Can & Can'Tankerous
by Harlan Ellison
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Ellison's latest release, Can & Can'Tankerous contains stories previously uncollected. The most recent is his Nebula winner from 2010, "How Interesting: A Tiny Man." The majority are much older, even though a few have been rewritten for this edition, but the original drafts are also included in an appendix at the end. Several are from his numerous experiments in writing-on-demand at convention or bookstore appearances. It's from Subterranean Press, released just two days ago (Dec. 31, 2015), although I got an advance e-book copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The hardcover was a limited edition, although I'm not sure how many copies. Both Subterranean and Amazon say it is sold out for now, but new and/or used copies are available from other sellers through Amazon, plus it is offered by them for Kindle.
I am an Ellison fan (click link on his name for my article on his career), so I'm grateful for any story he gives us. Unfortunately, this one only gets a recommendation grudgingly, and only for other fans, not for those unfamiliar with his work. I'd be more disappointed if I had bought the hardcover at even current discounted prices. That is not to say there aren't a few small gems here, but they're mostly simple ideas or concepts buried in whimsical prose, although if I dig further, re-read them later, I may find more to appreciate. Take the last story for instance, "He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes." Ellison's prologue says he thinks it's an "important story," and the epilogue implies the reader needs to "Go back to it again and again. It's supposed to perplex you until you've unraveled it." Also, "...I'd finally gotten smart enough to do that story." Granted, I'm likely less intelligent than Ellison, but it seemed more a random selection of unconnected incidents than it was an inscrutable mystery. I'll let you know if I ever figure out the opposite.
I can say that a few of the stories are enjoyable, but that's not to say they are satisfying. "Objects of Desire in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear" starts out as an interesting noirish detective story, but the SF element is weak, and it's easy to shrug off the denouement as a dream of the main character. It's odd that "The Toad Prince, or, Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure Domes," a story Ellison says was a joke, is my favorite. It's supposedly a rewrite of 1958's "Blonde Cargo," and was meant as a parody of an Edmond Hamilton-like space opera. A google search shows that a story with that title was printed in Amazing Stories in January 1958, but by Adam Chase, an alternate pen-name of Milton Lasser (real name(?) Stephen Marlowe). That page shows that Ellison himself had a story in that issue, "School for Assassins," under his frequently used pen-name of Ellis Hart. I have to wonder if ISFDb is incorrect in their content listing. Fantastic Fiction does not list either of those stories in Ellison's bibliography. My Kindle copy has the rewrite, but unfortunately not the appendix with the original typescript, so I can't judge that. The story does start slow, but builds to an unexpected climax. Then again, since I'm not as smart as Ellison, maybe I should have seen the ending coming.
"How Interesting: A Tiny Man" is interesting, but it is tiny, and a trifle. I haven't read much short fiction for many years, including any of the others stories nominated that year, so I can't say if it deserved even the tie it got for the Nebula. Several others are "flash" fiction, 100-500 words, hardly worth the minute or two it took to read them, with his usual interstitial comments more interesting. "Weariness" ends with the Latin phrase, Sat ci sat bene (It is done quickly enough if it is done well). But what if it is done so quickly that it isn't done well? That's the main question I'm left with here. I haven't had much luck with the NetGalley titles I've received, with only two of the six satisfying, another two (including this one) only marginally so. If you want vintage Ellison, pass this one by, go for I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Deathbird Stories, or Shatterday. This is only for those who wish to collect as much of his work as possible.
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