Tag Archive: rants

My Harlan Ellison Story

ImageIn the early 1990s I worked at Barnes & Noble. It had been announced that Harlan Ellison was publishing his original teleplay for the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever.” This was exciting news; the bad blood between Ellison and Gene Roddenberry over the script was legendary. One customer placed a special order for the book, and as I was in charge of special orders, and was also a fan of Ellison and Trek, I was keeping a close watch for its arrival. The announced publication date came and went, but no book. 

I called up Borderlands Press to see what was going on and found myself speaking with the publisher, Thomas Monteleone, whose name sounded familiar to me. He explained that he was a writer too, and I realized I had read one of his books, The Secret Sea, a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We chatted about that a bit, and then he explained that Ellison’s book was running behind schedule but they were trying to get it wrapped up. 

Time passed. I checked back in with Borderlands a few times as the book came up on my unfilled special orders report. One day I was told that Ellison had instructed the publisher to have his increasingly impatient fans waiting for the book to call him directly. I was given a phone and fax number (yeah, fax . . . it was twenty years ago). 

I scoffed at the idea—like Ellison wants people calling him and nagging about the book—as I dialed the number. Someone picked up, and a gruff voice said, “Yeah?” 

Holy. Shit. I knew right away that this actually was Ellison. I was on the phone with Harlan Ellison! I explained why I was calling, then didn’t have a chance to say much else for maybe fifteen minutes as Ellison went off on one of his trademark rants against Gene Roddenberry and Paramount. He was hilarious, joking darkly that Roddenberry had died before Ellison could get even with him (Roddenberry had passed away the year before, in October 1991). He explained that his introduction for the script was still growing, that he just couldn’t stop adding stories about his long-running feud with Roddenberry. Outside of calls about getting published, it was the most amazing phone call I’ve ever had. 

More time passed. I had another brief call with Ellison, a nice little chat. Still more time passed. Then he won a Bram Stoker Award in 1993 for his novella Mefisto in Onyx. I felt like congratulating him, but felt self-conscious about phoning him again. I didn’t want to be that guy, taking advantage of having his number. I decided on a compromise: I would fax him my congrats and also ask about City, which still wasn’t out. I jotted a quick note and hit send. It seemed like the sheet of paper hadn’t even fed all the way through the machine when I was paged. 

“There’s a guy on the phone wants to talk to you,” my disbelieving coworker told me. “He says he’s Harlan Ellison.” 

Oh. Shit. Ellison does not come across as a guy who’s going to call some bookseller to thank him for the congratulations. Something must be wrong. I took a deep breath and answered the phone. 

“Did you just fax me?” Ellison growled. 


“Why? Just to chat?” 

“Yes, sir.” I think I did call him sir. Seemed like the thing to do. 

“Well, you just woke up my sick wife and me . . .” That was only the start of him ripping me a new one. Turns out his fax machine was in his bedroom, and—it belatedly hit me—it was two hours earlier in California. So now I was being Ellisoned. 

I quietly took my chewing out. When he had finished, I apologized, explaining that I had assumed I was sending the fax to an office, so I had not even considered the time difference between Minnesota and the West Coast. After a moment of consideration, he allowed that he could see that, but . . . 

“You have my phone number, too?” 


“Lose it.” 

“Yes, sir.” 

So that’s how I got Ellison’s phone number, had the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and then poured it all down the drain. 

The book eventually came out as a limited edition hardcover from Borderlands in 1995 and in an expanded paperback—with a longer introduction!—from White Wolf Publishing in 1996. It’s a must-read, really.


ImageOkay, sure, straight away, I admit it, this is (as the self-aware kids say) a first-world problem. But still. And settle in . . . this is a long one.

On February 7 I ordered Brave New World, an expansion pack for Civilization V, from GameAgent, Aspyr’s website for the Mac platform. Aspyr was having a 50% off sale for all the Civ V stuff in celebration of the release of Sid Meier’s Civilization V: The Complete Edition. When I tried to use PayPal for my purchase, the site crashed. I logged back in and tried again. It still seemed a little wonky, but soon after three emails popped up in my box from GameAgent: an invoice (for the sale price), order details, and an order confirmation. Two problems became quickly apparent.

First, none of the emails from GameAgent included the download code; they use Steam to deliver the software, and you need the code when you log into Steam. Second, I didn’t receive an email from PayPal confirming the transfer of funds. I logged into PayPal, and, sure enough, they showed no record of the transaction. It was clear the order had not actually completed, even though I had that confirmation email. So I sent GameAgent an email through a web form on their site.

On February 10, which was the last day of the sale, I got a reply from them telling me the order had been reset, so all I had to do was log in and complete it. They made no reference to the PayPal issue, so I tried paying with PayPal again because it was working with other sites. Once again the GameAgent order process crashed. I emailed GameAgent customer service again.

On February 11 I got an email telling me to “attempt a new order.” They didn’t say anything about their site’s inability to process a PayPal payment. I logged in and opened my shopping cart. Brave New World was still there, but now that the sale was over, it was at full price. The email had mentioned “If you are attempting to place an order from a promotional offer, please use the link provided by that offer.” But, of course, that link was already expired as of the day before. I emailed customer service, telling them I had been planning to use my credit card to avoid the apparent PayPal issue, but that I should still get the game at the sale price.

On February 14 they told me that they had to “investigate further this issue” before I could try ordering again. They also said, “This error could be the result of attempting several orders that fail, which would cause our credit system to detect possible fraudulent credit card use and then place a block against the credit card. This is for the protection of both our customers and our business. We take credit card fraud very seriously.”  Well . . . I’m glad they take credit card fraud seriously, but I had never tried to use my credit card and there was still no response to the pricing problem or the PayPal trouble. Hmmm. I was finally beginning to notice that their responses often didn’t jibe with the contents of my emails to them.

Later that day I was informed “we have reviewed your order and it is now ready to be completed.” Great. I logged in . . . and there was the game at full price. I emailed customer service, once again explaining that I had originally ordered the game during their sale and that they needed to give me a promo code for 50% off.

On February 16 I got their reply: “The Game Agent Online Store strives to offer the products at the lowest available prices. Unfortunately, we are unable to match prices and discounts available through other resellers.”

Okay, WTF? I wasn’t asking them to match another vendor’s price, I was asking them to sell me their own game from their own website at the price I had ordered it for during their own sale! It was more clear than ever that either their customer service staff is incredibly incompetent or that I had yet to get an actual real person on the other end, and this was just a computer program sending automated responses based on superficial keyword searches . . . and with fake names at the bottom. I said as much in my follow-up email and once again emphasized that I had ordered the game during the sale and had email proof that I deserved to get the game at the sale price.

Later that day I got another email: “Please attempt a new order. . . . If you are attempting to place an order from a promotional offer, please use the link provided by that offer.”

AAAAAGGGGGGH! The same frackin’ form response with no acknowledgment about the sale price problem. And there it was in my cart, still at full price. There’s just no way that this is coming from a person, unless the person is working with a traumatic head wound.

So I sent off another email, wrapping it up with this:

Why can’t anyone in customer service understand what I’m saying? Surely someone there has the ability to simply reset the price in my cart or give me a promo code for 50% off so I can get the game at the price I ordered it for. Come on, how is this difficult? I’ve tried to be patient, but now it’s been ten days since I ordered the game, and I still can’t get anyone to give me a clear, direct response that acknowledges the situation. These must be automated responses, which means that this current email of mine will have been just more of my time wasted without any resolution of the problem. This is the worst customer service I’ve ever received from any vendor in person or on line. You should just give me the game for free at this point.

I’ll update as the situation develops . . .

Update 1, February 17:

Shortly after I posted the above—I announced it on the Twitter with “On my blog, I try to buy a game from ‪@GameAgentStore & get the worst service short of them pooping on my iMac. ‪https://scottmpearson.wordpress.com/  ‪#FWP”—I got a response from Russ Looney (see below in comments), who works for Aspyr and helps with the GameAgent site. He apologized for my troubles and pointed me to a different help link, assuring me that the in-house support team would do much better than the Digital River team, the place that manages the GameAgent checkout cart. He even said to tell them he had sent me there, and that he would ask them to “add on a little something extra for my trouble.” Fabulous! So I have sent off my story to the new link and await hearing from them. Thanks again to Russ for stepping in.

Meanwhile, I got another email from the Digital River people, which I simply have to quote in full. This person, “Jaqueline A.,” is either punking me in response to the frustrated tone of my last email to them, or she has taken a big dose of psychadelic shrooms:

Thank you for contacting the Game Agent Online Store. Unfortunately, we require further information to assist you, as we assist thousands of vendors in the sale of their products to customers who shop online. 

Please provide additional information about the product you are inquiring about, the vendor’s home page address and the address where the product information is displayed. We will then try to assist you with your issue. 

Sincerely, Jacqueline A., Game Agent Online Store Customer Service 

Holy. Frack. Jacqueline, you’ve had a complete psychotic break. Not only was the product I’m having issues with mentioned repeatedly in all the previous emails, as was the vendor, GameAgent, you mention the vendor yourself RIGHT IN THE FIRST LINE OF YOUR OWN EMAIL AND AGAIN AFTER YOUR OWN NAME. Seriously, Jaqueline, seek medical attention.

I hope my next update will be about actually getting the game.

Update 2, February 18:

Got an email from GameAgent’s in-house customer service. It was an activation code for the game. Boom! On the house because of my week and a half of wrestling with the Digital River people. Now I have to send them that last email (as posted above in Update 1) so that they know the nonsense that’s going on over at the other place.

I close this post with another shout out to Russ Looney for stepping in and making this happen. That’s some great customer service.