Civil disobedience vs. repressive authority: Harlan Ellison’s subversive and satirical story “Repent Harlequin!’, Said the Ticktockman,” the 2015 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

Here is the Prometheus Blog Appreciation of Harlan Ellison’s “Repent Harlequin!’, Said the Ticktockman,” the 2015 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By Michael Grossberg

The ticking of a clock and a tight schedule controls the future world in “Repent Harlequin!’, Said the Ticktockman,” one of Harlan Ellison’s best and most iconic stories.

The satirical and dystopian tale, which opens with quotes from Henry David Thoreau’s classic work on Civil Disobedience, lampoons the excesses and absurdities of regimentation.

The 1965 story, which introduces the mythic and scary Ticktockman, challenges repressive authority and celebrates civil disobedience.

Ellison was known throughout his life and career for his anti-authoritarian views and provocative personality – and this story very much embodies his libertarian spirit.

What gave this story such impact in the 1960s and why it remains widely admired today is its passion, style, imagination and unusual rule-breaking narrative structure. For example, the story opens in the middle, moves to the beginning and then the end – all without flashbacks.

Harlan Ellison in the 1980s. (Creative Commons license)

Ellison, a wild and rebellious individualist who both sparked and reflected the rising Question Authority counterculture of the younger generation in the late 1960s, reveled in portraying one man’s surrealist rebellion against a repressive future society obsessed with timeliness and dominated by dull technology.

He conceived the iconic character of the Ticktockman as a robot-like figure with the power to shorten or end anyone’s life if they dare to run late. For most, however many minutes they run late are automatically deducted from their life – a drastic penalty enforced by the Master Timekeeper, or Ticktockman, who uses a “cardioplate” device to stop people’s hearts once their time has run out.

Opposing the Ticktockman is the similarly mythic and anarchical Harlequin, a flamboyantly dressed comic hero who threatens the status quo with a whimsical rebellion. For instance, he throws thousands of multicolored jelly beans at workers to distract them as they change shifts.

At once dark and humorous, Ellison’s story has been compared to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. As in the latter Prometheus-winning novel, which ends tragically when the central character Winston Smith is converted to blind obedience and capitulates to the State, Ellison’s story incorporates a similarly dark twist when the Harlequin is captured, ordered to repent and is sent to a place called Coventry, where his anti-authoritarian rebelliousness is squelched.

Originally published in Galaxy in December 1965, when it won Ellison both a 1966 Nebula and Hugo award, Ellison’s cautionary tale of mechanical tyranny has captured the imagination and spirit of generations of readers. It continues to resonate today.

Note: American sf writer Harlan Ellison (1934-2018), known for his outspoken personality and his prolific work in New Wave sf, published more than 1,700 short stories, teleplays, essays, novellas, screenplays and criticism and edited Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, influential sf anthologies of New Wave fiction.

“The City on the Edge of Forever,” his time-traveling screenplay for an episode of Star Trek, is considered the best episode of the original series.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of Donald M. Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite, the 2016 inductee into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

* Other Prometheus winners:  For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website. (This page contains convenient direct clickable links to each Appreciation for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction, as they are published on the Prometheus blog.)

* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history that launched the series in 2019 with review-essays about more than 40 Best Novel winners and that continues most weeks in 2020 with appreciations of the more than 40 Best Classic Fiction winners in the Prometheus Hall of Fame. If you’ve ever wondered why some fiction is recognized with a Prometheus, this series will help you better understand what LFS members see as the libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes in each winner.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners. Libertarian futurists believe upholding and advancing culture is even more important, in the long run, than politics in spreading positive visions of the future, achieving a flourishing society based on cooperation instead of coercion and a better, free-er world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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