Thursday, December 20, 2018

"Ersatz" (1967)

You and I may know Henry Slesar's work better than we suspect. At the time of Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology he had been an "advertising man" for many years. From there he moved on to head writer for a daytime soap, The Edge of Night. And all along he wrote stories, novels, and screenplays. In fact—and this is probably my own best chance for knowing his work—he contributed lots of scripts to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and even Batman and 77 Sunset Strip. He also collaborated with Ellison on various projects, which brings us back to this collection. In his introduction Ellison says Slesar was one of the collaborators he most enjoyed working with, by way of noting how unsatisfying it often can be for both parties. "Ersatz" is a short short—Ellison not only labels it that but also notes the word count (1,100) and points out that his introduction is nearly twice as long. Well, that's the way the cookie crumbles around this joint. Slesar is obviously comfortable with the compressions, tight corners, and twist endings of the form. But the story idea itself is not that imposing or inspired. It's a post-apocalyptic future with a dwindling population and harsh conditions. Endless war and severe privation—that kind of thing. A wandering soldier finds shelter in a "Peace Station," erected systematically for the purpose as part of the war infrastructure. All the amenities found there are artificial: chemical beef, cigarettes made of "treated wool fibers," bread made from seaweed, etc. A woman serves him food but now he has a new hunger—for her. This story is a short short, it has a twist ending, and I am now about to reveal it. She is not a woman but a man in a woman costume. Thus the story ends badly dated—homophobic, transphobic, or both, we would say. Slesar is a good writer. The language is clear and brisk, setting out its ideas and concrete details with economy and clarity. But its assumptions—gay sex as a telltale symptom of a blasted and ruined society, or something like that—strike an irredeemable sour note. That makes it much more an odd story of the past than one with anything interesting to say about the future.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison


  1. I didn't get that conclusion at all. I remember the woman being buxom by virtue of her body hair, but a woman nonetheless. The soldier was freaked out by the hair on her chest. I don't think he ever got farther than that.

  2. Yes, that's possible -- thank you!