Dangerous Visions by Harlan Ellison

Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison

Published by Gollancz, February 2012 as part of the SF Masterworks series;

Originally published in 1967.

ISBN: 978-0575108028

600 pages

Review by Mark Yon

There are some books out there whose reputations often exceed the content of the book itself. Many people, even those who don’t read SF, have heard of Frank Herbert’s Dune, for example, or Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 (that’s the novel, not the film.)

In SF circles, Dangerous Visions is one of those that many know of by reputation but these days have rarely read. It was the Gone with the Wind of SF anthologies when it was first published in 1967. Like the film Gone with the Wind before its release, there was great speculation in the genre about Dangerous Visions before the book was published. Heralded as the best of cutting edge New Wave SF at the time, the rumours of what Harlan was doing and which authors were included, and perhaps more importantly which ones were not, were rife.  Its content was allegedly salacious, sexy, outrageous, exciting, and thought-provoking, at a time when SF was maturing into something beyond the space opera pulp of the 1940’s and 50’s. 

Dangerous Visions was the messenger of the New Age, bringing SF to those who had previously spurned its origins. 

The eventual list of 33 stories from 32 authors reads like a Who’s Who of SF writers: Philip K Dick, Samuel ‘Chip’ Delany, Robert Bloch, Philip José Farmer, Robert Silverberg, Brian Aldiss, Theodore Sturgeon, JG Ballard, John Brunner, Norman Spinrad, Fritz Lieber, Frederik Pohl, Lester del Rey, Roger Zelazny, and even Isaac Asimov, who amusingly explains in one of his Introductions why he’s not in the collection, other than for the Introduction.  Ellison cherry-picked who he saw as the best in the US at the time and the emerging British New Wave at the time.

Jo Walton claims that it is ‘an astonishing anthology’. Harlan himself, with no lack of modesty, declares at the beginning of the collection, “What you hold in your hands is more than a book. If we are lucky it is a revolution.” (page xxxii)

There is an introduction about each author written by Harlan. The authors themselves often provide an Afterword after Ellison’s Introductions. Personally, I always enjoy reading such comments, as I love hearing how authors write. However, they can be very long. The Introductions, from 1967 and 2007, and a new Introduction from Adam Roberts cover 44 pages alone. In the case of Robert Bloch, the Introduction is longer than the story itself, though I did find it entertaining.

At its worst, it can be rather like those DVD extras where people spoil the experience by telling us how great they are, or worse, that the explanation of the mechanics of writing devalue the tale. Some may find it better to ignore such excesses and focus on the stories.

Whilst some of its content feels tame by today’s standards, it can still divide. As an example, Philip José Farmer’s novella, Riders of the Purple Wage, despite its great pun of a title and being tied with Weyr Search by Anne McCaffrey for the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1968, is still to me overblown posturing about nothing. (It actually put me off reading Farmer for a long time afterwards.) David R Bunch’s two tales (the only author to have two tales in the book) are still as confusing as ever. Carol Emshwiller’s tale of sex (Sex and/or Mr Morrison) is just weird, and no less weird from my first reading.

Others are still great. Gonna Roll the Bones by Fritz Leiber, which also received a Hugo Award and also a Nebula Award for Best Novelette in 1968, and I still think is funny, witty and quirkily odd. Unlike the Farmer, when I first read this one it set me on a course of reading more Leiber, to my mind a much underappreciated writer these days, though he did write the odd clunker.  

Of the better known authors there are some surprises. Robert Silverberg’s tale of death (Flies) is still chillingly and sickeningly creepy. Poul Anderson’s tale of homosexuality (Eutopia) is startling in its New-Wave style take from an author whose reputation was by this stage fairly well known as ‘Old-Guard’.

Of the older authors, Lester del Rey’s tale of God versus Humans (Evensong), Frederik Pohl’s comments on racism in The Day After the Day the Martians Came and Larry Niven’s tale of organ-farming, The Jigsaw Man, are all less cutting-edge than they probably were at the time, though have stood the test of time. (And as an aside, the tale of how Larry Niven’s monetary contribution ensured this collection was actually published is an entertaining footnote.)

Robert Bloch’s future Jack the Ripper tale, A Toy for Juliette, an alternative to his Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper, is still unsettling. Harlan’s own sequel to Juliette, The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World, also shows what a tour de force Harlan was in the 1960’s.

The British end of the New Wave also holds up their own through Brian Aldiss’s tale of terranaut time-altering, The Night that All Time Broke Out and JG Ballard’s bleak circus story The Recognition, as well as John Brunner’s machine-as-God Judas. There’s also a comment by Mike Moorcock, written in 2002, about the context of the collection in 1967, and claiming that Harlan “singlehandedly produced a new benchmark” with this book.

Lastly, Samuel R. Delany’s Aye, and Gomorrah, with its neutering of astronauts, ‘frelking’ and sexual prostitution is still quite a memorable tale that must have been a cautionary tale for SF fans at a time when we hadn’t made it to the Moon. Delany won the 1968 Nebula for Best Short Story for “Aye, and Gomorrah… and in the November 1967 copy of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Judith Merrill claimed that this, the last story in the book, was by far the best.)

Other Award Winners from this collection: Philip K. Dick’s submission “Faith of our Fathers” was a nominee for the 1968 Hugo in the Novelette category, beaten by Leiber. Harlan Ellison himself received a special citation at the 26th World SF Convention for editing  ‘the most significant and controversial SF book published in 1967’ although he had his nomination for Fan Writer withdrawn reportedly because he had won a Hugo and Nebula in the past. Clearly there was a lot of love for Harlan at this point.

Like me, you may not like it all. When it works, it works well, where it doesn’t, it can leave you…confused. I still feel, like I did 30 years or so ago, that some of the tales try too hard to shock, and consequently in the end they make their point less. But you must read it, even if it’s to get an idea of what all the fuss was about when first published. Religion, sex, death: all are here.

The effect of Dangerous Visions is still palpable today, though many of the stories here have dated, in some cases badly. Having said that, for a book over 45 years old, there’s more hits than misses, which is impressive. (Although I defy anyone to come up with the same list of likes and dislikes as someone else!) For here lies the hereditary of William Gibson, Dan Simmons, and China Mieville, amongst many others.

Think of it as a primer, to try different authors you may not have heard of before. Then go read more of their work.

There was a second collection published, Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972. But if you want an even more controversial story, look up the one about Harlan’s supposedly last Dangerous Visions anthology, still unpublished after nearly 40 years: The Last Dangerous Visions.

Mark Yon, February 2012.

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