Harlan Ellison’s “The Discarded”

The final episode of ABC’s summer Masters Of Science Fiction series last Saturday dramatized Ellison’s short story, also known as “The Abnormals.”

The story concerns a group of Earth exiles drifting through the solar system on an old decaying space ark of sorts, horribly deformed by mutations, who are presented a deal to return to Earth in exchange for allowing their blood to be used to develop a serum to cure the cause of the mutations back on Earth, which have gotten worse since the first wave of exiles or “discarded.” The original story, found in the Paingod anthology and also as an ebook here, creates the juxtaposition between the physical ugliness of the mutant discarded and the more significant inner ugliness of human nature as the plot unfolds.

Many of the elements of the television adaptation of the story were done well – the make-up that created the wide variety of freakazoid mutants was imaginative and creepy without becoming comical or too repulsive. It’s actually a tough balance to achieve, especially when you’ve only got 40-something minutes divided by commercials to establish grotesqueness followed by sympathy and character development without the make-up overwhelming the characters themselves (ironic, since that relates to the meaning of the story in many ways). The sets and direction by Jonathan Frakes of Commander Riker fame were well done, and a solid cast was led by Brian Dennehy and John Hurt. Ellison appeared briefly in a cameo, complete with Yiddish accent schtick.

While the program followed the plotline of the story, the dialogue, especially John Hurt’s, often became a distraction due to being overwritten. His character, Samswope, is given long elegant and flowery speeches here, which may offer a running commentary on the situation presented, but do not reflect the way people really speak, unless the mutation causes you to catch a disease where you can only speak poetically. What the dialogue DOES sound like is first-person narration by a character in a short story or novel, words carefully considered and written down as opposed to spoken in everyday conversation. In the short story, Samswope’s dialogue is normal speech. I’m not sure why this choice was made – was it to add time and make the story fit the hourlong format? Did the network step in and demand more blatant exposition? Was it, as I suspect from the nature of Samswope’s speechifying, a way for Ellison to speechify through one of his characters as opposed to through the narrative prose he often puts on paper?

I enjoy reading Ellison’s words on paper, to be sure. I spent a good deal of time several years ago hunting down every one of his out-of-print books I could find, scouring every used bookstore in Los Angeles in those pre-internet and pre-ebay days. Ellison has long been one of my favorite writers and someone whom I often read to draw inspiration from, especially in what I find as the major theme running throughout all his work, fiction and nonfiction – that of writing in your own natural voice well enough that your personality is reflected in everything you write, regardless of the wide variety of genres you write in.

But in the post-Sopranos world of television, commercial network or not, the dialogue has to sound real or the overall effect of the program is diminished.

Not destroyed, merely diminished. I found “The Discarded” worth watching and a decent adaptation of a good short story that makes a sad observation about human nature. The story also seems darker and more cynical than the television version, which had a slightly more ambiguous ending. I’m sure Ellison was happier with it than his other experiences in television which make for very entertaining reading.

As an aside, I have taught an essay Ellison wrote about a bad TV experience called “Somehow I Don’t Think We’re In Kansas Anymore, Toto…” which you can find in The Essential Ellison. Harlan tells a horrific and amusing story about how his idea for “The Starlost” was eviscerated by television trolls. I found it extremely useful in a writing exercise to show students how to combine passionate emotion and detatched reflection into writing about an intense experience.

Now that I’m mulling over Ellison as an American cultural figure, I think I’ll blog a more thoughtful piece on the entirety of his work later on. I have a film class in a few minutes to attend to. I guess that means I might be writing about Chaplin as well at some point. Stay tuned!

3 thoughts on “Harlan Ellison’s “The Discarded”

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  1. I haven’t read the short story, so when I saw the TV episode today it was a new story to me. I was confused and angered by the ending. Why is it that the discards can’t go back to Earth? Why are there new discards moving in with their suitcases? If everyone on Earth has the plague anyway why not bring the discards home? What the hell just happened? The show doesn’t say. Does the story?

    I could already tell halfway into the episode that it would have a sad ending, but I at least expected some explanation, not just some arbitrary reversal of expectations at random.

  2. In the story, it’s pretty much implied that the discards were used to create a serum to save whatever was left of Earth from the plague, and that the remaining discards were sent to join the others, forbidden to come to Earth, along with the original discards. There’s a strong theme of the “us versus them” & “don’t trust an Earthman” in the story that plays out as a metaphor (I’ve always thought) for how those of humanity who are on the “outs” for whatever definition of ugliness you want to have will never be accepted by whoever the elites are. I guess in a way, recent material like The Island where one class of humanity is cannibalized by another (now with 21st century technology instead of from when “The Discarded” was written back in 1959) or even Norman Spinrad’s great 1960s novel Bug Jack Barron (which Ellison wrote a screenplay version of for a movie that never got made) owes a lot to the same central idea.

    So Harlan, you internet hatin’ luddite, if you’re reading this…. I smell ANOTHER lawsuit! Go for it, and I still can’t wait to see “Dreams With Sharp Teeth!”

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