deity who demands that the intruder provide him with the ultimate answer to the ultimate question. In “Goodbye to All That” Ellison manages to trump Sheckley’s insanely clever solution to an impossible scenario (I won’t spoil the punchline to Sheckley’s story in case you’ve never read it, but it can be found in his 1978 short story collection entitled The Robot Who Looked Like Me).
Overall, Can & Can’tankerous is a worthy follow-up to Ellison’s Slippage, his last book of “previously uncollected, precariously poised stories.” The wonders in this particular magic cabinet are just as precariously poised (perhaps even more so), in the sense that they seem simultaneously familiar and unpredictable, graceful and unbalanced, logical and irrational—a genuine paradox, perhaps the greatest magic trick of all.
To order Can & Can’tankerous, visit the publisher’s website by clicking HERE.
Note: This review appeared originally, in somewhat different form, in THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION #335 (July 2016).