If Harlan Ellison’s afterword from 2010 is to be believed, Deathbird Stories is a short story collection about the merits of religion and the religious. Given that Ellison is perhaps as confrontational as he is influential in sci-fi circles, we can expect him to crush eggshells as he goes. However, with a few exceptions (“Bleeding Stone,” for example) these stories tend to examine the values and ideas that we have placed at the forefront of our society. In short, Ellison explores the West’s changing values and the new deities of the 20th century.
New gods? Some readers may already be thinking of Neil Gaiman’s popular novel American Gods. Deathbird Stories was originally published in 1975, but it does treat divinity in a similar way. The book has been re-released in celebration of its 35th anniversary (Ellison explains why the book wasn’t released for its 25th or 30th anniversary), and Ellison has added three more stories to the collection.
However serious Ellison’s subject may be, and he includes a caveat lector that warns readers against reading the entire work in one sitting because the “emotional content, taken without break, may be upsetting,” there is an element of humor in most of these stories. George in “Along the Scenic Route” has been cut off by a blood-red Mercury and decides to take his revenge, justifying the decision to his wife by saying “my masculinity’s threatened.” “O Ye of Little Faith” sends Niven, a “man with no particular talents,” back in time to face off against an axe-wielding Minotaur looking to “have his full revenge on the creatures that had replaced him. It was a day of reckoning for Homo sapiens.” Ellison never hesitates to do something unpredictable in these stories.
Although people may not believe in the Minotaur today, many people seem to worship cars. Thom, from “Corpse,” explains that “we use them as beasts of burden, we drive them into one another, wounding them, we abandon them by roadsides … I find it not at all inappropriate that they seek revenge against us.” Unfortunately, the automobiles have become more powerful than Thom realizes. As Ellison explains in his introduction to the story, “it’s not merely enough to worship a god. You’ve got to know which one’s in charge.” Ellison has a talent for tweaking his stories just enough to make them consistently interesting but never so much that he leaves his unifying theme of changing deities.
What has changed in 35 years? Less than we might think. Many contemporary obsessions and fears can be traced back to the threats and changes that Ellison discusses in the 1970s. Elsewhere, the way we respond to these innovations feels more familiar. In “Neon,” Roger Charna is saved through a surgery that inserts neon tubes into his chest. Unfortunately for Charna, there’s a threatening side effect, and the technology slowly takes control of his life. Perhaps, today’s story would more likely involve social networking or smart phones.
Readers who are eager to examine changes that have taken place over the last 35 years might be better off comparing Ellison’s original 1973 forward with his 2010 afterword. The former warns that “already we begin to worship these other, new gods. Already the Church fights to hold its own.” The latter is more assertive, offering a tale of how Ellison lost his faith when he was thrown out of Saturday Jewish Academy for questioning whether the Book of Genesis made sense (the old, “where did the other people come from if Adam and Eve only had two sons?” question). And if the cover, which contains cover art but not title or author information, is anything to go by, Ellison must have more clout with his publishers than he used to.
Deathbird Stories has been a highly regarded short story collection for 35 years, and rightly so. It’s focused, imaginative, and often more humorous than Ellison lets on. Religion and change are questions that all people face and wrestle with. And that turns out to be a good thing for Deathbird Stories, a 35 year-old collection of sci-fi shorts that has aged quite well.