Creative Nonfiction (2016)

Literary Legend Contacts Massasoit: A Visit from Harlan Ellison


EVAN MCKENNA, Editor-in-chief 

Published to the Massasoit Tribune 2015

It was a surreal moment last semester for the students of Professor Mark Walsh’s Science Fiction and Fantasy class when legendary writer Harlan Ellison called in to talk about his award-winning novella, “A Boy and His Dog.”

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Apr. 30, nine students and two professors huddled around a speakerphone in the school’s Language Arts conference room, eager to speak with the author about his story they had read. Ellison woke at 7 a.m. in his California home, drank a cup of coffee, then picked up his phone and greeted the class.

Ellison began by telling the students that they could ask any question pertaining to “A Boy and His Dog”, as long as he could ask each student a question in a return, whether it be about personal life goals, or simply about irrelevant, interesting topics. He made it clear to the class that he wanted them to ask and answer questions honestly to make the experience genuine. Things went underway when Walsh suggested that we go around the room one at a time to begin the discussion on the novella.

But this was not just a neat visit from some ordinary, accomplished author.

Ellison is one of the most prolific and honored American authors of 20th century fiction, with 1,700 published works – including novellas, short stories, essays, scripts, and teleplays. He was an editor for the renowned science fiction anthology, Dangerous Visions and its sequel. He worked for the original Star Trek, the 1980’s Twilight Zone, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour many other productions .He has won several Nebula, Hugo, and Edgar Awards, and pieces such as “I Have No Mouth and Must Scream,” “Deathbird,” and “’Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” have been studied in institutions of higher learning around the world.

Ellison is beyond notable. Numerous students on campus expressed their envy of those who were able to be part of the conversation with the literary legend. And professors and faculty were thrilled that the class had such an opportunity.

From questions about writing style to intertextuality, Ellison answered each student elaborately, adding comical and personal anecdotes that better explained his points.

Greg Schmidt started it off, asking Ellison about the origin of “A Boy and His Dog”. Ellison replied, telling the class about his close relationship to his dog, Abhu, and how their bond influenced his story’s message. Ellison then went on to ask Schmidt about his life goals, linking Schmidt’s answer to an interesting lesson on writing.

Given a chance to speak, I asked, “Harlan, how do you balance humor and seriousness in your stories? I often see humor taking away from the tone of a story, but in A Boy and His Dog, you seem to balance the two elements” Ellison explained to me the difference between humor and wit. Using what he called “a bad example”, Harlan brought up the Los Angeles Clippers incident between team commissioner, Adam Silver, and racist coach, Donald Sterling, calling them Sterling Silver, a name for a rich, racist fictional sports team character. On the other hand, he explained that jokes, which are not clever, usually forced in the story, do not result in solid storytelling. In just a minute of conversation I was taught an everlasting lesson on fiction.

After Walsh asked Ellison what his view is on the importance of reading, Ellison told his own personal story. Ellison talked about his desire to read as a child. He admitted that he never thought he would be a writer, but still was very interested in reading. He talked about his experience with a librarian who prohibited him from going into the adult section of his hometown library: “Like an anaconda on my belly, along the back board, along the floor, I reached one hand and took a book from the stacks-Lorna Doone.” The class laughed throughout the story, enjoying everything Ellison said. It was possibly the class’s favorite part of the hour.

Whether they were taking notes on Ellison to improve their writing, or only listening to develop an understanding of his work, the students and professors valued every sentence. The class had spent a considerable amount of time focusing on “A Boy and His Dog,” but also had time to talk about writing good fiction.

During post-discussion on Friday, Schmidt shared with the class, “[That was] hands down the best classroom experience of my life. I don’t think anything will ever beat it.”

“Now I am contemplating retirement. It doesn’t get much better than that,” Walsh jokingly replied.

With his busy schedule, it was extremely generous of Ellison to offer his morning to Massasoit. But it was not his fame that made the visit notable. It was his wisdom. With more than fifty years worth of writing experience, Ellison knows the ins and outs, the dos and donts, and the rights and wrongs of the profession. That is what made his presence so valuable. His visit was arguably the most exciting surprise this year for Massasoit and will be a timeless memory for the students and professors who were fortunate enough to take part.


Will Science Bring Back the Woolly Mammoth?

Evan McKenna, contributor

Published to OdysseyOnline 2015

The idea of bringing back the woolly mammoth is nothing new to the world of genetics. And now, in 2015, paleogeneticists have recovered enough woolly mammoth cells out of the frozen lands of Siberia to recreate the pre-historic beast.

The woolly mammoth is nearly identical to the Asian elephant in regard to genetic code.  Because of this, scientists theorized that they could use the Asian elephant to bring back its extinct cousin. As they continued to gather fragments of mammoth DNA, paleogeneticists slowly puzzled together the genome of the species, showing them the genetic similarities and differences between the mammoth and the elephant.

Researchers knew that if the unique genetic information encoded within the Asian elephant cell could be replaced with the unique genetic information of the woolly mammoth, the newly modified asian elephant cell would hold the exact sequence of a woolly mammoth. The theory then became a reality in March of 2015 when Harvard professor of genetics George Church successfully spliced the unique fragments of woolly mammoth DNA into the modified DNA of an Asian elephant.

When this woolly mammoth cell was created, scientists knew they were no longer experimenting with DNA in laboratory. They were playing God.

To put the procedure into practice, scientists would have to scrupulously complete a particular set of steps. First, they would have to inject the unique DNA of the mammoth cells into the modified DNA of an Asian elephant embryo. Next, they would have to both monitor and nurse the mother elephant through her life-threatening pregnancy, making sure all life-permitting conditions remain constant. If she survives to the stage of conception, the experiment would result in a woolly mammoth offspring containing all the distinct qualities that it did 10,000 years ago: the extra hair, extra fat, different tusks, and bigger ears.

But this would only be the beginning of the struggle. A suitable, artificial climate would need to be created immediately, with medical improvisation being the only method of remedy in the case of an emergency.

The possibility of mammoths roaming the earth once again fascinated researchers–not to mention the rest of the world. But after digesting the excitement and restraining the impulse to act suddenly, the ethics of the mammoth revival were brought into question.

The problem is that this procedure, while possible, is estimated to fail. A failure would result in severe consequences, specifically slow deaths of impregnated Asian elephants.

“It seems to me that trying this out might lead to suffering for female elephants, and that would not be ethically justifiable” Paleogeneticist Love Dalen, associate professor at Swedish Museum of Natural History and co-author of the study told the BBC.

In regards to the offspring, scientists are skeptical whether it will survive  either. When the Pyrenean ibex goat was brought back to life in 2003 using the same genetic splicing process, it died seven minutes after birth. And until attempted, the survivability of the woolly mammoth offspring cannot be predicted.

Prioritizing between the living species and the dead was also brought into the ethical discussion, becoming another reason behind science’s reluctance to recreate the animal.

“We face the potential extinction of African and Asian elephants. Why bring back another elephantid from extinction when we cannot even keep the ones that are not extinct around?” Professor Alex Greenwood, an ancient DNA expert, told The Telegraph. “What is the message? We can be as irresponsible with the environment as we want. Then we’ll just clone things back?”

The ethical concern has gone unresolved and continues to be discussed in laboratories across the world. Where would the species live in this increasingly hot climate? Would the purpose merely be for our own selfish entertainment? Playing God is a game of ethics, and to many scientists, just because the woolly mammoth could be brought back to life doesn’t mean it should be.