And Then I Read: HARLAN ELLISON’S PHOENIX WITHOUT ASHES

Images © The Kilamanjaro Corporation.

I had to read up on this project to remember its history. It began as a pilot script for a Canadian TV show, but budget cuts changed the story so much that Harlan disavowed it and withdrew his name from the credits. The TV show was “The Starlost” (which I remember seeing a few episodes of), and they kept Harlan’s premise, but changed the episode title to something else, rather than this, his original title. I don’t recall how different the show was from this comic, but Harlan’s script won a Writers’ Guild of America award for Best Screenplay. Apparently Harlan sold it to IDW as a comic series, which is collected here. The writing credit is all his, though science fiction writer Ed Bryant is given a “special thanks” in small print, so perhaps he handled the adaptation, or at least helped with it.

The story begins in a rural farm community that at first seems like something from the 19th century, or perhaps an Amish group, but the presence of machines soon pushes that idea aside. The community is very religious and old-fashioned, dominated by Elder Micah, who has a lot of problems with young Devon, a teenage boy/young man who does not want to follow Micah’s rules and the pronouncements of a sacred computer-like machine, designed to genetically match up young people for marriage. Devon loves Rachel, but Rachel has been promised to Garth. Garth doesn’t love Rachel, but is willing to follow orders and marry her. Rachel loves Devon, but not Garth, though she is much more timid about disobeying the rules of the community.

Things really heat up when Devon overhears the town elders talking about their genetics matching machine, and Elder Micah reveals he is the one programming the actual matches; the machine has been broken for a long time. That sends Devon over the edge of rebellion. He’s captured, but escapes and finds a strange metal hole on the outskirts of town that promises escape. What he finds inside changes everything. His community is one of many separate biospheres traveling together through space as part of a massive colony ship. Something has happened to the crew, though, and as the centuries have passed, the biosphere inhabitants have forgotten that they’re even in space at all.

The art by Alan Robinson is excellent. I think he does a great job with both the period setting and costumes, and later the spaceship as Devon discovers it. His characters are effective actors, and his storytelling is fine.

I enjoyed reading this, my only problem with it is that it has no real resolution. It’s meant to be the beginning of a much bigger story, and one we’ll probably never see. Too bad, I would have liked to read more. The idea itself is not unique. Robert Heinlein did something similar in his novel  “Orphans of the Sky” (originally two short novels), and there have been others. As the pilot for a TV show, Harlan’s work here is great, but kind of unsatisfying as a standalone story.

Still, recommended.

3 thoughts on “And Then I Read: HARLAN ELLISON’S PHOENIX WITHOUT ASHES

  1. Richard

    Ed Bryant wrote a novel also called “Phoenix Without Ashes” based on Ellison’s original script for STARLOST in which he fleshed out a number of elements that weren’t in Ellison’s script. It’s a excellent novel in its own right and IMHO the best way to read the story, and it’s been brought back into print a few times over the years. I assume the makers of this comic drew on Bryant’s novel as well as Ellison’s script in crafting their version, hence the thanks to Bryant.

  2. buzz

    Ellison’s original pilot script for The Starlost was anthologized in the 1980s in the book “Faster Than Light” by Jack Dan and George Zebrowski (yeah, yeah, I know — what’s a generation ship doing in an FTL anthology?)

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