The story, “Phoenix Without Ashes,” has a tumultuous history. “Phoenix Without Ashes” began as an award-winning screenplay by fiery, iconclastic writer Harlan Ellison; it won the Writers Guild of America award for Best Original Screenplay in 1974. It was the basis for a low-budget, Canadian television series called The Starlost during the 1973-74 season. Ellison was reportedly so dissatisfied with the execution of the series that he had his name removed from the credits and replaced with his infamous “Cordwainer Bird” pseudonym. The series subsequently ended after only 16 episodes.
The screenplay was very competently adapted as a novel in 1975 by Edward Bryant, a Nebula-winning SF writer who’s more familiar to folks nowadays as a horror writer and a Locus reviewer of horror fiction. “Phoenix Without Ashes” was also adapted in 2010 by IDW as a nicely executed graphic novel, a medium to which the story is admirably suited.
All of the printed incarnations of the story are well worth reading:
- “Phoenix Without Ashes” — screenplay by Harlan Ellison, 1973.
- Phoenix Without Ashes — novel credited to Edward Bryant & Harlan Ellison, 1975.
- Phoenix Without Ashes — script by Harlan Ellison, graphics by Alan Robinson, coloring by Kote Carvajal.
Enough with the history lesson. What’s it about?
Devon has grown up in the community of Cypress Corners, a domed community only fifty miles across. Cypress Corners is a strict religious society modeled loosely on the Amish. Problems ensue because Devon is in love with a young girl named Rachel, but cannot be with her because the Elders have promised her to another man. His questioning of the teachings and edicts of the Elders leads him on a journey of discovery that turns his whole world view completely upside down.
In time, he comes to realize that his knowledge of history is all lies, that his world is in deadly danger, and there is nobody else in a position to rescue them except him. The resolution, while open-ended, is nevertheless satisfying because Devon has learned what he must do with his life.
As one might expect, it’s an excellent screenplay. It does an admirable job of setting up the central conflicts, but deliberately leaving them without a resolution; it was, after all, a one-hour pilot for a television series. It also does a top-notch job of introducing the audience to the concept of a generation ship. While this may seem like old hat to SF fans, this was a ground-breaking concept for the average television viewer in the 1970’s (or even today, for that matter).
How Do I Get It?
The problem with some older works is that they can be a little hard to find. For those who are interested, the novel, by Edward Bryant and Harlan Ellison, can be bought used from Amazon.com. The novel also includes additional details, also written by Harlan Ellison, regarding his experiences with the production of the TV series, The Starlost. Fascinating, if a bit one-sided.
The graphic novel is recent, and is readily available for purchase anywhere. The art is excellent; they really did a great job with it. There is also a signed, numbered, hardcover deluxe edition of the graphic novel which is only available used for an extortionate price; I included a link on the right mostly because the cover of that edition is really nice.
What about the screenplay? Well, it was published in hardcover in 1976 in an anthology called Faster Than Light, edited by Jack Dann and George Zebrowski. A paperback edition of that anthology was published in 1982 by Ace (this is the edition that I own). The hardcover is available used from Amazon. The other stories in the anthology are reasonably good. Harlan’s screenplay, though, was the true stand-out for me. I’m not aware of it having been collected anywhere else (but you never know).
Interestingly, the series, The Starlost, is also now available on DVD. I vaguely remember watching the pilot when I was a child and thinking that it was interesting, even if the special effects weren’t great. I only saw a few other episodes, but I remember that they seemed to get progressively dumber. So, now you can watch the series, compare it to the original story, and form your opinion on this notoriously controversial issue.
On a side note, the show starred Keir Dullea, who you may remember played David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and its much later sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two.