A Cabinet of Wonders: Harlan Ellison’s Can & Can’tankerous
Harlan Ellison’s latest short story collection, Can & Can’tankerous, is nothing less than a cabinet of wonders built by a demented magician—a box filled to bursting with carnivalesque impossibilities such as doomed and/or omnipotent homunculi, conquering alien imps who unknowingly help the human race while trying to destroy it, time travelling super models, beneficent rubber ducks, Martian sex slaves, phantom cartographers, the 1948 Cleveland Indians, at least twenty-six different brands of mythological beings, and (thrown in for good measure) the ghost of Satchel Paige. This collection of ten short stories published between 1956 and 2012 spans an impressive array of genres, time periods, worlds, and emotions.
As with his previous books, such as the classic collections Deathbird Stories (1975) and Angry Candy (1988), Ellison is able to gracefully segue from one genre to another within only a few pages—sometimes within the same story. For example, the third offering in the book, “Objects of Desire in the Mirror Are Closer than They Appear,” combines classic science fiction tropes with a heavily noirish atmosphere, creating a hybrid that somehow looks and feels nothing like the parent-genres that breathed it into existence in the first place.
The centerpiece of the book, a 15,000-word novella entitled “The Toad Prince, or, Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure-Domes,” is a near-impossibility: an impressive feat of close-up magic that excels at pulse-pounding science fiction adventure redolent of 1950s pulp stereotypes while succeeding in being a satirical deconstruction of those same well-worn clichés. As I avidly read the planet-hopping adventures of Sarna (Our Hero), a Terran prostitute trapped in a world of sex-crazed Martians, for some reason my brain insisted on imagining this epic as a graphic novel drawn by the late sui generis artist Moebius, who often combined cosmic vistas, blatantly sexual themes, and Golden Age science fiction tropes in his own unforgettable stories. (Hollywood producers, please take note: If not a comic book, this novella would also make a wonderful animated movie in the style of such borderline-psychedelic SF films as Fantastic Planet and Heavy Metal.)