Pros: Great ideas driving stories, good characterization, unity of theme
Cons: Sci-fi genre turns off some people who could enjoy this
Angry Candy is a collection of Harlan Ellison's short stories. I don't know anywhere near enough about Harlan Ellison to write a general review; I haven't even read "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream", although reviews of the computer game based on that story were what first got Harlan Ellison's name into my head. It sounds like such a good story, and I've really wanted to read it for a while, but I couldn't find it at my library or bookstore, and the bookstore had a hard time ordering a collection that included it, and so I just bought Angry Candy, which is a collection of more recent Harlan Ellison stories. I get the feeling and have heard from others that his earlier work is probably better, and if so it must be absolutely wonderful, because this is an excellent collection of stories.
You know how everyone always skips introductions to get to the meat of the stories? Don't do it with this book. This is no hastily anthologized group of random and unrelated stories; Ellison has a specific purpose in putting them all together under the heading of Angry Candy, and it behooves the attentive reader, particularly one with a serious interest in science fiction, to check out the introduction and hear his purpose. Basically, he explains how these stories are about death. He's angry because everyone he knows is dying, and it doesn't seem fair.
It's interesting to see the names of the people that Ellison talks about, because as an old master of the SF genre he knows a lot of really cool writers. As a reader feeling the loss of the great science fiction writers and the lack of new authors with talent, I can definitely sympathize with what he says, although in a much smaller way, since I didn't know any of them personally. Still, I haven't experienced death in any significant way, so maybe I didn't get everything out of this book that I could have. From the very beginning of his introduction and through many of the stories, though, I tried to imagine what it would be like if I were to lose and never see again some of my friends, my parents, or...I don't want to say my Katie, because I hate people who talk about "my...", but she's more than my girlfriend and yet we don't have any stronger title.
Ok, so, enough generalities: you want to know about the stories. It's always challenging to offer a capsule description of a short story that says something while not giving away too much. Furthermore, these stories don't really follow the pattern of those by other short story writers I've enjoyed, like Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allen Poe, and Philip Dick. Rather than a simple, direct twist or surprise ending, the stories unfold, like a novel somehow condensed into twenty pages. Ellison achieves the peak of the craft of story-writing, by fitting so much into so little space. In the first story, "Paladin of the Lost Hour", he describes an old man, Gaspar, focusing on his love for his dead wife and his habit of talking to her even though she's gone. He also manages to include the events of a few important days of his life when he meets and lives with a younger man, Billy Kinetta, who's haunted by an experience he had in Vietnam. There is also a fascinating and very sci-fi idea that is hinted at early on with mention of Gaspar's special watch, and unveiled fully at the end.
A lot of SF writers could have come up with the idea that drives "Paladin of the Lost Hour", but very few could have coupled it with a love story, a story about friendship, such fantastic personalities, and the crucial small events and details. Furthermore, when Ellison does get to his idea about time, it is presented fully and directly in spite of being rather far-fetched. Rather than half-propose a crazy idea to cap off his story while avoiding a full justification, Ellison comes right out and says what the point of the story is. We are free to judge it as ridiculous, but we do not have to wonder what Ellison is thinking about, as we would with a more oblique story by a lesser writer.
A more typical SF story in this collection is "Chained to the Fast Lane in the Red Queen's Race". The protagonist is a man with a shifting identity who repeatedly slips from one existence to another; that is, he begins the story as Alan, but becomes Alvin, and this process repeats. Each of his identities exists before he enters it, and goes on after he departs. Essentially, his soul/consciousness takes the place of someone else's temporarily, and eventually must move on. Actually, that's not entirely accurate, because when he leaves, the man that takes his place in different in minor ways. Basically the point is that he is reincarnated over and over, into the middle of a life, without having to die. And actually, Ellison says, everyone lives this way, but most people forget their past lives. Once again, Ellison boldy proposes and fully explicates a somewhat insane idea. A reader could say "That's not true", but it's much more fun to accept it and play with it. I can't actually remember things that happened a few years ago; I have ideas in my head, and I can look at pictures or see things written down about my past, but there's no full proof that it was really me who lived those things. This idea reminds me of some Ray Bradbury stories that deal with consciousness, and it's definitely a fascinating conceit for a science fiction story.
If creative thinking like that example doesn't appeal to you, then you won't like this book. However, you shouldn't think that these are cheesy sci-fi stories based on coming up with some outlandish idea for a clever effect. Ellison never forgets that what he is writing about is human existence, and so all his characters have real emotions and real thoughts, and the ideas he creates are important only in how he applies them to his characters. It's unfortunate that there is something of a sci-fi stigma, and that Ellison is not even read as widely as he should be within sci-fi circles, because he is a great writer.