”Repent, Harlan,’ Said the Ticktockman’

We were discussing whether or not Harlan Ellison, in his famous short story ”Repent, Harlequin’ said the Ticktockman’ pulled a lazy writer’s trick where he describes the brainwashing of Harlequin.

Here is the passage:

So they sent him to Coventry. And in Coventry they worked him over. It was just like what they did to Winston Smith in “1984,” which was a book none of them knew about, but the techniques are really quite ancient, and so they did it to Everett C. Marm [Harlequin], and one day quite a long time later, the Harlequin appeared on the communications web, appearing elfish and dimpled and bright-eyed, and not at all brainwashed, and he said he had been wrong, that it was a good, a very good thing indeed, to belong, and be right on time …

My comment, nor am I alone, was that I read that story when I was twelve, before I read Orwell, and it stuck in my memory as the most insolent lazy bit of break-the-fourth-wall and wink-at-the-camera writing I had ever seen, from that day to this. It is not an allusion, not even a reference. It is as if the writer expects to be clapped on the back for how cleverly he does not do any writing to create the effect he wants. I read it forty years ago, and I still recall how it jarred me out of the story, and thought the author was cheating.

The author was asking the readership to let Orwell do all the heavy lifting. I am not saying a torture scene was needed, but an author as adroit as Ellison could have summed up the brainwashing process in a sentence, or even a phrase, to make it seem horrible, without the distracting ‘product placement’ of another author’s work thrust jarringly into the end scene.

One reader, leaping nobly to Harlan Ellison’s defense (not that so formidable an author solicits or requires a defense) gave two arguments: first, that every reader of science fiction in that day and age was no doubt expected to have read Orwell, and would catch the reference, and second, that word counts were tight, and so no one could write a convincing and chilling description of torment and brainwashing, not even Mr Wright, not one hundred words or less.

We have already disposed of the first objection. Making an allusion to another work is a welcome ornament to writing, but pointing to another man’s work and expecting the reader to attribute to you the emotional reaction which that other author by his craftsmanship evoked in his work in your work is not welcome and it is not good craftsmanship. It’s a lazy writing.

As for the second, well, I cannot let the gauntlet simply lay on the ground, can I? I wrote this without forethought, just as I sit here and type. (I went back later and moved two words). If this is what I can do in a first draft, what could Harlan Ellison do?

The torment, the needles, the things they did to his eyeballs and to his mouth and scrotum in a room without windows or clocks or calendars,  — the only such room on the planet — just a medical rack in the center, and a drain for the blood, and Harlequin discovered what timelessness really was, and what people could do when they had no schedule to keep, but lingered and lingered over their work. They enjoyed their work, but they never smiled. A few sharp cuts in his cortex left scars on his head, and he smiled. He smiled because he loved.