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New Releases: Web of the City by Harlan Ellison

This is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime publication, one every week. You can follow along here. This week, we skip ahead to the publisher's newest release - coming April 2013. 

Web of the City HCCIt is hard to believe that I've gone this long without one review of a book by Harlan Ellison. He's easily one of my favourite authors. According to our long-suffering database, he's our fourth-most collected author [MacDonald, McBain, Sayers, Ellison] - it feels like I spent years on autopilot, heading towards the E's of any used bookstore.

On the other hand, Ellison is so significant to me, the lack of reviews actually makes sense.

I grew up devouring science fiction - and by that, I mean all that I could find. I picked up the doorstop tomes of Ye Olde Hugo Winners at library sales and bought crates of magazines at flea markets. I practically swam through the stuff.

Science Fiction was a genre of problems solved through logic and hard work. Puzzles and games, plots, not people. Rational thought! Strong ideals! Clever solutions derived from first principles! The application of logic-driven labour, leading to conclusions that were both rationally and morally correct! Everything in Science Fiction made sense, something that appealed to me as a child - as well as the overall message that Be Smart + Be Right = Guaranteed Win. 

By the time I hit 14, I knew this to be wrong. And I knew this with the depth and conviction that only a teenager can have - the confused, but determined nihilism that comes part and parcel with the swarming chaos of adolescence. From what I could see, no matter how correct or smart I was (and I was convinced that I was both), I wasn't winning. Nothing made sense. I could work statistics and run numbers and draw things and research and derive solutions from first principles, but, somehow, it wasn't working out in my favour. People were starving and homeless, politicians lied, the authorities were hopelessly corrupt, I had a C- in French, and I didn't have a date. The gross unfairness of it all - it rankled. It burned.

Enter: Approaching Oblivion. Picked up in a second-hand bookstore because, well, Leo and Diane Dillon are some of the greatest cover artists of all time and it had an introduction by Michael Crichton. But Ellison's own introduction stole the show. He pointed out that we live in a world where everything is unequal and awful and, just, you know, goddammit! The fun-fact that stuck in my head?  One human being's name is inscribed for billions of years  - a guaranteed historical legacy that will outlast all others - Richard Nixon, who gets a plaque on the Moon. (Granted this was the mid-Nineties, but I still felt outraged by this injustice.) We're an ridiculous, nonsensical blight of a species, Ellison yells, of course we're confused.

RumbleWell, hello.

To teenage Jared, oppressed by the burden of his middle-class, mid-Western existence, someone was finally making sense. Everyone had a voice for their rebellion - mine was Ellison. (Incidentally, I ran into Lovecraft around the same time. Just as Ellison subverted the logic of Science Fiction, Lovecraft threw fantasy out the window. The only prophecies are nasty ones, the villains are far too big to hit with a sword, and the cosmic, destiny-wrangling Powers That Be? They don't give a shit. Swoon.)

Eventually, say, mid-twenties, I got tired. I wasn't filled with a vast and senseless anger (real or affected) any more. I believed in systems again, or, at least, their potential, and I wound up, you know, optimistic. But, golly, for ten years, Ellison was my bread and butter - and I've got the stack of books to show for it. Hardcover, paperback - even a couple of his famously typewritten manuscripts. They're all here, and I'm never parting with them.

And you know, I suspect I'm not the only one with this story.

In a broader sense, Ellison was the much-needed teenage rebellion for an entire genre. He wrote about the gritty, dirty horrible ambiguities of reality, and not a fabulous four-colour future where everything was solved by golden-haired heroes using their math-muscles in front of swooning Marsbabes. Ellison reminded us that the best science fiction is about the present, and not the future. And he did so by slapping us in the face with "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" and "'Repent Harlequin'" and "Soft Monkey" and... and... 

In short, I've struggled to review Ellison not just because he's so big for the genre, but because he's so big for me.

Which, weirdly, brings me (belatedly) to the actual book: Web of the City. First published in 1958 as Rumble, Web of the City has wandered through various itirations and reprints. This edition is the first in thirty years and editor Charles Ardai has wisely collected it with three related short stories, "No Way Out", "No Game for Children" and "Stand Still and Die". 

Web of the City 2Web of the City is an excellent example of that same core thesis - the anger and the confusion and the unfairness of it all. Rusty is a gang leader trying his best to leave the life behind. At seventeen, he's been in front of the police a little too often, and if it weren't for a kind-hearted teacher, he'd already be in jail. His home life is a disaster, his neighborhood is a war zone and, generally speaking, his life sucks. This is his last chance to achieve something before he winds up like his father, a vicious alcoholic, and a parasite on rest of the family.

But just wanting something isn't enough - and even as Rusty tries to go towards the light, there's always something (or someone) waiting to drag him back. Rusty's old gang won't tolerate a quitter. His girlfriend thinks he's a coward. His own sister, who Rusty loves more than anyone else, is dangerously close to becoming fully immersed in gang life - even she doesn't understand what Rusty's doing.

The "right thing", as dictated by the forces of law, order and moral rectitude, never seems to work. However hard he tries, Rusty can't merely talk out his problems with the other teenagers. Nor do the grown-ups "understand". There's no higher power waiting to take mercy on him. The city is a cold and merciless place, hungry and vicious, and worst of all, "deep inside, it didn't really care at all" (15). 

The props and stage dressing of Web of the City are a little dated - the slang, the drugs and the details of daily life. Certainly, these were part of the book's appeal at the time (Ellison went undercover as part of a Brooklyn street gang - check out Memos from Purgatory), but now, they paint a picture of a surprisingly distant time. The book as a whole, however, has aged amazingly well: Rusty's plight transcends the 1950s - the sense of being trapped in a remote, uncaring world is something that everyone can understand. Even if the rituals of the gang seem old-fashioned, the significance is still clear.

Rumble 2The short stories make for excellent companion reading. The first, "No Way Out" is the best. It is essentially the short story version of Web of the City, published in 1957. (Ellison's introduction doesn't make it clear which was written first.) It uses the same characters and many of the same scenes, but the ending is very different... yet still equally plausible. Adding this into the collection is a brilliant touch. The city doesn't care, and Rusty's tale could easily go either way.

"No Game for Children" pits a mild-mannered professor against his teenage gangster neighbour. It is a dark and nasty little parable. The lesson, of course, being that, underneath the surface, we're all animals - it is easier to sink into the pit than to climb out of it.

Finally, "Stand Still and Die" is another tale of an adult pitted against a gang. This time a taxi driver is falsely accused of a crime that he knows was done by gang members. It is the most gimmicky of the three and, arguably, the only one that doesn't fit. Although it does feature the ubiquitous teenagers, this time around they're faceless hoods - pawns of a greater evil. It is the only story that reduces the teenagers from people to a mere plot device.

As far as covers go, the Hard Case Crime edition might be the best yet. Glen Orbik's painting captures the book's paranoia perfectly, while still giving it a wonderfully lurid air. I'm also fond of the 1963 Pyramid cover (as Rumble, immediately above), although the characters on the cover are no more "teen-aged" than a cast member on Gossip Girl. The 1975 edition is properly weird, but nothing quite trumps Ace's bizarre decision to take the title literally - either through ignorance or an attempt to flog it as science fiction.

Hard Case Crime have a penchant for re-releasing the lost early novels from great authors. They all have historical or literary significance, and Web of the City is no exception. However unlike several of the others, this book is still legitimately great as a text in its own right - a story of alienation and despair, Quixotic battle and, if not redemption, a sort of finality.

[There's a nice bibliographic piece on on Ellison's gang-related books at Vintage Sleaze Paperbacks.]