Can & Can’tankerous’ by Harlan Ellison (book review).

For some reason I’ve never read any Harlan Ellison, which is odd considering he’s been writing longer than I’ve been alive. This new collection of ten previously uncollected stories seemed like an ideal opportunity to rectify that oversight. The contents page made me smile straight away, so many fabulous, long titles, which is something I’ve been attempting with some of my recent stories. The stories are interspersed with introductions, afterwords and anecdotes, some of which appear to be as fictitious as the fiction. They make for an entertaining collection.


I dived straight in to the first story ‘How Interesting: A Tiny Man’ which was indeed an interesting story. The creation of a tiny man in a lab is not the focus of this short piece but rather it concentrates on the reaction of the public, the scientist’s friends and the scientific community. The protagonist tells the story in a rather bewildered tone and in informal prose. It makes for a very engaging read that gives no hints as to where the plot is heading and was a pleasant start to my Harlan Ellison introduction.

‘Never Send To Know For Whom The Lettuce Wilts’ is a re-write of a 1956 original and takes a similar informal tone to the previous story. It also ignores several of those ‘rules’ that writers are meant to follow, demonstrating that Harlan Ellison has, not surprisingly in such a lengthy writing career, perfected the rather important rule: learn the rules to break the rules. I’m paraphrasing. There are lots of parentheses, asides and incomprehensible alien words, all of which carry the tale along in an anarchic kind of way as a frustratingly meaningless fortune cookie sends Frank on a mission to discover a truth that he was not expecting. It’s a lot of fun.

‘Objects Of Desire In The Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear’ (still not the longest title of the book) features a noirish murder investigation, featuring a homeless man who is not what he seems, super-models and alien abduction. I was getting very involved in the plot when it suddenly went a bit weird. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure I thought it was very effective. I get the impression from the back cover blurb that it’s very Ellisonian though.

The shortest story ‘Loose Cannon, Or Rubber Duckies From Outer Space’, has the longest introduction. I can’t really say anything about it without giving away the entire plot, save to say it really does include rubber duckies from outer space.

Since learning the word ‘abecedarian’ a couple of decades ago I’ve not had occasion to use it. Probably because it’s one of those American words. ‘From A To Z, In The Sarsaparilla Alphabet’ is an abecedarian story in which mythical gods and creatures feature in 26 sections. While many of them were interesting and entertaining, none were more than a vignette and the story seemed to have no purpose other than to use the entire alphabet. I like my unusual-format stories to still make a story, which this one didn’t.

‘Weariness’ is a short and thoughtful excursion to the end of the universe. The rambling afterword about Harlan Ellison’s relationship with Ray Bradbury is much more interesting.

We go back to the golden age for ‘The Toad Prince, Or Sex Queen Of The Martian Pleasure-Domes’ which really does re-live the old-fashioned sense of adventure and unfettered fantasticalness of those early Science Fiction tales. It manages this while developing concepts with a much more modern feel. It’s also the longest story of the book and I find it the most satisfying.

‘Incognita, Inc’ is a wonderfully affecting story of the shop that is the source of every mythical map ever followed by adventurers and pirates. Told by the man sent to close it down, it’s a fabulous piece of whimsy.

According to the afterword, not everyone will get ‘Goodbye To All That’. I didn’t get it. Similarly ‘He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes’ is apparently so clever that you may need to read it again to understand the plot. I may need to read it again.

These stories cover a wide spectrum of Science Fiction, fantasy and slipstream, written in several different styles and formats. It’s a fantastic demonstration of Harlan Ellison’s flexibility and imagination, even if I didn’t personally enjoy all of them, and a great place to catch up with one of the genre’s best-known writers.

Gareth D. Jones

October 2015

(pub: Subterranean Press. 233 page deluxe large hardback. Price: $45.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-751-6)

Released: 31 December 2015

check out website:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.