The Best Science Fiction Stories Ever Written: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison

WHO WROTE IT: Harlan Ellison, a sci-fi wr—

Andrew Timothy Post scifi writer Harlan Ellison Tick-Tock Man
“You have exactly five seconds to rephrase that. And three seconds have just passed.”

…excuse me, a writer.

Harlan Ellison was easily one of the most irascible authors who ever lived, and, until his untimely passing in June at the age of 84, he would get seriously annoyed with anyone who referred to him a “sci-fi writer.” He considered himself a writer, nothing more and nothing less, and saw little use in pigeonholing himself into a specific genre. Robert Bloch (yes, that Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho) once described Ellison as “the only living organism I know whose natural habitat is hot water.” Ellison was as bullheaded and confrontational as they come and had a habit of storming into debates and controversies with flags flying and guns blazing.

Despite his insistence on being called a plain old “writer,” Ellison is most best known for his association with New Wave speculative fiction. He wrote one of the most memorable Star Trek episodes (“The City on the Edge of Forever”) and also edited a magazine called Dangerous Visions for a while. Oh, and he also wrote 1,700 short stories, and won eight Hugo Awards, four Nebula Awards, and five Bram Stoker Awards (the latter from the Horror Writers Association).

WHERE IT WAS PUBLISHED: The December 1965 edition of the sci-fi magazine Galaxy.

Repent Harlequin Harlan Ellison Galaxy magazine December 1965 Algis Budrys

Funnily enough, Ellison issued a lawsuit in federal court against New Regency Productions in September 2011. He alleged that the plot of that forgettable Justin Timberlake film In Time was a total rip-off of “‘Repent, Harlequin!'” Ellison, in his usual all-out manner, originally asked for an injunction against the film’s release before dropping that request and asking for a screen credit, and ultimately dismissing his suit (of his own volition). I guess maybe the film was so awful that Ellison didn’t want his name attached to it. That’s just my theory, though.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: In the dystopian future, the authorities have figured out how to regulate everything…even time itself. Human beings live according to a rigid schedule. Being late for an appointment or for work isn’t just a minor annoyance in this world; it’s a crime. Transgress, and you will be fined a proportionate amount of time. Run out of time, and you will be turned off. The man who oversees the fines and the off-turnings is called the Master Timekeeper, or as he’s less affectionately known, “the Ticktockman.” He uses a device called a “cardio plate” to stop your heart if you run out of time.

The story centers around a man named Everett C. Marm, who daringly throws on a disguise and becomes his alter-ego “the Harlequin” to battle the tyrannical Ticktockman.

From Wikipedia:

The story focuses on a man named Everett C. Marm who, disguised as the anarchical Harlequin, engages in whimsical rebellion against the Ticktockman. Everett is in a relationship with a girl named Pretty Alice, who is exasperated by the fact that he is never on time. The Harlequin disrupts the carefully kept schedule of his society with methods such as distracting factory workers from their tasks by showering them with thousands of multicolored jelly beans or simply using a bullhorn to publicly encourage people to ignore their schedules, forcing the Ticktockman to pull people off their normal jobs to hunt for him.

I won’t spoil the ending, because it’s sad (very 1984-ish). But there’s a twist at the end that will leave you chuckling. Ellison was always good for a chuckle, even when he was ripping your heart out through your chest.

BIG QUESTIONS IT ANSWERS: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” is another one of those great “what if” science fiction stories. A lot of my favorite science fiction tales start with a “what if?”

“What if humans suddenly figure out how to siphon energy from other universes, but that causes the sun to explode?” (The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov)

“What if humans eventually have superhighways where cars go hundreds of miles per hour, and there’s an accident?” (“Code Three,” Rick Raphael)

“What if bears figured out how to use fire?” (“Bears Discover Fire,” Terry Bisson)

Ellison’s story asks the question: “What if the government controlled time and could allocate it to or revoke it from people at will?” The answer is, there’d be a rebellion. A one-man rebellion, maybe, but certainly a stylish and fun one. Imagine V for Vendetta starring a less cowardly version of Danny Kaye from The Court Jester and you’ll start to get a sense of how dang fun this story is, even in its darkness.

Andrew Timothy Post writer Repent Harlequin said the Ticktockman Harlan Ellison
“I am the happy Harlequin, hell-bent on halting the hegemony of the horrendous harvesters of humanity’s hours, haring and hounding these horrific hijackers and hoaxers and hammering their hallowed halls…”

WHY I THINK IT’S GREAT: I know it’s cliché of me to say it, but Ellison’s work is unlike any other. Nobody transports you so completely out of your mind and body and takes you to quite so…different a place as Ellison does. His works have none of the futuristic hopefulness or technological whiz-bang of Asimov, none of the gritty masculinity of Robert A. Heinlein, none of the clinical precision of Arthur C. Clarke, none of the whimsical fantasy of Ray Bradbury. If anything, Ellison is Bradbury’s polar opposite. Ellison was able to write with Bradbury’s verve and aplomb, but my Gawd, Ellison’s tales were bleak. His two most famous tales (“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” and “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”) take place in dystopias so complete and unshakable that they’d give George Orwell and Yevgeny Zamyatin the willies. The future was not a cheery place, according to Ellison, and happy endings hardly ever happened there.

I like Ellison because he represents the opposite end of the spectrum from sci-fi and fantasy writers like Bradbury: sometimes the bad guy wins, humanity dies, freedom becomes a thing of the past, and science and culture and art are suppressed and debased and perverted. But that doesn’t mean the tale still can’t be fun to read.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Are you telling me you don’t want to read a story about a man leading a one-man rebellion against a tyrannical dystopian government by dressing up in funny clothes and showering factory workers with jelly beans? If you don’t, then you are a sad, sad individual.

WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT: You can buy it right here on Amazon for three bucks (Kindle edition) or $22 (hardcover). Which I highly suggest you do. It’s a good read.

Andrew Timothy Post writer Harlan Ellison Repent Harlequin

Now, as always, get off the Internet and get writing!